Oktoberfest: An Authentically German-American Tradition
Written by Lisa K. Bambach, Cincideutsch
Beginning August 23, Cincinnati will kick off its most vibrant festival season. Every weekend through mid-October, blue and white checkered flags will be hoisted, wurst will be sizzling on the grill, taps will be flowing with malty Bavarian-style lagers, and polka music will become commonplace. Cincinnati will be transformed into Oktoberfest City, USA.
A NEW GERMAN LEGACY
When thinking of Cincinnati’s German heritage, first to mind might be the waves of immigrants during the 1800s who brought with them the rich traditions that defined the community of Over-the-Rhine. You might think of the local brewing industry’s heyday, the rise of the singing festivals that led to the founding of the May Festival and the construction of Music Hall, the beginnings of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Wielert’s Pavilion, and the craftsmen who laid the brick and carved the wood that still stand in what remains the largest historic district in the United States. However, if you attribute the introduction of Oktoberfest to this era, you would be mistaken.
Oktoberfest in Cincinnati was not established until the latest great wave of immigrants—that of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. They came to the city in the 1940s and 1950s after the second World War in search of new beginnings. By that time, Cincinnati had abandoned affiliation with its German traditions that had been established in the 1800s. Street and business names had been changed to sound more American after World War I, the language was no longer heavily taught in schools, and the majority of local German news publications were all but gone. In order to hold on to the culture they had grown up with, Cincinnati’s new German community began to form organizations wherein they could socialize and pass down their traditions to their children. The Verein der Donauschwaben was established in 1954 by Central Europeans (Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania) of German descent to preserve their unique heritage, and in 1964, the Germania Society of Cincinnati was created, welcoming all of German descent.
CINCINNATI’S ORIGINAL OKTOBERFEST
Germania Oktoberfest | August 23-25, 2013
The Germania Society was the first to bring Oktoberfest to Cincinnati in 1971. For almost 10 years, members of the organization hosted dances and dinners in Clifton, Cheviot, and various other locations throughout the city, but they were determined to establish their own club house. To do this, members needed a fundraiser that would be able to finance the construction of such a building, the 25 acres of land that it would be situated upon, and the activities they wished to offer to create a true community center.
George Westendorf became the first chairman of the fundraiser’s committee. He traveled with his wife Maria Westendorf and Fred Mause to observe Milwaukee’s Germanfest. Upon their return to Cincinnati, they concluded that an Oktoberfest-style celebration would be an ideal fundraiser and proceeded to meet every two weeks in the Westendorf family’s basement to plan the event. The meetings themselves contained as much enthusiasm and merriment as the event itself. “They banged their glasses so hard on my table when they were planning the whole thing, that they ruined it! I had to get a new one after the festival,” exclaimed Maria with a smile.
In the fall of that year, Germania members marched in a parade from the Cheviot Field House to the Harvest Home Park to celebrate the opening of their festival. The inaugural event, however, did not go off without a hitch. Cincinnati’s own enthusiasm for the event was underestimated. “We sold out of all of our food on the first day,” explained Maria. “Edelmann’s sausage opened the factory through the night and called in all of his workers so we would have food the next day. And I drove around the city with all of the ladies in the club to buy bread. I bet no Kroger in the city had rye bread on their shelves after we were through.”
SHARING OUR TRADITIONS
Donauschwaben Oktoberfest | October 4-6, 2013
Forty-two years later, one cannot define Cincinnati without mention of Oktoberfest. The city now touts more than 10 different celebrations, including the second largest Oktoberfest in the world which opens the same weekend as the original in Munich.
John Weissmann of the Cincinnati Donauschwaben Society (Verein der Donauschwaben) describes the Oktoberfest celebrations hosted by cultural organizations like Germania and Donauschwaben as “good representations of actual German tradition—often at times more so than what you’ll find in Germany today.” The events have not been commercialized and continue to be run by the families of each organization. “Our food is still Schwaben-made. The recipes we use were brought over by our families from the Old Country and passed down to us and our kids. Everything from the goulasch to the stuffed cabbage to the sausage and desserts. Even the chicken and pigs we roast are roasted by our members.”
Unique to the Donauschwaben celebration is the all-German entertainment schedule and extensive beer selection, where over 20 different options ranging from imports to Cincinnati craft brews are on tap. Musicians are invited to perform from Germany and Austria and “we have five groups of dancers in Donauschwaben,” John explains. “They are the spotlight after our opening ceremony, ranging in age from 4 to over 80. From when you can start dancing until you can’t anymore.”
Each year, Germania opens the Oktoberfest season during the last weekend of August and Donauschwaben holds their family-friendly festival during the first weekend of October. “It’s is our biggest fundraiser of the year,” states John. “It’s our operation costs, our dance groups, our language school, our exchange programs— It’s what keeps our community thriving.”
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