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In Rural Wisconsin, German Reigned For Decades

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In Rural Wisconsin, German Reigned For Decades

In Rural Wisconsin, German Reigned For Decades

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We tell you many stories about immigrants, and now we'd like to talk about one legacy that immigrants leave to the United States, their children.

We're starting an occasional series called Immigrants' Children about how they make their mark and the issues that confront them. One issue that comes up frequently on talk radio and cable TV is language.

(Soundbite of television program)

Mr. RICK SANCHEZ (CNN): That's our question. We're talking about the huge influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the United States and the fear that they just won't let go of their original language, that they'll…

BLOCK: That was CNN's Rick Sanchez. Critics say that today's immigrants and their children show little interest in committing themselves to speaking English. As part of the debate, we often hear that previous waves of immigrants were different or more eager to learn English than those today, but was that the case?

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been checking it out. She has this report.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: If you travel to the tiny town of Hustisford, Wisconsin, an hour west of Milwaukee, you can still visit the two-story, white frame house of the town's founder, an Irishman from New York named John Hustis.

Mr. BOB SCHARNELL (Hustisford Historical Society): Got to find the key, got to find the key.

LUDDEN: Bob Scharnell and other members of the town historical society lead me in. Hustis bought this land in 1837. And as more Irish and English settled here, he upgraded from a log cabin to this well-appointed home.

Mr. SCHARNELL: That was their Sunday china at the beginning, and the pattern is Tea Leaf Luster, it was made in England.

LUDDEN: But within a decade or so, a new wave of pioneers showed up. In the mid-19th century, in a pattern repeated across the Midwest, large numbers of Germans started buying homes and farms, part of a mass migration that would profoundly change Hustisford and the nation.

Mr. MEL GRULKE(ph) (Hustisford Resident): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

LUDDEN: This is the lullaby Mel Grulke remembers his grandmother singing. Grulke's great-grandparents came toward the end of the big migration in the 1880s. Some say Wisconsin's cold winters and good soil reminded the Germans of home.

In any case, they brought a lot of home with them. Soon, two of three schools in Hustisford taught all in German, two churches worshipped in the hallowed language of Martin Luther, and German was the language of commerce.

Mr. GRULKE: This was a - it's a hardware store now. This was another grocery store on the bottom.

LUDDEN: Grulke walks me down Hustisford's now largely abandoned Main street.

LUDDEN: It was called Siefeldts(ph). See the name up on top? If you look at some - so, I remember going into that store, they had hand-packed ice cream cones, the best in town.

LUDDEN: On other buildings, you see engraved the German names Gillicks(ph) and Sillisch(ph). Grulke remembers his parents speaking German to the shopkeepers as they sold their eggs or ran errands. In fact, even though Grulke was born in 1941, a fourth-generation American on one side and third on the other, his first language at home was German.

Mr. GRULKE: My grandmother, even though she was born in the United States, I don't recall her ever saying more than three words in English. In fact, my grandfather was rather staunch. He would reprimand us that it was more like a slang language English. So, he wanted us to speak German in his presence, which we did.

Dr. JOSEPH SALMONS (Linguist, University of Wisconsin): In a place like Hustisford in 1910, a quarter of the population told the census taker that they spoke only German and didn't speak English, a quarter of the population.

LUDDEN: That stunned Joseph Salmons, a German linguist at the University of Wisconsin. When he set out to study the area's census and church and court records, he had no idea the language had thrived for so long. 1910 was already a full generation after the mass migration dropped off, yet not only were many in Hustisford and other farm towns still bilingual, this sizeable portion was monolingual.

Dr. SALMONS: It turns out a lot of these people were born in Wisconsin, and a fair number of these people were born in Wisconsin of parents who were born in Wisconsin. That is, these guys were not exactly killing themselves to learn English.

LUDDEN: In fact, Salmons says some Anglos in town learned German to do business, and court records show some of them used it to swindle the non-English speaking immigrants. Salmons also found records of Anglo children baptized in German churches, even attending German schools, and Wisconsin was not alone.

Dr. WALTER KAMPHOEFNER (Historian, Texas A&M University): A number of big cities introduced German into their public school program.

LUDDEN: Walter Kamphoefner is with Texas A&M University.

Dr. KAMPHOEFNER: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, for example, had what we now call two-way immersion programs. School taught half in German and half in English continuing all the way down to World War I.

LUDDEN: That's right: taxpayer-funded, bilingual public schools. So, how did that happen?

Dr. KAMPHOEFNER: The simplest explanation is ethnic politics, ethnic lobbying, especially just after the Civil War, when the German vote was kind of up for grab.

LUDDEN: Not that this wasn't contentious. In 1889, Wisconsin and Illinois passed laws mandating that schools teach only in English, but Kamphoefner says the ethnic backlash was strong and the laws soon repealed. He's come across evidence that as late as 1917, a German version of the "Star Spangled Banner" was still being sung in public schools in Indianapolis.

It's always taken immigrants a generation or two to fully transition to English. Kamphoefner says languages like Italian, Polish and Czech also popped up briefly in public schools, but German was unique.

Mr. KAMPHOEFNER: It was in a similar position as the Spanish language is in the 20th and 21st century. It was by far the most widespread foreign language, and whoever was the largest group was at a definite advantage in getting its language into the public sphere.

Mr. SCHARNELL: This turns out in 1858. Mary, when does your book start at your church?

LUDDEN: At St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Hustisford, Bob Scharnell and other historical society members pore over musty, handwritten records of religious life.

Ms. MARY ZASTROW (Hustisford Historical Society): I'll bet you this is when they were born, and this is when they were baptized.

Mr. BILL GERMER (Hustisford Historical Society): I was going to say something about that. I didn't know for sure, but I bet…

LUDDEN: The baptisms, confirmations and marriages are still noted in German through the 1920s - that would be well after the anti-German hysteria sparked by World War I. These Wisconsin records finally switched to English in the '30s, and historians say not much daily use of German lingered anywhere after World War II.

In fact, the folks gathered around these old books represent a turning point.

Mr. SCHARNELL: Bill, do you know how to read German?

Mr. GERMER: (Foreign language spoken).


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHARNELL: Mary, you can read, can't you?

LUDDEN: Bill Germer can speak German but not read it. Mary Zastrow says when she's frustrated, she blurts out a German phrase her Dad used to say, but she's not exactly sure what it means. Bob Scharnell never learned German, but he has held on to one small tradition.

Mr. SCHARNELL: We can say Come Lord Jesus. That's a table prayer that we pray around our table. That's in German. And every time we get together, that's what we do.

Scharnell likes to say that prayer when his grandchildren visit, and that may be all that gets passed on. Hustisford schools don't teach German anymore. These local keepers of history say their grandchildren are studying Spanish.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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