We took two day trips to small towns in southern Minnesota this week; this post will talk about the first of them. The town is New Ulm, and is located in the southwestern part of the state. It is mostly farmland along the roughly two-hour drive from the Twin Cities–frankly, it’s not much to look at. Honestly, that’s the case with most of the southern part of the state.
Billed as “the most German town in America”, New Ulm is proud of its heritage. It was founded by German immigrants before Minnesota was even recognized as a state, and has clung to its roots. My son has been attending the German immersion school in St. Paul since pre-school, and is interested in German culture and language. That was one reason we chose New Ulm as a destination for summer vacation.
*Note: I will say at the outset that these are all photographs from my phone; I use my favorite app, called Hipstamatic. The app allows you to program a “lens” and a “film” before you take the shot, but once it has been captured, it cannot be altered. The low resolution was a product of a new setting which I did not realize until after the trip, and the differing lenses and films used were because I used the “shake to randomize” setting, which I don’t normally use. I especially avoid this setting when I aim to tell a story of something, as the visual narrative is interrupted by the constant changes.*
After we arrived, we decided to park and head to the tourist office. The tourism center offers free coffee and cookies, and is staffed by the friendliest collection of ladies I can remember meeting. They didn’t stop smiling the entire time and seemed really enthused about New Ulm. In hindsight, they probably were at least partially responsible for setting the bar a bit too high for the town; more on that later.
We ambled through town to see the sights, among them the Heritage Tree. The heritage tree is essentially a tree-looking tower which has various models that represent parts of the heritage of the town on each level (I realize now that the picture I took of it doesn’t really explain much about what it is).
We also saw a lot of local businesses–a fair number of them were closed, but some were not. Most of them had German-sounding names, but little to do with anything actually from Germany. Most of the heritage seems to be bastardized and turned into a kitschy bit of cultural nostalgerotica for those into these types of things. That needn’t sound negative; I suppose a small town like this has to use what it has to attract tourists.
The town seems to have a disproportionate amount of both banks and barber shops, of which I found multiple of each within the span of a few short blocks. Apparently New Ulm is both the banking and hairstyling capitol of the local area. We even found some shops that were open during the week, and we enjoyed perusing their wares.
We had lunch in “the most German restaurant in town”, which, as you can imagine, had my blood pumping pretty hard. We indulged in a lunch that was, shall we say, “German-inspired”. The decor was straight out of the old country, even if the menu wasn’t entirely.
If you’re visiting New Ulm–or in the event you’ve already been there–you have certainly heard of Hermann the German. This teutonic titan managed to unite the Germanic tribes in the year 9 AD and defeat the Romans at some battle I could google for you, but am to lazy to. Let’s just say he was the talk of the town. He has a 102-foot statue near the Martin Luther College campus, and we went to climb it and get a greater appreciation for Hermann’s feats, while also getting a bird’s-eye view of the city.
We saw the local cathedral, which was nice, and offered some reprieve from the heat of the afternoon sun. We also took in the thrice-daily Glockenspiel (which, if I lived or worked in the town, and was subjected to constantly, I could envision becoming less charming), ate some baked goods at the German bakery, saw the German-Bohemian Immigrant Monument, and visited German Park (astute readers may notice a pattern developing).
As we headed back to the car to depart after a long day, I noticed what looked like a minor league baseball stadium, and took a slight detour to check it out. Johnson Park, as it is called, was empty and locked up, but two of the groundskeepers noticed me looking in and offered to let me in to see it. Thankfully, I took them up on the offer; I’m sure glad that I did. Turns out it was the home of the New Ulm Brewers, who play in the East Tomahawk League of the MN Baseball League.
What really made it cool is the fact that the stadium was a WPA project from 1939, which a plaque at the base of the stand near the entrance indicates. Much of it seems to have not been upgraded since then, which lends it a sense of history and charm. This, for me, was the highlight of the day.
There is an accompanying football field, called Johnson Field, right next door. While I didn’t get inside, it looked to be about the same vintage. Following this, we got back in the car and headed off to our next destination. New Ulm ended up being a bit underwhelming–this coming from the guy who has been to Wigan, and has season tickets to the Timberwolves–but perhaps that is part of its charm? It’s a small town in southern Minnesota, which draws on its heritage to attract tourists; personally, I felt the “German heritage” bit was oversold.
Still, all in all, a nice day out.