The third weekend in May has always held a place of special significance for Hermann area students and their teachers. Maifest marked the end of the school year and this was celebrated with a large picnic. Wurste, lemonade and ice cream for everyone! But in 1952, the Brush and Palette Club was about to change that rather quiet school grounds celebration forever.
As Hermannite Anna Hesse points out in the club’s book “Hermann Maifest Pageants 1952-1964,” ‘the middle of the 20th century found some of the old and mellowed buildings of Hermann falling into disrepair. This included the Rotunda, an octagonal building located in the City Park, built about 1876.’
The plan was simple—expand the Maifest celebration to include former Hermann residents and pupils to raise enough money to repair the Rotunda.
In May 1952, Hermannites had a lot to shout about. On May 1, Mr. Potato Head made his debut as one of America’s more popular toys and Trans World Airlines (TWA) introduced tourist class, making air travel more affordable for the middle class. And though nobody appreciated it at the time, the concept of the integrated circuit, the basis for all modern computers, was published that first week in May.
But Mr. Potato Head, air travel and computers would have to wait. There were literally bigger fish to fry by the VFW cooks and everybody else, and yet, nobody could imagine the crowd that would visit this little German town on the river.
Former Advertiser-Courier Editor Don Kruse mentioned the 1952 event in his column “Missouri Calling.”
“It was a festival that actually was too big. No one dreamed the first Maifest in 1952 would bring to town the large number of visitors for the two-day festival. The figure has been put at over 40,000.”
Mr. Kruse marveled at the task of feeding this army of Maifest visitors and while many probably went hungry, he said little local gas stations up Hwy 19, such as the one owned by Ronnie Pat VanBooven’s father, Alphonso, in McKittrick, fed and quenched the masses with cold sodas, chips and candy bars.
But before visitors would pour into Hermann to see what the Maifest fuss was about, it was decided to have some organized entertainment, beyond the region’s biggest picnic. So, the town put together a large parade and an evening Annual Pageant was born, with the first one being called “The Hermann Tableaux,” an abbreviated version of Hermann’s history. It was written and directed by Anna Hesse, who had help from Verna Schloemann as her assistant. Pat Kavanaugh was the stage director and the musical director and organist was B. A. Wagner. Young and old got into the spirit of telling Hermann’s story. For example, in Act V, twenty-five children with masks come in the rear door of the auditorium calling “Fet Kuechele!” (fried meat pies) to the audience. Some bags of fet kuechele were given to audience members previously and they handed these to the children.
A Lent season tradition was also celebrated in this Act. Called Fast Nacht, the family would attend a Mask Ball. While the Peace Valley Orchestra played on the stage, the masked dancers danced the Schottische. The Rhineland Germans had their own dance—the Wurstjaeger Tance.
Mary Kunstmann remembered when the Brush and Palette Club met at the high school to introduce this expanded Maifest idea.
“I was so impressed with all these people coming together to do something so fun!” she said.
LaNette (Wagner) Kotthoff remembers the pink lemonade that was served that weekend.
“At that time, the lemonade was spiked with a little bit of wine—that’s what made it pink,” she noted.
Marilyn Loehnig said she has heard husband Terry speak of traffic being backed up to Loutre Market on the first day of the ’52 Maifest.
“He decided to ride his horse, or he’d have been late for the parade,” shared Marilyn.
She said every organization in town had a part in the parade and that included churches.
“Ruth Kramer was playing a little organ on one of the floats and there were some small pews on it with people singing,” she added. But the parade was on Sunday afternoon. What about Saturday?
Bob Kirchhofer said there were house tours in Hermann’s historic neighborhoods and the pageant was held in the evening (Fri., Sat. and Sunday afternoon).
Marilyn also said St. Paul United Church of Christ would hold a German service on Sunday, in keeping with old traditions. She said they came to Hermann after church services in Femme Osage on Sunday, just to see the parade.
“It was huge,” she said.
She would later play the accordion at Dr. Schmidt’s Violin Workshop at other Maifests, starting when she was 13 years-old.
“MiMi Schmidt asked me if I would play for the tourists up there,” said Marilyn. “I wore a long red dress and white pantaloons.”
Marilyn later played with Sonny Boettermuller’s Peace Valley Orchestra at the Eagles Hall for a German dance on Saturday night during Maifest.
“The dances in those years were 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and there were always big crowds,” she said.
In the 60s one of the popular bands was known as “The Hungry Five,” a group of local musicians that played “Oom-pah” music—polkas and waltzes. Bob Kirchhofer shared a short history of the band, hammered out on a typewriter on an oversized index card.
“When The Hungry Five originated, it consisted of five members and was subsequently expanded to eight members. The first band book used by the group was titled “The Hungry Five in Germany”—from the title of this book the band got its name. The band has made many appearances in Mo., the Rotunda of our nation’s Capitol, the German Embassy in Georgetown and two concert tours to Europe in 1985 and 1987. More than 200 years of performance is represented by the eight members of the band.”
The band with various members will be performing at different times and venues during this year’s Maifest.
If the old timers close their eyes and hear oom-pah music, they can remember the gymnastic demonstrations put on by local athletes for the visitors, the vaudeville acts at the Rotunda near the beergarten and catch the scent of fried fish at the City Park. The churches prepared mountains of German potato salad.
Bob Kirchhofer played the tuba in a class band during Maifest, starting in 1954. He noted that since he was the biggest in the class, he was the obvious one to carry it. Wally Stoener was the director.
“He played the trumpet and was the only one that could really play,” shared Bob. “Wally had false teeth. We played in front of taverns and we’d order Coca Colas and one beer (for Wally). Every now and then he’d have to get his trumpet bell under his arm and reach into his pocket and get his tooth powder, take his teeth out and powder those up, because by the end of a song, his teeth were just about to fall out.”
Joy Kallmeyer missed the first two Maifests since he was in military service, but when he got out, he contributed in a big way for the next 15 years. While he was in the service, a group of guys built a covered wagon to be used in Maifest, usually pulled with a team of six horses in tandem.
“My brother-in-law Floyd Stock was the instigator of that,” said Joy. “My brother Wilfred helped him, as well as Joe Saunders (a carpenter). I wasn’t musical, but I could harness a horse and drive a team.”
Bob remembers in the later 60s the smell of marijuana on the soccer field.
“We used to drive out so we would know what marijuana smelled like,” he said. “That was historic, like when they set fire to the chairs in the beergarten.”
Referring to these relative changes to the Maifest program, he said, “If Mizzou didn’t have a ballgame, the [students] would come to Hermann and were a little wild.”
Marilyn laments that Maifest turned into a rowdy Spring Break.
The tradition has also lost a little shine in other ways according to Bob, but he and the others see it as an opportunity.
“It’s not so unique anymore,” he says.
Competition hurts as well. Washington has a Maifest. So do St. Charles, Mo. and Columbia, Ill.
“People don’t want 800 people traipsing through your house, so that’s (home tours) a thing of the past,” said Bob. “It was an era when antiques reigned and people aren’t that interested anymore [in seeing antique furniture].
Still the group sees lots of life left in the enhancement of what used to just be a picnic that celebrated the end of school. Organizer Mary Kunstmann, the Chamber of Commerce and interested volunteers have put together a weekend centered around the theme: “Visit the Old, Discover the New.” Yes, there will be junior Wurstjaeger Dancers performing dances around the Maipole, The Hungry Five will be pumping out oom-pah music that gets everyone in a festive mood and there are lots of activities that are family friendly, such as historic demonstrations, vintage games, tours, the Maifest Parade and Picnic in the Park. Unlike 1952, there will be plenty of food vendors and restaurants so no one goes hungry. And that pink lemonade? Well, it is Hermann, and a rose or a pink lemonade could be interchangeable when the oom-pah gets going.