One Tank Trip: New Ulm's Bavarian Blast an homage to immigration story

A mix of traditional and modern, it serves as a reminder of the town's immigrat roots

Sloane Martin
July 18, 2019 - 3:38 pm

At a time when immigration is the focus of the nation's leaders, the annual Bavarian Blast in New Ulm, Minn., is a reminder of America's history in an event that maintains a connection to both the past and present.

Fifth generation New Ulmite and local historian Terry Sveine describes the history of when Germans were persecuted by nativists in many large American cities after migrating to escape the Revolutions of 1848. Two groups, one from Chicago, the other called the Turners, which maintains a large presence in the town currently, settled in New Ulm in the mid-1850s seeking a place to be free and safe.

"This was two groups intentionally wanting to found a town to practice their German traditions," he said.

Fast forward to the 20th century and residents were vocal against involvement in the first World War. Federal and state agents came to the town to gather information.

"Finally after all these protests the Governor (Joseph A. A. Burnquist) says, 'to heck with you guys,'" Sveine said of actions taken after thousands of people protested at Turner Hall. "He took our mayor (Louis Fritsche), city attorney (Albert Pfaender), and county auditor out of office. We have a Lutheran teachers' college, (director Adolph Ackermann) was against the war, put pressure on him, drove him out of office. They were branded as traitors."

"We had a reputation as this pro-German town during a World War against Germany that was not good for us," he said.

During World War II, a prisoner of war camp for Germans was stationed nearby, and the town was eventually able to shed itself of that unpatriotic reputation from decades before.

In the place whose slogan is "Germans have more fun" and where traditional German music floats along Minnesota Street on a summer weekday morning, its history and how it's been preserved is a key element of Bavarian Blast, which dates back to the mid-20th century, starting as Polka Days, then becoming Heritage Fest. And German culture is embraced in many ways: 160-year-old Schell's Brewery, the Hermann Monument (and Hermann the German footprint), a Glockenspiel downtown, a well as German stores and restaurants.

Eighty-seven-year-old George Glotzbach, who owns lederhosen and is in a group that meets every month to keep the German language alive locally, says the German tradition has languished compared to his youth when his family spoke the language and had strong ties to the culture.

"We're kind of the last of the old Germans," he said. "There aren't many people who know and remember and lived German culture that still existed when I was a boy."

The Bavarian Blast these days is a modern twist on the town's heritage with live music, food and beer. Bridget Grathwohl, 18, who grew up in New Ulm, says it's the kind of event where polka music coexists with rock; where generations across the spectrum of German immersion or background take part in a celebration of New Ulm's roots. It's where the distance between what's old and new diminishes.

"It kind of fits that middle ground of like, you don't know everything about the other generation, but like you still have those same things in common and at Bavarian Blast that kind of comes out," she said.

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