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Guest Blog: Experiencing Pennsylvania Dutch Culture in Kutztown

August 29, 2019

The following guest blog was written by Christoph Mücher, Director of Wunderbar Together.

In addition to the general culture and scientific exchange, one of Deutschlandjahr’s specific goals is to explore the historic German-American relationship. After all, no fewer than 50 million Americans have German roots. When you walk into a random bar, a church, or anywhere else with people in conversation, you can hear the influence of German origin. With so many people researching their family history, businesses with relevant databases flourish.

This weekend, we were drawn to Pennsylvania, a place with a special German connection. Toward the end of the 17th century, the namesake of the state, a Quaker named William Penn, traveled several times to Europe, where he recruited settlers to build the young state. The fruitful land was not the only attraction, but religious freedom was a compelling reason – even in Germany.

Everyone in the Palatinate saw Penn’s advertisements as ripe fruit. Countless people followed the call to the West, including many protestant communities like Mennonites, Moravians, and Amish. Religious oppression and economic hardships played an important role in the Rheinland, from which there was a great migration north and from there across the Atlantic to the USA. A good quarter of the 12.7 residents of Pennsylvania have German roots and foster them to this day. 400,000 live as Pennsylvania Dutch (which has nothing to do with Holland Dutch, but rather is a malapropism of German Deutsch).

For 70 years, the Pennsylvania Dutch have celebrated their culture in a large folk festival in Kutztown. We wouldn’t want to miss this. Together with our camera man Marcus and his equipment, we got in the car Saturday morning and drove up north after a long workweek. After an hour on the highway, we turned off to the side roads, which fit the mood of the trip.

When we arrive at the festival grounds, there was an evangelical religious service on the airy and rural “Hauptbühne” (main stage). There, we were met with several familiar experiences: not only the “Our Father” was in German, the 94 year-old June recited Psalm 23 in our native language and the community began to sing “Nun danket Gott” eagerly with unmistakable American accents.

After the mass, the director of the festival Steve explained the secret to the success of this popular festival. “It has remained authentic to this day. At least 1,500 helpers and volunteers contribute to demonstrate the different facets of the Pennsylvania Dutch life.” And that results in a truly varied program. Here was the hay harvest; there the Motor Club showed off an unbelievable mix of clattering and rattling machines – often from the 20th century, with different uses, like some that cut potatoes or simply munch happily. And of course there was plenty of music. Different groups played on multiple stages in different styles – most were amateur bands from the surrounding area – often astoundingly good. Our contribution to the festival was one such band, the New Paltz Band, which came from the Palatine region of Germany.

The four musicians are true to their name and sing exclusively in the Palatine dialect, which is understood in this area. It is an equally simple and stunning recipe for success. And with the popular old folk songs, that everyone likes to be sung, the group has many new songs in their Repertoire, as bandleader Michael Werner explained. An attempt to breathe new life into Pennsylvania Dutch and reach out to the younger people with songs from artists like Bob Dylan. The recipe is a success, the unpretentiousness, the easily respectable but very authentic type of music is well-received and with genuine interest and the fact is, that the group came all the way from Germany to supply them – and us – respect and also the attention of the local press. There the message of our campaign is particularly well-represented: a program that sets aside bickering politics to simply bring people together in an effort towards real engagement.

So many programs made us hungry, so luckily relief was near. In fact, it is nearly impossible to decide. In the end, I chose excellent Bratwurst with Sauerkraut and Amish potato cakes, while my colleague was drawn to stuffed cabbage.

There was also a “root beer.” A specialty of the region, explained festival director Steve, who himself began at the root beer stand 14 years earlier. This fresh soft drink was brewed from the roots and bark of the birch tree, the local sassafras tree, and other abundant greens.

Later we also enjoyed true beer from a local brewery We enjoy a fresh Saucony Creek from Kutztown with an ox roast, which had been slowly and picturesquely roasting on a spit all day. Joyce and Terry Bergeorganize the “Country Kitchen.” Here, one can not only see the ancestral kitchen, but taste its products as well. Once a day, Terry and Joyce cook traditional dishes, today a Moravian-style chicken casserole. In the mornings, they selected and prepared the hen. When we came back many hours later, the steaming dish stood before six hungry eaters who had booked a seat at the table.

Terry swears by the dry and inform heat of the pastel green coal-burning oven from the 20th century, in which he bakes the tureen. The oven radiates the same quiet and solitude as the cook. We came again later with the camera and Terry showed us how he churns fresh butter from packed cream in no time.

We stroll on to the Quilt Bard. The sewing of patchwork blankets is a passion in the U.S. For the festival, hundreds of quilts were submitted and judged by a panel. The best 20 quilts were auctioned off at the end of the festival. Opening prices ranged from $1,000 to $1,500. A steep price, but the work is long and arduous, as one can learn on the spot.

At a large demonstration, five older women sit and sew a large quilt. We notice Michael Werner and his Palatinate friends, once again speaking excitedly in the dialect with the women. They clearly enjoy the guests, who are exotic and yet so close.

We ask one of the women, Mary, about the secret to quilt-sewing. “In the middle of the entire thing is friendship,” she said brightly. She joined the sewing circle in her community 41 years ago and has not been able to stop since. “We meet every Wednesday with my friends and that is quite wonderful.”

“Wunderbar Together” as far as the eye can see.

We discover a local specialty next to the Quilt Barn.

The “barn stars” decorate the wooden barn of the surrounding farms. “Along with the decorative function, they were also an homage to the starry sky, which played an important role in the practical life of the farmer,” we learn from Patrick Donmoyer, head of the German Cultural Heritage Center of Kutztown University.

Patrick is one of the important technicians of the festival. Stylish and charming, the spry cultural scientist brings into focus the different cultural peculiarities of the area to the visitors, like the barn stars or “Braucherei” (the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch healing methods).

Joke storytellers Bill and Leroy tell all kinds of more or less funny stories, one in the dialect (and in a Hans Wurst costume) and one in the English translation. And Keith Brintzenhoff, as Dr. Witzelsucht in a black robe, produces a string of nearly unbearable corny jokes.

As the highway draws us back into the 21st century and into the capital city, we remember the painted stars on the barns and the numerous Amish carriages.

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