Northern Kentucky’s German roots flow much deeper than Mainstrasse

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This story originally appeared in the Oct. 20 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader.

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Covington’s Oktoberfest, held annually in the city’s Mainstrasse Village, brings visitors from near and far to don their best lederhosen, dance, play games and – of course – hoist a few brews. It’s a fun family time where everyone can celebrate all things German, whether or not they can trace back to a German ancestor. 

Yet the roots of the German culture run deep throughout Northern Kentucky.

Germans were among the earliest settlers of the region. German families coming from Pennsylvania and Virginia settled in Boone County at Tanner’s Station in the 1780s. These early settlers were attracted to the rich farmland and the opportunities that westward expansion presented.

“German people started coming to Kentucky right after the American Revolution,” said Don Tolzmann, Ph.D., retired director of the German-American Studies program at the University of Cincinnati and author of several books on German settlement and culture in our region. “By the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, almost 15% of the population had German ancestry.” 

Retired professor and author Don Tolzmann, Ph.D. Photo by Robin Gee | LINK nky

He said three Midwestern cities – St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati – are known as the “German triangle” due to the heavy concentration of German immigrants. Settlers came from different regions, accounting for some differences in food and culture, but each city boasts a strong German heritage.

In the early 1800s, a group of German families from Virginia settled in what is now Florence. They established the Hopeful Lutheran Church in 1806, known as the oldest Lutheran church west of the Alleghenies. The church is still in operation today.

In Campbell County, a small group from the southwest wine country in Germany established farms and vineyards in Camp Springs. They built distinctive stone houses from local materials. A blight devastated the wine industry there at the end of the 19th century, but today the StoneBrook Winery has brought the winemaking tradition back to the area.

The push and the pull

Dave Schroeder is the director of the Kenton County Public Library. He’s also a descendant of Germans who settled in Ludlow and is the author of books about Ludlow, Covington and Northern Kentucky.

Kenton County Public Library Director Dave Schroeder. Photo by Robin Gee | LINK nky contributor 

The influx of Germans into Northern Kentucky is a result of what he calls “the push and pull of immigration.” The push of the equation was primarily economic.

Technically, Germany did not exist as a nation until 1871. Before that time, the area was a group of principalities and small city-states once part of the Holy Roman Empire. The people shared a common language and culture but were not joined as the German Empire until 1871.

“If you look at the 1860 and 1870 census, people say they are from Prussia or Oldenburg or Hanover,” Schroeder said. “Well into the 1900s, they are still making those distinctions.” 

By the mid-1800s, there were things happening in Europe that would have a great impact on immigration.

“One of those was the lack of land,” Schroeder said. “Population was booming in much of western Europe, including Germany. The number of people being born could not be sustained by the land.”

The tradition at the time was for the oldest son to inherit any family property. If you were not that lucky sibling, you could work for him on the farm or set out on your own. Many became tenant farmers, moving from place to place depending on the season, traveling as far away as the Netherlands to find work.

“Others moved to the cities as industrialization happened, but many had been rural farmers. Their whole world had been turned upside down,” Schroeder said. “For many, it was subsistence living or taking a risk and going elsewhere. So many took that risk.” 

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The ’48ers

Although the main push was economic, European politics also played a role – one that led to the largest wave of German emigration to North America.

Europe had undergone 20 years of war under Napoleon. The people were heavily taxed to fund the wars, and young men were routinely drafted into the French army. People wanted a change, Tolzmann said.

Disappointment and frustration throughout Europe set off a series of revolutions. For people in Germany, this finally came to a head in 1848 with an attempted revolution that failed. This caused many to flee, especially young people who had played a direct role in the revolution.

Emigration to the U.S. picked up dramatically after the revolution, so much so that the immigrants became known as the “’48ers.” And most came from two particular places – Oldenburg and Hanover, both in northwestern Germany.

“When I look at records from northern Germany, it’s like looking at a Northern Kentucky phonebook,” Schroeder said. “It’s the same names of people I’ve worked with, I’ve gone to school with. … Probably my ancestors knew their ancestors in the old country.” 

The ‘El Dorado of the German emigrant’

People wrote home with tales of the bustling city and towns on both sides of the Ohio River and the richness of the land in our region. Cincinnati in the 1830s to 1860s was a boom town, and that was the pull. It meant jobs and opportunity throughout the region.

A little marketing didn’t hurt, either. Business along the river was exploding, and the need for labor – cheap labor – was great. Savvy individuals sent flyers to Germany to be posted in town halls, village squares, railroad stations – anywhere people gathered – promising steady work.

“The Ohio River reminded many Germans of the River Rhine. It was called the American Rhineland,” Tolzmann said. “Books were written about our area.”

In fact, Tolzmann has written a book about Friedrich Gerstäcker, a popular travel writer and novelist during that era. Gerstäcker wrote often of the Ohio River valley and called the Cincinnati area the “the El Dorado of the German emigrant.”

A strong community

From the very beginning of immigration into Northern Kentucky, Germans brought with them a strong sense of community and unity. Soon after arrival, they set about organizing churches, businesses and a wide variety of social societies from shooting clubs to singing groups.

“Northern Kentucky is full of Catholic and Protestant churches that have German roots,” Schroeder said. “Many times you will go to a small city like Ludlow, where I grew up, and you will find a German Catholic and an Irish Catholic Church within two blocks of one another. One church could have accommodated the congregation, but the language difference was a barrier.” 

Both Catholic and German Protestant churches established schools for their parishioners. Schools in German areas, both public and private, taught lessons in German.

Germans with skills in the carpentry trades or in butchering, tailoring and other services found work and established their own businesses. The immigrants established fire services, banks and savings and loans, and, of course, breweries and taverns.

One of the most distinct of German organizations was the Turners. A movement that began in Germany, the Turners were dedicated to physical fitness, German culture and liberal politics. One of the earliest Turner organizations was established in Cincinnati in 1848. German residents of Newport founded their Turners in 1852, and Turners formed in Covington in 1855.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

By the 1850s, German immigrants, as well as the Irish, faced growing hostility and sometimes violence by nativist groups.

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“There was resentment, initially, because they came in such great numbers,” Tolzmann said. “You have to remember that in the early 1800s, the German population was maybe around 5%. And then, by the time of the Civil War, you’re getting close to being one-third German born in the area, and with children, that’s almost half the population. It had a tremendous impact on a lot of different customs and traditions.” 

One of the flashpoints was beer on Sunday. In the Anglo-American tradition, Sunday is a day of rest, worship and quiet contemplation – and no alcohol. The Germans referred to this as “Puritan Sunday.” The Germans, on the other hand, celebrated “Continental Sunday,” a day for festivity, family and fun.

The Germans detested the Sunday laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol and worked to change them whenever they could. To them, beer was an essential part of any meal or social event.

“This related to a philosophical point of view the Germans had about government,” Tolzmann said. “They strongly believed in personal liberty. And that meant they felt that government – be it local, regional or national – had no right to legislate what you drink or think.” 

He described an incident in 1856 involving the Northern Kentucky Turners that earned coverage in the New York Times. The Covington Turners were having a picnic, and a group of youngsters began throwing stones and jeering at them. Someone grabbed a beer stein out of one of the Turners’ hands, and things escalated from there.

The Turners were surrounded and ran over to the Turner Hall in Newport. Holding up in the hall, they brandished weapons and faced off with their harassers. The police came, but the Turners refused to give up their weapons or come out for fear of further attacks. Finally, a German American lawyer from Cincinnati arrived and worked out a deal. The Turners would give up their weapons in the morning and return to their homes. They also agreed to stand trial for disturbing the peace, but they were later acquitted.

The Germans and the Civil War

Most German immigrants were strongly opposed to slavery. In fact, an anti-slavery stance was a requirement to become a Turner. Some became involved in the Underground Railroad early on.

Coming from a divided region, one in which they fought and failed to establish unity, they were also against the idea of secession. When the Civil War broke out, many joined the Union cause even though Kentucky remained neutral at the start of the war.

“When in 1861 Lincoln issued his call for troops to volunteer for the Union Army, the Germans in Northern Kentucky had no choice but to go across the river and form or join regiments that were formed there,” Tolzmann said.

In 1862, when the Confederate forces came further north with plans to capture Cincinnati, German regiments were among the troops that dug in and set up a defensive rim around the area.

Some of the anti-immigrant hostilities subsided when the Civil War broke out because, unlike many volunteers, the Germans had military experience. For the German people, it was an opportunity to prove their patriotism.

Germans in World Wars I and II

The first World War was a heartbreak for German Americans. They urged the U.S. to remain neutral in the war.

“They did support the German cause and collected for the Red Cross, for the widows and orphans in Germany,” Tolzmann said. “But when it finally came to the outbreak of war, people of German background patriotically did their duty.” 

Schroeder said it was a time of fear and mistrust for many German Americans.

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“To be outwardly German, speaking German or participating in German activities, looked a bit suspicious to many Americans,” he said.

People changed or Anglicized their names. Businesses changed their names. Street names changed. The German National Bank in Covington became the Liberty National Bank. Bremen Street in Covington became Pershing Street after Gen. John Pershing. Newport’s German Street became Liberty Street.

A sign in Covington that showed the mistrust of German Americans after the first World War. Photo provided | Don Tolzmann

German language was banned in schools, and German books were removed from the libraries. Copies of German newspapers were burned.

For many Germans, World War II re-emphasized that being German was not a source of pride. Both Tolzmann and Schroeder agreed that the 1940s through 1960s were especially hard for the German community. The culture and traditions that had existed in the U.S. for 100 years seemed to all but disappear.

Another nail: prohibition

Beer has always been a large part of German life and culture. Northern Kentucky boasted some big operations, including Wiedemann’s in Newport and Bavarian in Covington, but there were also dozens of smaller beer businesses.

They all struggled during the anti-German sentiment of World War I, but it was Prohibition that put the last nail in the coffin for many small breweries. Beer gardens, a focal point of German culture and family life, also disappeared, never to return.

The 18th Amendment outlawing the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcohol lasted from 1920 to 1933. For the small breweries, there were few options.

“They couldn’t produce beer, and so many of them went to selling soft drinks,” Schroeder said. “It’s where we get the term soft and hard drink. Or they just shut down. Weideman and Bavarian made it through and were able to reopen. The smaller ones did not.” 

German American brewer George Wiedemann. Photo provided | Don Tolzmann

Tolzmann said that Prohibition didn’t stop people from making home brew in their basements, garages or barns, and many people did. Wiedemann’s continued to brew for a time after Prohibition thanks to a connection with Cincinnati bootlegger George Remus, but the law caught up to the brewery (and later to Remus). At least one of the Wiedemann associates spent time in the federal penitentiary.

The 1970s and beyond

The U.S. celebrated its bicentennial in 1976. A year later, Alex Haley’s novel “Roots” became one of the most watched mini-series in television history. People of all backgrounds begin to explore their ancestry and heritage and to think about what it means to be an American.

The Kenton County Public Library started its Local History and Genealogy Department in the 1970s.

“It’s amazing,” Schroeder said. “Those years … how many historical societies were formed across the country. Genealogical societies, museums. … At the library, we started seeing people embracing their roots and wanting to know who they were and where they came from. And so, we’ve been spending the last 50 years helping them do that, which has been a fun ride.” 

Cities and towns throughout Northern Kentucky found promoting their history was a great draw for tourists. With the help of a block grant and local enthusiasm, Covington created the Mainstrasse Village in 1980. Now a thriving focal point for the city, it features German-themed shops and restaurants and a fountain depicting The Goose Girl from a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The city also revitalized nearby Goebel Park, named for William Goebel, a German American who became governor of the state (although he was assassinated after only a few days in office). The park features a clock tower with a German Gothic-style glockenspiel dedicated in 1979.

“If you scratch the surface here, you’re bound to find there’s some German involvement,” Tolzmann said. “It’s a very important part of everyday life, from the beer we drink to the goetta we eat.” 

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