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Where the Germans are

In southern Minnesota, New Ulm hangs on to a colorful heritage.

New Ulm's Glockenspiel.

© Beth Gauper

The Glockenspiel's figures come out to play three times a day.

There are few towns more conspicuously American than New Ulm, Minn.

Laid out by the town founders, its wide streets follow an orderly grid toward downtown, where cars park at an angle in front of boxy brick businesses and meat-and-potatoes cafes.

There are softball games and Friday-night fish fries and many friendly people. It's the epitome of small-town America — and yet this is a town famous for being German.

There are hints, for sure. On a lonely plaza downtown, the carillon bells of a concrete-and-brick Glockenspiel chime three times a day as animated figures revolve below, like a cuckoo clock.

Gift shops stock nutcrackers and wood pyramids, and there are gnomes in the window of the used-books store.

Atop a 70-foot columned dome, the Teutonic folk hero Hermann brandishes his sword over town.

But at first glance, New Ulm doesn't look or sound much like a German town, despite the oompah music the chamber of commerce pipes onto the street.

The qualities associated with Germans — thrift, practicality, industriousness — turned out to be such a happy match for small-town America that now it's hard to tell the difference.

Settled by Turners

Ironically, the first New Ulmers were not typical small-towners at all.

They were Turners, members of a society that promoted universal education, German culture and physical fitness through gymnastics. Many were socialists who had fled Germany after the nobility suppressed a wave of democratic revolts in 1848.

From groups in Chicago and Cincinnati, they formed a land company that, in 1854, found and bought a site for a town in Minnesota, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Cottonwood rivers.

Calling themselves "free-thinkers," the Turners advocated the separation of church and state, women's rights and the abolition of slavery. They were largely agnostic, and they liked to get together and drink beer on Sundays.

New Ulm's Hermann monument.

© Beth Gauper

Hermann oversees New Ulm from Hermann Heights Park.

This enraged such people as Harriet Bishop, a Baptist missionary better known as St. Paul's first schoolteacher.

"With no religious restraints, they became strong in wickedness (and) defiant of the restraints of the Gospel," she wrote.

New Ulm has changed over the years. Today, it's politically conservative and home of a college and high school operated by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is so conservative it doesn't allow women to vote on church matters or take on any church roles that involve authority over men.

The people still like to drink beer, though. And New Ulm still is the most German city in Minnesota, with 66 percent of its residents claiming German ancestry in the 2000 census, as opposed to 38 percent of the state at large.

That's why I finally had to take my German-born husband there to see it. Since arriving here in 1997, he'd been noticing the highway billboards: "Discover Germany in Minnesota."

Let the good times roll

Luckily, I knew just where to take him. On previous trips, I'd hobnobbed with masked Narren at Fasching, the German equivalent of Mardi Gras.

I'd flapped my elbows to the "Little Chicken Dance" at Heritagefest. And I'd scoured the town's shops for blown-glass ornaments and Advent calendars at Christmas.

Our first stop was Schell Brewery, whose picturesque grounds are a kind of town square in New Ulm.

It always has been a neighborly place; when the Dakota Indians lay siege to the town in 1862, the 2-year-old brewery was left unharmed because its owners had shared food with them.

August Schell was one of the original Turners and always allowed visitors to wander the wooded grounds around his 1885 brick home; current proprietor Ted Marti, his great-great-grandson, does the same.

As we drove through the neighborhoods toward the brewery, Torsten made his first observation about New Ulm.

"I hate to say it, but this looks very tidy," he said.

The town isn't German for nothing. At the brewery, landscaper Tammy Petersen was working hard to whip the gardens into shape, and she pointed out the black pines that August's son, Otto, brought over from the family hamlet near the Black Forest.

Schell Brewery in New Ulm.

© Beth Gauper

Schell Brewery, founded in 1860, is the second-oldest family-run brewery in the nation.

As we walked down the paths and past a fanciful fountain designed by German-Bohemian artist Anton Gág, one of August Schell's proteges, we heard a sound not unlike a fingernail scraped down a blackboard.

A peacock was perched on a sawhorse, and as soon as it saw us, it jumped onto the grass, shot out its cobalt feathers and began a slow pirouette, like a runway model.

"That's Fred," Petersen said. "When he knows someone wants a picture, he'll pose."

We hadn't particularly wanted a photo, but Fred kept posing, so we obliged.

I tried to show Torsten my favorite quartet of forest gnomes, playing cards in a hillside gazebo, but they were gone, put away for safekeeping after vandals dragged away one of the concrete gnomes and the mushroom table.

So Petersen showed us the expanded Museum of Brewing,  with a handsome Rathskeller and patio for visitors on the brewery tour.

In the gift shop, T-shirts displayed the Schell slogans: "Never Ask a Gnome to Hold Your Beer," "Never Trust a Brewery Under 140 Years Old" and "When You're Surrounded by 14,000 Thirsty Germans, You Better Make a Darn Good Beer!"

Goods from the old country

Domeiers German Store in New Ulm.

© Beth Gauper

Domeiers store is the place to go for imported German goods.

Shopping always has been a sport in New Ulm, especially for German goods.

Downtown, gift shops sell every kind of stein and souvenir, and a few businesses have assumed German names — the Mietwaschsalon self-service laundry, the Nadel Kunst needlework shop, the Haar Friseure — which, Torsten couldn't help noting, literally means "Hair Hair Stylist."

He was excited to see an arched sign reading Markplatz, but disappointed to see it pointed to a windowless mall.

"Now, if it really was a market square, a pedestrian area with people strolling on cobblestone streets, that would be cool," he said.

Then we drove down Minnesota Street to Domeiers, a small neighborhood grocery that, in 1963, began to cater to German-born brides brought home by New Ulm servicemen. It's packed with imported foodstuffs as well as gifts, and soon I heard a delighted cry.

Torsten was holding a box of chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies, a childhood favorite his family called Moors' heads.

"Some of these things I haven't had in years," he said with a big sigh. "It's funny, all those memories. It really is true that love goes through the stomach."

Marlene Domeier, whose shop attracts busloads of tourists, smiled indulgently.

"A lot of people go down memory lane here," she said.

The most German place in town, of course, is Turner Hall. Completed in 1858 and rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 1862 Dakota Conflict, it still has an active gymnastics and cultural program.

You won't hear much about free-thinking any more, but it's a good place to hoist a beer and chat with the locals.

In the Rathskeller, 1873 murals of Rhine castles wrap around three walls, which also hold such curios as a wood board illustrating the lyrics of the drinking song "Ist das nicht eine Schnitzel Bank."

Janet Steffl, one of the red-jacketed Turner Ladies, hummed it for us and said it's still sung if the right crowd shows up: "Oh, it gets to be fun," she said.

The Narren of New Ulm.

© Beth Gauper

New Ulm's Narren, folk figures with wooden masks, are invited to appear at German festivals around the region.

Steffl grew up in nearby Sigel Township and said she could speak only German when she showed up for grade school.

"That's all we spoke at home," she said. "I have a brother at the home place who still speaks it. I've been away for 26 years, so I'm trying to reacquaint myself with it."

Preserving culture

Upstairs, the Turner Ladies were holding a fund-raiser, selling cookies and cinnamon rolls as well as Schmierkuchen, a coffeecake made with prunes and cottage cheese, and jars of homemade sauerkraut and potato salad.

They'd been cooking all week. "We have to keep this place going," said member Carol Minnick.

Continuing our rounds, Torsten and I watched a performance of the Glockenspiel and drove up to Hermann Heights Park to visit Hermann, the warrior who united the Alemannic tribes and routed the Romans from the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D.

He's 32 feet of pure pagan, but the town loved him enough to order a $1.1 million renovation, finished in 2004.

And we stopped by the Sausage Shop, where Torsten bought a dozen of his favorite Landjaeger sausages and butcher Scot Kuester, with a sly smile, sliced me a sample of Sultz — head cheese — before I could protest.

New Ulm's Glockenspiel figures.

© Beth Gauper

The Glockenspiel features figures from New Ulm's past.

It wasn't always easy being German in New Ulm. In the days leading up to Prohibition, a temperance speaker called New Ulm "the vilest spot on the face of the Earth."

At the start of World War I, the governor removed the mayor and city attorney from office for questioning the war, and the town was viciously criticized throughout Minnesota.

Even neighboring Sleepy Eye put up a banner reading "Berlin — 10 miles east." And during World War II, out-of-towners who wanted to "kill a German" practiced on Hermann.

But 99 percent of today's population was born American. In 2005, the city decided to discontinue Heritagefest, which once drew 40,000 people for two weekends of pilsener, pork buns and polka music, much of it performed by musicians flown in from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

After 31 years, attendance no longer could justify the cost.

"They just didn't have the younger crowd there, and they're the ones who drink the beer," says Schell's Marti, whose spring Bock Fest has become so successful it nearly overwhelms the brewery.

New Ulm's Brown County Museum.

© Beth Gauper

The Brown County Historical Society includes exhibits on the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

Heritagefest was succeeded by Bavarian Blast, held downtown around German Park, amid gardens and a fountain. There's polka but also an art fair, a coffee and wine cafe with classical piano, a street dance, swing bands and events for kids and teens.

Richard Runck, manager of Turner Hall, says visitors need to be patient when looking for the German New Ulm.

"The Germans, they come over here with great aspirations of seeing a German village, and they're somewhat disappointed," he says.

"It's almost like an archaeological site now. You'll find little pieces of evidence remaining if you go around town, but as a collection, it's not together. You've got to know what you're looking for before you see it."

Beer to wine

It's no theme park, that's for sure. And this town of supposedly thirsty Germans doesn't even have a beer garden where people can sit on balmy summer nights.

It does, however, have a truly excellent wine patio. Eight miles east of New Ulm, Ted Marti's brother Georg runs Morgan Creek Vineyards, with a winery built into a landscaped hillside.

When we stopped by on a Saturday evening, a jazz trio was playing, Marti was pouring wine and the stone patio was filled with laughing people eating pizza from a wood-fired oven and enjoying a view of bucolic countryside that included a low red barn and the most magnificent oak tree we'd ever seen.

Couple sitting in a swing underneath oak tree

© Torsten Muller

A couple swings under the oak tree at Morgan Creek Vineyards.

"It was definitely a selling point when we bought it," Marti said.

The venture, he said, came about entirely through serendipity. He stumbled across the spot while he was looking for firewood and started a winery after someone suggested he grow grapes.

He serves pizzas because he was looking for an outdoor bread oven, but one of his cooking-class guests who sells them said they make great pizza.

On a warm spring night, the atmosphere was enchanting.

"If you like to listen to music, talk and have a glass of wine, this is the place to be," said Judi Nelson, who had driven out from New Ulm with her husband, Gene.

So we didn't see any half-timbered buildings or geraniums tumbling picturesquely out of window boxes. But we had a good time, Torsten got a taste of home, and we met a lot of really nice folks.

"What you see here is real and authentic," says Richard Runck. "It's just not what people imagine it to be."

Trip Tips: New Ulm

Getting there: It's 1¾ hours west of the Twin Cities, longer during rush hours.

2017 events: March 4, Bockfest and Fasching (for more, see A German Mardi Gras).

July 14-16, Bavarian Blast in German Park. 

October, Cambria Crush Grape Stomp at Morgan Creek Vineyards and  Oktoberfest at the Holiday Inn. Nov. 24, Parade of Lights.

A stag at Schell Brewery.

© Beth Gauper

Stag statues adorn the grounds of Schell Brewery.

Accommodations: Two B&Bs occupy stately houses near downtown, on German Street. The 1894 Deutsche Strasse has five rooms, and the Bingham Hall has four.

At the south end of Broadway, the Microtel Inn has an indoor pool, 507-354-9800, as does the Holiday Inn, 507-359-2941. There's also a Super 8, 507-359-2400.

Dining: On Minnesota Avenue downtown, Lola's American Bistro sandwiches, salads, soups, pasta and dinner entrees.

The Rathskeller at Turner Hall, a block south of downtown at First and State, has a salad bar and serves hearty, inexpensive dinners Fridays and Saturdays; on Saturdays, a table of hors d'oeuvres and desserts is included with entrees. It's also open daily for lunch, and there's a bar menu. 507-354-4916.

Downtown, George's Fine Steaks & Spirits serves lamb and duck as well as steaks and seafood, 507-354-7440.

Restaurants that serve German dishes include Veigl's Kaiserhoff, downtown, and 20th Street Grill and Otto's Feierhaus in the Holiday Inn, both at the southeast end of town off Broadway Street.

Hermann Monument: The spiral staircase to the top of the dome is open daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, $1.25. In 2009, New Ulm celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of Hermann's victory in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

Glockenspiel: The bells ring and figures twirl at noon, 3 and 5 p.m.; during festivals, also at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Schell Brewery tours: The gift shop and grounds are open daily year-round. Tours are given daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and Fridays-Sundays from September through May. Cost is $3. Call 800-770-5020.

Morgan Creek Vineyards: Eight miles east of New Ulm, the winery and gift shop is open Thursday through Sunday from May to October, Friday through Sunday in November and December and Saturdays-Sundays in April.

It holds many tastings, dinners and special events. 507-947-3547.

Bicycling: A five-mile paved path follows the length of the town, along the river valley.

Flandrau State Park: The park, which adjoins Schell Brewery in a wooded valley on the edge of town, has campsites, a pool with a sand bottom and 8½ miles of hiking trails, some on a bluff overlooking the Cottonwood River.

Information: New Ulm tourism, 888-463-9856.

Last updated on December 19, 2016