Saturday, March 29, 2008

Deutschland on the Missouri


I guess I was expecting men in lederhosen dancing the polka. Hermann, Missouri celebrated all things sausage-related this weekend: bratwurst, leberwurst, sommerwurst, knackwurst, saurkraut and (a sort of runny and sugary) kartoffelsalat, all produced in town in 100+ year old smoke-hause. The billboards advertising Wurstfest invoked images of Bavaria, traditional dress, brass bands and accordians. Settling in under a tree with an 8 year old French oak Norton (Missouri's state grape), we were instead greeted with a synthesizer set to the "polka" beat, a recording of a drum kit, and a guy singing Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. Not at all what I was expecting. Before the second verse, we left the courtyard in search of the real Hermann, a lovely German settlement on the Ozark border, rich in history with streets named after Schiller, Mozart and Goethe. German Vernacular architecture abounds in Hermann, where almost 100 structures display National Register of Historic Places plaques.

Founded as a colony by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia in the 1830s, Hermann was determined to be well-suited for agriculture, riverboat trade, and mineral mining. The goal of the German Settlement Society was the establishment of a German settlement that would maintain and preserve German culture and language. The land south of the Missouri River so resembled Germany topographically and aesthetically, that the poor soils were seen as a challenge to overcome rather than a hindrance. In the General Report by the Deputies of the German Settlement Society concerning the proposed land suitable for settlement, the virtues of the rocky Ozark soils were extolled:
The hill land is, in part, very good and so, also some extensive hilly plateaus as the growth and species of trees and the grain found here and there testify. If the land is not everywhere favorable for cultivation, it is so much the better for pasture and cattle grazing....The few fruit trees found in this region have good growth. Vineyards will probably flourish when more of the land is cleared.

So, settlers moved into the area and found the land less than arable. Nevertheless, the natural resources around Hermann--the abundant limestone, the fruit and nut trees, grape vines 36 inches in diameter--enticed the settlers to make the best of their new town. In the mid-1840s, using grape vines collected from the woods around Hermann, Michael Poeschel began producing wine at Stone Hill Winery, located on one of the highest hills in the area. Within a matter of years, Stone Hill Winery became the third largest producer of wines in America, bottling 1,250,000 gallons of wine a year. Poeschel set off a cascade effect. Wineries employing native grapes popped up all over the rocky hills of Hermann.

By the early 1900s, Hermann, Missouri became one of the country's top two wine producing towns and actually exported more wine than any other town in America. Hermann's wines consistently won international awards. When certain French vineyards almost collapsed from a nematode infestation, French vintners turned to Hermann's wineries to ask for our grape vines (so, while you may think you're drinking a bordeaux, it could be a Missouri wine...). In light of poor soils, Hermann was a thriving community. Great schools, nice churches, orderly streets. Even today, Hermann resembles a little German town, tucked into a hillside.

All was well in Hermann until the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1920. Prohibition put an end to winemaking in Missouri, and for a small town like Hermann, completely dependent on viticulture, the results were disastrous. Barrels were emptied, destroyed, burned. Wine making tools were destroyed, grape vines destroyed. In fact, only three populations of the original Norton grape were spared, thanks in part to a family who was growing the vines in small batches for edible purposes. Only one handcrafted barrel from Hermann's early history remains in town; it was found almost half a mile in a cave on the outskirts of town where government officials failed to search.

Because of the natural German industry, some of Hermann's vintners converted their wine cellars into mushroom farms. But in the 1960s, the owners of Stone Hill Winery, that first winery in Hermann, decided to replant the original vines and start all over. They salvaged some of the original machinery, and continue to use the original cellar and production room. Since then, several other wineries have reopened in the Hermann area, producing award winning wines again with the support of the state agriculture department. Hermann is justifiably proud of its agriculture history and is making great strides to attain the same level of sustainability in today's competitive market.

Hermann's Chamber of Commerce surely recognizes the marketability of historic towns and preserved culture. Tourism dollars drive the economy here. Small museums, restored theatres, an opera house and many private homes all remind the visitor of the 1840s and 50s. Unfortunately, restaurants open and close pretty regularly, with most visitors only cruising into town for the big German festivals: Maifest, Oktoberfest, Kristkindl. Wurstfest was the first festival I've attended in Hermann, usually opting to spend time there in the middle of the week camped out in a great Shaker-inspired bed and breakfast on Schiller (where I work from the spacious top floor room). Despite many recommendations, I'll likely skip Maifest but will return one quiet spring Wednesday to mill through the streets, wondering what Hermann's founders would think of its promising future.

1 comment:

Nathan W said...

Hermann is an example of a settlement generally forgotten in the story of immigration: a town whose connection to the motherland was cultivated by the motherland. I loved your historical survey of the city and could easily imagine its contemporary rendering of a festival. Did you take that lovely photo? What a vantage!