Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992

Summer 1989

Persistence and Change in the German Ozarks

By Gary Kremer

The German Ozarks that I remember is of middle-aged men named Gablesburger and Dudenhoeffer and Troesser (they seemed older then, not younger now), who gathered in small town taverns to play an Old World card game called "Preference," carrying on a tradition that has lasted over generations. They played cards and drank beer and talked -- to each other and to those of us who would listen about the past.

They talked of wars, and politics, and families, and religion. Always they talked of how their magnificent red-roofed Romanesque church was built, massive stone by massive stone being carved out of nearby hillsides and hauled by teams and wagons to the building site. They talked of money contributed, saved through parishioners' sacrifices. Sometimes they talked about Vatican II and the transition from Latin to English, from a language whose sound was its meaning to a language whose absence of mystery disappointed them. But always they believed. The church, and the faith it represented, was central to their existence.

The German Ozarks that I remember of annual church picnics that marked the highpoint of the summer. One measured time in my youth by how long it would be until the next picnic and how much time had elapsed since the last one. Preparation for the picnic began long before the actual event. parishioners raised succulent vegetables of all shapes and sizes with loving attention- corn and cabbage, beans and brussels sprouts, tomatoes and turnips. Food was always in abundance on picnic day, especially German pot roast. It was cut in one-inch squares and cooked outside in a deep, iron, black kettle over an open fire, attended many old men who told stories as they stirred the savory meat with four-foot-long, oar-like wooden paddles.

On the Friday before the Sunday of the picnic, everyone, men and women, boys and girls, arrived at the parish hall to make final arrangements. The building itself had to be prepared, which was no easy task. The eighty-year old stone structure was scrubbed and sanitized for picnic guests by women and girls who harbored no doubts about the religious significance of their service. Tables were arranged in the upstairs auditorium and "the elevator" was readied by old Grandpa Broker. The elevator was a rope and pulley contraption attached to a Number 2 washtub and rigged up outside a window, connecting the servers of the food upstairs with the preparers of the food downstairs. Grandpa Broker, who was not my grandpa, ran the elevator that was not an elevator. Everyone had a job.

Church picnics were among the more elaborate celebrations, but I remember that people were always gathering to commemorate something in the German Ozarks. German Ozarkers were fond of ritual and tradition. Virtually all significant occurrences of the life cycle called forth community celebration. Rituals surrounding birth, death, marriage, graduation from school, or moving into a new house created a sense of family that allowed joyful occasions to be shared and grief to be dispersed in manageable portions.

The German language was commonplace in the place of my youth. Women gathered for quilting bees in the front rooms of old houses and spoke the language of their ancestors with frequency and fluency. Old folks spoke German on their telephone party lines so that young folks couldn't understand them. I remember, in particular, one elderly gentleman who had rarely been out of the county and who was three generations removed from his German forebears; still, German was his first language. He thought in German, and he required a German-speaking priest to hear his confession.

The German Ozarks that I remember is of houses that were seemingly built to last forever. In the 1830s and 40s, during the early German migration to the Ozarks, most of the immigrants initially moved into log houses already built by old stock Americans. Exceptions to this rule were wealthier families such as the Dohmans, about whom Bill Nunn has written elsewhere in this issue. Later, however, sometimes a full generation later, as the family grew and became more prosperous, the log house was replaced with a new, larger, and more permanent structure. Usually the new houses (which are now the old houses), were of stone or brick but with an interesting flair for adoption and adaptation that so characterizes German Ozarkers. The plans of their houses were clearly American plans (I-houses, for example).

But always the craftsmanship that went into these buildings was distinctly German. There is an ambience about these buildings that clearly identifies them: an attention to detail that my father always summed up by saying the German carpenters, such as his own father, "were awfully particular." Particular they were, about how their houses looked, and their outbuildings and their yards. The German Ozarkers of my memory were fastidiously neat. They laid out their fields with a geometrician's precision. They wiped grease and dirt off their tractors after a long day in the field.

The German Ozarks that I remember is of self-reliant people, like Will and Mary Schaefer, who lived in a small house beside a branch in the Cedar Creek watershed, more than two miles from any public road. Will Schaefer, who wore store-bought bib overalls and homemade floursack shirts, had no car or truck, no telephone or electricity. Getting out, getting away, communicating, was of little value to Will and Mary; their lives were focused inward, toward their farm, toward each other. Only rarely did they hitch their horses to a wagon and head to town. When they did, it was for supplies, not groceries.

Will tilled the soil of a few small fields with his team of horses. He raised corn in weedless patches of checked rows and fed the grain he grew, cob and all, to cows and hogs that roamed unfenced around the house and barn. Although the animals were not fenced in, they were fenced out from the garden and orchard, where, in season, grew vegetables and fruits off of which the Schaefers fed year round. The garden and orchard were white-haired Mary's domain. Each summer she spent most of her time planting seeds, then pulling weeds, and finally, day after day, canning -- peas and beans, corn and cucumbers, sauerkraut and squash, and much, much more -- until the stone-fronted cellar, built into the side of a hill, was full.

Hilkemeyer's Market, Westphalia, Osage County, Mo. (churchyard in foreground)

Carl Huber House, Osage County, Mo.
Single Pen stonehouse, Franklin County, Mo.


Will and Mary Schaefer are gone now, and so are many of the other people and things that were a part of the German Ozarks that I remember. But much remains. The old stone parish hall where the church picnics were held no longer stands, but the picnics go on, and old men still cook German pot roast in the same time-honored fashion.

Where I come from, only the old-timers still speak German, and then only rarely. But young folks, without being aware of it, still have their speech patterns affected by old world traditions of syntax and pronunciation. Some are even beginning to want to learn the language of their ancestors.

The taverns in the small towns are fewer now, and the men have less time to spend in them than in the past, partially because most work thirty or more miles from home and partially because many seek their entertainment elsewhere. But some taverns still exist, and there, on not infrequent occasions, you can still find middle-aged men with the same surnames playing Preference and telling stories to each other, and to anyone else who will listen. Many German Ozarkers live in ranch and split-level houses now, closer to the blacktop roads, and far away from the stone and brick homeplaces where their fathers lived and died. But, wherever they live, they still build solid, substantial houses. They're still "awfully particular," especially about their work habits. Not long ago a personnel officer for a major central Missouri employer told me that when he had applications from Osage County natives with German surnames, he hired them, sight unseen. Hard work and reliability continue to be part of the German Ozarks tradition.

More and more German Ozarkers that I knew as a child, who went away to strike it rich, or just to make a living, are returning to the place of their birth. In most cases they find it fairly easy to return, for part of the German Ozarks tradition has always been to keep land in the family. If necessary, it might be sold to other Germans, but to an outsider only as a last desperate resort. There are eternal verities that dwell in the hills and fill the lives of the people there, unspoken mores and traditions and values that they want to pass on to their children. Much about the German Ozarks will continue to change, but much will not. The people's sense of place will not allow it. They are too loyal to a past that they, and we, all share.

Loose Creek Cemetary, Osage County, Mo.
House, Bay, Gasconade County, Mo.
Gary Kremer is the State Archivist of Missouri, and the fifth generation of his family to live in Osage County, Missouri.


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