Keeping German Culture Singing in Utica
The Utica Maennerchor has provided the Mohawk Valley’s German immigrants and their descendants with music and camaraderie for 154 years.
On the evening of January 5, 1865, snowflakes swirled into white powdery drifts against the walls of Charles Bierbauer’s brewery on Edward Street in Utica. It was cold outside, but warm and cheerful inside as 15 jovial German men lifted their steins and joined their voices to sing some of their favorite old folk songs. They must have sounded good because at some point one of them suggested making their chorus official by forming a Maennerchor, which in German means “men’s chorus.”
The idea caught on quickly and only four months later they supplied entertainment at a ball hosted by the Steuben Lodge, a German social club in Utica. And then nine days later their music would strike a somber note when they reverently lifted their voices as the funeral train carrying President Abraham Lincoln stopped at the Utica station on its way to Springfield, IL, his final resting place.
On through the decades the Maennerchor sang for both happy and sad occasions. Things grew and changed. The Bierbauer Brewery became the West End Brewing Company in 1888 when another notable German immigrant, F.X. Matt, acquired it. And the members of the Utica Maennerchor built their own meeting place on Columbia Street in 1892, adding festivals and other social occasions for the members and their families to remember and celebrate their German heritage.
Germans began immigrating to America in 1683 when a ship full of settlers landed in Philadelphia. German Day, October 6, is still celebrated all over the US in commemoration of that event. By 1723, the governor of the colony of New York allowed 100 German families to buy parcels of land west of Little Falls in what would come to be called German Flatts. Through the next two centuries, many more people from Germany arrived in the Utica area, including many after World War II.
Leo Schwenzfeier, a 62-year member of the Utica Maennerchor, was among them. He remembers German SS troops forcing his family to leave their home when he was just 9 years old. After struggling through the deprivations of post-war Europe, he said he and many German people chose to emigrate because “we didn’t see a future in Germany after the war.”
Schwenzfeier was 19 years old when he arrived in Utica in 1956 carrying just one suitcase and not knowing much English. His brother had already moved to Utica and they had an uncle here who sponsored him and found him a job. But it was his friends at the Utica Maennerchor who helped him learn to speak English. “A different language is something that you learn through friendship. That was very helpful to me,” he said, recalling many good times playing shuffleboard and bocce at the Maennerchor’s clubhouse, then on Columbia Street.
Schwenzfeier remembers one day soon after he arrived in Utica when he stopped by the clubhouse to see his uncle who happened to be tending the bar. “My uncle said, ‘Leo, I’m going to serve you a good German beer.’ So he poured me a beer. I took one sip. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Uncle you call this German beer? It’s not even close to it.’”
Little did he know that he had just commented on a beer made at the nearby Matt’s Brewery and F.X. Matt was sitting at the bar right next to him. But he said the awkward moment soon passed and they became good friends.
Not long after that, the Maennerchor would play a part in the most important friendship in Schwenzfeier’s life. His wife Judy Schwenzfeier said, “Our first formal date was at the Utica Maennerchor on New Year’s Eve.” Leo proposed eight months later.
Together they’ve been members of the Utica Maennerchor for more than 60 years. And even though they had plenty of family members nearby, including Leo’s mother who also later emigrated to Utica, Judy said the friendships they’ve made there have been like an extended family to them. “Our members are all extremely supportive of each other and that’s a wonderful nucleus to have,” she said.
Over the years the Maennerchor’s members have built up their sense of community by working and celebrating together. They rebuilt their first building on Columbia Street after a devastating fire in 1903, moved to Auert Ave. in 1963, and moved again in 1985 to their present location at 5535 Flanagan Road in Marcy. To this day several members volunteer to meet every Wednesday to work on the landscaping and maintenance of their building.
They have organized countless dinners, dances, and festivals. The annual Bavarian Festival in July is the largest, but they also celebrate German-American Day on October 6 with the raising of the German flag at city hall, Octoberfest, and Fasching (German Mardi Gras). Traditional German dishes are always abundant. Sauerbraten (beef marinated for up to 2 weeks), an assortment of wursts (sausages), apfelkuchen (coffeecake with sliced apples on top), and schnitzel (thin breaded and fried meat) are some of their favorites.
Though Leo Schwenzfeier said he loves the music, festivals, and food, his favorite part of German culture is the friendship and camaraderie known as Gemuetlichkeit in German. “That means to get together with your friends and have a good time,” he said.
Though some of their gatherings are for members only, the Maennerchor is also happy to include the wider community in Gemuetlichkeit. The Bavarian Festival -- this year July 19-21-- gives the members a chance to share the food, music, and dance of their culture with everyone. A German band from Buffalo called The Frankfurters will play and the Maennerchor’s own dance group, the Edelweiss Schuhplattlers, led by Gracie Schell, will perform. Booths will be filled with wursts, Limburger, sauerbraten sandwiches, cakes, and German potato salad to eat, and of course beer to drink.
“We hope people come with their family and have a good fun family time,” Judy Schwenzfeier said.
Today approximately 44 million Americans report German ancestry according to the 2016 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, making it the largest ancestry group in the nation. Germany gave the Mohawk Valley area some of its most notable citizens -- Revolutionary War heroes General Nicholas Herkimer and Baron Friedrich von Steuben, hospital founders and humanitarians Saint Marianne Cope of Molokai and Mother Bernadine Dorn, author Paul Hoffman, printer Richard Metzler, and woodcarver Reinhold Pietsch, whose work can still be seen on the U.S. Supreme Court building today.
Still at the center of their purpose, the chorus of about 40 members is directed by Susan Sady and accompanied by Mark Radlowski on piano. They perform throughout the year at local nursing homes and in two concerts open to the public at the Maennerchor each year, including the spring concert coming up on June 14 at 7:30pm. They are also a member of the New York State Saengerbund, a statewide organization of German choruses founded in 1897 that still hosts a gathering of singers each year similar to an all-county choral concert.
And sharing their culture is only the beginning of the Maennerchor’s generosity. They also present their winter concert as a benefit for a different nonprofit each year. Some of the past recipients have been Mother Marianne’s Westside Kitchen, Feed Our Vets, Abraham House, and Mercy Flight. The club also donates baskets to the National Cancer Survivors Day Breakfast and they give leftover food from their events to the Rescue Mission of Utica.
Besides the annual festivals and events, everyone can partake in the Maennerchor’s old world atmosphere with the bar open every evening and fish fry dinners for sale every Friday. Their hours and special events are advertised in the local newspapers and listed on their website www.uticamaennerchor.com. They also rent out their large event space upstairs with banquet tables, a bar and a dance floor for weddings, family reunions and other gatherings.
Leo and Judy Schwenzfeier smile at the many happy memories they’ve made through the Utica Maennerchor over the years, the trips to Germany, the musicians from Germany they hosted in their homes, the concerts and celebrations. But now with a membership of 360-370 mostly older people, they’re concerned about the shift they see away from membership in groups like the Maennerchor.
The Maennerchor’s Chairman of the Board Shirley Hilts-Adams agrees. “It’s the case with almost any organized group,” she said. “If you read Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, he does an examination of the reasons why organized activities are not what they used to be. I think it has a lot to do with changes in technology. It’s causing people to be cocooning and I think it’s also leading to an isolation.”
Asked what people are missing out on as they shift away from membership in social organizations, Leo Schwenzfeier said, “I think the camaraderie, number one. And also we’re a melting pot in America but I think it’s so important that we need to hang on to all of our original cultures.”
Hilts-Adams added, “I think it’s important we share our history with the younger generation that’s coming up. We don’t want to lose that.”
(Photos by Bill Gregory)