EVENTS – Octoberfest honors Denver’s German heritage
One of Denver’s favorite fall celebrations, Oktoberfest, is a spirited celebration of the city’s German heritage, featuring food, music and, of course, beer. Along with a stein-hoisting contest, brat eating and polka, the annual festival even includes a Long Dog Derby, which determines Denver’s fastest dachshunds. (Slower wiener dogs can also compete in the Long Dog Derby Costume Contest or the Wiener Wanna-Be Race.) And, although they are separate events, the last weekend of Octoberfest coincides with the Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center (greatamericanbeerfestival.com). It’s like Christmas for beer lovers.
The Octoberfest celebration began in 1810, when Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen shocked their parents, as teenagers are wont to do, by inviting Munich’s commoners to their wedding. The five day gala was such a hit that the couple repeated it yearly on their anniversary. The Denver celebration began in 1969 at the newly opened Larimer Square, when merchants Fred and Hertha Thomas served beer and pretzels at their shops to honor the tradition.
Germans relocated to the U.S. in modest numbers until Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, 1862 – 1871, which strongly motivated political dissidents to seek greener pastures. The massive wave would be joined by another group called the Volga-Deutsch, originally commissioned by German-born Catherine the Great of Russia to settle in Russia’s Volga Valley. After the Czarina died and the Teutonic population was forced to adopt the Russian language and inducted into the Russian military, a large contingent left the country. Many relocated to the southern Platte Valley.
Germans were one of the first ethnic groups to settle in Denver, making their mark in the brewing industry (Adolph Coors and Philip Zang), banking (Charles and Luther Kountze, founders of the Colorado National Bank) canning business (Maximilian and J.C. Kuner) and real estate (Walter von Richthofen) A number of local firsts can be attributed to the German pioneers, including Henry Reitz, Denver’s first baker and Otto Baur, who built one of the city’s largest candy factories. The Germans and their Austrian brethren became the city’s most prosperous and populous ethnic group, eventually owning a third of the city’s saloons. By 1870, they could boast more large fortunes (above $4,000) than the English, Irish, Swedes and Scots combined.
Germans were such a powerful political force that they convinced the Colorado legislature to pass a law in 1877 requiring that both German and gymnastics be taught in the public schools. From 1877 to 1889, laws were printed in both German and English, and a movement late in the century to make German Denver’s second language failed by only a small margin.
Teutonic political power in Denver would be broken by the combination of World War I and Prohibition. Germans owned the majority of the saloons in Denver, and when statewide prohibition became a law on Jan. 1, 1916, many lost their jobs or their businesses. Nearly 400 Denver saloons closed and most never re-opened. Anti-German sentiment raged during World War I, to the point where Germans were fired from their jobs, denied access to certain establishments and even attacked. The Denver Public School District even forbade the teaching of the German language classes.
Today, persons of German ancestry (or mixed Germanic heritage) still make up a significant population in the metro area. Oktoberfest provides an opportunity to kick up their heels and tap a keg in a merry salute to the old country.