125 Years of German American Rhode Islanders

germanRhode Island; a melting pot

Global culture continues to homogenize, and American cultural elements have spread throughout the world. When everyone can watch Breaking Bad at the same time on their computers (or, unfortunately, Two and Half Men), it’s odd to recall a time when the expanse of an ocean was a barrier between ways of life, rather than a half-day plane ride.

Cultural and social societies have played a crucial role in America’s melting pot, when immigrants left everything that represented their culture and heritage behind to come here and forge new lives.

The German American Cultural Society (GACS) is its own variety of melting pot – a conglomeration of German cultural societies, performance groups, music groups and halls that have come together over the last century. These different components each have their own histories, but the core group will be celebrating its 125th anniversary this April, inspiring a Founders Fest celebration on the 27th.

It’s also the 15th anniversary of a merger that brought longstanding German clubs from Providence and Pawtucket together to form the current organization, which has about 250 members. We spoke with Konrad Schultz and Milton Haupt – past leaders of the Providence and Pawtucket clubs, respectively, and keepers of the historic Society lore. Both joined the clubs after arriving in the U.S. in the 1950s, when a wave of German immigration made for plentiful first-generation members who relied on the clubs for more than social interaction – sports, health insurance and job referrals were often supplied by cultural societies in that era. The German Dramatic Society of Olneyville and the Eintracht Singing Society of Pawtucket were the primary organizations that merged – the Dramatic Society had its origins in presentations of German-language theater, while the Eintracht Society included the Schubert Men’s Choir (founded in 1931) and the Lorelei Women’s Choir (founded in the ’70s), which now have become the Schubert-Lorelei Choir.

You can visit the GACS on any given Friday at their Ratskeller at 78 Carter Ave. Target the third Friday of the month, when they celebrate Trachtenabend – basically, dress-up night. You’re likely to see a lot more lederhosen and authentic old-school German fashion that night, but the Ratskeller is open every Friday. We dropped by on a recent, non-Trachtenabend Friday, and still saw some Lederhosen and Tyrolian hats. We also had several varieties of Wurst, some that are hard to find in the U.S., some German beer hand-picked by Amy Johanna Ahlberg, who focuses on quality and brew variations that are both typical of their regions and difficult to find in the U.S. Her favorite? Altbier, a staple of the Dusseldorf region. We also saw an eclectic human mix – from folks in their 20s to folks in their 80s, and from native German speakers to food and beer fans with no German heritage at all. Darts, pool and a boardgame involving world conquest and the building of train lines were taking place in various parts of the underground bar. German and English were spoken in equal measures, while Dave Palmer, the in-house accordionist accompanied a wide variety of drinking song requests. The atmosphere overall was very welcoming. In a bar, the bartender wants you to feel welcome. In a club, at least half the people there want you to feel welcome – and welcoming they certainly were!

One odd detail of Motif’s Friday visit – the upstairs performance hall was full of people in Lederhosen dancing to Zydeco music. “The upstairs hall is rented out for a lot of performances,” says Lynn Rivard, president of the Schubert-Lorelei Choir. “It’s the oldest wooden floor performance venue in RI – that all-wood floor gives it a special acoustic quality,” adds Ahlberg. The large hall was originally built for gymnastics – the workout of choice for Germans through the 1950s and ’60s. The pommel horses and parallel bars are long gone now, although above the drop ceiling are attachments for the rings and climbing ropes, according to Rivard.

At the Founders Fest, that hall will be filled with the German musical stylings of both the choir and the folk dancing group. This celebratory evening will include hors d’oeuvres and lots of German ambiance and beer. It will also feature performances by Gigi Mitchell Velasco and Noel Velasco, one of Rhode Island’s three tenors.

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