Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Saturday, May 24, 2003
by Kristin Buehner

Prosit! Germans cheer their culture's traditions, influence throughout North Iowa

Beer and pretzels, Bach and Beethoven, Christmas trees, Dachsunds, Volkswagens.

The influence of the German culture is evident throughout North Iowa and the United States.

But some say that for many German Americans, that heritage has been a well-kept secret for years, a residual effect of two world wars.

"People can be proud of being Puerto Rican or Irish, and yet it's taboo to be overly proud to be German," said Michael LUICK-THRAMS of Mason City, coordinator of the German Cultural Fest May 23-May 26 in North Iowa. "People don't know what it really means to be German."

And yet, more people have emigrated to America from Germany than from any other country.

By 1860, nearly 36,000 German immigrants were living in Iowa, according to an article in the "Palimpsest," Volume 43, 1962. The peak of German immigration was reached by 1890, when 127,246 Germans were living in the state.

In 1868, increased numbers of Germans settled in Butler, Franklin, Grundy and Hardin counties. Ackley became the center of this "miniature Germany," according to the "Palimpsest."

There were two basic reasons why they left "The Faderland" in the 19th Century. One was to avoid compulsory conscription and extended military service. The Franco-Prussian War was a primary reason for emigrating in the 1870s.

The other reason was the hope of a better life, which was furthered by letters from friends and family who had settled in the United States.

Those who came from northern Germany settled on farms, according to information from the Ackley Heritage Center. Those from central and southern Germany settled in towns.

Because of the large numbers, it was impossible for German immigrants to concentrate in a limited area.

Among North Iowa communities that were primarily German settlements were Ackley, Alexander, Dumont, Grafton, Hampton, Kanawha, Meservey, Titonka and Lakota (which was originally named Germania and changed during World War I).

Education and religion were very important to these German immigrants. Most were Lutheran, Roman Catholic or Methodist. Schools and churches were established soon after their arrival.

To perpetuate customs and traditions, schools were often formed that used the native language for instruction. Foreign-language newspapers were also common in the 1800s.

Germans were known for being hard working, thrifty, industrious and cerebral in their approach to life, Luick-Thrams said. "They exhibit a pervasive seriousness."

Some immigrants spoke high-German, a more refined form of German, but most spoke low-German ("plattdeutsch").

Although many were farmers, others were professionals or tradesmen. Occupations included shoemakers, wagonmakers, plowmakers, soapmakers, candlemakers, butchers, distillers, stone cutters, bakers, carpenters and cabinetmakers. Brewers were usually German.

Many immigrants, including Germans, formed native societies. German societies in Iowa included societies for gymnastics and physical education, mechanics, rifle associations, bands and musical societies.

During the world wars, German Americans were subject to scorn, LUICK-THRAMS said. German-language newspapers were censored. Orchestras such as the Des Moines Symphony refused to play music by German composers.

Sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage. Dachsunds were called Liberty Dogs.

German immigrants established three churches in Mason City: Zion Methodist in 1887, St. James Lutheran in 1894 and Bethlehem Lutheran in 1919.

Services were conducted in German at first, later in English and German. During World War I, pastors were admonished by city leaders to discontinue the German-language services. But as late as the 1930s, the churches continued to hold them, Mason City historian Art FISCHBECK said.

Bethlehem Lutheran conducted German services until 1956, according to a church history.

Zion Methodist Church, located at East State Street and Rock Glen, was built in 1887 by German immigrants from Plymouth, FISCHBECK said.

Bethlehem Lutheran was established in 1919 by a group of Russian Germans, FISCHBECK said. Many were employed at the sugar beet plant.

When Bethlehem Lutheran was being formed, German families employed in factories in the north end of town were invited to join. The first church was intentionally built in the industrial center of the city to attract members.

The first church, a small wood frame structure, was built at Delaware and 16th Street Northeast. Men sat on one side of the church, women on the other, according to a church history.

From 1925 to 1928, the Bethlehem Lutheran congregation met in the former Calvary Chapel, 1615 N. Delaware Ave.

In 1928, the congregation secured the former Christian Science reading room and moved it to 419 N. Delaware Ave., site of the present stone church which was built in 1952.

St. James Lutheran Church was founded in 1894. Its first church, called St. Jacobs Church, was built at 502 Sixth St. S.E., a frame building that now is an apartment house. The name of the church was changed to St. James in 1938.

William F. HENKEL, founder of HENKEL Construction Co., was a charter member of the congregation. His son, Carl, oversaw construction of the new brick church at 1148 Fourth St. S.E. in 1953.

Otto PETERS, a German immigrant and cabinetmaker, carved the filigreed decorative work in the church sanctuary.

Longtime St. James member Maxine (ROHDE) ROSE said the German services ended at the beginning of World War II. Her father, Max, attended those services, but she and her siblings did not understand German, she said.

Max ROHDE, who was born in America in 1888, was confirmed at the original St. Jacobs Church when all services were in German, ROHDE said. In those days, children attended confirmation all day, five days a week, for several weeks. They were excused from public school to attend, ROSE said.

ROSE'S grandfather, Herman ROHDE, came to the United States in the 1880s. He was one of many German immigrants who worked at the brick yards, she said.

Others worked at the cement plants, Jacob E. DECKER and Sons meatpacking plant, in construction and at various other locations, including the Clear Lake Bakery.

"I think people were always proud of their German heritage," she said.

But during World War II, they were careful what they said.

Carl PETERS, Clear Lake, recalled that during World War II, his uncle, Chris OETTCHEN, who had been a Russian prisoner of war during World War I, made the mistake of publically speaking out against Russia, then a U.S. ally. He was jailed for his remarks and members of the Clear Lake VFW voted whether his family should be sent to a concentration camp, PETERS said.

PETERS' parents were both German immigrants. His father, Otto, arrived in 1923. His mother, Emma (OETTCHEN), came in 1922. They were from Tatting, Germany. They left because the German economy was bad and inflation was extremely high, PETERS said.

His mother was working as a maid in Clear Lake when his father, a cabinetmaker, joined her. He eventually found a job at Mason City Millwork, where he worked for 45 years.

When he started school, Carl Peters said, he spoke German better than he spoke English.

"We always spoke German - low German - when friends came to the house," he said.

PETERS remembered his mother's German dishes, such as "swatseuer," a soup born out of the Depression and made with the blood of a pig and dumplings. There was also "swatbrot," black bread.

PETERS said his family ate a lot of dumplings, some sweetened, such as dumplings with pears.

A special treat at Christmas time was a German almond candy, "matsapon," that his aunt in Germany sent each year.

Many more recent German immigrants live in North Iowa, including Gunther RATTAY, 80, of Mason City. He came to the United States in 1955 at the age of 32.

"Four-and-a-half million of my people were driven out of their homes after the war," said RATTAY, a native of East Prussia. "All my relations had big farms. We lost everything."

He ended up in America because a brother, Heinz, now deceased, came here before him.

RATTAY, who had farmed in Germany, found work in construction and then at Armour meatpacking. In his spare time, he helped Heinz move houses, he said.

For several years, there was a German Club in North Iowa made up of people who came from Germany. They held events such as dances with German bands from Minneapolis.

People have been good to him here, Rattay said. But he misses some things from home, such as the German cooking he grew up with. Dishes were mostly potatoes, sauerkraut and red cabbage, he said.

Christmas in Germany was pretty much the same as here, RATTAY said.

"Almost every farmer had a woods, so a couple days before Christmas we went in the woods and brought a tree home," he said.

Gifts were opened Christmas morning and favorite foods prepared.

People, especially those on the farm, were very religious, said RATTAY, a Lutheran. Families were close-knit and didn't stray far from home.

Transcriptions by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2011



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