“On the Road” with Fulbright Germany: Exploring U.S.-German Relations in the American Heartland
Guest post by Jacob Comenetz
Turning off the highway at Washington Park in Milwaukee, there they were! The two looming figures on the horizon, their backs facing us, were unmistakably Goethe and Schiller, the dynamic duo of nineteenth century German poetry.
What are Goethe and Schiller doing in Wisconsin’s biggest city, and why were we turning off the highway to visit them? First, the “we”: a group of three German Fulbright scholars currently in the U.S. and three American Fulbright Germany alumni, our team of six had been formed through the Fulbright Germany “On the Road” road trip project, part of the Year of German-American Friendship.
On May 11th, our Team Violet “From the North” was one of three vans of Fulbright Road Trippers starting in Indianapolis, Austin, and Milwaukee, respectively, traversing the American Heartland on a week-long trip to Fayetteville, AR for the University of Arkansas conference “Building Bridges: The Fulbright Legacy and the Future of International Exchange.”
Our mission: to explore and gain insight into the U.S.-German relationship, yesterday and today, through public events and individual encounters along three routes each stretching over a thousand miles.
From Team Violet to Ultraviolet
My journey with Stella, Nicole, Vincent, Megan and Alwin as Team Violet had actually begun nearly two months earlier, when we found out our team members and began the planning process. While Fulbright Germany provided a suggested itinerary, it was up to each group to plan its own route and stops and organize a minimum of four public events along the way.
After five lengthy video conferences and countless hours spent identifying, contacting and coordinating with partners from Davenport, IA to Hermann, MO, Team Violet’s meeting at Milwaukee International Airport felt more like a reunion than a first encounter. The intensity of the planning phase had already proved a significant team-building exercise—one valuable outcome for this pilot project of international educational exchange.
Now, back to Goethe and Schiller in Milwaukee. Finding this imposing statue, a recasting of the 1857 Goethe-Schiller statue in Weimar, Germany, in the city once nicknamed the “German Athens of America,” was at first surprising, but ultimately historically fitting. Milwaukee, along with Cincinnati and St. Louis, comprised the “German immigration triangle” in the nineteenth century, when wave after wave of German immigrants shaped the character of these cities and the country more broadly. Politically, economically, and culturally, we felt the legacy of that influence throughout our journey through the Heartland.
In downtown Milwaukee, a fascinating walking tour of the city’s “German district” led by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historians and Germanists shed much light on the indelible German influence—not only in the architecture of buildings like the Blatz brewery, German-English Academy, and City Hall, but in the enduring cultural and political character of institutions like the Grohmann Museum and captivating Turner Hall.
Turners Everywhere you Turn
The presence of Turner Halls along our route, from Milwaukee to Galena, IL, to Washington, MO, was one of many “rote Fäden,” or common themes, running through our six days on the road. Virtually unknown today, in the mid-nineteenth century the Turners, who combined physical fitness with pro-democratic civic engagement, founded halls across the Midwest. Importantly, the Turners, among other German immigrants, were staunch abolitionists and many gave crucial support to the Union cause during the Civil War. Our brief stop at Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, IL home on the way from Davenport to St. Louis added depth to this ongoing theme.
Our experience “on the road” beyond Madison showed us many little-known and beautiful aspects of America: through the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin to the Great River Road along the flooding Mississippi into Davenport; across the endless expanse of flat-as-a-tin-pan Illinois farmland, again over the swelled Mississippi to historic St. Charles and St. Louis; up into the Missouri Rhineland via Hermann to Jefferson City; via undulating open country down to the sprawling U.S. Army base Fort Leonard Wood along Route 66; and finally into the stunning Ozarks by Branson and down into lush northwestern Arkansas. By and large, our route—with a hat tip to Google Maps—kept us off the interstates, giving German and American road trippers alike a new sense of connection to the land itself and the many people we met along the way.
After meeting the other Road Trippers and conference attendees in Fayetteville, it soon became clear that each team had had similar experiences in this regard. No matter the route taken, the experience of being on a shared “quest” to explore German-American relations in the Heartland led to special encounters that otherwise would not have occurred. In this way, as pioneers of a new kind of international exchange following in the footsteps of Senator Fulbright, we experienced and expanded the spirit of “Wunderbar Together,” building new bridges of friendship within countries, between counties, and across generations.
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