“Old Milwaukee,” as a naming convention, is much more than the handle of a rather cheap beer. No, Old Milwaukee is also known as the German Athens. My first impressions of Milwaukee were fermented over a decade ago, a bit before the Renaissance of the downtown core with its cosmopolitan Riverwalk, shiny new sports arenas and the Calatrata-designed art museum, and clean Business Improvement Districts, all of which making for a pleasant business-trip experience. However, what struck me was how Teutonic the old city remains–the enduring influence of immigrants who contributed mightily to the American experience and the love of their sons and daughters of their German heritage.
die Grosses Auswanderung
German immigration to the US came in waves over the 19th century, each wave met with a nativist scorn that remains an undercurrent in contemporary, impolite society. Early German settlers landed in Pennsylvania (the Amish) and other colonial areas. But by the 19th century, Germans, fleeing the world of Prussian and Bavarian princes in great migration, settled farther afield from the eastern shores to the Midwest. The greatest concentration of those German Americans are found in Wisconsin, as nearly 68% of the region can claim German ancestry.
Wissenschaft, Technik, Kultur
German science, methods and culture influenced American society in myriad ways. The whole re-ordering of America can be understood through the direct influence of German-Americans, as they both assimilated and contributed in a very unique way. Our public schools are based on the Prussian model–compulsory, professionally-led, and segregated by grade levels. Not to mention Kindergarten–the first German word every America learns. The Lutheran protestant theory of individualism and personal relationships with deities fuels evangelical thought to this day. Prior to the arrival of brewmasters like Anheuser and Pabst, the choice of beverage for the quaffing in the US was hard cider. All of that changed with the German love of fermented grain. Food-wise, the Hot Dog is the son of the German Wiener or any other encased meat on a bun. And the craft of public administration was also a German invention, efficiencies perfected by Max Weber.
Untergang und Auferstanden
The survival of German culture in America is a testament to the resilience of its people. Prohibition wiped out beer culture for a generation in the United States, shuttering beer gardens and breweries nationwide. Few were able to thrive in other ventures, or survive at all. Concurrently, Germany was the antagonist of two World Wars. And so, the love of German culture in America declined precipitously. German families were accused of Kaiserist or Nazi sympathies depending on the conflict. Names were Anglicinized. Beethoven, Bach and Brahms disappeared from radio. German was discontinued in public school education. Lutherans stopped preaching in their native tongue. Yet the concentration of Germans in Milwaukee were able to withstand the bigotry. After all, those German Americans were far removed from, and fled the persecution of, Imperial Prussians and Fascist Bavarians.
Today’s Milwaukee is of course, a frisson of the old world and new. Its town hall is modeled after the grand German Rathaus found in Hamburg, Nuremburg and Munich among other town centers. Old church steeples pepper the industrial and modern skyline. Brewery building stacks add to the cityscape. The Milwaukee Courthouse, a massive WPA era stone building, has a perfect sightline to the old Rathaus, and reminded me a bit of the “Maximillianeum“ in Munich—a palace on a hill.
Alte Welt Strasse
Old World Third Street preserved a strip of German-American bierstuben. The Old German Beer Hall serves up German food and the Royal Bavarian Hofbrauhaus beer. Having been to all of the new Hofbrauhaus breweries in the US, the Old German Beer Halll has the history and authenticism that the sterile, Bavaria-meets-Disney locations cannot emulate. The latter are, this author is sad to report, an antiseptic corporate pastiche; a pale copy of the Ur-pub–the Hofbaruhaus am Platzl in Munich. These places appeal to the for the venture capitalist that thinks those new pubs are what Germany feels like, or what Americans must think Old Germany feels like.
Meanwhile, in the Old German Beer Hall, locals walk in, hailed by the bartender, as their personal stein is pulled down from the rack. You cannot recreate the glory and honor of being welcome at the “Stamtisch” table—regular’s table—overnight. Those seats and steins are earned, week after week, decade after decade, father to son.
Across the street from the German pubs is Usinger’s—a family owned sausage shop in business since 1880. Their buildings are painted in folk art with brick streets surrounding the deli. Finding it impossible to pass on the array of natural casings and fine grind, I couldn’t leave such delicacies behind. I found that Usingers will package cases for the road, with ice packs. They’ll even ship.
Farther afield is the gem of the German revival in Milwaukee, the first public beer garden in the US after 90 years of meaningless exile. A mere nine-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee is Estabrook Park, a riverside emerald glen hugging the Milwaukee River. In 2012, after years of lobbying, the Parks and Recreation department opened bids for the creation of a beer garden as both a tribute to the city’s German heritage and an obvious source of revenue. The Biergarten is in its second season of providing the community with Gemütlichkeit–a German word with a poor English translation of “cozyness.” I prefer to describe it as “existential merriment.”
Based exclusively on the design of the beer gardens found throughout Germany, the manager told me they spared nothing to get the feel exactly right. German tables and giant glass Masskrugs for the beer are ample. Garten-goers make a deposit to drink from the 1L glass steins, and return the stein and token for their deposit as they leave. The ATM sign is in German, and the signage feature the “Fraktur” font that the world knows as “Old German.” Linden shade trees, common to Europe, are replaced with native trees–Maple. Locals not only play accordion and polka tunes, but the crowd knows the words—and sing along. Their grandparents certainly passed on the old songs to them.
In all of my travels, rarely does the word “transcendent” come to mind as it is a worn, cliched word. However, the closest I have ever felt in the US of being transported someplace else, someplace familiar and beloved, was here in the Biergarten. I could have been in the Englisher Garten along the River Isar, or the Spree under the linden trees if not for the nasal WisKAHNsin dialect around me. I was somehow in Munich again, absent the flight. Wanderlust fulfilled. If only Americans could embrace this aspect of German culture more openly—the love of nature, of enjoying the craft of the beer for its quality and simplicity rather than a vehicle for drunkenness–we’d be a happier Volk. Here, in Old Milwaukee at least, that spirit thrives, from the downtown preservation, the artistry of finely crafted food in the old style, and in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie at the beer garden table.
Grinning German American Boy, Milwaukee Germanfest Photo credit: Chris Totsky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Immigrants Photo Credit: Public Domain published in Harper’s Weekly, (New York) November 7, 1874
Milwaukee City Hall Photo credit: Jim Bauer / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Old German Beerhall Photo Credit: http://onmilwaukee.com/bars/articles/oldworld3rdstbars.html
Old Third Street Photo credit: puroticorico / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Mader’s Photo credit: kke227 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Usinger’s Photo credit: .michael.newman. / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Usinger’s Brats Photo Credit: http://www.worldsbestbrats.com/Section/Brat_Vendors/index.html
Estabrook Biergarten Photo Credit: Milwaukee Parks Department https://www.flickr.com/photos/milwaukeecountyparks/7420760170/