From the Teutoburg Forest to America: Hermann, eastern Missouri’s own German town

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When people think of Hermann, they often imagine a small, picturesque town nestled between the hills and wineries of eastern Missouri. A place where brick houses stand neatly along cobblestone streets and locals greet friends and strangers with warm smiles. A place where snow blankets trees during the Christmas season and life centers on the religious festivities taking place in the town’s two churches.

At first, Hermann seems typical of small-town America: friendly, comforting and calm. A closer look, though, reveals elements of the town’s unique origins.

Streets are named after famous German writers and composers like Goethe and Mozart. Posters advertising the town reference Schiller. The historic museum Deutschheim and its Biedermeyer exhibit invite passerby to linger. Even the town’s name pays tribute to its German roots: the town of Hermann is named after Hermann the Cheruscan, who vanquished the Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest. Considering these influences, Hermann is truly a pearl of German culture in America’s heartland.

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The town was founded in 1837, when early settlers from the Deutsche Ansiedlungs-Gesellschaft nach Pennsylvania (German Settlement Society of Philadelphia) came to Missouri to create a “heart of German-America.” They wanted to found a society based on agriculture, industry, commerce and, of course, German values.

The community especially hoped to sustain the motherland’s language while acquiring that of its new country. According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Hermann’s population remained almost exclusively German 36 years after the town’s founding. During this time, townspeople subscribed to both German and English-language newspapers in order to do both languages justice.

Peggy Clark, a tour guide at Deutschheim, says Hermann’s population spoke almost exclusively German until the First World War. Both world wars, however, negatively affected citizens’ cultural expression. Many changed their last names to hide German roots.

“‘Brüning,’ my maiden name, was spelled ‘Bruening’ and pronounced ‘Breening,’” said Clark.

According to Clark, Americans with German heritage outside Hermann were punished when they spoke German. As a result, Hermann’s citizenry decided to give up its language.

“My family just stopped speaking German,” said Clark.

Despite attempts by citizens to suppress their German heritage, Hermann is now enjoying a flourishing tourism industry that can be traced to the town’s maintenance of these very cultural influences. The city holds annual celebrations like Maifest, Oktoberfest and Wurstfest, though the latter is more influenced by the town’s well-known “Wursthaus” restaurant and butchery than by German tradition.

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Rozanna Benz, event director at Hermannhof Vineyards, says that tourism and German cultural expression has greatly increased in the 17 years she’s lived in Hermann. Benz says that many downtown buildings, for example, have been renovated in the German style since she moved to the town.

She holds that Hermann draws tourists because it offers a true German experience.

“People come. They want schnitzel, bratwurst, red cabbage, the traditional German offerings. They want a German lunch – they come to Hermann for this,” said Benz.

Shari Farrington, owner of the craft shop “Little Trees, Santas & More” in Cole Camp, Mo., has also noticed a revival of German culture.

Farrington, whose roots are German, creates traditional goose feather Christmas trees and sells them at Hermann’s Christkindlmarkt. She says many visitors to the market are familiar with traditional German crafts.

“Most know [my product],” said Farrington. “Twenty years ago, I still had to inform people.”

In trying to keep its German heritage alive, Hermann offers many opportunities to learn about Germany and experience its influence in America. This helps individuals learn about their own German roots. Cynthia Browne, for example, sees the town as both a symbol of the German homeland and as means to discover her own ethnic identity.

“To live in a historic place which I initially valued for its charm and its beauty, and now value for its cultural importance and old world traditions, has enhanced my appreciation of what immigration must have meant in my own (German) family – I recognize and now understand the meaning of these traditions since coming here,” Browne said.

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For more information about Hermann, visit: http://www.hermannmissouri.com

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