In the spring of 1838, steamboats carried German immigrants up the Missouri River to a hilly site, which eventually became the city of Hermann, as part of a massive migration that changed the face of Missouri forever.
The immigrants were led by George Bayer, a schoolmaster and surveyor. Bayer laid out the town and assigned lots on 11,300 acres; the total cost of the land was about $15,000.
March 2013 marks the 175th anniversary of the town’s platting. By 1840, there were nearly 500 residents, and a decade later, some 1,500 lived there, as Hermann became the heart of the new German-America.
The river valley, with its rich soil and forested hills, is what drew them. German lawyer Gottfried Duden had visited the Missouri River valley and praised it lavishly in his book “Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America,” which was published in 1829.
Germans founded towns all along the eastern end of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Boonville. Bringing their language and customs with them, they firmly established their Old World traditions on the New Frontier.
Today, at least half of all Missourians claim at least one parent of German ancestry, and that heritage is ingrained in many facets of everyday life. With more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Hermann reflects its past and revels in its German roots.
Deutschheim means “home of the Germans,” and the Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann gives tours of two historic residences.
The Pommer-Gentner house, constructed in 1840 and one of the finest early buildings in Hermann, is furnished in the period of the 1830s and 1840s. The Carl Strehly house was built in 1842 and was home of the German language newspaper Hermanner Wochenblatt. It was enlarged later to include a winery and displays the belongings of the Strehly and Muehl families. Rosa Strehly lived her entire life in the house, from 1865 to 1962; the rooms remain as they were during her lifetime.
Visitors to the historic site often see the ways of the early Germans and fondly recall visits to their own grandparents’ homes. Many recognize old customs in modern life for the first time.
A printing press in the basement of the Strehly house illustrates how the Germans got caught up in a struggle that was dividing their new homeland. Strehly and his partner and brother-in-law, Eduard Muehl, printed articles opposing slavery.
In 1853, the Strehly house newspaper began publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel was serialized and printed in German.
When the Civil War broke out, Union Col. Franz Sigel led some 1,100 soldiers, most of them German-Americans, in several important battles in Missouri. German home guards defended the arsenal in St. Louis from falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers and chased the opposition out of Jefferson City.
German troops performed well, often against larger numbers of Confederates, and helped keep Missouri in the Union.
The Germans who arrived in Hermann had been organized by a group called the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. They laid out Market Street to be 10 feet wider than Market Street in Philadelphia in the belief that Hermann would become a competitor to St. Louis.
The Germans constructed sturdy buildings and tidy farms of brick, rock and timber, with the homes in town sitting on the sidewalk, all on 60- by 120-foot lots. They furnished them with simple, almost Shaker-style, furniture using walnut cut from the forests.
Each house had a garden out back; plantings featured the fruits and vegetables immigrants brought from their homeland.
The Germans also brought their taste for wine, initially pressing the native grapes found in the wild, and then cultivating their own.
To improve a struggling economy, the town council in 1844 offered vacant lots to the residents if they planted grapes. The lots came with no money down, interest free, and no payments for 10 years. More than 600 lots were sold and vineyards planted. House wineries reached their heyday in the 1870s with dozens in Hermann and the surrounding area.
Martin Husmann was one of the first vineyard owners. His son, George, who came to Hermann at age 12, developed better methods of cultivation and became known as the father of the Missouri grape industry. In 1881, he accepted a position in California and helped establish the Napa Valley wineries.
Today, Hermann is in the heart of Missouri wine country with six wineries, including the award-winning Stone Hill, on its scenic, 20-mile Hermann Wine Trail. Visitors come for the annual Maifest and Oktoberfest celebrations, Kristkindl Markt and to visit the antique shops and quaint bed and breakfasts.
In recent years, Hermann has enjoyed a renaissance led by banker Jim Dierberg, owner of Hermannhof Winery. His projects include a renovated brewery and mill, an outdoor market square and upscale lodging in relocated and restored historic house wineries. His latest effort is a living-history farm that will demonstrate the traditions of the German-Americans descendants of those early settlers who arrived by steamboat in the 1830s.
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks. For more information, visit MoStateParks.com.