Louisville’s German-American Club was first formed in 1878. | Courtesy of German-American Club

Editor’s Note: This this story is part of an occasional look at immigrant communities in Louisville.

Louisville’s general population has become increasingly international in recent years thanks to an uptick in immigration and foreign-born migrations that have favored the metropolitan area.

In fact, from 2000-2010, there was a 112 percent growth in Louisville’s foreign-born population. This same population demographic grew an additional 19.8 percent through 2016.

While most of the recent growth has been from Latin America, Asia and Africa, immigrants from Europe have long made their mark on the local landscape. Places, names and events such as Germantown, Schnitzelburg, Frankfort Avenue, Heitzman Bakery, Stitzel-Weller, Nanz & Kraft Florists, Oktoberfest, Strassenfest and many others bear witness to a vibrant German community history and presence in Louisville.

The German-American Club

Louisville’s German roots date back as early as 1789, when Christ Lutheran Church was established near Brunerstown (now Jeffersontown). Today, the German traditions live on through the Louisville-Mainz (Germany) Sister Cities relationship, an annual Strassenfest and Oktoberfests, German language courses and other gatherings.

The German-American Club is now located at 1840 Lincoln Ave. | Photo by James Natsis

And the German-American Club Gesangverein Inc. is where Louisville’s German history and culture are well-inscribed, and where the pride of all things German beams throughout the year.

Jordan Gabbard — German program coordinator at the University of Louisville and the Mainz committee representative for Sister Cities of Louisville — informed Insider that the German-American Club has served as an excellent host to UofL German students as well as to German visitors to the city.

“The club has always been extremely helpful in managing, entertaining and even feeding large groups of visitors,” said Gabbard. “The club also hosts culturally educational lectures through the German Heritage Auxiliary, which is a great way for students of all ages to gain new knowledge of German culture and history and learn more about Louisville’s German-American heritage.”

The club was first founded as the Sozialer Männerchor in November 1878, at Beck’s Hall on Jefferson Street. In 1942, the group relocated to 318 S. Jackson St. and renamed itself the Social Male Chorus. In 1965, due to urban renewal trends, the group moved to its present location at 1840 Lincoln Ave. off Poplar Level. In 1993, the group changed its name to the current German-American Club Gesangverein.

James Boeckmann has been a member of the German-American Club since 1969, just a few short years after it moved to its current location. Boeckmann served as club president for about 25 years over various periods from 1979-2015.

The Rheingold Band performs at the German-American Club. | Photo by James Natsis

He is from Shelbyville, Ky., but his family relocated to Louisville a year after his birth when his father moved his clothing manufacturing business. Both his parents are from Germany.

Boeckmann’s father was a young man back in Germany when he was offered a free trip to visit siblings in the United States from a family friend who was captain of a freighter ship. He accepted the offer and made his first stop in Kansas to visit a sister, and then on to Cincinnati where he stayed with another sister.

Boeckmann fondly recalled the story of his father meeting his mother in Cincinnati during a botched date when his father had difficulties communicating with a woman who spoke a different German dialect. He ended up meeting another girl — Boeckmann’s mother — who spoke his dialect and was from the same area in Germany.

His father was from Muehlen, which is less than three miles from his mother’s town of Kroge.

Boeckmann’s parents were both singers and members of the German-American Club. His father was the club president circa 1948-49, and his mother was the president of the Ladies’ Auxilary. The family spent a lot of time at the club, and Boeckmann became a singer when he was old enough to join as a youth. He often traveled to singing events such as the annual district Singerfest.

“There was very little stuff on TV,” said Boeckmann. “You just grew up into it.”

When Boeckmann frequented the club during his early years, the membership was about 90 percent Germans or German-speakers. That demographic has changed over the years, as most current members were born in the U.S. and don’t speak fluent German.

Boeckmann’s parents spoke German at home to each other but chose to speak English to the kids, which was not atypical for many German families at the time. Although he did not grow up speaking German, he eventually learned a lot of the language through songs.

“All those years of German songs — some of them just kind of go into you,” he said.

The German-American Club used to offer German instruction years ago, but interest waned, and currently it does not hold any language classes. Boeckmann made it clear that the club would be very willing to launch courses if the community requests them.

Current president Bill Willinger celebrates Halloween at the club’s bierhalle. | Photo by James Natsis

“If we get people wanting to do it, we’ll open it up and do it,” he insisted.

Bill Willinger has been the current club president since January 2018. He joined eight years ago because he wanted to sing in the choir. Willinger was born in Louisville and has ancestral origins in Germany.

Family documents indicate that his roots trace back to places such as Hannover, Baden, Saxony and Düren Bach.

When Willinger was young, his mother used to bring him and his siblings to the Swiss Hall (formerly Swiss Park) on Lynn Street, just outside of the Schnitzelburg neighborhood, where he listened to the Rheingold Band that has performed in the area for many years.

“I always loved listening to the music,” he said.

Willinger has not yet established any specific goals for the German-American Club, but he realized this task is overdue.

“Actually, one of the goals I want to do is to establish some goals,” he said. He hopes to create one-year, five-year and longer range plans.

Learning German

German is taught in the JCPS school system at Farnsley Middle School and Seneca, Eastern, Atherton, duPont Manual and Southern high schools. Jacqueline Van Houten, JCPS’ world language lead, values the role of German in Louisville’s public schools.

“Personally, I consider it vital to have strong German programs in Louisville to support the city’s heritage, history and Sister City relationship with Mainz,” she said.

German also is offered at Louisville’s Trinity and St. Xavier high schools, as well as at Los Monitos language company.

Indiana University Southeast offers a baccalaureate degree and minor in German, and the IUS program collaborates with the German faculty at IU South Bend to offer a broad range of courses in language, culture, literature and film. Bellarmine University offers German classes in elementary and intermediate levels, with summer and semester study abroad options at partner campuses in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

UofL offers a minor in German, and the Office of Study Abroad and International Travel offers a variety of programs in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for students interested in German language and culture.

German program coordinator Gabbard said enrollment in UofL’s German minor is strong and growing. The institution has many German minors who pursue co-ops with German companies through the Speed School, dual degrees from UofL and the European Business School in Oestrich-Winkel, Germany, and who participate in other study abroad programs.

The German Club on campus hosts films, restaurant outings and other cultural events for anyone interested in learning more about German language and culture. It also has a weekly German conversation table hosted by UofL’s REACH tutoring service for additional language practice.

Louisville Sister City
Sister Cities of Louisville | Photo by James Natsis

The Louisville-Mainz relationship began in 1976 as a student exchange program before its official recognition in 1994. The city of Mainz formed the Freundschaftskreis Mainz-Louisville (a Friendship Circle), which is the equivalent of the Louisville Mainz Committee.

The Sister City relationship with Mainz provides students the opportunity to spend a semester or a year at the Johannes Gutenberg Universität in Mainz.

“Our partners at the Freundschaftskreis Mainz-Louisville do a fantastic job of showing UofL students around Mainz and caring for them for the duration of their stay,” said Gabbard, who also co-chairs the Louisville-Mainz Sister Cities program.

“There are numerous other Louisville-Mainz exchanges which have developed over the years,” Gabbard added, “like the faculty exchange between the UofL Law School and the law program at JGU in Mainz, and the YMCA-Sportjugend Rheinland-Pfalz exchange for teen athletes.”

German festivals and food

During September and October, German beer, food and culture are celebrated at a number of venues in town. Strassenfest, which means street party or festival, is held annually at Fourth Street Live and offers German-themed music, a stein hoisting competition and authentic German food.

Oktoberfest at the German-American Club | Photo by James Natsis

Oktoberfest also is celebrated at several venues in town. One can enjoy good German music, culture and beer at the Oktoberfest Block Party on Goss Avenue in Germantown/Schnitzelburg, the Original Butchertown Oktoberfest on East Washington Street, and at biergarten of the German-American Club.

Throughout the year, one can enjoy German food and beverage at the Gasthaus German Restaurant, a family-owned restaurant that has been serving the Louisville community since 1993. Eiderdown serves creative German fare in the heart of Germantown, and Germany’s No. 1 Food truck can be found downtown on Fifth Street throughout the week.

The German-American Club also serves authentic German dishes during their bi-weekly bierhalle and biergarten events.

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Nanz & Kraft Florists.

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James J. Natsis is a faculty member of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and the Coordinator of the International Studies degree program at West Virginia State University. He has chaired several committees on campus, and was appointed to the West Virginia Commission on International Education created by Governor Bob Wise in May 2003 that led to the creation of the WV Higher Education Policy Commission Internationalization Committee on which he served as a steering committee member for a number of years. He worked as a language assistant in a public French lycée in France for a year, is a former Peace Corp volunteer who served for two years in Chad, Sub-Saharan Africa, conducted his doctoral research in North Africa, and traveled the length of South America for 10½ months overland by backpack. He holds a BA degree in French, an MA in International Affairs—African Studies, and the Ph.D. in International Education from Ohio University. He has published a monograph, journal and special interest articles, a number of op-eds, and presented papers at many regional and national conferences. He first started writing as a guest writer for Insider Louisville in December 2013. He has directed grant projects in Benin, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Czech Republic and served as external evaluator to a project in the Ivory Coast. He has also led student trips to Quebec, Canada for a number of years. He is fluent in French and Spanish and speaks several other languages. Dr. Natsis and his wife, Kenya, reside in Louisville and have two young boys, Ashton and Aidan.