German thread runs through fabric of city

Way Back When

Deutschland in Maryland: Germans sat on City Council, read newspapers in their own language and partied hard with oompah bands and beer.

August 21, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Today and tomorrow, the smell of cooking bratwurst and bubbling sauerkraut, cold beer and the happy sound of oompah music, will fill the air and grounds surrounding Mount Clare Mansion and Carroll Park, when the 99th annual German Festival gets under way at noon.

The festival celebrates the German presence in Maryland that dates to the early 18th century. Germans lived along the Chesapeake before the establishment of Baltimore Town in 1732. Four out of seven members of the original Town Council were German and the first official town clock was in the steeple of the German Reformed Church, which stood near today's City Hall.

A leading gateway during the 19th century for German immigration, Baltimore by the turn of the century boasted a German population of 34,000.

So pervasive was the German influence in Baltimore that through the 1920s, a third of the city's public schools included German as part of the regular curriculum and one in four Baltimoreans spoke fluent German.

City Council minutes were kept in both English and German and the city was home to three German-language newspapers, the last one, the Baltimore Correspondent, only ceasing publication in 1976.

Eighty-eight German-American clubs once flourished throughout the state helping immigrants adapt to life in America, as well as keeping the Old World traditions, culture, music and food alive as a comforting reminder of their former homes and lives.

It is perhaps a little known fact that for more than 20 years, the historic Mount Clare Mansion -- the only surviving colonial plantation within Baltimore's city limits, built by Charles Carroll the Barrister in 1762 -- was known as the Western Schuetzen Park.

"It was after the Civil War that Mount Clare found itself shorn of the mantle of Colonial formality and converted into a beer garden," reported The Sun in 1932.

"At Western Schuetzen Park it was a familiar rendezvous for many of the Germans who had settled in Baltimore, who spoke their own language and followed as far as possible the customs of the Fatherland. Then Mount Clare began to echo with picnics and the grounds which had known only the simple and leisurely pastimes of a formal era became bowling alleys, shooting galleries and lunch grounds," noted the newspaper.

During the 1870s and '80s, Schuetzen parks were an important part of the recreational life of the city. The Schuetzen Society also maintained parks on North Avenue and Gay Street and another on Belair Road, but Mount Clare remained the most popular.

Run as a private club to avoid the high license fees placed on public drinking establishments, membership cards -- obtained for a quarter -- entitled the holder to a day of fun and amusements.

"These amusements consisted of shooting, of bowling, of dancing in the evenings and, on special occasions, notably July Fourth, there were elaborate displays of fireworks, parades and military demonstrations. Civil War veterans were honored, politicians made speeches, old cannon were fired, and, in many a toast to their adopted land, the German-Americans celebrated Independence Day," reported the newspaper.

While Schuetzen parks were fashioned after German beer gardens, they were also "family recreations centers," said The Sun.

"Father, mother and all the kinder were wont to take a day's outing and enjoy the park together. The grounds made an admirable picnic spot, there was plenty of beer, with an occasional sip for the youngsters, the sort of thing to rejoice the heart of the home-loving German," said the newspaper.

Recalling the pleasures of an all-day visit to a Schuetzen park, a happy reveler told The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1956, "These picnics lasted all day. Then, still singing and still tootling the instruments, the picnickers would pile into the omnibus and the surreys and rumble back to town along the country roads, the omnibus gaily lit with strings of Chinese paper lanterns.

"Then we were home, completely exhausted, the children either asleep or whining, the women scolding, the men either uproariously happy or strangely silent. You swore you would never go on another all-day German picnic again, but of course you did."

In 1890, the city purchased the Mount Clare Mansion and land around it for a city park. Designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1970, the mansion has been restored and is operated by the Maryland Chapter of the Colonial Dames of America.

Visitors to the festival can visit the site of the Schuetzen Society's former beer garden and shooting range and tour Mount Clare Mansion. Call: 410-522-4144.

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