Exploring the German Heritage in Hustisford, WI

Hensel, Mueller, Lichtenberg: The names on the church shelves in Hustisford already give you an idea which ethnic group has coined the small town in eastern Wisconsin. You also read them on the cemetery’s tombstones and even on some buildings on main street. Starting in late 1850s, large number of German immigrants began to arrive here and soon schools were teaching and services were conducted in German. Among the immigrants were also the great-grandparents of Mel Grulke who welcomed us upon our arrival in Hustisford.

Mel Grulke

Grulke – on his part president of the Hustisford State Bank – is one of the few inhabitants that is still able to speak German. In the 1880s, his grandfather came to the USA from Pomerania as a 9-year old child. Although being third-generation German-Americans even Grulke’s parents did only speak German at home. And they were not the only ones: According to a census from 1910 a quarter of the population were still monolingual German speakers. This phenomenon could also be found in other farm towns in the upper Midwest.

What made Hustisford especially remarkable was the fact that it was not a so called language island but was established by English speakers: The town had been founded in 1837 by John Hustis, an Irishman from New York. The Hustisford Historical Society maintains a neat little museum which we visited as well. Located in Hustis’ house it displays furniture, clothes, and many peculiar things from the time the town was settled.

Looking at old maps in the Hustisford museum

Looking at old maps in the Hustisford museum

When the first German settlers arrived, they came to a well established frontier town, where English was the common language. But as more and more Germans poured into the town, their group size became so largethat their language started to replace English as business language and they started to use German in schools and churches. Some Irish even had to learn German in order to do business. Therefore, strong horizontal ties were established which promoted language maintenance up to the third generation. Because the daily life could be organized completely in German, there was only low pressure to learn English. Church records show that marriages etc. were held in German through the 1920s despite anti-German sentiments during World War I. Only after the Second World War the daily use of German started to decline. Born in 1941, Mel Grulke remembers that the schools had just switched to English by the time he entered first grade.

Although many of the 1135 inhabitants of Hustisford are very aware of their ancestry, Grulke is an exception today with his ability to speak German. A census of 2000 showed that although 59% claimed to be of German descent, there were only 3% German speakers left in Hustisford. One reason is that Grulke is able to practice his German from time to time with his wife Sharon, who remembers getting German lessons as a child from her grandmother every Saturday. And Grulke is also a member of the Madison Männerchor, which was founded in 1852 and is the second oldest German singing organization in the U.S.

Joe, former owner of Joe's General Store, seized the opportunity to exchange some words in German

Today Grulke’s grand-children have to start all over – they study German in high school. For most people in Hustisford their German heritage seems to have become a rather distant place for nostalgic memories of their grand and great-grandparents. A poster in Hustisford announced the upcoming “Germanfest” by showing pictures of a “Räuchermännchen” and huge beer mugs – it gives you an idea in what way the people in Hustisford connect to their German heritage. On our visit we also met Bob, the local caterer. He will serve “German meals with an American twist” at the Germanfest. Hustisford today has not only a twist, but has become an all-American, rather conservative town with the star-spangled banner on every street light and a box for the “disposal of flags in a dignified manner”. And even Mel Grulke who is so proud to maintain the German language is wearing a football-tie of the Green Bay Packers – a thing only a real American would do.

Anika Kreller


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