German Iowa in the Global Midwest: Traveling Exhibit
The story of German immigration to Iowa is closely tied to the formative years of state history. In 1832, when the Sauk, Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk were first forced to cede land west of the Mississippi, the few European Americans in the future state’s boundaries were French. But by 1850, four year’s after Iowa’s statehood, 7,101 immigrant Germans resided in the state, more than any other immigrant group. By 1890, at the peak of immigration, nearly 7% of all Iowans had been born in Germany, and the number of German Iowans continued to grow with successive generations. As recently as 1990, half of Iowans claimed German ancestry.
The journey from Europe to Iowa was arduous, particularly before railroad lines reached the state. Transatlantic shipping lines employed agents in Europe to sell package fares from emigrants’ home towns via ports such as Hamburg, Bremen, or Le Havre (France). Relatives or community members might pool resources to pay passage for one of their own. Some left without a clear final destination: after reaching Illinois in 1851, the travel party of Wilhelm Fischer chose Davenport only after advance scouts reported back from exploratory trips to Iowa and Wisconsin. Other settlers, such as Jacob Nauman, grandfather of Iowa historian Margaret Nauman Keyes, first tried their luck in other states before pushing on across the Mississippi. Family members who had already made the journey often sent money back home to allow siblings or parents to join them. This process of chain migration explains why many Iowans still have strong connections to specific regions in present-day Germany, such as Schleswig-Holstein and East Frisia (Ostfriesland).
The state of Iowa soon established a state Board of Immigration, which maintained agents in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London to attract skilled laborers and farmers. The state’s efforts to foster immigration are most visible in Iowa, the Home for Immigrants. Published in 1870 in five languages, this handbook drew immigrants from Ireland, England, Holland, and Scandinavia as well as German regions.
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Iowa’s German-American community was quite diverse. Most Germans identified according to their region of birth, such as Prussia, Schleswig-Holstein, Swabia, Austria, or German-speaking areas of Switzerland. Regional allegiances and rivalries abounded, even in the U.S. In Burlington, Swabian men formed their own choir, and one of Davenport’s most exclusive clubs was for Schleswig-Holstein veterans who had revolted against Danish rule in 1848-50.
Germans were also religiously diverse, often establishing the first houses of worship for their respective faiths in their communities. In 1877, German Jews founded the state’s first synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel in Keokuk, followed by Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines in 1883. The creation of the diocese of Dubuque in 1837 drew Catholics from Germany and Luxemburg to northeast Iowa, but testaments to German-Catholic piety dot the state, such as West Bend’s Grotto of the Redemption. Lutherans and other Protestant denominations similarly thrived, with German Mennonites and Pietists founding the state’s Amish and Amana communities, respectively. Despite their common language, these denominations generally maintained separate social networks. At the same time, linguistic barriers led German and Swedish Lutherans or Irish and German Catholics to worship on their own.
Many first-generation immigrants never fully mastered English. These German Iowans relied on the state’s 60+ German newspapers. Dubuque’s “Catholic West” (Katholischer Westen), which reached readers across the Midwest, was the state’s most widely read German paper. The “East Frisian News” (Ostfriesische Nachrichten), likewise with a national readership, was the state’s longest running German publication, appearing out of Breda and Wall Lake from 1884 to 1973. Many papers were directly affiliated with a particular political party: During Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, the Republican editor of Des Moines’s German-language Iowa Post traded jibes with his rivals at the Davenport Demokrat and the Dubuque National-Demokrat.
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By some estimates, over one-half of German settlers to the state became farmers. Merchants, tradesmen, and military officers abandoned their earlier professions to take up the plow. Early immigrants reported that Iowa’s prairie soil was wondrously fertile and much cheaper to clear than Wisconsin’s forests.
Germans also brought skills in a variety of trades. Masons and carpenters helped to create main streets, homes, and barns throughout the state. Bakers, shoemakers, and tailors kept Iowans fed and clothed. Meanwhile, German bankers and pharmacists cared for Iowans’ finances and health. There were few German lawyers and physicians, however: most immigrants shied away from professions that required a high proficiency in English.
On occasion, Germans made significant contributions to Iowa’s leading industries. Engineers John Froelich and Louis Witry created the world’s first gasoline-powered tractor, the Waterloo Boy, later bought by John Deere. Firms such as Witmer & Witmer Insurance (Des Moines) or Rath Meatpacking (Waterloo) figured prominently in the history of insurance and meatpacking in the state. Leopold and Abraham Sheuerman, immigrants from Binau near Heidelberg, established woolen mills in Marengo and Des Moines, eventually becoming the state’s largest clothing manufacturers. These industries employed other immigrants in turn, not just from Germany.
Most businesses were family-owned and -operated. Wives often tended shop rooms and kept accounts, while children helped where they could. Prior to industrialization, unmarried women often served as domestic servants or worked in textile manufacturing. Later, many were employed as shop workers or as unskilled labor in factories that placed a premium on manual dexterity, such as Muscatine’s pearl button industry, founded by Hamburg native John Boepple, or Davenport’s cigar rolling shops.
German Iowans joined other workers in demanding a safe working environment and basic social provisions from their employers. Factory workers and meatpackers from Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany were at the forefront of unionization efforts throughout the state. Like their counterparts in Milwaukee and elsewhere, laborers in towns like Muscatine supported union activists and voted socialist, much to the chagrin of German-Iowan factory owners such as John Boepple.
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German immigrants placed a premium on education. Many religious congregations supported parochial schools, but public schools also provided German-language instruction in multiple subjects. To correspond with relatives across the Atlantic, children had to master not only German grammar, but also German penmanship, which differed substantially from English.
Immigrants further fostered community through social institutions. Many towns could boast a Turnverein (gymnastics society). The Turners embraced the motto of “a sound mind in a sound body” and promoted a regular physical regimen among members, which in later years included women alongside men. Their large halls often doubled as community centers for concerts, lectures, and political organizing. Marksmanship clubs (Schützenvereine) were also popular. Davenport’s Schützenpark, complete with zoo, roller coaster, and beer garden, was the German community’s favorite venue for Sunday recreations.
Music played a major role in German-American culture. Amateur choral societies (Sängervereine) flourished throughout the state. At the turn of the twentieth century, Dubuque, Davenport, and Burlington took turns hosting the bi-annual Singing Festival of the Northwestern Singers’ Union (Sängerbund), which spanned the Midwest. Professional singers trained in the classical German repertoire traveled to Iowa from Chicago, Milwaukee, or other urban centers. With time, German musical traditions merged with more American forms. In 1898, when Davenport hosted its Sängerbund festival, Carl Beiderbecke served as honorary president. Two generations later, this musical family produced famed jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.
Community halls provided a stage for amateur theater groups in Dubuque, Davenport, Templeton, and elsewhere. Their repertoire initially consisted of contemporary works by popular German and Austrian playwrights, but later included plays written for German-American audiences by East Coast immigrant authors. The vaudeville circuit also brought “Dutch” (Deutsch) performers such as Gus Williams, born Gustave Wilhelm Leweck, Jr., who performed skits and songs in a comedic German accent.
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The Years of Neutrality
The eruption of the Great War in August 1914 threw German Iowa into crisis. While the United States remained neutral until April 1917, German-American communities divided. Some supported Imperial Germany and condemned Great Britain, while others sided with Anglophiles such as President Woodrow Wilson. Yet as the war progressed, German Americans were often lumped together and characterized as “hyphenated citizens” with suspect loyalties. They also faced many opportunists in Iowa and the rest of the
country who used anti-German propaganda of the day to undermine their German-American competitors in business and politics.
This crisis was part of a global movement. Millions
of Germans had settled abroad during the nineteenth
century. The majority came to the United States. Yet
German communities could be found in Great Britain
and many of the British Commonwealth states. There
were also large numbers in Brazil and other Latin American countries. All of them felt the weight of the naval blockades, the cutting of undersea telegraph cables, and the blacklisting of German businesses. Violence against German residents and citizens as well as their property erupted in many of these locations.
News coverage of the war varied greatly across Iowa.
Some local papers wrote avidly about the war. Others
noted the outbreak of hostilities but remained focused
largely on local concerns. That was true for both German
and English language papers. Even major, controversial
events such as German submarine warfare and the
sinking of the Lusitania failed to produce a consensus. Yet political debate about war and neutrality continued, particularly in towns and cities, and it had a major impact on local elections. Most German Iowans supported politicians who favored neutrality. By the time of the 1916 presidential election, however, neutral positions were increasingly difficult to maintain.
Prior to World War I, German-speaking Iowans
were a very diverse group. They often identi!ed most closely with their class, profession, place of origin, religion, generation of arrival, and even rural versus urban setting. World War I turned them into a unitary group. As neutrality was hotly debated in the national sphere, Germans as a group were increasingly associated with the German military: the “Huns” ostensibly threatening European civilization and the world. That was true for German Iowans as well. Regardless of their personal associations, attitudes, patriotism, or their positions on the war, they found that being German in Iowa had taken on completely new meanings.
The War Years
Conditions worsened for German Iowans when the United States entered the war. Nationally, the newly formed Committee on Public Information produced endless anti-German propaganda, and the American Protective League supported spying on German Americans in every setting.
German Iowans suffered mightily under these conditions. Their neighbors listened to their phone calls, watched their mail, scrutinized their participation in liberty drives, and reported any “suspicious activities.” Iowans who failed to show proper support for the war were often denounced as “slackers,” and many found their homes and businesses painted yellow. Others were forced to contribute to liberty drives, and still others were publically assaulted and humiliated, often while state authorities turned a blind eye.
Conditions deteriorated further after Governor William L. Harding issued the Babel Proclamation on May 14, 1918. In it, he declared that only English was “legal in public or private schools, in public conversations, on trains, over the telephone, at all meetings, and in all religious services.” German Iowans were denounced for public and private conversations, for singing songs in German, even for worshiping in German. Other Iowans used this as an opportunity to undercut German cultural organizations. Preachers turned on neighboring congregations. Schools in Davenport, Spirit Lake, and other towns publicly burned German books.
In an effort to demonstrate their loyalty and defend themselves, many German-Iowan communities changed their names. Berlin, Iowa (Tama County) became Lincoln, Germania (Kossuth County) became Lakota; towns across the state eliminated German street names. German banks, other businesses, even fraternal organizations and leisure associations changed their names. So too did families fearing harassment.
Not everyone followed suit. The towns of Schleswig (Crawford County) and Holstein (Ida County), named after two North German territories, voted against changing their names. In response, local of!cials replaced the towns’ names with numbered stops on the wartime train schedule. German choral societies wrote to the Governor from Lee and Muscatine Counties asking if they might continue their meetings. Pastors wrote asking how they could preach to congregations !lled with people who had never learned English, although they were demonstrably loyal to the United States and had been building Iowa and paying taxes for decades. A number of clergymen asked sarcastically if Latin was still allowed.
Cities and larger towns saw the greatest transformations. Rural parts of the state often weathered the storm by relying on strong communities that resisted the denunciations, ostracism, and eager policing of German Iowans. The numbers of German-language newspapers, schools, and associations declined statewide, and German waned as a public language in many locations. Yet the language and customs persisted on farms and smaller towns across the state. There, new waves of German immigrants continued to encounter German cultures, language, and traditions well into the twentieth century.
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After the First World War, restrictive measures like the Babel Proclamation were lifted. Yet the German language had lost its place in public life. German-language newspapers had switched to English during the war, for example – and for most, the change was permanent.
But other changes also made German Americans seem less distinctive after the First World War. Ethnic clubs like the Turners (gymnasts) and singing societies had been popular before the war, but in the 1920s young people were often drawn to more modern forms of entertainment and socializing, like the movies. In the 19th century, Iowa City’s Englert family was best known for its brewery, but in the 20th century, the family name became associated with entertainment. The German and German American culture of physical fitness was updated, too, for example by branching into more American sports. And marriage to spouses of other ethnicities became more common, producing children who had a sense of mixed European heritage.
Political and economic turmoil in Germany led to a new wave of immigration after the war. German immigrants bene!tted from new laws that restricted immigration by Southern and Eastern Europeans as well as Asians, and thus privileged Northern Europeans. As the Ku Klux Klan established strongholds in Iowa and the Midwest, it targeted Catholics, Jews, and immigrants as well as African Americans. Nevertheless, people of German heritage – including new immigrants – blended into the “white” majority.
German Iowans were increasingly integrated into their local communities, but connections with relatives and friends in Germany remained important. In addition to communicating family matters like marriages and new babies, trans-Atlantic families offered economic assistance and closely followed political developments in both lands.
The Great Depression, starting in 1929, devastated economies in both Germany and the United States. Since their founding by German immigrants in the 1850s, for example, the utopian Amana colonies had remained largely self-suf!cient. In their isolation, they had even developed their own German dialect, which they still spoke after World War I. During the Great Depression, however, they were forced to abandon their communal organization and turn to the market economy – which meant increased contact with outsiders.
The Great Depression also brought profound political change to both countries. The New Deal enjoyed widespread support among German Americans. But many Americans – not only of German heritage-- admired Nazi Germany’s dynamic recovery from the Great Depression. Anti-Communists and antisemites blamed America’s lingering hardship on the supposed prominence of Jews and socialist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration. The pro-Nazi German American Bund recruited in German clubs in the Midwest, but with limited success. German Americans overwhelmingly supported mainstream political parties.
Nazi persecution caused hundreds of thousands of Jewish and leftist Germans and Austrians to seek refuge in locations around the world. Antisemitism and anti-immigration sentiment made it dif!cult for Jewish Germans to gain entry to the United States.
Nevertheless, Iowa pro!ted from Germany’s and Austria’s “brain drain.” Nazi-era refugees became professors at Iowa colleges and universities, joined medical facilities, and practiced many other professions.
The American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) had a long history of providing aid to refugees. In 1939 they repurposed the Scattergood school in West Branch (which had closed due to the Great Depression) as a refugee hostel. It became a temporary home for around 185 political and racial/religious refugees from Nazi Germany. Refugees faced suspicions that they might be part of a “Fifth Column” designed to undermine the United States from within.
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German Americans' experience in World War II differed dramatically from their experience in World War I. Suspicion of "Germans" in the United States mainly targeted those who held German rather than American citizenship. Rather than facing widespread suspicion, German Americans often found themselves in demand. German Americans could not only understand the enemy's language. They also had "insider" knowledge of Germany that could be useful for the war effort--and later to the reconstruction of West Germany in the Cold War environment.
The experience of German prisoners of war shows the enduring German traces in Iowa--as well as the ways a sense of kinship could override enemy status. German POWs assigned to civilian jobs often worked side by side with Iowans who knew some German and had ties to Germany. This sense of connection between enemies contrasted to the divide between white Americans and Asian or African Americans. U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage were interned en masse, especially on the West Coast, and African Americans might be denied service at a diner serving a German POW. Many lasting friendships developed between Iowans and German POWs, and some of the POWs later immigrated to the United States.
Germany faced hard times after the war, and Germans again immigrated to the United States in large numbers. By the 1960s, however, life in West Germany was good--and East Germans were trapped behind the Berlin Wall. Immigration reform in 1965 eased the way for non-Europeans to enter the United States. In the 1970s, for the first time since records were kept, Germans no longer constituted the largest immigrant group to Iowa. With many German Iowans moving from small towns to larger cities, their old neighborhoods often provided homes for other immigrants and their descendants; members of older communities such as Mexican Iowans, or new arrivals like Vietnamese refugees. Iowa's landscape today bears witness to its layered history of migration and multiculturalism.
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Nearly 200 refugees from Nazi Germany found a temporary home at the Scattergood Refugee Hostel in West Branch, Iowa. Read their story here.
A young refugee learns English pronunciation at Scattergood Refugee Hostel