The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Madison: 1977 (booklet availability)
|Excerpts (p. 13-14)||Photographic Documentation|
[Between 1860 and 1890 there was a slow shift agricultural production. A new era of diversified cropping had arisen.]
Historically accustomed to a diversified crop economy, Germans had little difficulty in adjusting to the changed conditions. Like their neighbors, they tried various alternatives in search of a reliable cash crop until, in the 1880's, they achieved success as dairy farmers. Probably because of the distance to the large markets of Milwaukee and Chicago, Germans seemed to concentrate on the production of cheese rather than milk. Other produce was taken to market in larger towns near the German settlements, two of the most important being Watertown and Milwaukee. Both had open-air markets similar to those in Europe. Milwaukee's Jahrmarkt was situated on North Market and Juneau streets: "Operated by the farmers themselves, it was an array of stalls where every kind of local produce was sold þ grains, seeds, herbs, fish, flowers, butter, and vegetables." The Watertown market, or Der Viemarkt, was a stock fair held on second Tuesday of each month. Leopold Kadisch, a German immigrant, began this institution which became a popular social event as well as a "day of sharp bargains." During the 1850's, stock dealers from Milwaukee and Chicago frequently attended in search of likely animals.
As they slowly but steadily established themselves, Germans continued to attract more of their countrymen to Wisconsin through letters and information transmitted back to Europe. Social pull, then, became an important factor in the immigration process, much like other ethnic groups, Germans concentrated in settlements according to their home provinces and religious backgrounds. Often adjoining townships were dominated by one or another of the German subgroups. Thus a small settlement from Bavaria would exert a selective influence on other emigrating Bavarians who might hear of the community through formal or informal channels. This selective process was what has been termed "chain migration," whereby bonds linking one group to another in the homeland often determined where the newcomer would settle in the New World.
Although local records are inadequate, it is clear that Germans in Wisconsin did tend to cluster together in settlements according to the province from which they had come. In 1889, John S. Roeseler undertook an immigration survey for his master's thesis at the University of Wisconsin. Responses to his lengthy questionnaire indicated the concentration of identifiable German groups in specific Wisconsin townships according to their religious and provincial origins.
The process of acculturation and assimilation is bound up with the consideration of what made Germans in Wisconsin a distinctive group. What features of their native culture survived, what did not, and how quickly did changes take place? One of the basic prerequisites to acculturation was the creation of a "German" identification. Rather than being a Bavarian, a Saxon, a Lipper, or a Prussian, Germans began to assimilate, as one of Roeseler's informants explained, within "the different creeds." German ethnic awareness, then, developed only after they had reached America, a phenomenon that was true of other immigrant groups as well.
Ethnic institutions helped to form a communal Germanic consciousness in Wisconsin. Much of German social life revolved around their numerous musical and athletic societies, free-thinking organizations, horticultural societies, cultural clubs, socialist groups, and religious organizations. A strong German-language press and the informal institution of the beer hall also played key roles in assimilating Germans within their own communities and in making the transition from European to American society easier and pleasanter. Indeed, until 1914 and the dislocations caused by the First World War, one of the most distinctive attributes of the German-American experience was a rich and well-organized social life.
The Turnverein or Turner Society evolved from a German organization which stressed physical and social improvement. Suppressed by Prince Metternich of Austria because of their involvement in liberal politics after 1815, the Turners enjoyed a revival in all American communities containing large numbers of Germans. Its program consisted of athletics and gymnastics, combined with discussions of current political and social theories in an atmosphere of conviviality. Milwaukee had a particularly active Turner Society after 1850, and Turner halls were common in many other towns as well.
Free-thinking societies were often associated with the Turners, especially in the period before 1870. Free Thinkers, or Freie Gemeinden, opposed the religious authoritarianism of both Protestant and Catholic churches, upholding doctrines of rationalism, science, and humanism while contributing significantly to the growth of religious and social liberalism. Congregations of Free Thinkers were widespread in pioneer Wisconsin. In 1852, for instance, there were thirty-one free-thinking congregations, mostly in small towns near German settlements in the eastern part of the state. Other more radical or socialist German groups associated with the Free Thinkers and at times participated with the Turners in community events. In 1876 the Milwaukee German Union of Radicals, for example, called upon "lovers of Free Thinking" to join them in "the name of freedom, justice, and the general welfare." On another occasion radicals joined Free Thinkers and Turners in celebrating Thomas Paine's birthday. Socialist meetings often took place in Turner halls while German workers formed Reading and Culture Clubs "to improve their education and knowledge through . . . the exchange of opinions in the field of social reforms."
Germans also associated with each other in such institutions as the Odd Fellows and the Hain der Druiden Lodge. A Horticultural Society, or Garten-Verein, became popular in Milwaukee early in the 1850's. Musical societies were extremely popular and existed in both urban and rural German communities. Singing groups such as the Liederkranz brought German communities a degree of culture not found elsewhere. So popular and influential were these Musik-Vereine in Milwaukee that the city became renowned as the center of the fine arts in the Middle West. Not only did these various groups provide outlets for social mingling, but they also served as vehicles for keeping the German language actively in use.
The booklet, "Germans in Wisconsin" by Richard H. Zeitlin, 30 p., may be purchased from the State Historical Society for $3.95.