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Debbie Hamburg, of Wisconsin Dells, left, Dave Eulberg, of Portage, wait to talk with UW Professor Mark Louden who spoke at the Kilbourn Public Library Oct 10 on Germans in Wisconsin. Louden answered questions from audience members after his talk.

Kay James/Contributed

Germans began settling in Wisconsin in 1839 and eventually gave the state’s its beer and brats identity, according to Mark Louden, a UW-Madison professor of German.

Louden, also co-directs the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies and is affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies and the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture. Besides German and English, he also speaks Pennsylvania Dutch (the language of the Amish) and Yiddish. He gave a talk on Germans in Wisconsin Oct. 10 sponsored by the Dells Country Historical Society and the Kilbourn Public Library.

Germans began their settlements close to what is now Germantown and spread out to the rest of the state, but they would not have called themselves Germans. They would have said they were Hessians, Pomeranians, Bavarians or Prussians to name of the few divisions. Louden said that was because the borders shifted until World War II.

Most of these sub-groups would not have spoken the same dialect, he said. Each had their own dialect, unique to each region.

Many of the Germans came to Wisconsin by water. They came to New York, then up the Hudson River, and to the Great Lakes by way of the Erie Canal. On a map of German settlements, Louden showed how they spread from the East Coast west around the Great Lakes. They became the most common ethnic group in the United States. Few went to the South. Some did settle in Texas, arriving there after reaching New Orleans.

In 1848, a revolution in what is now Germany failed and the Progressives moved to the United States. Two of those immigrants were Carl Schurz, who had participated in the failed revolution, and his wife, Margaretha Meyer Schurz who arrived in Watertown, in 1855. He became a Republican and campaigned for Lincoln, who named him an envoy to Spain. After the Civil War started he returned and became a Union general. After the war, he became a journalist and in 1869, he was elected a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. Under President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1871, he became secretary of the interior and was known for his efforts reform the civil service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Margaretha Schurz is also famous as the founder of the first kindergarten in the United States in Watertown.

The Germans changed education first in Wisconsin, Louden said. In the Milwaukee Public Schools, they added physical education, science and technical schools, he said. The progressives who started arriving after the failed revolution in Germany also brought changes in the political system such that in Milwaukee with its large German population elected socialist politicians. The last was Frank Zeidler, who was first elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1948 and stepped down in 1960.

While some of the Germans who came to Wisconsin were political, the vast majority came for economic reasons, Louden said. They wanted to own their own land. In Germany they were like sharecroppers, he said. It was a feudal system where they lived in a village and worked the land outside the village.

When the Germans came here, they put down roots, he said. They wanted to build stone houses and barns, some of which still exist.

They also brought beer and bread, he said, but the English brought the cheese to Wisconsin. Germans and Native Americans were quite friendly, he said, and the Native Americans picked up bread making from them.

Beer was so much a part of the German culture in Wisconsin that they felt it was all right to have a beer after church on Sunday, Louden said. Germans did not see beer and wine as bad. The Yankees, on the other hand, won for a while and established prohibition. Louden said since alcohol figured prominently in ethnic groups they banded together to fight against prohibition.

They did continue to use their language after they arrived in Wisconsin. German was used in churches and schools. Many Lutheran churches did not stop using German until they could no longer find a pastor who spoke it, Louden said. The pastors lacked training in German in the seminaries.

In 1889, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the Bennett Law which required that English be taught in schools. Louden said that resulted in the Republicans being voted out and the Democrats being voted in. The law was then repealed. The Germans continue to use their language in their schools, especially in parochial ones. While World War I brought harassment of Germans with the language being dropped from many churches and schools, German persisted in some places. In Hustiford, German language was still spoken among the fifth generation in Wisconsin, Louden said.

In World War II, even though the U.S. went to war again with Germany, there were almost no German or Nazi sympathizers in Wisconsin, Louden said, and none in Milwaukee.