In Rural Wisconsin, German Reigned For Decades In the contentious debate over immigration, critics often assert that immigrants and their children are not learning English as quickly as previous waves of newcomers did. In one Wisconsin town, German flourished as a dominant language and culture almost until World War II.

In Rural Wisconsin, German Reigned For Decades

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


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.


RICK SANCHEZ: 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: 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.

BOB SCHARNELL: 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.

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.

MEL GRULKE: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken).

LUDDEN: 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.

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.

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.

JOSEPH SALMONS: 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.

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.

WALTER KAMPHOEFNER: A number of big cities introduced German into their public school program.

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

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?

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: 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.

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.

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.

MARY ZASTROW: I'll bet you this is when they were born, and this is when they were baptized.

BILL GERMER: I was going to say something about that. I didn't know for sure, but I bet...

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

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

GERMER: (Foreign language spoken).



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.

SCHARNELL: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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