From War to Wurst: German American Culture in St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri, is a city steeped in immigrant history; in particular, a rich and involved German American culture has been woven into the fabric of the city since its early years. But in recent decades, its influence has faded from view. Cover graphic by Calvin Cheong for Midstory.

It’s a sunny day. The sky is a pale, cloudless blue. The warmth of a newborn autumn hangs in the air. The sounds of polka — percussion, accordion … tuba? — hang with it. And just under that, a hubbub signifying that festivities are underway. Men in Bavarian hats and t-shirts brandish prodigious Biersteine filled to the brim. Families sit at benches and long tables, chatting, enjoying Wurst and Wiener Schnitzel and potato pancakes. A couple walks onto the scene, hand-in-hand; she’s wearing a traditional Dirndl, he’s sporting Lederhosen and suspenders.

All in all, it’s a fine day to celebrate Oktoberfest in the Plaza at Soulard Market Park, St. Louis, Missouri — a nod to the deep influence of German immigrant heritage in the city.

“They were one of the key groups that grew St. Louis from being a small town to a major city,” Nathan Jackson, founder of the St. Louis History and Architecture tour company, said. “And it happened very quickly.”

According to Jackson, in 1830, there were about 5,000 individuals living in St. Louis, and basically none of them were German. In 1840, there were 16,000. But from 1840 to 1850, that number jumped to 77,000, an estimated half of which were of German descent. That increase coincided with the failed revolutions in the German states that happened in 1848, which prompted a wave of immigrants in the form of the political refugees, also known as the Forty-Eighters, Jackson said..

The socio-economic issues that wracked the German states and duchies during the early 1800s, such as poverty and crime, as well as the inadequacies of their governments prompted emigration writer Gottfried Duden to write about the western frontier of the United States and increased the overall popularity of his account and others like it. Duden wrote about the Missouri River Valley in his 1829 publication, “Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America,” calling the Missouri River Valley “America’s Rhineland.” 

Rapid industrialization was pushing Germans out of the German Confederation, while the opportunities promised by the New World — embellished by writers like Duden — pulled them toward it. Much of German immigration into Missouri in those earlier years was facilitated by the Gießen Emigration Society (Gießener Auswanderungsgesellschaft) in Germany (of which Duden was a forerunner).

Upon arrival, German immigrants established towns and neighborhoods, and within them, they built churches, houses, breweries and Turnvereins” — gymnastics clubs where members also promoted German culture.

“Certain cities may have what you’d call a German town,” Jackson said. “But really, there’s no such thing as ‘a’ German town here. There’s like 20 of them. That might not be the exact number, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that there are 20 independent neighborhoods that [in the 19th and 20th centuries] were predominantly German and had German culture as the driving factor behind them. That might even be a lowball estimate.”

Neighborhoods throughout the city had German-immigrant-heavy communities, such as Soulard, Benton Park, Benton Park West, Marine Villa, Dutchtown, Compton Heights and Gravois Park on the south side, and Baden, Old North St. Louis, Carr Square and Bremen (now known as Hyde Park) on the north side. The names of some neighborhoods hint at their German heritage: Baden and Bremen are both names of towns in Germany. Dutchtown’s name traces its roots back to a mispronunciation of the word “Deutsch,” which is the German word for “German.”

“German culture at St. Louis is spread throughout the whole area,” Jackson said. “Even if it’s not completely obvious, I would say that German heritage is just kind of melded into St. Louis society today in various ways.”

For instance, you can find houses in the older neighborhoods, like Soulard, Hyde Park and Carondelet, that were built with the arrival of a wave of German immigrants in the mid-1800s. These immigrants employed distinctive construction techniques that belied their cultural history. For example, the “Fachwerk” styled — or half-timbered — houses likely emerged as an effort to address the wood shortage in Bavaria; the innovation has since given rise to a unique aesthetic produced by exposed timber frames. Another technique that the Germans used, coursed limestone, illustrates the skill with which their stonemasons worked the lesser-quality stone that they sourced from St. Louis quarries.

“The history of the buildings and the built environment go hand in hand. They inform each other and give a much more in-depth history than either one view on its own,” Jackson said.

But the recognition of and appreciation for German American history in St. Louis has been declining, and German establishments have been closing down in recent years. Faded signs haunt abandoned bakeries and restaurants. Buildings such as The Feasting Fox tavern have been sold, and their contents auctioned off. After 25 years of serving German dishes, and even longer as a restaurant under different ownership since its construction pre-World War I, The Feasting Fox closed its doors in 2020, a result likely catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and [the owners] retired,” Jackson said. “That was another German restaurant; you still see some of the German influence in the architecture. The Feasting Fox, and Bevo Mill, and the Gretchen Inn, these were designed by Klipstein & Rathman, who were architects for Anheuser-Busch, and [the buildings] were made to look like very German-themed buildings.”

It’s true. The exterior of the Feasting Fox has that characteristic, beautiful Fachwerk aesthetic, with dark wooden beams framing the top half of the structure and cream-colored walls filling the spaces between the timbers.

The Feasting Fox Restaurant and Pub in St. Louis. By Calvin Cheong for Midstory.

But if COVID was only the final straw, then why were The Feasting Fox and other icons of German American heritage, culture and history struggling to stay alive in the first place?

One answer could lie more than a hundred years in the past — in the nationwide anti-German sentiment that followed the beginning of America’s direct involvement in World War I. The Trading-with-the-Enemy Act and the Espionage Act of 1917 heavily censored German presence in media and publications, causing many German-language newspapers to shut down. Some German Americans were subjected to confiscation of property, fines and imprisonment for defying this legislation.

“They actually took German language out of the public schools and changed a couple of street names,” Jackson said. “Pershing Avenue used to be called Berlin, and Enright Avenue used to be called Von Verson; they renamed them after World War I veterans.”

These Acts, in addition to local enforcement on the state and county level, compelled German American communities toward aggressive patriotism, for fear of appearing disloyal to America. The result was a suppression of German culture and a decline in German political influence — a grim contrast to a time when outspoken ideas of freedom, nationalism and abolitionism in German American newspapers helped keep Missouri in the Union during the Civil War.

But according to Jackson, another, possibly more serious reason for the loss of German heritage in St. Louis could lie closer to our time.

“In recent years especially, the main culprit has largely been assimilation and white flight to the suburbs,” Jackson said. “As late as the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was a bit stronger in South St. Louis — the German culture — than it is now. As [German Americans] left their immigrant communities that they’ve built over the decades, they went out to the suburbs, and all the businesses out there are very generic, corporate-type… all your big box stores. It really doesn’t allow for cultural things to keep their roots.”

White flight from St. Louis city proper has history going as far back as the 1940s, but the effect only exacerbated going into the late 20th century and even as recently as 2010.

“The government subsidized loans for white people — and mostly white people only — to build new homes out in the suburbs,” Jackson said. “They created an entire system to basically decentralize people from the city center and move them out to the suburbs. Generally, a lot of these things were only accessible to white people who had access to better jobs, bank loans and things like that. There was a redlining, where the bank would only loan to white people in certain areas, and they had zoning.”

In addition to formal, public policies, some strategies in the early-to-mid-1900s for exclusion and segregation were private in nature, such as restrictive covenants adopted by homeowners and realtors; these strategies devalued most neighborhoods in the city center while promoting largely white — including German American — suburban settlement.

“As all these people left, they disinvested from those communities,” Jackson said. “They kept moving [north] to St. Charles. Around the same time, they also started moving into South St. Louis, into some of these south side Germans communities. They ended up starting to move out to South St. Louis County, into places like Affton. It was a progression, a domino effect: people just kept moving to get away from the issues that came as a result of some of these policies.”

At the same time, urban renewal in St. Louis, which goes hand-in-hand with white flight, was heavily supported by a number of both state and federal laws, from the Urban Redevelopment Act in 1943 to Missouri’s Real Property Tax Increment Allocation Redevelopment Act, passed in 1982.

“Sometimes [developers] listed neighborhoods as obsolete or slums — just clear cut. A lot of these were really close-knit urban neighborhoods, a lot of historic buildings,” Jackson said. “A lot of urban planners, many of them not even originally from St. Louis, kind of wrote them all off and had their own ideas — they wanted to have a clean, sterile city and have a new slate to work from.”

As fundamentally steeped as St. Louis is in German immigrant culture and history, recognition and awareness of it seems to be fading into memory, assimilating into general American culture. Taking all of these factors into consideration, how can St. Louisans hope to hold on to their city’s German American heritage?

One legacy of German American culture that does stand strong today is food and cuisine, even if the specifics of its history aren’t widely known. Hot dogs remain a nationwide staple, as does lager beer. In St. Louis, where the brewing giant Anheuser-Busch was founded — by German immigrants — and remains headquartered, beer and brewing culture is especially intertwined with the city’s identity. 

“A lot of the microbreweries have connections to Germany — obviously, just beer and brewing history — and St. Louis feeds into that. The food, the drink and that sort of culture are kept alive in large part through some of these breweries, beer halls and whatnot,” Jackson said.

Other bastions of German American culture are cities and towns in Missouri that remained rural until after World War II, perhaps retaining their identity through relative isolation, including Westphalia, Swiss and Vienna. One of these, Hermann, celebrates German festivals like Maifest and Oktoberfest as well as an annual Wurstfest and actively preserves its German heritage at its Deutschheim State Historic Site. 

Hermann is itself a unique case, having been founded as a colony by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia; it was intended to be distinct from, even a rival to, St. Louis. And although this goal may have been overly ambitious, through the years, Hermann has stayed true to a more fundamental principle, as was written by William G. Bek in 1907: “to unite the advantages of America and the pleasures of Germany in the colony.”

The active celebration of German heritage is what brings the history to the attention of people both within and outside of German American communities, and it sets the stage for further and even more in-depth learning and appreciation of a culture that underpins so much of St. Louis — and Missouri as a whole.

Oktoberfest at Soulard Plaza in St. Louis. By Calvin Cheong for Midstory.

It’s a sunny day. The sky is a pale, cloudless blue, and beneath it, people are gathered in revelry. Every bite of food, every musical phrase, every bubble of beer is invested with the spirit of German American culture, but none so heavily as the merrymakers themselves. Many could likely claim German immigrant ancestry, yes. More importantly, though, in their appreciation and indulgence of the tradition today, they are perpetuating and preserving it. They are both upholders of and a testament to the longevity of German American culture throughout nearly 200 years of history and challenges.

“In general, take what we still have left of it, and embrace it,” Jackson said. “The remains of what the Germans built here in St. Louis are everywhere. It’s all over; it would be very, very, very easy to keep that alive.”

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