NEW ULM - Fifty years ago, a host of New Ulm organizations and service clubs joined forces to produce and perform a pageant in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War.
The pageant, called "Historic New Ulm," included ten episodes, or scenes. It was performed at the Brown County Fairgrounds June 29 and July 1, 3 and 4, 1962. The script was written by Tom Pfaender, and the backdrop was painted by his brother Carl.
At one point into the endeavor, Tom Pfaender turned the directorship over to Bill McCleary, who was working on his master's degree in theater arts and would write his entire thesis, replete with sketches of costumes and other detail, around the specifics of this production and what it meant to the community that staged it.
(Above) Bill McCleary, (right) director of the 1962 “Historic New Ulm” pageant, and Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Museum, hold the small mock up of double-sided painting of the backdrop done by Carl Pfaender for the production. McCleary recently donated the painting to the museum.
It was a massive undertaking, with hundreds of participants, each service group devoted to its own piece of the action and greatly caught up in its dramatics.
What the actors lacked in professionalism, they more than made up for with enthusiasm and a flare for histrionics.
At one point during the rehearsals, the defenders of New Ulm and their opponents, the Indians, got so caught up in the fighting that they all dropped dead, departing from both historic accuracy and Pfaender's script.
Packets of ketchup splashed to create a scene of bloodshed and gore, while a horrified Pfaender rushed onstage shouting, "No, no, no! It didn't happen that way!"
Anne (Pagel) Earl, about 11 years old at that time, remembers acting in the opening scene. She played an Indian child in a rented leather dress and wig, her face covered in a thick, greasy coat of paint, dragging around a rag doll. Earl and another girl had the part of running around from one end of the stage to the other, then back of the stage, where commotion ruled.
Earl's sister Karen performed a solo and was actually listed on the program (child actors were not, as a rule, listed), and Earl's mother, Helen Pagel, stored costumes at home and consulted on various matters with McCleary.
Almost exactly 50 years after the pageant took place, director Bill McCleary, who now lives in the Twin Cities, unexpectedly dropped in at the Brown County Historical Museum, bearing two gifts.
One is a small mockup of the backdrop painted by Carl Pfaender and given to McCleary in recognition of his role as director.
This painted panel is double-sided. One side shows a woods scene, while the other side pictures downtown Minnesota Street as it would have looked in the 1860s.
The second gift McCleary brought is a copy of Pfaender's script. Inserted into the hardbound copy of McCleary's master's thesis, it is one of only three such copies in existence.
McCleary, who had treasured the artifacts for 50 years, more recently began to consider what would make their best permanent home; the Brown County Museum was a logical choice.
It is a timely donation, as the museum prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war, said Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the museum.
As luck would have it, the artifacts speak to Gebhard on a personal level.
When she was a young girl, Gebhard attended St. Paul's Lutheran Elementary School. The school did not have a gym, and the students would periodically walk to the Armory for gymnastics class. Once during that time, Gebhard opened the door to a back room at the Armory and saw an artist painting. She made friends with the man and would walk over each day after school to chat with him. When McCleary flipped over his painting, Gebhard recognized the woods scene. It was the same scene she had seen being painted on a larger scale 50 years before, the backdrop to the pageant.
The "Historic New Ulm" pageant was the precursor of Hermannstraum, a pageant later performed during Heritagefest, said Gebhard.