New Ulm, Minnesota

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What constitutes a German town in the United States? What architectural features should it have, in order for the town to be “German”? How much of the German language should the town possess? Does the town have to be settled by German immigrants in order for it to be typically German, or does it take one or more persons from a non-German country to take a German name and adopt it? How does heritage play a role in creating a community- what German festivals exists or used to exist in a community? And can a German town survive the changes occuring inside American society by keeping its identity or must the town shed its culture in order to integrate into the melting pot that is predominantly British, Irish, Italian and eastern European (at least in the regions of the Midwest and east of the Mississippi River)?

In my visit to the German villages in Minnesota, I learned that despite the establishments of villages named after German towns, like the usual likes of Hamburg, Cologne, New Munich and Fulda, there is not much German heritage left, for they even disappeared before 1920 because of either the campaign to eliminate German-American culture thanks to American involvement in World War I, the poor logistical locations- many of them didn’t even have a railroad line or had one that had existed for only a short period- or there were either a few German settlers who left for better job possibilities, only for the village to be taken over by settlers of other origins. One can see this with the typical American street and architectural settings, especially in the business district, as seen with New Germany for example:

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While most towns are built on street grids, what is expected from a German community in America is architecture and artistry created by local people either originating from Germany or whose first generation were immigrants. They should have cultural events that are typical of their German heritage, and lastly, there should be traces of German language and literature in schools, at public events and even at home. Even having German classes in school classifies as an example of efforts being undertaken to keep the German heritage in the community. 🙂

And this is why we are looking at the city of New Ulm in the southern part of Minnesota. A little history to go along with the city of 13,300 inhabitants that also is the county seat of Brown County (County is the same as Landkreis, which makes county seat the Kreisstadt in German):

In 1851, a treaty at Traverse des Sioux was signed between the Sioux Indians and the white settlers, allowing the lands south and west of the Minnesota River to be given to the white settlers, and the native Americans were given plots of land north of the Minnesota to live. Three years later, a group of scouts from the Chicago Land Society explored and claimed the region where the Minnesota and Cottonwood Rivers met, and considered the area home. These were German settlers, consisting of Alois Palmer, Frank Massopust, Frederick Beinhorn, Athanesius Henle and Christian Ludwig Meyer. On October 7th, 1854, the name New Ulm was given to the land. The name was decided upon because many settlers who (later) followed the scouts to the region were from the cities of Ulm and Neu-Ulm in Baden Wurttemberg and Bavaria, respectively. Among the numbers of settlers coming to New Ulm were members of the liberal political group, the Turner Society, who were banished from Europe after the Revolution of 1848. By 1860, over 600 people had settled in New Ulm- almost all of them along the area north of the Cottonwood River and west of the Minnesota River.

In 1862, war broke out in southern and western Minnesota between the settlers and the Sioux Indians. The Dakota War, as it was called, was the result of increased tensions between the two parties. Yet the first shots were fired at Action, which is 170 kilometers northwest of New Ulm, on 17th August, 1862. War would come to New Ulm, as the Sioux attacked settlers twice- On the 18th of August and again on the 23rd. After beating back the Sioux the second time, settlers abandoned the town to take residence at Fort Ridgely until the war ended in September. Only three buildings that survived the War exist today in New Ulm- one of them is the Kiesling house, which was built in 1861.  After the war, the settlers returned and additional ones followed, resulting in the expansion of the community and the rocketing population growth. By 1920, the population had multiplied by 10 to 6,700. By 1970, it had doubled to 13,000 and has remained at that level ever since.

There are a lot of characteristics that make New Ulm a typical German community, perhaps one of the most obvious located west of the Missisippi River. We start with the brewery. Two years before the war, Augustus Schell founded his own brewing company, which had first crafted beer products using the recipes brought across the ocean from Bavaria. This included the Bavarian Weizenbier (wheat beer). The brewery still produces the beer Bavarian style today, but has expanded to include Berlin-style beers (similar to Berliner Weisse), Snowstorm ale brands, and seasonal beers, all typical of the beers found in Germany.  In addition, New Ulm’s architecture, especially in the business district features brick and stone-style buildings with facades that are typical of the ones in the German communities. This includes the Brown County Bank (1871), Turner Hall (1873),  Crone Store (1869) and the Grand Hotel (1865). The Weiser Block building houses the Guten Tag House, a store that sells fabrics and other handcraft items made in Germany and elsewhere. Despite its modern construction, the Glockenspiel Tower on the northern end of the business district, follows the architectural style Germans used for their buildings in New Ulm. A gallery below provides more pictures of historic buildings that are typical of Germany.

New Ulm prides itself with its fine arts and culture. Anton Gag, Christian Heller and Guido Methua have left their mark as artists, including the painting of murals depicting life in New Ulm during the 1800s, which can be found at the Rathskeller, next to Turner Hall. One can visit the house of Anton Gag, while in town. New Ulm is the polka capital in the United States, and even though polka is found at many festivals in Bavaria, the polka introduced to New Ulm in the 1870s came from the Bohemian Germans. With the likes of Whoopee John Wilfahrt and Harold Loeffelmacher, these musicians helped establish New Ulm as a magnet for polka, with several music releases, concerts and dances at George’s Ballroom, the Polka Fest and the first polka radio station in KNUJ in the 1940s.

But the most typical and even going boldly by saying Bavarian of New Ulm’s culture are the German festivals that honor their heritage. The first two weekends in October are devoted annually to the Oktoberfest, using Ulm and Munich as the basis for the festivities with beer and dancing. The German Heritagefest, later dubbed as the Bavarian Blast, takes place in August and celebrates German heritage in New Ulm. Even Schell’s holds an event semi-annually with the Bockfest, honoring the brewery’s German-style beer.

And lastly, what makes Germany special are the German (family) names. While some villages in Minnesota have pockets of family names that have existed ever since their establishment, including New Trier, the majority of names that one will see in New Ulm are clearly German. This means that not only family names, like Schiller, Dietrich, Fuchs, Schell and Hoffmann, can be found in New Ulm, but also the names of businesses that are typically Deutsch. Some are quite generic but fulfill the functions of the given words, like the Marktplatz Mall and The Backerei Coffee House. While New Ulm never has a market square like in a German town, the shopping mall does have some settings that one could technically find in a Stadtzentrum in Germany. The Backerei is a combination bakery and cafe where one can have a coffee and pastry.  Yet some businesses in New Ulm are family-owned by people, whose ancestory is German. Two highly recommended places to visit in New Ulm include Domeier’s, a German import store where products imported from Germany can be purchased there. Speaking from experience visiting the store a couple times, one can find German sweets, beers, clothing, toys and other merchandise typical of German culture there.

But your visit should be capped off by  juicy, delicious ribs and a Schell’s beer at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff. The restaurant was started in 1938 by Albert and Wilhelmina Veigel, and their ribs started selling like hot cakes right away. Their son, Don, took over the business and became a celebrity, entertaining guests from all places and perfecting the family recipe of ribs and their family sauce. From my visit to the Kaiserhoff in 2011, I tried the ribs and can only say, you will be sorry you didn’t try them- they are too good to miss out! 🙂 ❤  Despite Don’s passing in 2013 at the age of 91, after having worked for and owned the business for 75 years, the next generation has taken over and the business still continues to attract customers, locally and all around.

While many German towns have either disappeared, kept their names but have little culture left or had their names changed thanks to persecution during the 1920s, New Ulm has maintained its cultural heritage and even expanded. Part of that has to do with the willingness to maintain their heritage and identity in the face of pressure to integrate into American culture. If there was one example of how the population showed their pride towards their culture, it would be the protest on 25 July, 1917. Over 10,000 people showed their opposition to the American’s involvement in World War I and the policies of eliminating the Hyphenated Americans- immigrants who adopt the American culture but keep their own. Most of them were of German and Bohemian origin, whose relatives were fighting in the war. But all of them had a purpose: To show their willingness to compromise- to integrate into American life but to keep their German heritage and identity, showing that even the Germans are against the war, regardless of who is fighting. It was this event that served as a firm foundation of their heritage and New Ulm has remained a typical German community ever since.

New Ulm may be a small community in comparison with its sisters in Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg, the city is as German as it can get because of what the Germans and Bohemians have contributed since its establishment in 1854. Whether it is the beer, the polka or the arts, if one wants something German but cannot travel to Germany, one needs not travel far to visit the city. For those wanting a classic example of a German-American community as a place to visit, one may want to pen this city as its top destination. It just takes a ticket to Minneapolis from Frankfurt plus three hours by car through Mankato.  The visit will be unforgettable.

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Author’s note: The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles released two articles on the bridges of New Ulm and Ulm. Click on the names and have a look at their history. Both of them are candidates of the 2015 Ammann Awards, which are being voted on now. 

 

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