Willkommen, y’all: The German influence on New Orleans culture
Germans were among the earliest settlers in southeast Louisiana, arriving in numbers soon after New Orleans’ founding. With the climate serving as a lure for German farmers, immigration to the area soon boomed and by the mid-19th century, members of the local German community had become important contributors to the regional economy. In 1847, the local German community formed Die Deutsche Gesellschaft (The German Society), not only to support themselves but also to help immigrants, meeting their ships and shepherding the new arrivals through Customs. The organization provided work, shelter, child care, medical help and money, and it helped arrange transportation for immigrants moving inland. Other groups followed, including Deutscher Verein im 2. Distrikt (2nd District German Club) and the Germania Lodge 46 of the Free Masons.
Once the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-German hysteria swept the nation, and membership in these groups shriveled. In 1927, locals of German heritage united to form Deutsches Haus, which is still in operation today — and which notably hosts its annual Oktoberfest celebration, which in 2017 is scheduled to be celebrated over three weekends in October.
- Many of the early German arrivals settled along what became known as the German Coast — the area that became St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes — and acquired a reputation for working hard and getting along with the French settlers, so much so that they learned the language and often married them.
- Germans contributed substantially to New Orleans’ economy in the 19th century by operating businesses selling soap, beer, groceries, clothes, shoes and makeup, according to files at the Historic New Orleans Collection. J.N.W. Otto Druggist & Apothecary even imported ingredients for German homeopathic remedies.
- During the Civil War, Louisiana Germans placed 11 military companies in the field, Don Heinrich Tolzmann of the University of Cincinnati wrote in the preface to Ellen Merrill’s “Germans of Louisiana.”
- By 1870, Tolzmann wrote, one-fifth of Louisiana’s population was German-speaking, and the state boasted more than 50 German-language newspapers and journals.
- In the early years of World War I, when the United States was officially neutral, organizations held benefits in New Orleans for both sides. In April 1915, the German Society held a two-night bazaar at the Athenaeum, at St. Charles Avenue and Clio streets, to raise money for the German Red Cross, according to Daniel Hammer of the Historic New Orleans Collection. It offered a beer garden, live German music, a bake sale and raffle, and it raised about $7,000 (the equivalent of about $165,650 today).
- Mayor Martin Behrman contributed $6.25 (the equivalent of nearly $150 today) to that fundraising effort, according to a letter he wrote on city stationery that is on file at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
- Other groups formed to help New Orleans’ German community include The Deutsche Männer Unterstützungsverein (The German Men’s Benevolent Organization), Das Deutsche Protestantische Waisenhaus (The German Protestant Orphanage), Das Deutsche Protestantische Heim für Alte und Gebrechliche (The German Protestant Home for the Aged and Infirm), Das Bethanie Heim (The Bethany Home), as well as many churches, according to the Historic New Orleans Collection.
- In 1927, two of the city’s larger German clubs, the Turn-Verein (Turner’s Society, an athletic organization) and the Harugari Männerchor (a singing society), merged to form Deutsches Haus. Eventually, Hammer said, all the German groups merged under the Deutsches Haus name.
With its determination to do well and help others, the German community made its mark on New Orleans with such businesses as Kolb’s Restaurant, which has closed; the Canal Street home of Werlein’s for Music, which houses the Palace Café; and the Grunewald Hotel, which has been renamed the Roosevelt. These days, the principal local repository of German culture is Deutsches Haus, which had operated out of a former telephone-company building on South Galvez Street until the state expropriated the property and demolished the building to make way for the University Medical Center-Veterans Affairs hospital complex. The organization now operates out of an American Legion building in Metairie while its new headquarters, with a beer garden, rises at 1700 Moss St. overlooking Bayou St. John.