Mapping German immigration in the Midwest
The factual significance of German immigration to the Midwest – and the US as a whole, for that matter – seems to be strangely at odds with its public perception.
Thus Chicago’s immigration specialist Melvin G. Holli asks: ‘Why is there so little German-American ethnicity in the slipstream of public consciousness?’

Each history of Chicago is, of course, divided in the time before and after, the dividing event being the Great Fire. notwithstanding the question as to whether Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had or had not, the Great Fire marked ending and beginning … and a little known episode underlines both presence and presence of mind of German immigrants.

It is the story of the German engineer Trautmann, whose presence of mind and courage the Chicago Water Towers owe their survival. Erected in New Gothic style in 1869, the water works were amongst the few buildings withstanding the flames: ‘The night crew at the Waterworks was on alert, guarding every exposed part of the building. The water-storage tower was only slightly damaged…’ (Donald L. Miller, City of the Century, New York 1997, p 153)

In charge was chief-engineer Frank Trautmann, some forty years working in the Chicago landmark on Michigan Avenue. He had arrived in New York in 1825, working for a ship company first and later moving on to Chicago. When, on October 8th, 1871 flames raced towards the pumping station, Trautmann and his assistants used wet sails from nearby Lake Michigan to cover the roof and after two days water supplies could be restored to the burned-out city.

Events like these and the role of German-American personalities are made visible on a time line, showing the German-American Heritage of Chicago (and the Midwest). One entry is dedicated to Herman Joseph Berghoff who opened the doors of the Berghoff Café in 1898 as a showcase for his celebrated Dortmunder-style beer. Originally located at the corner of State and Adams Streets, one door down from its present location, the café sold beer for a nickel and offered sandwiches for free.

Until 1917, when the United States entered the First World War, German Americans had been one of America’s favored immigrant groups, but since then those of German descent at times met with fierce hostility and quietly preserved their cultural traditions away from the public eye. German-American involvement in American life since World War Two, furthermore, has barely been studied. Whether the lowered profile, which contrasts with that of other ethnic groups, will continue in the twenty-first century, may depend on the success of local studies such as pertaining to the Midwest and also on the impact of the Society of German American Studies. (SGAS)

But what about the other regions of the Midwest?

Mapping the German presence has been an ongoing project in some of the thirteen states, from west of the Mississippi, Nebraska and Iowa to the Ohio Valley.

Within Illinois, these activities have been supported by the public school sector itself:
1. ‘Finding German Town’ is a Collaboratory Project of the Illinois State Board of Education – middle school and 9th grade students here have the chance to develop a deeper understanding of immigration as a continuing American event through face-to-face discussion with a local expert and Internet research, data analysis, a survey and writing. (
2. ‘The German Heritage Curriculum Guide’ will expand the teacher resources of the Office of Language and Cultural Education (CPS) and serve as a multicultural guide and activities set for school and university students on the role of German-Americans in Chicagoland.

One outstanding example does not take place mainly in the United States. In Wisconsin immigrants of German descendants seem to prefer to go back to their own roots, which were in part in Mainz where they are supported by historian Helmut Schmahl from Mainz University:

(M.G. Holli is Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago; in his contribution: German American Ethnic and Cultural Identity from 1890 Onward, in: Holli and Jones (eds), Ethnic Chicago. A Multicultural Portrait, Grand Rapids, MI 1995, p. 93-109)