German-speaking immigrants brought with them a diverse set of traditions, which over time became part of the fabric of Wisconsin’s local culture.
Germans were known for their Vereinskultur, their love for socializing in clubs. They founded Musikvereine (music clubs), Frauenvereine (women’s clubs), Wohltätigkeitsvereine (charitable organizations), Logen (lodges), Schützenvereine (marksmen’s clubs), Faschingsvereine (Mardi Gras organizations), and numerous athletic clubs.
Turners or Turnvereine (gymnastic unions) could be found in every larger German community. Under the motto “a sound mind in a sound body,” they also served as social and intellectual meeting places. Milwaukee’s Turner Hall, for example, includes a ballroom and still hosts performances, lectures, and community meetings. The oldest Swiss-German Turner Hall in America, in Monroe, Green County, is a Swiss heritage center today.
Towards the end of the 19th century, German regional societies emerged, addressing a perceived need to preserve and pass on regional cultures and languages. One such club was the Plattdeutscher Verein (Low German Club) of Watertown, founded in 1882 with a twofold mission: “fraternalism and the perpetuation of the German language, especially the Plattdeutscher tongue.” After World War II, a new wave of German-speaking immigrants arrived, many of them refugees from areas that had become part of the Soviet sphere. They founded Vereine such as the United Donauschwaben.
German food traditions were integrated with American ones. By the 20th century, sourdough rye bread and apple strudel were as common on a German-American table as pumpkin pie and corn chowder. Germans also loved their beer, especially the lighter lagers.
Already in the 1870s, almost every Wisconsin German community had a small brewery, with farmers across the state providing the necessary grain and hops. In Milwaukee, Germans founded brewing dynasties such as Blatz, Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller. The Germans’ love of (Sunday) outings to Biergärten, amusement parks, and the local tavern, however, provoked the ire of some of their Yankee neighbors. Nevertheless, despite a powerful temperance movement, Wisconsin had no anti-alcohol laws until national prohibition was enacted in 1919.
Today, Wisconsin German clubs celebrate a unique hybrid of Midwestern and German elements, though few of their members speak German. “Typical German” restaurants serve dishes like sauerbraten, spätzle, and strudel, almost all originating in southern Germany, the home of the first wave of German immigrants. At the same time, German foods have morphed into “typical American” dishes such as hamburgers, “brats” with sauerkraut, and pretzels, while German-themed festivals such as Oktoberfests have become cultural fixtures across the region.