A Fake Bavarian Town In Washington

What do you do when your railroad station closes along with some big local employers? Why not transform your town into a fake Bavarian village? That's what Leavenworth did. We visit this unusual Washington town.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day with our final segment of our summer-travel series, it's called 300 Government Bucks: Quick trips you can finance with your economic stimulus check." Today we're going to take a trip to a town that kind of hit the skids, but then it put on some lederhosen and saved the day.

I love lederhosen. It's Leavenworth, Washington, and it's where reporter, Vanessa Romo spent her 300 government bucks.

(Soundbite of Bavarian music)

VANESSA ROMO: There's a reason for the polka music. Leavenworth is a faux-Bavarian village about 120 miles east of Seattle. Leavenworth is a fairytale-like town in what could pass for the Swiss Alps, but are really the mountains of Central Washington. Tada! There's a big sign, Leavenworth, Bavarian Village.

Willkommen. And while it's definitely a charming little town, the greatest thing about Leavenworth of today is that it's a complete invention of a community that was totally broke and on the brink of financial disaster. But just before plunging into oblivion, the town pulled itself together and came up with the plan to revitalize the economy and save itself.

Unidentified Announcer: All right, faux Bavaria. Here we come.

ROMO: Which is why I'm here, and I've dragged my boyfriend Luke along with me, to spend my entire economic stimulus check on waffles, sauerkraut, and schnitzel. I feel a kinship with the people of Leavenworth.

I was recently laid off from my job and without a paying full-time anything, I'm kind of scrambling to make ends meet. I could really use an economic makeover of my own. It's going to be the house right on the corner, I think. My first stop in town is with Louise Burgess(ph). When I get to her door, she's in a mismatched outfit.

The orange lipstick she applied in the morning has long since faded, and her hair is in pins beneath a floral scarf. She's got big plans tonight, it's her birthday. She's 79 and she's lived in Leavenworth for -

Ms. LOUISE BURGESS (Leavenworth Resident): Oh, lordy! Let's see, 57 years.

ROMO: Louise was a member of the project Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone Committee back in 1962. It was the group responsible for transforming the town. We hop in her silver LeSabre for a quick tour, and to meet up with a few other folks involved in Project Bavarian Village.

Ms. BURGESS: Well, I'll be darned! We've got a stop sign here. Humph!

ROMO: The main strip is just off Highway Two and it's tiny, only about eight blocks long. It's packed with tourists.

Ms. BURGESS: Oh, my!

ROMO: The shops and restaurants are all painted off-white with dark wood trim and decorative shingles. Rustic shutters and bright little flower boxes are attached to every window, and I mean every window. The Wells Fargo, the Subway sandwich shop, the McDonald's. They all look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves could be living inside.

Ms. BURGESS: This town is busy all the time. The May Fest, the Autumn Leaf Fest and everything.

ROMO: Apparently the town goes bananas during October Fest.

Ms. BURGESS: Well, it's really not too hot down here by the river. This is the river right here.

ROMO: The Wenatchee River cuts through Leavenworth. It's one of the greater tourist attractions. Outdoor adventure types come for white-water rafting trips nearby. Less adventurous families bring their inner tubes. So you've been around since long before this town became a Bavarian village.

Ms. BURGESS: Oh, lord, yes. I wasn't so sure I liked it, but I like it. I like it a lot.

ROMO: In its earlier heyday, Leavenworth was a big railway transfer station.

Mr. JIM FROMM: I remember the depot.

ROMO: That's Jim Fromm(ph), his family homestead at Leavenworth back in 1886. Jim's about 6-foot-5 inches and looks like Lee Marvin, if Lee Marvin were about to turn 90, missing half of his right index finger, and wore a hearing aid in each ear.

Mr. FROMM: It was a kind of a meeting place even, you know. People are coming in and getting off the train and getting back up.

ROMO: It's hard to imagine there was ever anything else here, which is why the transformation is so remarkable. Of all the things it could've become, why a Bavarian Village? It turns out, Leavenworth is the doppelganger of a little village in Germany called….

Ms. ARLENE BLACKBURN (Historian): Oberammagau. O-B-E-R-A-M-M-A-G-A-U, Oberammagau.

ROMO: That's Jim's friend, Arlene Blackburn(ph). She's one of Leavenworth's devoted historians. I posed a variation of the Wayne's World question to Arleen and Jim. Was the idea, if we build it, they will come?

Ms. BLACKBURN: No.

Mr. FROMM: I thought that people had a lot of nerve. They had to. They just dropped everything to fill into this project, and you know, it could just as well fell through. Of course, we didn't have much to go on then any way. I meant you aren't going to go lose much, but still it was a big undertaking.

ROMO: It's time to call it quits and figure out how much money I have left. Unfortunately with all I've spent on gas, the hotel, and dinner, it looks like I need to find something inexpensive to do. Lucky for me, there's a free dance at the senior center.

(Soundbite of music)

ROMO: There are only 14 people in the room and half are in the band. Of the seven in the audience, five are women. So how do you decide who dances with whom? How do you switch off partners?

Ms. RUTH ADAMS (Leavenworth Resident): Oh, we just go like this.

ROMO: Ruth Adams(ph) points her index finger at the only eligible bachelor in the room, and calls him over.

Ms. ADAMS: (Unintelligible) he has to dance with all of us women.

ROMO: It's a good system.

Ms. ADAMS: Then we dance with the singer too.

ROMO: They're a pretty active group, no wallflowers here.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Welcome to my world.

ROMO: The next day, after a yummy but pricey Bavarian waffle breakfast, my boyfriend Luke and I load up the car, and start the drive back to Seattle. I'm wondering if this trip was really worth it. I don't feel like I made any breakthroughs on my personal-project-economic makeover. And then it happens. Oh, my god! About five miles outside Leavenworth, at the Tumwater Dam, Luke sees a giant fish leap out of the river. Oh, (unintelligible), did you see another one?

Mr. LUKE: Yeah, right in the middle.

ROMA: They're salmon and they're trying to spawn. They've been out to the ocean, done their thing, and now they're going back upstream to plant their eggs and die.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROMA: It's the first time I've ever seen anything like this. I'm inexplicably thrilled. And even though I want to cry, I'm totally inspired. I've blown my stimulus check, and I'm now 298 dollars and 17 cents further into the debt hold, but somehow I'm ready to swim upstream. There's another one!

LUKE: Yeah, I missed that.

ROMA: There's another one!

LUKE: Oh, that was a biggie!

ROMO: For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo. Oh!

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of Bavarian music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. Alex Chadwick is back on Monday in his lederhosen. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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