Germans settled Blair County to escape political, economic strifey

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a monthly series on the history of ethnic and religious groups in our area.

Several members of the Bavarian Aid Society are looking to get back to their roots.

The club’s president, Lou Steinbugl, said a trip across the pond to Germany is in the works for next year, and the interest from club members has already been significant.

To date, between 20 and 30 people are planning to journey together, but that could “swell” given time, Steinbugl said.

And it makes sense that so many people would feel some kind of connection to Germany. According to Census data, 40 percent of people in Blair County claim some kind of German heritage, a number that beats people in the next-highest group, the Irish, by a margin of more than 3 to 1.

This trend is common for Pennsylvania, too, which has strong ties to Bavaria, according to the United States Library of Congress.

Steinbugl and his wife would be making their first trip to Germany with the club, though it’s something they’ve wanted to do for a while.

“It’s one of those things we’ve talked about for a long time,” Steinbugl said.

Following the railroad

Much like other European immigrant groups, the jobs afforded by the railroads in the area drew Germans to make the trek across the Atlantic. Pennsylvania saw a significant influx of these travellers, as, according to the Library of Congress, close to 33 percent of the population across the state were of German descent by 1790.

By that time, as many as 100,000 Germans had come to the U.S.

Thousands more immigrated in the late 1840s due to political strife, and close to 1 million did the same in the 1850s, the peak of German immigration to the U.S., according to the Library of Congress.

Jared Frederick, a history instructor at Penn State Altoona, said economic and political turmoil were strong motivation for people to make a change at that time.

“As is the case with every generation with immigrants, there’s often the potential for opportunity that fuels that,” Frederick said.

German immigration to the United States hit its peak in the 1880s, when close to 1.5 million made the trek. It’s the same decade in which the Bavarian Aid Society was founded, according to its website.

The club was formed in February 1887 by 10 individuals: George Lunglhofer, John Wiegman, Pantaleen Frischkorn, George Vogel, Joseph Zollner, Theodore Ziegler, Joseph Frischkorn, John Loeb, John Knott and Philip Kummel, according to its website. The group was founded for both social and economic reasons.

After obtaining a charter in 1889, the club only grew.

“Their support of the community and of German heritage helped to boost the German community in Altoona at times in history when we were faced with great adversity and discrimination because of national and international events,” according to the group’s website.

The Bavarian isn’t the only club in the region to honor German heritage. The Unter Uns Music and Entertainment Society was founded in 1922, according to its steward Jim Gentile.

At that time, according to the Library of Congress, about 1.7 million German-born people lived in the United States, down from its 1980 peak of 2.8 million.

Gentile said he was an Altoona native who returned to the area after 40 years, connecting with the Unter Uns. As steward, he manages the club.

He said the history of different ethnic clubs is fascinating.

“It’s an interesting concept, how they put these together to attract immigrants,” he said.

Honoring the legacy

Keeping a strong membership is one of the keys to keeping any ethnic club alive, and it’s meant opening doors to people outside that particular group to keep the organizations running.

However, as with many similar clubs, active members of the Bavarian Society – those who participate in the group’s governance and the like – are required to have some kind of family ties to Bavaria. Social members, those who come just to partake of the food and drink, are not required to have that same heritage.

Despite the mixed backgrounds of the people coming through the doors, the clubs still seek to host events that honor traditional German holidays and celebrations.

And with fall coming up, there’s no better time for that than Oktoberfest.

In Germany, Oktoberfest is the largest beer festival in the world, and it’s an event often mimicked across the globe. Plenty of people with German ancestry across the state and the country will be dusting off their lederhosen for that particular celebration.

But the well-known ones aren’t all that local German clubs have offer.

Steinbugl said the Bavarian Society has a German folk dancing group that performs there several times a year. Its officers also work to bring in musicians that would offer traditional German music.

“It’s something we try to highlight to those people who maybe haven’t been exposed to it,” Steinbugl said.

Unter Uns hosts its annual Maifest each spring, which features traditional music, dancing and a schnitzel dinner.

The event is put together each year by the Almrausch Schuhplattlers, a German dance group that was originally formed by members of the Bavarian in the 1930s.

The group operates with a goal to promote the “interest of doing whatever possible to initiate, uphold and preserve Bavarian tradition and custom,” according to its Facebook page.

The Unter Uns also revived Fasching this year, a traditional German event that is similar to Mardi Gras. Fasching serves much the same purpose: a celebration of excess before the fasting and restraint of Lent sets in.

Those who attended tasted colored Jell-O shots and German foods while wearing clown makeup, beads and masquerade masks.

“We do all the things we’re giving up for Lent: drinking, eating certain foods, whatever,” Gentile told the Mirror in February.

Coordinating all of these events and helping spread awareness about the region’s German heritage is a labor of love for the leaders of these clubs, though, said Steinbugl.

He joined at 21, introduced to the club by his father. And now, after working his way up the ranks and spending the past five years as the Bavarian Aid Society’s president, Steinbugl’s son now has the chance to join, just like his father did. Steinbugl said that any of the other officers in the club would feel similarly: Keeping the traditions alive is vital.

“I think it’s important simply because it was passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “For me personally, it is an obligation, because my family has very deep roots there, and I feel compelled and obligated to uphold those.”

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7466.