New Ulm: standing strong through wars and constant social and political change

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MN 2020 Editor’s Note: Some social scientists view New Ulm, Minnesota as the most ethnically German city in America. Others look at the same demographic data and, noting that nearly a quarter of all Americans have some German ancestry, view New Ulm as the least diverse community in America. Can it be both?

Yes. And a whole lot more.

Nearly all rural Minnesota communities are currently going through demographic and economic change. How well they transition to a new social, cultural and economic identity will determine whether the community will have a bright future or simply fade away, becoming yet another relic of Minnesota’s agrarian and frontier history.

For these reasons, Minnesota 2020 is today beginning a three-part series looking at New Ulm from an historical perspective. The series are excerpts from a chapter of Southwest Minnesota: A Place of Many Places, by Professors Joseph A. Amato and David Pichaske.

You can order a copy of Southwest Minnesota: A Place of Many Places by sending a check to Crossings Press, P.O.Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241 Prepaid orders ($20 including shipping) will receive autographed books. Copies should arrive in early December. Your check will not be cashed until books are in the mail to you.

The reason for focusing on New Ulm will become obvious to the reader. Professor Amato describes a city unlike most communities found anywhere in America. New Ulm has as colorful a history; few other cities have endured as many hardships, and still fewer have navigated constant change while still remaining anchored in its cultural roots. – Lee Egerstrom, Minnesota 2020 Fellow


The Most German Town in America
Where have all the Germans gone? With that question on my mind, I set off to study the most German town in America, New Ulm, Minnesota. Located on the eastern edge of Brown County, along the Minnesota River, New Ulm is 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. It was founded in 1854, exactly one thousand years after its namesake Ulm, in Baden-Wüttenberg, in southern Germany, on the Danube.

On the way to New Ulm, I stopped at Mankato, also an early Minnesota River port town, 30 miles to the east to give a talk that reveals the first premises of my inquiry at New Ulm. I argued that for a single ethnic group of farmers to control the majority of the lands of a rural area for over the course of a century or more, they must have come and reproduced in sufficient numbers, forming and sustaining communities, while all the time desiring to possess and retain land.

In effect, the groups that subsist and dominate over the long term are “peasant-capitalists” or, to apply another barely used expression, entrepreneurial familialists. They are tenacious, loyal, and steadfast on the defense during bad economic times, when crop prices suffer, and equally aggressive, loyal and shrewd in the best of times when prices rise and there is land to purchase. In effect, they survive, adapt, and advance.

A glance at an 1880 ethnic map of Blue Earth County in south central Minnesota (out of which Brown County was originally carved) convinced me that Germans were destined to dominate. They had numbers and a tendency to stick to the land. In contrast, Old American stock, with a flawless recipe for colonization, came in families or small groups. They came with insufficient capital to buy land and saw it as much as a place for survival as economic farming. Those with money understood well the key to staying put was real estate, and they often made themselves as liquid as the property market they pursued. The English, Welsh, Scandinavians, and Irish immigrants, for similar and yet other reasons, were not going to succeed in long-term competition for land in head-to-head competition with land-loving and community-forming German farmers, the Bauern.

Nearby Mankato’s historic role as a river port and an original gateway to the settling of Southwest Minnesota also was instructive for my forthcoming visit to New Ulm. Located at the elbow of the Minnesota River where it bends north to flow toward the Twin Cities and Fort Snelling, where it then joins the Mississippi River, Mankato ushered people and goods south and west. Mankato was home to aggressive entrepreneurs and bankers, blocks of commerce, and supplies with which European settlers equipped themselves on their way west into the Dakota Territory and Western Minnesota. New Ulm, the first town west of Mankato, was also a river settlement and a center of regional colonization.

New Ulm as a Utopian Colony
In 1853-1854 the Chicago Land Company, comprised of 200 immigrants dissatisfied with their lives in Chicago, combined their capital, then explored, surveyed, and settled on the present site of New Ulm. Their first year proved trying. A shortage of capital undermined their footings. In 1856 the fledgling and already flagging settlement received a needed, perhaps even decisive, capital-saving boost from a Cincinnati German immigrant William Pfaender, and the group he led, The Settlement Association of Socialist Turner Society.

Most of Pfaender’s 1,300 German Turners, composed principally of German revolutionists of Eighteen-Forty-Eighters (free thinkers, republicans, and nationalists), came from Cincinnati. They were joined by others from Cleveland, Chicago, and Buffalo. A veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, which proved a do-or-die test for Prussia, Pfaender enrolled himself in a post-war movement for the physical and spiritual renewal of Germany as preached by Friederich Ludwig Jahn, founder of the Turnverein, or gymnastics club in Berlin.

After working as clerk in Ulm, where he perhaps once turned pages of music for Franz Listz, and in Heilbronn, Pfaender bought his way out of military service that was intent on suppressing revolution, and set out for America in the spring of 1848 – to the land of starting anew. Sharpening New Ulm’s tie to radical Nineteenth Century thought, Pfaender visited Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in London en route to the United States. Later, in Cincinnati, he married an eighteen-year-old German girl with whom he had 15 children.

Finding Cincinnati inhospitable to German immigrants and his Turnverein, which was the second oldest chapter in the nation, energetic Pfaender turned German utopian hopes west. There they might escape the animosity of American nativist gangs and the puritanical observance of Sunday. At the same time, they could establish a new community of mutuality in which mental and spiritual Turnerism would be embodied.

In January 1856, the Turners approved this utopian vision as part of the national charter of the newly founded Settlement Association. Approximately a year later, the association judged New Ulm as an ideal site for the new order of Turnerism. With an imposing $100,000 dollars in its coffers, the group incorporated with the smaller and earlier Chicago settlement group under the latter’s name, The German Land Company of Minnesota. This simultaneously showed the power of money and ideas, both of which the Turners had. Pfaender was named president of the new association.

In his book German Town, the local historian Daniel Hoisington described the principal terms of the agreement: “The new association bought out the Chicago Land Company’s holdings for about $6,000, and in turn, agreed to build a mill, warehouse, and a school.” In turn, lots were proportionately awarded to the two groups. Seeking to assure economic and demographic growth—the two most profoundly Americanizing goals of individual and community settlements of the West—outsiders were offered lots at $50 a piece. The deal was struck—a German town had been formed, at least momentarily, around a Prussian vision. The name New Ulm stuck despite failed suggestions to rename it such luxuriant Deutsche Namen as Germania, Nibelungen, and Teutonia.

The town was organized with streets running parallel to the riverfront, the primary hub of commerce. Four-acre gardens outside of the residential area were awarded by lottery as plows cut into the surrounding landscape. One mill produced needed wood and another ground all-important grain. Homes and buildings were thrown up, and by January 1858 the boom town had ninety-five houses. Its businesses included six stores, one woolen cloths establishment, two blacksmiths, a butcher shop, a bakery, and the two mills.

Utopians and Americans
Showing their desire to be both good Americans and faithful Turners, the town named main streets after great Americans who could be considered free thinkers: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington.

In accordance with the incorporation agreement, New Ulm set aside land for schools and erected a Turnhalle measuring 40 by 70 feet and featuring twin castellated turrets. The interior was designed for gymnastics—as if men and women building a town needed an uplifting workout—and for musical performances and plays so German culture could take root among the native prairie grass. The first play, performed in the spring of 1858, was Einer Muss Hieraten (One Must Marry) . . . provided that one could find a bride in this new colony where unmarried men abounded and eligible women were painfully scarce.

The town’s newspaper, The New Ulm Pioneer, written in German, dedicated itself to serving the local Turnverein and celebrating—as small towns did, regardless of ethnicity, the magnitude of its promise and the glory of its beginnings. A local distillery and a local brewery, the now-famous August Schell’s, also put a rosy glow on things. However, when the rose-colored glasses were removed, expenditures had exhausted settlement association capital.

Debt loomed for this river town on such a meandering, shallow, and fickle river, frozen shut six months of the year, on what at the time was a remote place of prairie. In a matter of a year, it became clear that the settlement was manifestly a losing proposition. In the early spring 1858—the year Minnesota achieved statehood—the New Ulm experiment in Prussian idealism and Romantic communitarianism was over. The German Land Association sold all its common properties, including the mill, newspaper, and warehouse, to private parties, using profits from the sale to pay off debt and establish a school fund that would finally provide the town with a paid teacher.

Though now operating as part of a free and inevitable American economy, New Ulm continued to draw settlers and to expand. In 1862, Hoisington notes, regular steamboat traffic from New Ulm through St. Paul to Cincinnati reached a new high, increasing to 413 trips. However, in that very year, events arrested the town’s growth and its very existence was cast into doubt.

The new settlement of New Ulm became the eye of the Dakota Uprising and war for the Minnesota River Valley.

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