German Immigrants and Hermann, MO

     “Great waves of German immigrants came to America between 1815 and 1860.”[1]  In 1824, Gottfried Duden purchased a farm in present day Warren County.  While he lived on the farm, he wrote Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America.  Duden extolled the virtues of the Missouri River Valley and envisioned a New Germany springing up along its banks.  Duden believed that most European problems, particularly in Germany, were caused by overpopulation.[2]  The book helped cause emigration fever in Germany.  Many of these émigré ended up in Missouri.  Over half of the foreign-born residents of Missouri were German by 1860.[3]

     The German immigrant experience in Missouri normally consisted of a period of disappointment, when Duden’s promised paradise turns out to be a myth.  The initial disappointment gives way to a period of acceptance and the establishment of a German community.  Finally, around World War I, the twin pressures of war with Germany and prohibition end the distinct German identity of these settlements.  We see this cycle clearly evidenced in the settlement and growth of Hermann, MO.


Steamer August Wohlt at Hermann, Missouri in 1917

     The German Settlement Society of Philadelphia was founded on August 27, 1836 for the purpose of establishing a settlement in what was the Far West United States.  Recent immigrants created the society because they wanted to shield their children from the New World ways of Philadelphia.  Although Philadelphia did have German newspapers, these new immigrants wanted to preserve their language, school system and to create a society that would represent their liberal ideas.[4] (Many of these immigrants were fleeing political persecution, which would lead to the failed Revolution of 1848 in the German lands.)

     The society was looking for three things in the site that they were to settle.  The land had to be next to a river, flat and contain quality farmland.[5]  George F. Bayer, a schoolteacher was sent to Missouri to purchase a potential settlement site on the Gasconade River.  However, the site was no longer available, so he purchased a hilly site a little to the east on the Missouri River, which is the location of present day Hermann.[6]  The purchase of this site was the beginning of Bayer’s troubles.

     Many of the society members left Philadelphia for Hermann in September 1837 and arrived in the new settlement during December 1837.  They encountered the harsh Missouri winter, which they only survived with the assistance of some Missouri settlers in the area.  George Bayer had also set back out to Missouri in September 1837 but he became ill on the way and did not make it to Hermann until March 1838.  The German settlers had struggled through a winter on hilly land, which was not good for farming, and the purchaser’s spring arrival after the harsh winter only infuriated them further.  Bayer was eventually relieved of his duties.[7]

     Bayer suffered an ignominious fate.  After he was relieved of duty, he was accused of improper management of the settlement money and enriching himself at the expense of many residents.  When he died in 1839, he was buried facing the wrong way.[8]  The assessment of George by his contemporaries proved to be shortsighted.  First, George’s selected the site because it reminded him so much of the lands around the Rhine in Germany.  Many Hermann settlers would later say that the reason that they stuck it out in Hermann was because it did remind them so much of the Rhineland.[9]  Second, while the land was not conducive to cultivation of traditional crops, it was well suited for growing grapes.  The cultivation of grapes resulted in the lucrative Hermann wine business, which has not only allowed the town to thrive.  By 1848, Hermann wineries were producing ten thousand gallons of wine annually.[10]


Deutscheim State Historic Site – Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources

     Carl Strehly is an example of one of the early wine merchants.  Carl originally came to Hermann with his brother-in-law, Eduard Muehl.  Together, they published the Licht-Freund, the “Friend of Light”, a German newspaper.  Muehl originally published the newspaper in Cincinnati, Ohio, and it continued to advocate Muehl’s rationalist and liberal views.[11]

     Carl Strehly began to build a brick house on present-day West Second Street in 1840.  The original structure contained three rooms: a sitting room, bedroom and kitchen on the first floor, and an unfinished sleeping room on the second floor.  You could see through the slats on the second floor, which made the room very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer.[12]  The printing press for the Licht-Freund was located in the basement, which could be reached from the outside initially.  In 1847, Strehly sectioned off a front parlor space to meet with business associates.  The Strehlys did not use the room otherwise.

     Sometime between his arrival in 1847 and 1857, Carl Strehly began growing grapes in his backyard.  Due to his newspaper and other business ventures, Strehly was able to purchase some land for growing grapes on the edge of town.  When Muehl died in the cholera epidemic that hit Hermann in 1849, Strehly closed the paper and focused strictly on the winemaking business.


Drawing of former Hermann resident and murderer Richard Honeck in 1899

     Strehly was so successful at grape cultivation that he built a winery next door to the house in 1857.  He enclosed the space between the houses to protect his cistern and basements.  Strehly would harvest his grapes, make the wine and store them in the basement of his winery in large hand carved wine casks.  The basement is approximately twenty feet deep.  The depth of the basement, which is made of stone walls, kept the wine during the year.  Strehly connected hoses from the casks in the basement to his serving bar on the first floor.  Strehly then sold his wine at his winery much as local residents are served beer and other food at taverns.[13]

     Fortunately for Missouri residents, Strehly’s youngest daughter lived in the house until her death at 94 years of age in 1961.  She never married, so she never felt the need to modernize the house.  The house remains much the same as it did since it was completed in 1869 and is part of the Deutscheim State Historic Site on West Second Street in Hermann, MO.

     Due to the relative affluence that many Hermann residents were able to achieve and the fact that many settlers had brought more books than tools to Hermann, the residents soon turned to the establishment of an education system.  “On March 10, 1849, the Missouri General Assembly granted a charter to Hermann, sanctioning the use of the German language in instruction in all branches of science and education and stipulating that the school was to be known as the ‘German School of Hermann’ and that it ‘forever remain a German school.’[14]  Forever would be until World War I.  However, until the First World War, German was taught in all grades and high school students read the classic works of German authors.

     Hermann residents, who were mostly educated and liberal, strongly opposed slavery and wrote many editorials against it both before and after the war.  Friedrich Munch, a liberal German from Far West, Missouri, succinctly stated the feelings of his fellow German liberal in an article in the St. Charles Democrat published on April 23, 1862.

     “If Germans had never come to Missouri, then slavery would be all that much more dominant, and the state would now be in that same dreadful condition into which all the slave states are rapidly sinking.  If we reconcile ourselves to the notion of free labor existing alongside slave labor and continuing so into the future, then we will be guilty of holding our state back from the progress of free states, and we shall never win full freedom for ourselves or our descendants.”[15]

     Hermann residents strongly supported the Union.  Southern sympathizers targeted Herman residents such as newspaper editor Jacob Graf.  He was arrested and taken to Jefferson City, Missouri in 1863.  He was strongly warned to limit his abolitionist views and his criticism of the military.[16]

     For the most part, Hermann was spared from wartime activity.  Hermann saw its only battle action in 1864, when General Sterling Price approached the town during his march along the Old State Road.  The older members of the town sent the women and children out-of-town.  They fired one shot from a cannon on one hill and then drug the cannon to another hill and fired a shot.  General Price thinking that he had engaged Union troops halted his movement and sent out a scout party, who found one abandoned cannon.  They threw the cannon into the Missouri River.  The old soldiers had rejoined the women and children and all escaped successfully.  When the Hermann residents returned they retrieved the cannon from the river and it now sits on the courthouse lawn.[17]

      After the Civil War, Hermann residents prospered.  The Stone Hill Winery became the third largest producer of wine in the world and the second largest wine maker in the United States.  “By 1904, Missouri shipped a twelfth of the wine placed on the marked by all the states, 3,068,780 gallons.  Of this, the various wineries of Gasconade County furnished over 90 percent, or 2,971,576 gallons.”[18]  Hermann had one of the few Missouri Turnverein clubs outside St. Louis.  The Turners were formed in Germany in 1811.  They were disciples of Friedrich Jahn, who promoted physical education and intellectual pursuits.  Jahn believed in a strong mind inside a strong body.

     Hermann did have a number of other cultural achievements.  The town boasted a German choir with brass instruments, a theatre, where plays were held, and an Erholung, German recreation society.[19]  Hermann residents tended to take part in these activities on Sundays, which caused some anger amongst other residents of the state.  Germans felt that the Sabbath was for recreation as well as religious worship.

     While the state government generally did not respond to these criticisms, in 1905 the governor did force Hermann merchants to close their stores on Sunday.[20]

     World War I and Prohibition caused great distress for Hermann residents much as they did to other Germans throughout the United States.  David W. Detjen points out in The Germans in Missouri, 1900-1918, Prohibition, Neutrality, and Assimilation, that most Germans had become Americanized to some degree.  He points out that Hermann became Americanized at only a slightly slower rate that Germans in St. Louis despite their isolation.[21]

     While Germans in Hermann probably were more similar to the Germans in St. Louis than the Germans along the Rhine, it cannot be denied that Hermann residents did try to retain aspects of their culture, particularly their language.  After the start of World War I, the German language was banned in all public schools including the German School in Hermann.  Eventually, Hermann’s schools would become part of the Gasconade County school system.  The German School is still standing and now houses a museum dedicated to historic Hermann.

     Prohibition proved much more devastating to the residents of Hermann.  Many German-Americans saw the battle against prohibition as a culture clash.  Almost without exception, all beer and wine makers were Germans, who had used these industries to establish themselves in North America.  Beer gardens were important social centers for Germans as well.[22]  However, the mood in the country favored the act and prohibition became law in 1919.  The effects on Hermann were devastating.

     Prior to prohibition passing, federal agents had contacted the wine makers in Hermann.  They warned the merchants that prohibition was going to pass and to stop grape cultivation.  The agents presumably would let them sell what they had already cultivated.  However, the Hermann wine makers continued to cultivate grapes.  When the prohibition agents came to Hermann, they were so infuriated that the wine makers had disregarded their advice; they destroyed all the grape fields and every wine cask that they could find.  Many wine makers committed suicide.[23]

     Stone Hill Winery only remained in business by growing mushrooms in its 20 wine cellars.  The winery produced 65 tons of mushrooms a year.[24]  Hermann residents were allowed to keep the grapes from their backyard gardens.  After prohibition was repealed, many grape growers were able to restart their businesses with these few grapes.  Carl Strehly’s house still has the grape plants he cultivated years ago.

     Today, Hermann is famous for its wineries and its tourism.  Every October they host Octoberfest, which brings tourists from all over the world.  Many downtown residents have “Private Residence” signs in their windows to let visitors know that they are neither a museum nor a bed and breakfast.  As one visitor, who has lived in Germany during his service years once said, “If you close your eyes for a minute, you would think you are back in the Old Country (Germany).”[25]

     However, I did not find anyone that spoke German nor were the shop owners much different from the Missourians I encounter in Branson or Cape Giraurdeau.  Just like other German communities, Hermann is “Little Germany on the Missouri” in appearance but not in custom.  Assimilation could be held off for a while but not “forever”.

     You can leave a comment or ask a question about this or any post on my Facebook pageTwitter profile and Google+ page.

Work Cited


Burnett, Robyn and Luebbering, Ken.  German Settlement in Missouri: New Land, Old

     Ways.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1996.

Detjen, David W. The Germans in Missouri, 1900-1918: Prohibition, Neutrality and

     Assimilation.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1985.

Duden, Gottfried. Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America and a Stay

     of Several Years Along the Missouri (During the Years 1824, ’25, ’26, 1827)

     University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1980.

Hesse, Anna Kemper, ed. Little Germany on the Missouri: The Photographs of Edward J.

     Kemper, 1895-1920. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1998.

Rowan, Steven, translator. Germans for a Free Missouri: Translations from the Radical

     Free Press, 1857-1862.  University of Missouri: Columbia, 1983.

Workers of the Writer’s Project of the WPA.  The WPA Guide to 1930s Missouri.

     University of Kansas Press: Lawrence, 1986.

Deutschheim State Historic Site. 107-109 West Second Street. Hermann, MO 65041.


[1] Burnett, Robyn and Luebbering, Ken. German Settlement in Missouri: New Land, Old Ways. P.1

[2] Duden, Gottfried. Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America and a Stay of Several Years Along the Missouri (During the Years 1824, ’25, ’26, 1827). University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1980.

[3] Ibid. P.2.

[4] Hesse, Anna Kemper, ed. Little Germany on the Missouri, The Photographs of Edward J. Kemper, 1895-1920. P. 11-12.

[5] Deutschheim State Historic Site Tour. Hermann, MO. August 25, 2003.

[6] Burnett, P. 27.

[7] Hesse, P. 13-19.

[8] Deutschheim State Historic Site Tour.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Burnett, P. 95

[11] Hesse, P. 23

[12] Deutschheim State Historic Site Tour.

[13] Deutschheim State Historic Site Tour.

[14] Hesse, P.24

[15] Rowan, Steven, translator.  Germans For A Free Missouri, Translations from the St. Louis Radical Press, 1857-1862.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1983. P. 318

[16] Hesse, P. 28

[17] Hesse, P. 28

[18] Hesse, P. 28

[19] Workers of the Writer’s Program of the WPA.  The WPA Guide to 1930s Missouri.  University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 1986. P. 394

[20] The WPA Guide to 1930s Missouri. P. 394

[21] P. 21-22.

[22] Detjen, P. 33.

[23] Deutschheim State Historic Site Tour.

[24] The WPA Guide to Missouri. P. 94

[25] Interview with John Ursch, Retired Military. August 23, 2003.

Pin It