BACK TO WATERTOWN BOOK
Last week we wrote about some mentions of Watertown that appeared in a book titled "Old World Wisconsin," written by Fred L. Holmes. The book, published back in 1944, offered some interesting insights into the heritage of various ethnic groups that settled in Wisconsin and more interestingly the Dodge and Jefferson county area.
The book talked extensively about the old tradition of noodling geese in Watertown and how the livers from those geese was a prized food for the wealthy and those of German heritage.
But, that wasn't the only local mention in that book. Another topic was how the German language continued to be spoken here in this area long after it disappeared in most areas of the state.
The book said, "Near the turn of the century (1900), with the discontinuance of language papers and the decline in the preaching of sermons in German, many of the cities began to lose their Old World flavor. The change is less noticeable in rural communities."
We remember years ago that our church, St. Luke's Lutheran, had a German hymnal which was used for services, I believe once a month. It later went down to a couple special services a year and then the practice ended. St. Mark's Lutheran Church continues that practice for a special service or two a year.
Many people spoke fluent German back 60-80 years ago but today the number of people who can speak and understand that language is much smaller.
Back to the 1944 book. It said that despite all the changes that pushed the German language aside, "Watertown remains gloriously obstinate," according to Frank C. Blied, Madison, president of the National Turnverein.
"It refuses to yield to every whim and fashion. So long as Northwestern College (now the campus of Luther Preparatory School) continues to teach the beauty of the German language and the citizens there and around about have respect for the ideal of the pioneers, so long as housewives feed their families good wholesome German cooking; and the name of Carl Schurz, who lived there, it is revered as a Great German-American, Watertown will be distinctive."
The chapter continues, "'Sprechen sie Deutsch?' was asked of the newcomer to the card table at Otto's Inn (now Rock River Pizza Company). What a wreath of smiles went around when 'Ja' came as the answer."
The author said the German housewife has contributed more variety to the Wisconsin meal than has any other nationality.
He then said he talked with the head cook at Otto's Inn and was informed of the favorite German foods they made and sold at the restaurant. They included sauerkraut, coleslaw, dill pickles, potato salad, sour meats, hasenpfeffer, hamburg steak, goulash, noodles, pickled green beans, celeriac, chives, cheesecake, poppyseed rolls, pretzels, coffee cake, caraway rye and pumpernickel bread.
Those names and their tastes brought back memories of German cooking in general and particular for the cooks of Otto's Inn a generation or two ago. The cooks, it seems to us, were the daughters of the owner of the restaurant.
A Watertown baker, R. A. Radtke, was quoted as telling the author, "You should see my windows before Christmas. I had cookies and cakes of all sizes, colors, tastes and designs. My, it was beautiful! And, everybody wants a loaf of good old-fashioned dark rye bread."
The author also said he visits Watertown each year during the holidays and purchases German Christmas candies. He said Herman Kramp, a baker and candy maker, made a big business of selling marzipan which was cookies made in the design of common fruits of the day.
The book went on about its proud Old World Culture, pointing to Carl Schurz who came to Watertown in 1855 and of course his wife, Margarethe Meyer Schurz, who established the first kindergarten in America right here in the parking lot at the corner of Second and Jones streets. He also talked about the Turner Gymnastic Association which still operates today, and the monthly Watertown Pig Fair, now known as Fair Day and which continues to this day. He said the Pig Fair would often bring 500 cars and 3,000 people or more to a single day. Sales were estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 before the fair closed for the day.
The book covered the ethnic diversity throughout Wisconsin but Watertown and the area got more than its share of mentions and publicity.
Watertown still has a strong German heritage but it has changed dramatically since those decades of the 1940s and earlier. Back then the Germans were the core of everything in the community.
We thought our readers, many of which are of German descent, would remember those days when the German language and customs prevailed in Watertown.
Thomas L. Schultz