Why is St. Louis, Missouri so German?: An Interview with the German American Committee of St. Louis

Have you noticed how much German related things there are in the St. Louis area and in Missouri in general? Why is Missouri so German? In this interview I talk to Dorris Keevan-Franke of the German-American Committee and the Missouri Germans Consortium to find out.

If you are in the St. Louis area and want to learn German or you would like to find a German school in your area, click here.

Introduction

Herr Antrim:

Hello, Deutschlerner! I’m here today with Dorris Keevan-Franke, and she is from the German-American Committee of St. Louis and also the Missouri Germans Consortium. We’re going to talk today about some of the awesome German-related stuff that goes on around St. Louis, and why German is such a big part of Missouri’s history, as well as its present and its future.

Herr Antrim:

First of all, would you do me the honor of introducing yourself, telling us a little bit about yourself? You’re part of both this German-American Committee and the Missouri German Consortium. We’re going to talk about both of them, but let’s start with the German-American Committee. And what is it that this group does? And a little bit of a background there.

Dorris:

I am actually a writer. I’ve been writing for over 30 years, and I write history. And one of my favorites subjects of history is German immigration. And I’ve presented papers for The Society of German-American Studies, and I quite often talk about immigration societies of the 1830s, especially ones that came to Missouri. So, that was how my interest got started.

I’ve written several books, and I’ve also done an international traveling exhibit that traveled all across Germany and across the United States on German immigrants. And a book and a documentary. So, that’s my background of what I’ve been doing.

What is the German-American Committee of St. Louis, Missouri?

Dorris:

The German-American Committee, they were created in 1983. That’s when we celebrated the tricentennial of Germans coming to America and the families that came to Crelfeldt. And in 1983, the President declared German-American Day on October 6th and a group of German organizations in St. Louis got together to celebrate the tricentennial and found out it was so helpful amongst all of them to be working together and to be knowledgeable about what dates each of them were doing events and just working together, gave them more strength.

And so they created what’s called the German-American Committee and it’ll be 40 years old soon. And the German American Committee is a representative, of which I’m the president, of about 15 different German organizations that still exist in St. Louis. Some of these organizations are 150 years old. Some of these organizations are celebrating their 75th anniversary. Many of them are much older than the German-American Committee, but that’s what started them.

Herr Antrim:

Wow. There’s 15 you said?

Dorris:

There’s the Bayern Verein, Badischer Verein, German Cultural Society, The German School, German Heritage Society, the St. Louis Stuttgart Sister Cities, St. Charles-Stuttgart Sister Cities, German Heritage Association in St. Charles County, Stammtisch, The Schutzenverein, The Schuhplattler, just to name a few.

Herr Antrim:

Wow. That’s a lot of German. And this is all under that one umbrella of the German-American committee.

Dorris:

We meet once a month and we plan our events out a year in advance, usually. Up until last year, we published a brochure every year that had our entire calendar, because a lot of the German-American community in St. Louis wanted to still be able to attend these Wurstmarkt or the Schuhplattler or the Mannerchor Concert or the Dammenchor Concert or the Liederkranz and they want to be able to plan these and attend these, and they don’t want to have conflicts in their scheduling. So, we wanted to make sure that we don’t all pick the same weekends. We do try to keep our events spaced out so that no two organizations are doing them at the same time.

Why are St. Louis and Missouri so German?

Herr Antrim:

I think I went to an Oktoberfest over in St. Charles once. And I’ve been to a couple of other events. I just did an interview with the Stammtisch group. That’s a part of your organization as well. I was just amazed at how many things there are in the area around St. Louis and not just St. Louis, but even further out into Missouri, just how many things there are in German culture, in German language related, the German school. I’m actually having an interview with them soon as well. There’s just so much German stuff going on. Why is it that there’s such a huge German draw in Missouri and in the St. Louis area?

Dorris:

Germany, back in the early 1800s, right as Missouri is now celebrating its bicentennial, 1820. In 1819, there was a German named Gottfried Duden, who was born in Remscheid, but he had his law office in Cologne. And he had heard of the great trailblazer, Daniel Boone. In Germany at that time and 1819, when they had just finished the Napoleonic wars, there had been a lot of famine, overpopulation, and things were stressful. The people had been promised that in defeating Napoleon, they would get to enjoy some of the same democratic principles that he had espoused. But when the government and all the principalities, kingdoms and dukedoms all got together, when the war ended with Napoleon, they changed their mind and reneged on their promise. The things were in severe turmoil. And there were hundreds of books being written about places to immigrate. England, Russia, South America.

And this Gottfried Duden, he’s an attorney from a wealthy family, had seen how in America, the newly opened land of the Louisiana territory, that all these people were flocking to this new area. He saw that nobody had ever visited and actually could speak of it. So he came here and he lived here between 1824 and 1827. He lived in a little area off of the Missouri River, just right along the Missouri River. If anyone knows where Washington, Missouri is today, it’s directly across the river from Washington, Missouri. Now he lived here from 1824 to ’27. He returned in 1829 and he wrote a book. Now, this book was just the right words at just the right time. And it was just what they needed to hear. One of the things he had stressed is to travel in groups. After all, Missouri is very, very rural compared to Germany at that point.

And he is saying, there is safety. If the father should die, the mother needs to have others around that can speak her language. So in the 1830s, there were many immigration groups that were created, In the 1830s, 120,000 Germans would come from Germany to the United States. And a third of those would come to Missouri just because of Duden’s book. That’s why Missouri is part of the German triangle. St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati are the largest pockets of German population in the United States today. It’s still the number one ethnic group. As late as the 2010 (census), It was the largest group that claims heritage of 50, there were 50 million. That is why the United States has so many German immigrants, but especially why Missouri. I know that over on the east side of the Mississippi River with the Illinois Germans, a lot of them also were part of all of this movement and especially even more so part of the 1848, because the German revolutions did continue. And the 1848 revolutionaries that fled Germany after those revolutions failed were much more intellectual, and they could not tolerate the issues of slavery. And many of them chose Illinois for that reason. But that’s why the region is so German.

And Germans, of course, went with the Union Army. Germans were predominantly anti-slavery and St. Louis is the only city of its size that was a slave state that actually elected Abraham Lincoln. So, that was probably a lot to do with the Germans. And it is also part of the reason that during the Civil War, I’ve heard, it said, how was it expressed that we were a Confederate state, that the Union Army occupied? Well, yeah, we occupied, we lived here, we were Germans and we were Union. So, that’s how they think of us back over in the East Coast. So that’s a little bit of explaining why we’re so German here.

Was Gottfried Duden related to the same Duden from the famous grammar book?

Herr Antrim:

Do you know if the lawyer Duden who wrote that book has any relation to the Dudenverlag that now does the very big German grammar book that comes out every year and the website.

Dorris:

He is a distant cousin. His particular branch of the family, there were five siblings and none of them ever married. He is not the progenitor of the dictionary, but he is a distant cousin, yes.

Do many people still speak German in Missouri?

Herr Antrim:

We’ve got all of these German immigrants coming into the St. Louis area. Does that have an impact on the language learning and how many people in the St Louis area learn German? Is there a large population of German speaking people still in Missouri and in St. Louis?

Dorris:

Yes, and the reason why, and I really loved this opportunity to share this because it is important to understand that World War I really put a quash on German heritage and by World War II, that was stomped down even more. Newspapers were forbidden to publish in German, if grandma spoke German, she could not go grocery shopping. And you denied your German heritage. Now in many, many places, that totally killed the German culture in those communities. When you lose your language, that’s part of the important things, your religion, your church, but your food and your language, music. These are all important parts of a culture. And when you lose a portion of that, as important as language you, of course then, you lose your identity. And we all know how, especially with Germans, their identities are so important to their dialects even, and how you can tell where they come from by their dialect quite often.

And I think that’s still very, very true. The reason we still have as much as we do is simply because we were so profoundly German up until that point. And then during World War II, but especially after World War II, a lot of Germans, who would immigrate to the United States after World War II, would come to this area because they already had family here. There was a family member or a cousin, or they knew of us enough that you would always want to settle. An immigrant has two factors. It’s the push and the poll.

It’s quite often said how Missouri on the Mississippi River and the valleys that we look so much like Germany, which is true, but you don’t pick up your family and sell everything and say goodbye to all your friends and family, just to go to a place that looks like where you live then. You go for much more important reasons, but you choose where you go to because of who is there and what draws you there. And if you know that you can go to a place where there are others that enjoy the German culture and speak the language, you’re of course going to want to choose there.

How to determine how German an area is:

Herr Antrim:

Yeah, absolutely. And so I just find it fascinating that, a lot of people in America will say, I’m German, my family’s German, or my great-grandmother came over from Germany, but the amount of people in the St Louis area is just kind of overwhelming with how many German people there are and German people who still speak German, as well as just people who you look at their last name, you can tell immediately that they’re of a German family and that they’re still carrying on that German tradition and stuff. It’s just always fascinating to me to see, especially if you drive through St. Louis, there’s signs of businesses that have German names or street signs that have German names, and just so much of the German has been preserved in St. Louis, that I personally just find it fascinating, and it’s very good to see that it’s still thriving in the St Louis area.

Dorris:

Another good way to determine a community’s German heritage. I live in St. Charles, there are certain cemeteries here, very large, a city cemetery, and you drive through it and it is just one German name after another. So yes, I always think that’s another good way to really judge that a community’s Germanness.

The German Heritage Society has been working on changing some of the street names. That’s been one of their projects. You can’t actually change the whole street’s name. That’s too difficult, but they have gotten, we have gotten the city to change some of the street names. Jim Merkel has spearheaded that and to put honorary plaques that are the original German name. There are some communities that during World War II, there was to be no sign of any kind of German allegiance. Nobody wanted to say that they lived on Hamburg street, or such. And they would ask, for instance, in St. Louis, Pershing is actually Berlin. And that was changed at that time. They don’t know this, the people that live there, but Pershing has German ancestry as well, but he was more noted as an American. And that was a movement throughout the whole United States and St. Louis amazingly didn’t have that many city streets renamed. We have kept a lot of them.

Herr Antrim:

I grew up around Effingham, Illinois. It’s not terribly well-known, but next to Effingham is the town called Teutopolis and it comes from the Teutoburg forest. And a lot of their immigrants came from those areas in Germany. One of the things that I found fascinating is that their churches will have their stained glass is inscribed in German. And so it’s in memory of whoever that family may have been that donated money to the church at the time, and all of those windows are inscribed in German. And this happens in quite a few of the churches in that area. And it’s just another cool little tidbit about the culture that’s still preserved.

Dorris:

It’s unfortunate the loss of the language, there’s old cemeteries that get cataloged. And sometimes people not knowing German read a headstone and where it says “Hier ruht”, and meaning “here lies”. They put down that as his first two names. I’ve seen that happen too. So if you don’t know the language, there are still churches that do German Christmas services. Here in Missouri, there’s a little town, a little area in Southern Warren county that has been documented that even as late as the 1930s, there was a craftsman there still making wooden shoes.

Herr Antrim:

The mascot actually for the school that I student taught at was the Teutopolis Wooden Shoes.

Dorris:

And even wooden shoes are dialects in Germany too. The different areas, they had a different way of carving either a point or a twist or that, a different brand of how they made their shoe.

What does the Missouri Germans Consortium do?

Herr Antrim:

We’ve talked about the German-American Committee. What is it that the Missouri Germans Consortium does?

Dorris:

We’re about 12 years old. But one of our biggest projects, what we actually do is we collaborate and we help promote and create and produce events for German-Americans and for the public that promotes the German culture and German education. For example, back in 2009, a group of Germans had come to the United States that for five years had been researching a certain group of immigrants that had come, that had formed a society back in the 1830s. And they had come to America. They had already been studying this group for five years. These were actors and writers and producers, authors, photographers. They thought, well, what happened to them in the United States?

They visited Dutzow, of which is the first of our German settlements here in Missouri. It adjoins the land of Gottfried Duden. So it’s there across from Washington. And they made a documentary that it’s amazing to believe, but they were just as interested back in Germany to know what became of these German immigrants. And it led to a project that was funded by the Ministry of Culture in Germany. And it was an international traveling exhibit about the Giessen Emigration Society that traveled from Giessen, Germany to Bremen, to Washington, D.C., to here in St. Louis to the Missouri History Museum. It’s projects like that, that we work on and we help passes and tour buses and just things like that. We find ways to help organizations fund their projects that promote the German heritage.

Herr Antrim:

We have an exchange program at our high school, maybe the next time that the Germans are allowed to come back into the United States, we’ll have to take them to the German (Missouri) History Museum and see something that might be going on in the area.

Dorris:

The Missouri History museum, when it’s open, does have a part, a tour that’s even in German. So a lot of people don’t realize that, that’s got the headphones so that our international visitors can listen in and find the different things throughout the museum that are German. There’s a lot of German things that a lot of people probably aren’t aware of in our city. And that’s what we just try to promote.

Do you speak German?

Herr Antrim:

Do you yourself speak German or have you ever had any classes in German?

Dorris:

Many, many years ago, I started out, I had a friend who was a former CIA agent. He thought he could easily teach me. He could teach soldiers, he could teach me, but that wasn’t too productive. But I have had a couple of years of German in college. And I had a couple of years at the German School in St. Louis.

Since I don’t spend so much time as I should probably with people speaking German, when my German friends come, and I think your students will understand this. When my German friends come, my first day or so, I’m sort of just trying to get the ear right. And by the second day I can nod, but I never feel very, very good at speaking it. The reason is when I started my research back 30, 40 years ago with Duden’s book and other German papers, what I was doing was translating with the dictionary. And I am what you call a scholar German to where I can look at a word, and I know that word, but I can’t say that word very well. Even my German teachers will say that. They go, what did you say? I’m not good at speaking it. I do read it. And I do understand it when I’m hearing it.

Herr Antrim:

That’s half the battle, a little bit more practice, and probably could do a little bit better than you probably think. Because to me it’s a lot of get that input and get how much you can absorb from the language. So, understanding it is that first concept. And then once you get to that point, it’s more start producing that language. One of the things that you definitely would need would be an opportunity to go out into the community and speak German with whoever it is that might be around.

Where to go to practice German in St. Louis, Missouri:

Herr Antrim:

Do you have any recommendations that someone might be able to go to in the St. Louis area to speak German?

Dorris:

I do. If it were me and I want to, and I so many times get this question, and people, friends coming from Germany, and the German Cultural Society in St. Louis has a hall downtown on Jefferson, but even better, they have, what’s called Donau Park on Four Ridge Road in Jefferson County. And if you visit at any one of their events, I can assure you there is going to be lots of people sitting around that speak German and are talking to each other in German. And you’re going to hear the German. You’re going to hear the German music, the young dancers, the Jungen group, or the Schuhplattlers will most likely be performing. And the food will be German. Those are the things I would do is attend events that are put on. And we do have an honorary consul for Germans here that have dual citizenship or need help, or that we, St. Louis does have an honorary consul office, too.

How to keep the German language programs in American schools:

Herr Antrim:

Well, those are all of the questions that I had for you. Do you have any questions for me about any of the things that I’m doing or anything else that you’d like to pick my brain for?

Dorris:

I think the most important is this. I see on my side and I get so many stories of school districts closing down their German language education, and that troubles me greatly in the higher education and the high school. I do feel the sister city exchange groups are the best way for any young people that are interested. It’s not only a good way to understand and use the language and learn about the culture and exchange. Once the German language goes away in a school, it really causes even the sister city to flounder then as well, because it’s very difficult to partner two schools or two communities. And this troubles me. Anyone can help me to find a way to get a school district, our educational board, to understand how important it is to our young people, to experience all cultures and what all the German culture means to Americans. I would like to hear that answer, anytime.

Herr Antrim:

I have heard a lot of schools getting rid of their German program and moving to either just having Spanish or some places have Spanish and French, but they lost their German program. The school that I student taught at that I mentioned before, I don’t believe they have German anymore. The high school I attended doesn’t have German anymore. One of the things that I like about our program that we have at the school that I teach at now, is I helped to build an exchange program with Germany. So we have a host family school in Germany, it’s in the Black Forest and it’s supposed to be every other year, we traveled to Germany and they traveled to see us. And we have students who do a one-to-one exchange. So the German students that they host in the fall is the same German student that they go to visit in June.

And so they get not just the cultural aspect of it, but you get those personal relationships in between the countries. And it’s those kinds of connections that, as we build this program, it kind of solidifies the entire program because of that. And so I’m encouraged in that way, but I even now I’ve seen my own classroom numbers of how many students I have in German 1 and 2, those numbers are going down. So it may eventually be something that is out of my control, that if there’s nobody taking the class, what’s the point in keeping me around. So it is troubling. And I think that the outreach, like what you’re doing is another way that we can help build up those language programs is that if you see German out in your community and you continually see, how important it is to your area around you and your history and your culture of your own people, knowing that can help to build those programs up a little bit more as well.

Dorris:

Well, thank you. And thank you for this opportunity to share a little bit more about the German-American Committee. And yes, I like to believe that the German-American culture is still very much alive in St. Louis and in our whole region.

Herr Antrim:

Thank you for sitting down to chat with me. And I look forward to hearing from whatever it is that’s next going on in Donau Park or elsewhere in St. Louis. Thank you.

More Interviews with Herr Antrim

This post is one of several interviews Herr Antrim has conducted over the past few months. You can see the other interviews listed below.

Herr Antrim
Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites. *This site uses a variety of affiliate links. If there is a link that leads to an outside site from which you could potentially make a purchase, it is very likely an affiliate link for which Herr Antrim will receive a small portion of your purchase. This does not cost you any extra, but it does help keep this website going. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you would like more information about the affiliate programs this site uses, click here.
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