Waterloo proud of its German heritage

Pictured, Sister Cities of Porta Loo official Vera Kohlmeier presents gifts and a kiss to Günter Ludwig, music director for the Bläserkreis, during the Porta Westfalica Fest held in Waterloo on July 24, 1984.

Waterloo’s annual Porta Westfalica Festival is returning for its 40th celebration following two years of absence due to COVID-19.

The festival will take place Tuesday, June 21, on the courthouse grounds in downtown Waterloo. It will feature musical performances from the New Hanover Deutschmeisters, Bud Light Brigade, Waterloo German Band and Waterloo Municipal Band.

There will also be a parade starting at 6 p.m., which begins from Gibault Catholic High School on Columbia Avenue, continues south on Main Street, turns right onto Mill Street and proceeds to South Library Street.

In addition to all of this oom-pah music and gemütlichkeit, the festival also features a variety of staple foods including the tried-and-true staples of potato pancakes and applesauce. There will also be both German and domestic beers and a wine garden.

This event is organized through a collaboration between the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, Waterloo Lions Club and Sister Cities of Porta Loo.

Waterloo Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Candace Gardner said Porta Westfalica Fest is a major tradition for Waterloo. 

“I was raised in Waterloo, so it’s always been something that I think the community looks forward to participating in,” Gardner said. “Even with being on a Tuesday night in the summer, it’s very well attended.”

George Obernagel of the Waterloo Lions echoed this sentiment, saying the festival plays an important part in celebrating the German-American culture of this area.

“It’s a great event that shares our German heritage with our sister city over in Germany,” Obernagel said. “And it all comes together from volunteerism of the chamber, the Lions and Sister Cities and with the help of other community organizations.”

This unique Tuesday evening summer festival began in 1981 following the establishment of Sister Cities of Porta Loo in 1980. One of the event’s most important organizers was Sister Cities of Porta Loo member Vera Kohlmeier.

Through research, Kohlmeier determined that a majority of Monroe County residents in the late 1970s could trace their genealogy back to the Porta Westfalica area of Germany. Her efforts – combined with those of Helmut Macke of Porta Westfalica – eventually made the sister cities partnership a reality.

According to research provided by Deborah Cummins of Sister Cities of Porta Loo, this fest was originally meant to be a small affair to celebrate the  Bläserkreis band visiting from Germany, but it was instead opened to the entire public and ended up becoming the annual celebration that exists to this day.

One of the festival’s defining features is its unusual timing, but Cummins said this can also be attributed to the German band. 

Tuesdays in the spring and summer were the most convenient days to celebrate the Bläserkreis visit.

The first as well as a few other Porta Westfalica Fests actually took place in August, but it eventually became a tradition for the third Tuesday in June – again for the convenience of the visiting Germans.

There have been some zany antics over the years that add to the allure of Porta Westfalica Fest – including the theft of the Porta Westfalica flag hanging in front of Waterloo City Hall in 1984, and the thwarted theft of an industrial-size grill used by the Monroe County Pork Producers in 2009. 

Cummins said there was talk in the early 2000s to move the celebration to a Saturday for further convenience. That proposal was dropped quickly, however, as organizers didn’t want Porta Westfalica Fest to grow too large and move out of the community like Columbia’s Strassenfest.

Strassenfest was held annually in Columbia to celebrate that city’s German roots from 1960 to 1972, but it became so popular that it had to be transferred to St. Louis.

Cummins also shared a number of other developments Porta Westfalica Fest underwent – including the introduction of a beer garden in the 2000s and the brief instance the event hosted a petting zoo.

She also referenced a 2002 article in which Arlene Baum, former president of Sister Cities of Porta Loo, recounted how potato pancakes and applesauce came to be a tradition following a German visit.

While the connection between Waterloo and Porta Westfalica has somewhat waned — specifically the student exchange coming to a halt due to COVID ­— Porta Westfalica Fest continues to be a major celebration of the longstanding sister cities relationship.

Barbara Johnson of the Waterloo German Band talked about the importance of that connection and the heritage that Porta Westfalica Fest celebrates.

“It’s wonderful that we continue to have the relationship with Porta Westfalica and having the event every year, continuing the German heritage, having the German band as a part of that as well. It’s just an honor to be able to offer that to the entire community,” she said.

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