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For the past 30 years, Narren have been growing in New Ulm

Above, left: The first two Narren were Hattie and Gretchen portrayed by Rita Waible and Avonna Domeier at Heritage Fest in 1989. The full Narren 2019 roster poses togethern in German Park

NEW ULM–Visitors to Bavarian Blast this year likely saw many familiar faces–especially the wooden kind.

The Narren of New Ulm are repeating visitors to Bavarian Blast. The group has attended the event back when it was still called Heritage Fest. In fact, the Narren are celebrating their 30th anniversary this week.

Like many traditions in New Ulm, the Narren has its origins in German customs. People in Germany, Austria, Switzerland would don wooden masks based on folklore and legend. The tradition dates back for centuries.

Founding member Rita Waible said the New Ulm Narren do not have the centuries of folklore to fall back and decided to base their characters on a small community of personalities.

Some of the Narren characters are base on real people. The baker character came from the stories members heard of a baker who throws out failed baked goods into the woods behind her bakery. Another character is inspired by Goosetown, specifically the legend of Gertie the goose. One character was created after stories of man stealing clothes of clothing lines. Other characters are drawn from family members.

The first two Narren were Hattie and Gretchen portrayed by Rita Waible and Avonna Domeier at Heritage Fest in 1989.

“We still like to be referred to as the relatives no one wants to claim,” long-time member Violet Plagge said.

Though the New Ulm Narren is now 30 years old, the idea first came to town in 1988. A group of wooden-mask from Germans came to Heritage Fest to celebrate. Rita Waible and Avonna Domeier were at Heritage Fest and saw this German group. They asked about the mask and were intrigued. They soon found out they could order the wooden masks.

Waible said the purchased the first two masks as interesting conversation pieces, which arrived October 1988. The first time the two donned the masks was Halloween that year, but New Ulm’s Narren would not officially start until next year.

During the 1989 Fasching celebration at the Best Western, Waible and Domeier attended with the masks to the delight of many. One of the Concord Singers performing at the event advised them to get in contact Leo Berg. Berg was in charge of Heritage Fest and wanted to start a New Ulm version of the Narren.

Eventually, Waible and Avonna contacted Berg and began planning how to bring this tradition to life in New Ulm.

Every year at the start of the Fasching’s holiday the Narren conspire to kidnap the New Ulm Mayor and take over the city government. Symbolically the head authroity gone and a time of celebration can begin.

“It was kind of hard because there was very little information about what these groups are about,” Waible said. This was before the internet and all research was offline. The few bits of information they did find was written in German. It took time to translate.

Heritage Fest 1989 was the first official appearance of the Narren, but it was still only two members. Waible wore the Hattie costume and Domeier was dressed as Gretchen.

“Avonna and I were so scared,” Waible said. “We had no idea what we were going to do or how the people would react.”

They entered the festival grounds through a back entrance wearing full costumes. They head directly for the big festival tent. An elderly couple leaving the festival saw them. The wife ordered her husband to quick hand over the camera. Waible and Domeier posed for their first of many Narren pictures.

After this first encounter, they decided to enter Heritage Fest like they owned the place. This took the edge off their nerves and it worked.

The Narren are recognized for their hand carved wood masks. The New Ulm Narren have a collection of 34 masks to to help bring alive dozens of characters.

Waible said the big tent came alive when they entered. It had been extremely hot inside the tent and few people just sitting there not moving but started clapping and laughing along with the Narren.

“That’s what propelled us on,” she said.

Over the next few years, they would purchase more masks and expand the group. The first five years The Narren were a quiet group in the community, but after that their legend grew. Today, the Narren have 34 masks and an extensive cast of characters.

Members join through word of mouth, invite or by knowing a current member. Violet Plaggejoined the group after being asked to teach members to dance. To teach the group to dance, Plagge needed to put a mask and she became hooked.

The mask is often made or break for prospective Narren. Some people get claustrophobic or overheat, while others are blown away like the mask was made for them.

Waible said to be a good Narren you have to have the ability to relax and go with the flow.

Plagge said a Narren needs to enjoy music. “You don’t necessarily have to have a rhythm or a beat, but you have to like it,” she said. “It’s losing your own identity and going into a character.”

Plagge said every Narren has the exciting moment of seeing crowds come alive, but it takes a lot of commitment to be a Narren.

Everyone expects the Narren at Oktoberfest, to kidnap the Mayor for Faschings and dance at Bavarian Blast, but the group pops up everywhere. Each year they visit schools. Last week they attended a special event at the library. On occasion, visiting groups will request their appearance.

The Narren have traveled far outside New Ulm. They have made appearances across Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Texas and even traveled to Germany.

“People came from all over the U.S. came to Heritage Fest and they said they had never seen anything like [The Narren],” Waible said. The Narren is possible the first group of this kind in the U.S. Others have followed since, but New Ulm’s group is the oldest.

Waible is uncertain what the future of the Narren holds. The group does not have a five-year plan, but they will likely endure as long as New Ulm welcomes them to festivals and events.

The Narren of New Ulm has a full website of their history and a full directory of all the characters.

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