Through three eras of adversity and diversity, New Ulm becomes a model for towns in transition


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Click Here to read part 2.

MN 2020 Editor’s Note: Successful communities all across Greater Minnesota, and, indeed, all of rural America, can usually point to a few fortuitous events that secured their stability or nurtured their growth. New Ulm has seized its opportunities, but in the end, the people of New Ulm have succeeded on their own will and strength.

The three fortuitous events? In some instances, a major manufacturer moved a factory to town that created jobs and thus attracted new residents to the community. In other cases, the community was a county seat or dominant town in a county or trade area when agricultural and natural resource industries consolidated. The most fortunate, however, were those communities that had local entrepreneurs who had dreams and the technical and business skills to build and grow businesses

New Ulm residents haven’t had any of these fortuitous events simply drop in their laps. Instead, New Ulm has made the most of what it has, clinging to cultural heritage for benefit of tourism and community solidarity, and adapting to change in every way possible to keep a vibrant and growing community economy for new residents and old.

This is the third and final part of a series written by Joseph Amato, senior fellow for Minnesota 2020 and professor emeritus at Southwest Minnesota State University at Marshall, Minn. It is excerpted from a chapter in a forthcoming book, Southwest Minnesota: A Place of Many Places, by Professors Joseph Amato and David Picaske.

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.

This series is offered by Minnesota 2020 because most communities in Greater Minnesota are going through change. New Ulm has more experience with it than almost any community south of the Minnesota Iron Range. Professor Amato shows us how New Ulm has transitioned from three epochs of adversity to a new era of diversity, and still remains one of Minnesota’s strongest, and fun, rural communities. – Lee Egerstrom, Minnesota 2020 Fellow

New Ulm Today
Like most Americans, New Ulmites rather glibly put on and take off the coat of the past as it serves them. New Ulm remains, at least in name, predominately German (with 80 percent of its 13,500 residents identifying themselves as having at least some German in their background), and it has begun publicly to embrace its Germanness again.

Short of acknowledging a true German pedigree in the past or ignoring the important cultural function of a distinguishing identity in a mass society, the major and altogether transparent motive for the town’s recovered German identity is commercial.

Like any other town, New Ulm needs to paint itself as unique and attractive. Analogous to other towns’ use of ethnic and geographic markers to stimulate tourism, Germanness serves as a form of decoration. Making the best of itself and its past, New Ulm decorates itself with select creations of older German high culture and with motifs from traditional German folk culture . . . as does contemporary tourism in Germany.

Downtown New Ulm is decorated German. Anchored on the west end by a Glockenspiel, downtown New Ulm features a run of neat stores, many with German names. Several stores sell identifiably German goods, keepsakes, and trinkets, making New Ulm resemble a tourist stop in the old country. Restaurants remind visitors through displaying the owner’s name and menu that German cuisine is available.

Until recently, downtown exhibited Hermann-like strength in keeping imperial Wal-Mart out of town and did its best to hold off competition from the expanding strip of chain stores along the eastern end of South Broadway. Elsewhere in town, German-named and decorated businesses, the Turn Hall, the lovely Grand Hotel Building, two breweries, (one of which has the Schell’s Museum), and a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod college, display the town’s claim to be German. German-inspired festivals affirm the town commitment to preserving its heritage around German beer, food, and dancing.

However, nothing marks the re-articulation of New Ulm’s ethnicity as much as the restoration of the Hermann Monument. In 1998 straight-line winds blew one of the wings off Herman’s helmet, and New Ulm could no longer countenance rule by a dilapidated and crumbling Denkmal. With the interest of local citizens and the support of the Minnesota Historical Society, the monument was restored—a restoration costing more than $1million. Thanks to the resolution of its then local congressman, David Minge, in the year 2000 Hermann was designated as a symbol for all Americans of German ancestry – no small fete since it represents as much as 25 percent of the nation’s population.

Hermann’s rule was reestablished over New Ulm.

Yet there is no reason to believe a statue will make New Ulm more German, less Roman so to speak. Assimilation has already done all-important interior work. Most indicative of the social and cultural crosscurrents flowing at the feet of Hermann is the demise of New Ulm’s long-time summer festival, Heritagefest, which the city lost because of the disinterest of the young generation.

Born in 1975 on the Brown County Fairgrounds as an attempt to perpetuate a fast-fading tradition of drink and song and the demise of the earlier celebration of Polka Days, Heritagefest was born mutating. Over the last 30 years survival required mutating itself into a community pageant, a music festival, a parade, a European song festival and then a dance exhibition—but, alas, the festival failed to find a common denominator between authentic German traditions and entertainment for the old and young generations. Time had run out on beer, bratwurst, and dance.

In effect, Hermann stands tall and alone on the hill above town, a physical marker mute for all except those with curiosity about the history of the most German town in all America, a rich history so well preserved by the Brown County Historical Society and ever worth rewriting to understand who were the Germans who came and where did they go. None, or a very eccentric few, treat Hermann as a large talisman, or a yet a warrior worthy of defending the town against the enveloping decline of population and communities in southwestern Minnesota.

Hanging Tough, Hanging Proud
On the extreme eastern end of a slightly diminishing county of approximately 26, 000 residents, New Ulm stands on the western edge of a north-south corridor that runs between the rising population of the Rochester-Twin Cities-St. Cloud area and the declining population of southwestern Minnesota.

Its population of 13,500 has remained virtually unaltered for the last fifteen years. Though subject to the most powerful external forces of mass, national, commercial society, New Ulm, in contrast to the other lead cities in the region, appears outwardly and demographically the most static. It has been the most resistant to turnover and transience.

With no dominant company, no major food processing industry, and only a small four-year college, New Ulm shows lower rates of turbulence (people who have come to town in the previous five years) than Worthington and Marshall. The absence of a large meat cutting plant has helped assure New Ulm, in the last two decades, in contrast to Marshall and particularly Worthington, an absence of a large number of mobile working class minorities.

At the same time, without a single dominant industry such as Worthington with Swift and Company and Marshall with the Schwan Food Company, New Ulm’s mixed city economy—with such major employers as Kraft, 3M, and the large New Ulm Medical Complex—appears more balanced—poised to remain the same, to achieve homoeostasis in a changing world.

All this helps explains the feel of continuity and tradition in New Ulm, which economic innovation—including a Wal-Mart and a soon to be constructed Menard’s—is largely confined to the main strip and counted in new housing areas in the hills above.

The sons and daughters of Hermann, as reflected in last names, will continue to form a core of the town’s and the surrounding countryside’s nominal non-German population. Like fellow citizens throughout small town rural America, New Ulmites will remain oblivious to Washington as well as Berlin, and will treat of first importance their own streets and roads, shops and stores, blizzards and tornadoes, upturns and downturns in the market.

Of course, youth will continue to emigrate (in great numbers) and accelerating forces of economic and political centralization and mass, national, and popular cultures will continue to influence those who stay behind.

I speculate that core attitudes about land, family, and community will endure, while High German culture and even contemporary German national and popular cultures will become an ever-thinner frosting on a cake of economic and social revolution.

In terms of literate culture, New Ulm was never so German, or so pretentiously German as the time of its founding: during the very first years of Turner settlement in the late 1850s, when Turner Hall featured German theatrical productions and the Goethe and Schiller Festival was held on Founders’ Day; nor will it ever again be as German as it was, to chose a single year, 1873, when German plays were still presented, a convention of German Free Thinker alliance was locally held, the banner of the labor organization, the Arbeiterverein was dedicated, and the town paper, Post, put out its first English edition.

Today, New Ulm wears its German identity as the lightest attire. It does so without having to know a word in German, a year of the town’s history, or the tragedies associated with German history. The young are as innocent about being German as Denkmal Hermann.

To the question of where have all New Ulm’s Germans gone, the answer is, not far. I recently read in the men’s room of Ulmer Café a sign that says all employees must wash their hand before returning to work, “since there are Germs everywhere.” Someone anonymously penciled in capital letters an “AN” above the word “Germs” to read: since there are “GermANs” everywhere.

Metamorphosed by opportunity and necessity, language, law, and politics into Americans, the Germans of New Ulm have become as invisible as germs. Homogenized into Americans and metamorphosed into white ethnics, they are no longer perceived as an ethnic group by the politically correct.

Writing from the fashionable point of view of diversity (which sadly denies the variety of the past and bifurcates the present racially), National Geographic writer Joy Aschenbach concluded on the basis of 1980 U. S. Census data for 6,000 cities and counties with populations of at least 10,000 residents, “The city of the least [ethnic] diversity is New Ulm, Minnesota, whose 13,755 people, most of German stock, make it one of the most homogeneous cities in America.”

Thoroughly Modern Americans
I would draw a different conclusion. I would start with the proposition that New Ulm’s Germans were never really quite Germans. Coming prior to Bismarck’s artificial, harsh, and forceful unification of Germany around a Prussian core in 1870, they belonged to lands, regions, towns, and villages. They were Protestants and Catholics, followers of Austria, Prussia, and any number of other principalities. In this land of many divisions were young urban Republicans and freethinkers and traditional peasants who prized family, land, and church beyond politics of any and all sorts.

The Germans who originally came to New Ulm represented this great array. No single German vision, philosophy, or ethnic formulation would put together in a new land what the Middle Ages and the Reformation had set apart a thousand and again five hundred years before in the old land. America, however, offered for the majority of German immigrants what they most wished in material well-being, freedom, and community. The price and reward of having the good life was to become American.

And so, along the banks of the Minnesota River, free and on the land with family, faith, and God, the Germans of New Ulm thrived.