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Wisconsin Heritage (2):

Home of the "German Athens"

By Petra Kaiser
International Intern
Wisconsin Counties Association

From Brooklyn Bridge to Hollywood —
from Babe Ruth to Elvis Presley

The producer of the first jeans? The woman to establish the first American kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin? The man to bring the first pretzel on the market in Lititz, Pennsylvania? The founder of "Pfannenschmidtstadt" - better known today as Hollywood? The builders of the Brooklyn Bridge? The people who sold the first hamburgers in St. Louis?

What did these people, who contributed so much to what we regard today as part of American culture, have in common? The answer they all were immigrants from Germany who had come to the United States in the 19th century, at the height of German immigration.

babe ruth Others followed, and among the descendants of those who dared the long and strenuous journey across the Atlantic were many future politicians, athletes, actors, businessmen, etc.

Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Senator Joseph McCarthy from Appleton, Wisconsin; Babe Ruth; brewer Adolphus Busch; actors Clark Gable and Grace Kelly; Elvis Presley, as well as John D. Rockefe!ler; author John Steinbeck; and Joseph Pulitzer, are just a few among many American celebrities who have, at least in part, German ancestry.

jos pulitzer
Joseph Pulitzer

Three Centuries of German Immigration

Germans have been emigrating to America, the "land of hope and shining promise," for more than 300 years. Among the first recorded immigrants arriving were thirteen families from Krefeld near the German-Dutch border. In 1683, they travelled on board the Concord and settled in the newly chartered colony of Pennsylvania. The latest historical records claim that Germans came to America as early as 1608, indicating that German immigration to the New World began at least 300, if not more than 390 years ago! These early pioneers were glass-makers and carpenters who settled in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in Virginia.

ship During the decades and centuries to follow; thousands of German immigrants arrived in the U.S. Between 1880 and 1889 alone, 1,445,181 immigrants, or 27.5% of the total number of immigrants to the U.S., came from Germany.

The year 1882, while the German Reich was shaken by Bismarck's Kulturkampf, was the peak of the German exodus to the U.S., with 250,630 arrivals. Today, according to the 1990 U.S. census, German-Americans form the country's largest ethnic group, a legacy that is celebrated each year during German-American Day on October 6th.

Among all the states in the U.S. to which Germans emigrated, Wisconsin has always had a deeper German heritage than any other. The 1990 U.S. census showed that nearly 54% of Wisconsin's residents identified themselves as having at least some German ancestry. The Badger State thus ranks number one among states in percentage of German-Americans, followed by North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Indiana.

Why did Germans decide to leave their homes, families and friends to start a new and promising but ultimately uncertain life in America? Apart from merely striving for adventures, most of those that left were in search of an improved standard of living. At the same time, political and religious freedoms rep-resented further attractions for individuals, families and sometimes even whole villages to leave their homeland.

Adding to these various push-and-pull factors that induced emigration were the numerous immigrant letters to the loved ones left behind that were often read aloud in village taverns. Lauding Wisconsin's treasures and opportunities they convinced many others to follow In 1849, German immigrant J.K. Meidenbauer wrote to his sister in Germany from his new home in Waukesha County: "You will next ask: Is it really good in America … and I can give you the answer from my full conviction ... Yes, it is really good here. I would advise my sister Barbara to come over with her intended for she can do better than in Germany There are no dues, no titles here, no taxes... no [mounted police, no beggars."

Whatever the reason for emigrants to head for the U.S., the journey that lay ahead of them was to most the longest voyage of their lives. In the early years, hundreds and hundreds of people were confined to a very small space for about six long weeks. They received poor food, suffered from sea sickness and other diseases, shared crowded sleeping quarters, witnessed deaths as well as births, holding joys, sorrows and hopes in common. To fight boredom, some passengers told stories to each other, played games and made up parties. To all of them, however, the first sight of the shores of their new home must have been a never-forgotten thrill.

Once they had arrived in the "promised land," the most significant question for most newcomers became: "where to?" Like other immigrant groups, Germans followed their natural instinct of forming neighborhoods with their countrymen where they felt at home far away from home. To many, Wisconsin seemed like the perfect choice. Apart from the region's similarity to Germany in geography and climate, by the second half of the 19th century the area offered an already existing network of German-language churches, schools and even newspapers. Thus, the path taken by an individual often turned out to be but a link in a growing chain that bound the old homeland to the new one. This phenomenon depicts what scholars address as chain migration.

Early German Pioneers

The first Germans to settle in what was to become Wisconsin in 1848 were a group of Old Lutherans from the Oder River Valley in Brandenburg and Pomerania seeking religious freedom in the New World. In 1839, these people founded the Friestadt colony in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin's oldest German community.

They were the predecessors to three major waves of German immigration to Wisconsin between 1845 and the 1890s, which brought people from all parts of Germany, or rather from the various kingdoms, dukedoms, etc. that formed what is today known as Germany.

The Badger State can look back on more than 150 years of German heritage. All along the Lake Michigan shoreline, settlements of more than fifteen subgroups can be found, representing Germans from Schleswig-Holstein, Pomerania, Saxonia, Hanover, Hesse, Hunsrück, Baden, Bavaria and other places.

Life was hard in the early years or immigration. Pioneers often had to live in temporary huts made of bushes before they 'were able to move into primitive houses built with the help of neighbors. To survive they adopted, almost immediately, native American crops like corn. For other supplies, the early settlers had to walk to Milwaukee and return to their homes carrying goods on their backs.

These hard working people helped to make Wisconsin what it is today, building cities and spending years clearing fields for farmland.

Wisconsin, A German State

By 1900, more than one million Germans had settled in Wisconsin. About one third of Wisconsin's population at that time was either German-born or had at least one parent who was born in Germany. Immigrants gave German names to their towns and villages. Today, settlements like Germantown, New Berlin, New Holstein, Germania, Hanover, Kiel, Freistadt and New Franken are silent witnesses of Wisconsin's rich German heritage.

Other places like Kohler in Sheboygan County and New Glarus in southwestern Green County show that, apart from the German imprint left on Wisconsin lives, other German speaking immigrants also contributed immensely to the state's future. Historic reminders of the Austrian and Swiss legacies are the Waelderhouse, a replica of the ancestral home of the Kohler family from Austria, as well as the popular town of New Glarus, which was settled in 1845 by immigrants from the impoverished Swiss canton of Glarus. Today, the town is internationally renowned for its annual Wilhelm Tell festival.

Building the World’s Beer Capital

jos schlitz
Joseph Schlitz

One of the most significant contributions of German immigrants to Wisconsin's social and economic history, apart from the large scale production of cheese, has been the brewing industry.

Though some researchers assume that the industry was originally founded by Welshmen, it was German-Milwaukeeans like Jacob Best Sr., Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Pabst and Frederick Miller; that made Milwaukee by the second half of the 19th century the world's beer capital.

At the turn of the century, on a per capita basis, Milwaukee's fourteen breweries produced at least six times as many barrels of beer as the nation's largest brewing city New York.

schlitz brewery

Schlitz Brewery circa 1892

Turnberein & Liederkranz

It is not surprising, though, that German immigrants had such a significant impact on Wisconsin's and in particular Milwaukee's economy. During the 1840s, more than 1,000 Germans were arriving in the city every week. In 1910, German immigrants and their children accounted for three quarters of Milwaukee's population. These people, although eager to become "good American citizens," largely maintained their German heritage. In fact, many German ethnic groups did not form a communal German identity until they settled in the U.S., a phenomenon that was true of other immigrant groups as well.

In this way Wisconsin, Milwaukee in particular, developed a vibrant German cultural life. At the turn of the century, many Americans referred to Milwaukee, where German language newspapers outsold English newspapers two to one, as the "German Athens," a center of fine arts in the Middle West.

Germans founded drama groups and singing societies, called "Liederkranz." The earliest known organization of this kind, "Die Beethoven Gesellschaft" was formed in Milwaukee in 1843. Germans also established so-called "Tumvereine" clubs that belonged to a movement emphasizing physical fitness and liberal nationalism, as early as the 1850s. Large communities like Milwaukee, Watertown, La Crosse, Sheboygan and Manitowoc, required German as a subject of study in local elementary and high schools.

It was not until the early 20th century when the mistrust against anything German caused by WWI and WWII, put an end to these educational programs and the maintenance of German ethnic awareness.

In addition, immigration quotas established by Congress and expanding urban industrialization in Germany that attracted workers to stay had slowed down the German exodus to the U.S. dramatically and contributed to "Americanizing" German-Americans.

German Heritage in Wisconsin Today

During the past decades, the appreciation for German heritage, and ethnic traditions in general, has experienced a revival. Though most German-Americans today are U.S. citizens by birth, they are proud of the cultural heritage their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents brought with them to this country. This cultural awareness and pride is manifested in the creation of numerous German-American societies and celebrated in various festivals throughout the Badger State.

Since 1981, the annual German Fest, run by 39 southeastern Vereine (clubs), attracts thousands of people to enjoy musical and dance performances, contests and German delicacies, from the famous bratwurst and sauerkraut to Schnitzel, Krautwickel (cabbage rolls), Kassler Rippchen or Strudel.

Another popular event celebrated each year is Octoberfest. Originally, this German folk festival began in Bavaria in 1810 to honor the marriage of Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese. Today, it is still an honored tradition in many of Wisconsin's German communities.

Wisconsin also has close ties with Germany and especially with the state of Hessen. In 1976, a sister-state relationship was established; ever since, there have been numerous governmental, commercial, cultural and educational exchanges.

The International Summer University program of Hessen universities, for instance, is one unique way for Wisconsin students to study and work in Germany and possibly experience life in their ancestors' homeland.

These are just a few among many ties that link the past, present and future of Wisconsin and Germany, the country where thousands of immigrants set out for the New World for more than three centuries.

Copyright 1999, Wisconsin Counties Magazine. Reprinted with permission.


For more information on the International Summer University, click here: http://www.uni-marburg.de/sommeruni/welcome.html

For a history of the Schlitz Brewing Co., click here: http://www.antiqibles.com/schlitz/history.htm


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