NEW ULM In two seemingly inconspicuous light-colored binders, there is a representation of the rich history and traditions of New Ulm. The binders hold the history of Heritagefest, the now defunct summer festival that was responsible for revitalizing the shared identity of the city.
The folders were compiled by former New Ulm Mayor "Red" Wyczawski. He filled them with the signed autographs of every visiting performer at Heritagefest. He started the collection in 1975 with the very first Heritagefest. He said that he originally was collecting the signed photographs for himself, but it eventually grew into a tradition that he continued until 2002.
Recently, Wyczawski donated the binders to the City of New Ulm so that his record of New Ulm history could be shared. His decision to donate them came after he showed his collection to Leo Berg, one of the founders of Heritagefest and its executive director for nearly its entire length. Wyczawski said that sharing the binders with Berg made him realize he should share them with everyone.
Photo by Josh Moniz
Former New Ulm mayor “Red” Wyczawski and Leo Berg, former executive director of Heritagefest, hold two binders that contain signed photographs of all foreign musicians that attended Heritagefest.
"I just thought that the history should be preserved," said Wyczawski, "Heritagefest really was an asset to the city."
The genesis of the Heritagefest came from the New Ulm Polka Days, which started in 1954 but is also no longer celebrated in New Ulm. Berg said during that time, he played with the Concord Singers, and he noticed that people especially enjoyed singing along with the German songs. Later in 1973, when Polka Days was no longer held, Berg took part in a discussion at the New Ulm Rotary Club about what was important to New Ulm and the best way to celebrate it. It was decided at the meeting to hold a festival. Berg volunteered to take charge of organizing it.
"They needed someone dumb enough to take the big project on, and that was me," joked Berg, "But, I think it was natural that [the festival] developed. People of my generation were very concerned about celebrating their ethnic heritage. And it made sense; New Ulm is the most German town around."
The festival had several exciting traditions that went along with it, beside the celebration of food and drink that is typical of a New Ulm event. The most prominent was the enactment of "Hermann's Traumen," or "Hermann's Dream." It was a play about Hermann the German that follows his victory over the Romans and then followed him at the Hermann Monument while he watches the city grow and prosper. The City would bring in students from Minnesota State University to help with the production aspect of the play. The cast was entirely composed of volunteers, mostly New Ulm residents. The dialogue for the play was a recording, to which the cast would lip synch their lines. It even included a mock reenactment of the Dakota War of 1882. The play was performed on a custom stage on wheels that would rotate to change scenery.
Other events included a 10K run, German music, crafts and, later into the festival's progress, a smaller event for children.
Berg continued to organize the event until 2002. The festival itself eventually ended in 2006.
Nevertheless, Heritagefest left a lasting impression on New Ulm with the traditions it helped instill.
The clearest example can be seen in a picture found in one of Wyczawski's binders. The pictures show the Kisslegger Narrenzunft Hudemale, a dance group that traveled from Kisslegg, Germany to perform at Heritagefest. Their masks and dance were what inspired Rita Waibel and Avonna Domeier to form the New Ulm Narren in 1989. The group eventually expanding to the colorful cast of characters we know today.
"The Narren's whole purpose in life is to keep people happy. I think people sometimes need that help to be taught how to enjoy themselves," said Berg.
In a related way, Berg said that the rebirth of celebrating Fasching, which fell out of popularity for a short period, and the hanging of cloth around town to celebrate came from Narren members who visited Germany.
Berg also said that by only serving Schell's Brewery beer at Heritagefest, the festival contributed to the brewery's transition into one of the best-known beers in Minnesota. He added that the increased celebration of Fasching was what lead to the creation of Schell's popular Bock Fest.
Wyczawski said another result of Heritagefest was popular support for the construction of the New Ulm Glockenspiel. He said that the festival made people throw their support behind the monument to ensure it was constructed.
Wyczawski also said that the overflow of people attending the festival was a factor in attracting Holiday Inn to the city. He said that, prior to the motel's construction in New Ulm, the lack of rooms for rent was a challenge for the festival. He said the guarantee of needed business was a lure for Holiday Inn.
Most importantly, Wyczawski and Berg both said that the festival helped the town to gain a unified sense of identity. Berg said that Heritagefest's effect was particularly important because of the uncertainty New Ulm residents felt about their heritage following the anti-Germanism that was rampant in the United States during WWI and WWII.
"Before [the festival], New Ulm people expected that they were German, but they didn't know how to celebrate it," said Berg, "Heritagefest showed them how."
Berg attributed New Ulm residents' desire to have German language on the city's welcome signs to the continuation of that shared identity.
Wyczawski and Berg said they are both hopeful that another festival, possibly Bavarian Blast, will step to fill the space left by Heritagefest's departure. Berg said that the key factor is finding someone who is willing to take a leadership role in organizing such an event.
Perhaps such a festival will emerge in the future, but for the time being, Heritagefest lives on in Wyczawski's binders and the traditions of New Ulm residents.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at email@example.com