By Ron Larsen - Staff Writer
NEW ULM - When it comes to claiming bragging rights among communities, New Ulm holds the trump card. Few communities have zany, wooden-masked characters like our Narren.
In fact, they've been hanging around for 20 years now, making people laugh, and sometimes making little kids cry. If you don't believe that, ask Susan Fix who is one of the masked Narren in the New Ulm clan which has 34 members.
The Narren teach their dances and share the stories about each characters background with local students every year. These photos were taken at this year visit to Jefferson Elementary School.
Being a Narren (which translates as a bunch of fools) can be a test of faith because as Fix notes, they really don't know how people, particularly children, will react to these masks, and it's a test of endurance as the masks aren't light.
And, it's a test of faith because it's a task to see where they are going because the masks only have a small port below each eye for the wearer to look through. Also, if you're the least bit claustrophobic, you may be in for some trouble with your head in what amounts to a wooden box.
As the local group started with two carved wooden masked revelers in 1989, our Narren are claiming they were the first wooden-masked group in the United States, and our Narren are members of GAMGA, the German-American Mardi Gras Association which predates the formation of a Narren group in New Ulm by two years.
"The Narren of New Ulm seek to provide and to support entertainment at festivals and events, ensuring a good time for people of all ages!!" their mission statement reads.
"In other words, we like to mingle, dance, and interact with people. We have fun with people and help them have fun as well. Our group has been to many places in Minnesota, Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas, as well as Germany," it continues.
The inspiration for forming the New Ulm unit came from Rita Waibel, who along with Evonna Domeier (who has since died) attended a GAMGA meeting in Las Vegas and purchased the first two masks.
The two masks, whose character names were Hattie and Gretchen, were the first Narren characters to appear at Heritagefest. Two more "men" masks (Otto and Gunter), both carved in Germany, were added to the local Narren's inventory the following year.
From that small start, the group has grown and prospered.
"We bought masks, and some members bought their own masks," Waibel recalled. "They're not cheap, that's for sure," Waibel said, while not naming a figure.
"The two masks, whose character names were Hattie and Gretchen, were the first Narren characters to appear at Heritagefest," their history reads.
While you might suspect a trip to Germany is necessary to obtain a mask, some of them were carved here in New Ulm, one was carved in Milwaukee, and the rest were carved in Germany.
And, the characters represented by the masks have a local tie, too, they say.
"We have Rosa, the baker; Tillie, the feather lady; Pinella, the flower lady who lives to share her flowers with friends, and Schatzie, the shy bookkeeper. After a long day of festing, the Narren sometimes gather at the local establishment owned by Anna where entertainment is usually provided by Sepp, the unmusical musician. These characters and others make up the Narren of New Ulm. They are a composite of everyday people who give color and life to communities everywhere," their document notes.
So, come Friday, our own, home-grown Narren will be intent upon kidnapping the city's mayor, Joel Albrecht, and taking him to jail. In a way, it's like the arousing of the weather-predicting groundhog in Pennsylvania.
The Narren will gather in front of the door to the mayor's office to call upon the mayor to come out under his own power. If he doesn't come out, the Narren go in to "capture" him but not before "dressing" him properly for Fasching which includes a Fasching tie, Fasching boutonniere, as well as a Fasching flower for his hat.
Then, the mayor will be tied up with cloth rope and taken into the rotunda in City Hall, whereupon a Fasching proclamation will be read, stating that "since it is the season of Fasching and as is tradition in Germany, the narrische Zeit (foolish time), it is deemed by the power of the Heritagefest Narren (fools) that the Narren are taking over the City of New Ulm and declaring the remainder of the weekend as a holiday for all with fun, festing, drinking and merrymaking,"
Then, the mayor, "bound" in cloth rope, is led by the Narren east on First Street to the intersection with Minnesota Street.
At that corner, the Narren and mayor will head south to visit the "many fine establishments on Minnesota Street. Since the Narren proclaimed it a holiday, the German festival of Fasching comes alive in the City of New Ulm for all to celebrate," the history proclaims.