Text and Photos by Dorothea Michelman
Just 80 miles west of St Louis lies the small town of Hermann, named in honor of Germany’s national hero (Arminius in Latin), who vanquished three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D.
With a backdrop reminiscent of the Rhein River region, Hermann began life in 1836 as a joint-stock company on 11,000 acres of land purchased by the Deutsche Ansiedlungs-Gesellschaft zu Philadelphia (German Settlement Society of Philadelphia). Society members, horrified to see the loss of German heritage and traditions among their countrymen in the United States, dreamed of a self-supporting colony where their culture would flourish in the New World, a kind of “German Athens of the West.” Drawn by advertising throughout the eastern United States and Germany, the first 17 colonists (including eight children) arrived one year later, only to discover that the grand new city of Hermann consisted of two simple log cabins — already occupied — in an unwelcoming wilderness, with lack of food and a harsh winter threatening both their settlement and very survival.
By 1839, an influx of eager colonists had expanded Hermann’s population to 450, and the settlers’ industry and persistence were rewarded as their community grew to include five stores, two large hotels, and a post office. In time “Little Germany,” as Hermann was nicknamed, became home to two German newspapers, two brass bands, shooting clubs, and a variety of theatrical and musical entertainment Franz Löher, an enthusiastic advocate of the Hermann enterprise, noted in 1855 that the area was “a most inviting countryside in which exists more German sociability than perhaps anywhere else in America”.
As the German Settlement Society had hoped, folk customs transplanted from the Old World continued to thrive in the new. Fastnacht (Shrove Tuesday) saw masked young people in fancy costumes roaming from house to house, begging for Fastnacht cakes and sweets, with the Maifest celebrations featured dancing around a Maypole and special games, and autumn’s Erntefest (Harvest Festival) included a procession of wagons, each representing a particular crop.
Finding the hillsides un-conducive to their farming ambitions, the settlers turned to a more fruitful endeavor: grapes. This happy decision led to Hermann’s first Weinfest in 1848, the era’s second largest American winery, and production of over one million gallons of wine each year.
Today, Hermann’s two historic districts include over 150 buildings on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places, many enjoying new lives as antique and craft shops and art galleries.
Joining some of the many visitors who make Hermann their destination each year, our first stop was to the German School, arguably the town’s most significant historic building. By 1839, the colony had its own school and teacher, with a curriculum of German, English, arithmetic, geography, and drawing. Over the years, Hermann citizens’ commitment and culture continued unabated, and, in 1871, they persuaded the Missouri legislature to allow a bilingual school here.
The current schoolhouse structure, built in 1871 and used as an elementary school until 1855, also houses the Historic Hermann Museum, where I particularly enjoyed perusing the German Heritage Room’s treasures of arts and crafts of days gone by and the Children’s Room with its collection of dolls, toys, and furniture from the late 1800s.
Eager to explore other facets of Hermann’s history, we headed next to Deutschheim State Historic site, whose name is borrowed from early German writers who used Deutschheim to describe the Missouri of 1820 to 1860.
One of Hermann’s oldest buildings, the 1840 Pommer-Gentner house is a beautiful example of German neo-classical style, and is furnished with period pieces of the 1830s and 1840. In contrast, Carl Strehly’s house, begun in 1842 and gradually enlarged to include a winery, a vaulted brick cellar, and even a tavern around 1857, did not assume its final character until 1869. Its present furnishings paint a portrait of daily life in a German middle-class family of 1865 to 1880.
Naturally, history need not be confined within walls, and Hermann continues to abound in celebrations, one of which is sure to fit into your itinerary. Why not welcome the arrival of spring with the Wurstfest, a delectable destination held for sausage aficionados, (this festival’s highlight is the Wiener Dog Derby) on March 26-27th; the Maifest on May 20-21, is a huge community get-together with celebrations and events throughout town and at Deutschheim with an array of activities. The first four consecutive weekends of October bring Oktoberfest each overflowing, not only with culinary specialties but a wide variety of activities including music and crafts demonstrations. I was entranced by the skillful Klöpplerin Christa Robbins, a bobbin lacemaker and teacher, who fascinated onlookers with her technique originating in the Erzgebirge(Iron Mountains) region of Eastern Germany.
Other demonstrations include basket weaving, corn grinding, and rope making. For further information, contact:
City of Hermann
207 Schiller Street, Hermann, MO 65041
www.hermannmo.com and www.hermanmissouri.com