Uncovering Iowa’s German legacy of language, gymnastics and beer

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German Iowa and Global Midwest Symposium

CSPS Hall — Wednesday, Oct. 5 through Saturday, Oct. 8, view full schedule

Men pose on the delivery dock of an IC brewery. Photo courtesy of Johnson County Historical Society
Men pose on the delivery dock of an IC brewery. Photo courtesy of Johnson County Historical Society

As administrators at the University of Iowa continue their efforts this semester to curb the consumption of alcohol in Iowa City, they may not realize they are participating in debates that are as old as the state.

Beer drove much of the economy around Iowa City during the nineteenth century, yet few residents recall that the founders of the Englert Theater ran one of Iowa City’s three breweries. Profits from the Englert brewery allowed them and the other brewers to dominate the local economy. Few patrons eating dinner at one of the many restaurants around the intersection of Linn and Market know that they are dining where those breweries once stood. Nor do most of us realize that every day we drive, sit and walk over a network of tunnels and beer caves built by German craftsmen in the middle of the century to produce and store fine lager beer.

This fall, a series of exhibitions, concerts, lectures and other scholarly panels will provide an opportunity for the local community to consider the deep German roots of our state, as well as the ongoing relevance of immigration in the state’s history. German Iowa and the Global Midwest includes insights not just into traditional Oktoberfest culture, but also into English as a second language, the vulnerability of civil liberties and the multicultural history of the state.

German Americans constituted the largest group of foreign-born Iowans right into the 1960s, and beer gardens, such as the one next to the famous Star Brewery in Dubuque, were social hubs in their communities during the nineteenth century. People went to German beer gardens to see friends and congregate with their extended families. Beer production was so important to Iowa City that public riots erupted when, in 1884, the state of Iowa became one of the few states to enforce prohibition before World War I. Many English-speaking Protestants and even Catholics were happy to embrace temperance (the Irish were a critical exception), but Germans of all faiths drank openly in public, especially on Sundays.

In front of the Berlin Bakery, Berlin, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Johnson County Historical Society
In front of the Berlin Bakery, Berlin, Iowa. Photo courtesy of Johnson County Historical Society

While some might have regarded the attacks on beer as an assault on German culture, the reason for the 1884 riots was largely economic. More than 120 breweries could be found across the state at that time. They hired people to brew beer, store it, transport it, produce the barrels that held it and much more — creating deep community as well as economic ties. Ending the production of beer not only threatened the large brewers but also their workers, the urban populations they supported and even the surrounding farmers.

The agricultural landscape in Iowa was fundamentally different then. You would not have seen endless fields of corn and soy harvested with combines for international commodities markets and multinational corporations. Instead, breweries relied on nearby farmers for barley, hops and wheat. Those farmers grew locally, profited locally and reinvested in local economies. Prohibition might have tamped down public drunkenness, but it also undercut the livelihoods and the financial security of much of the state, and when it was successful, prohibition devastated tax revenues.

Germans, however, did not simply produce and drink beer. As they arrived in waves of immigration over more than a century, they created much of Iowa’s built environment. German Americans cleared lands; they built farms, towns and neighborhoods; they founded countless social organizations, such as men’s choirs (often with regional German variations and accents), shooting societies and the many Turner Halls (gymnastics clubs), some of which can still be seen in Iowa towns today.

In cities such as Davenport, and counties like Carroll, Germans dominated local government. Across the state, they built many of the first and the largest churches and synagogues. They founded numerous banks, businesses and industries, such as the pearl button factory in Muscatine. They also established over sixty German-language newspapers (Iowa City had three!), created bilingual schools and lived in multilingual and multicultural neighborhoods. Nineteenth-century Iowa was steeped in cultural difference.

Before World War I, the German language was so widespread in Iowa that many German Iowans lived here for decades without ever learning English. Within a year of the United States entering the war, however, Iowa Governor William L. Harding issued the Babel Proclamation, forbidding the use of foreign languages. From all over the state, priests and pastors wrote to the governor, asking him how they could be expected to preach to congregations that contained so many people who had only ever heard services in German. None of these clergymen objected to America’s entry into the war. What they could not understand, however, was the governor’s assault on German Iowans or the glee with which neighbors turned on German Americans.

Not unlike the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment that have followed the recent rise of ISIS, World War I provided a convenient excuse to transform some Americans into pariahs. Many Iowans took advantage of this moment to usurp the economic power of German Iowans, to undercut their influence in local, municipal and state politics; and even to harass and harm them because of their ethnicity. The public burning of German books was eerily common. The harassment was so serious that businesses, individuals and even towns, such as Berlin, Iowa (now Lincoln), Anglicized their names to mask their identities.

After the war, much of the public sociability of Iowa’s Germans seemed to fade. German schools closed, and the newspapers disappeared. Younger German Americans abandoned gymnastics clubs and choral societies, preferring to blend in with larger communities at theaters and dances. Yet Germans continued immigrating to Iowa, and more German language and culture persisted in private than many historians and politicians have noted. Consequently, when German POWs interned in Iowa during World War II were put to work on Iowan farms, many found themselves in German landscapes. Public spaces had changed greatly in the cities, but they encountered Iowans continuing to speak German in the fields and follow German customs in their homes. Life here was so familiar to many German POWs that some returned to settle in Iowa after the war.

In the future, other immigrants, such as Latin Iowans, might recall similar milestones in their communal history. Perhaps Iowans who immigrated from Muslim countries will have stories of acceptance that turned into distrust. Hopefully we can learn from the past as we face the challenges of the present and the future.

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H. Glenn Penny is professor of history at the University of Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 206.

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