Menzel Village continues to delight visitors at BCHS Museum
The Menzel Village is a re-occurring favorite of the Historical Society. Every two years the village is put on display for the public, but it is never displayed in the same way twice.
Conservative estimates place the collection at close to a 1,000 Christmas-themed pieces, including a 100-year-old clay village and numerous miniature figures of animals, villagers, angels, and other whimsical additions. Due to the collection’s size it is difficult to organize the village the same way twice, not that anyone wants to repeat previous years.
Part of the fun of the Menzel Village is seeing the many different configurations possible. This year the village is depicted as mountain community complete with skiers, a frozen waterfall, several iced over lakes and countless miniature figures. The only common scene to all the past incarnations of the village is a horse-drawn sled being chased by a dog, which is in turn being pursued by a goose. The continuation of this scene was a condition Louise Fritsche Menzel insisted on before donating her village to the BCHS.
Menzel first allowed the BCHS to display her village in 1983 on a trial basis, but its history goes back even farther. The village had previously been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and some of the larger banks in the Twin Cities area. Before this, Menzel would exhibit the village in her own home and invite area children to view the display.
According to a 1983 edition of The Journal, Menzel had created stories for some of the village figurines which she shared with the children.
The stories included tales of tiny gnomes hiding behind rocks during the day and coming out at night; the arrival of Santa Claus on his sleigh; a procession of angels and a young girl with a carriage pushing her new doll. Menzel’s favorite piece was a group of bears gathered around a glass iceberg.
The individual pieces in the Menzel village were acquired from several different countries such as Germany, Japan, England, and Czechoslovakia. Some of the individual pieces of the collection date back to 1937. Menzel and her husband Walter began traveling in the late 1930s and added pieces for many years. By the earlier ’80s Menzel had an attic full of Christmas decoration. Around this time Menzel’s brother, Dr. Ted Fritsche, had the idea to bring the display to the BCHS. The New Ulm Retail Associations was thinking of ways to observe an old-fashioned Christmas and the little village fit the bill. The 1983 exhibit would be more popular than anyone imaged.
Kathleen Backer was the BCHS curator in 1983 and remembers the opening night for the Menzel Village. She said that despite the cold there was a line of people waiting to get inside to see the display. The success of the exhibit convinced Menzel to eventually donate the entire collection to the BCHS.
Now, 34 years later, the Menzel Village is a staple of the New Ulm Christmas celebration.
The setup for the village takes many days of hard work. This year, collection curator Marilyn Hesse set up the village with the help of Opal Dewanz and MLC work study student Joslyn Hallauer. The setup began last week and was finished a few days before Friday’s Open House.
Those hoping to pay a visit to this quaint little village may do so throughout the holiday season. The BCHS has no take-down date set for the village, but they are committed to keep it up through Dec. 25.