HERMANN, Mo. – In the spring of 1838, steamboats carried German immigrants up the Missouri River to a hilly site that would become the city of Hermann as part of a massive migration that changed the face of Missouri forever.
They were led by George Bayer, a schoolmaster and surveyor, who laid out the town and assigned lots on 11,300 acres purchased for about $15,000, most from the U.S. government. Since he also was responsible for settling disputes, Bayer was not well liked by the time he died the following spring.
"They intentionally buried him on the back side of the city cemetery where he couldn't see the town, and they couldn't see him," said Cindy Browne, administrator of the Deutschheim State Historic Site, which tells the story of the early settlers. "He's since been officially exonerated, having been given an impossible assignment."
This March marks the 175th anniversary of the town's platting. By 1840, there were nearly 500 residents, and some 1,500 a decade later, as Hermann became the heart of the new German-America.
The river valley, with its rich soil and forested hills, is what drew them. German lawyer Gottfried Duden had visited the Missouri River valley and praised it lavishly in his book "Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America," which was published in 1829.
"There is still room for millions of fine farms along the Missouri River, not to mention the other rivers," Duden wrote. "The great fertility of the soil, its immense area, the mild climate, the splendid river connections ... all these must be considered as the real foundations for the fortunate situation of Americans."
Germans founded towns all along the eastern end of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Boonville. Bringing language and customs with them, they firmly established their Old World traditions on the New Frontier.
Today, at least half of all Missourians claim at least one parent of German ancestry, and that heritage is ingrained in many facets of everyday life. With more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Hermann reflects its past and revels in its German roots.
Deutschheim means "home of the Germans," and the Deutschheim State Historic Site gives tours of two historic residences. The Pommer-Gentner House, one of the finest early buildings in Hermann, was constructed in 1840 and is furnished in the period of the 1830s and 1840s. The Carl Strehly House was built in 1842 and was home of the German language newspaper Hermanner Wochenblatt. It was enlarged later to include a winery and displays the belongings of the Strehly and Muehl families. Rosa Strehly lived her entire life in the house, from 1865 to 1962, and the rooms remain as they were during her lifetime.
Visitors to the historic site often see the ways of the early Germans and fondly recall visits to their own grandparents' homes. Many recognize old customs in modern life for the first time, Browne said.
"Lots of things people do today harken back to the early Germans," she said. "Visitors say, 'Oh, that's why we do that'."
Germans in the Civil War
A printing press in the basement of the Strehly House illustrates how the Germans got caught up in a struggle that was dividing their new homeland. Strehly and his partner and brother-in-law, Eduard Muehl, printed articles opposing slavery.
"The German-Americans came from a land of oppression, and they saw slavery as part of that," Browne said. She pointed to a quote from Muehl, the newspaper editor: "We did not escape oppression in our old homeland to support it here in America."
In 1853, the Strehly House newspaper began publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel was serialized, and printed every Friday for 26 weeks, in German.
When the Civil War broke out, Union Col. Franz Sigel led some 1,100 soldiers, most of them German-Americans, in several important battles in Missouri. German home guards defended the arsenal in St. Louis from falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers, and chased the opposition out of Jefferson City.
German troops performed well, often against larger numbers of Confederates, and helped keep Missouri in the Union.
"They had been trained in the Prussian military," Browne said. "They actually formed, for the most part, units that were entirely German."
Sauerkraut and St. Nick
The Germans who arrived in Hermann had been organized by a group called the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. They laid out Market Street to be 10 feet wider than Market Street in Philadelphia in the belief that Hermann would become a competitor to St. Louis.
The Germans constructed sturdy buildings and tidy farms of brick, rock and timber, with the homes in town sitting on the sidewalk, all on 60- by 120-foot lots. They furnished them with simple, almost Shaker-style, furniture using walnut cut from the forests.
"They built these houses in the tradition that they knew from Germany," Browne said. "The town very much retains that charm."
Each house had a garden out back planted with the fruits and vegetables that the immigrants brought from their homeland.
"Greens, turnips, strawberries, asparagus – all those things they valued in Germany they brought with them," Browne said. "It was said that you needed 100 heads of cabbage per person to make it through winter. Cabbage, of course, was made into sauerkraut to go with their bratwurst."
They introduced German Christmas customs to their new land, including table-top trees – some made of dyed goose feathers – St. Nicholas and a stern character called Belznichol, who carried a switch.
"If you could not recite your Bible verses, or had been characterized as naughty by your parents, you might be switched instead of getting presents," Browne said.
Father of the Wine Industry
The Germans also brought their taste for wine, initially pressing the native grapes found in the wild, and then cultivating their own.
To improve a struggling economy, the town council in 1844 offered vacant lots to the residents if they planted grapes. The lots came with no money down, interest free, and no payments for 10 years. More than 600 lots were sold and vineyards planted. House wineries reached their heyday in the 1870s with dozens in Hermann and the surrounding area.
Martin Husmann was one of the first vineyard owners. His son, George, who came to Hermann as a 12 year old, developed better methods of cultivation and became known as the father of the Missouri grape industry. In 1881, he accepted a position in California and helped established the Napa Valley wineries.
"This was the wine center of the United States before Prohibition," Browne said of Hermann. "Stone Hill was the third largest winery in the world. Prohibition wiped the industry out, and it did not come back until the 1960s and 1970s as wine consumption again became popular among Americans."
Today, Hermann is in the heart of Missouri wine country with ten wineries: Adam Puchta Winery, Bias Winery, Bommarito Estate Almond Tree Winery, Dierberg Star Lane Tasting Room, Endless Summer Winery, Hermannhof Winery, Lost Creek Vineyard, OakGlenn Winery, Röbller Winery, and Stone Hill Winery. Seven of these wineries are featured on the scenic, 20-mile Hermann Wine Trail. Visitors come for the annual Maifest and Oktoberfest celebrations, Kristkindl Markt and to visit the antique shops and quaint bed and breakfasts.
In recent years, Hermann has enjoyed a renaissance led by banker Jim Dierberg, owner of Hermannhof Winery. His projects include a renovated brewery and mill, an outdoor market square and upscale lodging in relocated and restored historic house wineries. His latest effort is a living history farm that will demonstrate the traditions of the Germans-Americans descended from those early settlers who arrived by steamboat in the 1830s.
"Some of us don't realize why we have the traditions we do; it's because of the Germans who came and brought those traditions," said Browne, the historic site administrator. "They became part of who we are."