Germanfest Picnic puts down new roots at RiverScape

Photo: Polka dancers at Germanfest

By David Nilsen

The Germanfest Picnic, Dayton’s largest celebration of the city’s rich German heritage, will be coming to downtown Aug. 11–13. Held for years at Carillon Historical Park, the 2017 picnic will be the first edition of the popular event to be held at RiverScape MetroPark.

Germanfest Picnic is put on each year by Dayton Liederkranz-Turner, the Dayton area’s largest German club. Founded in October 1890, Dayton Liederkranz-Turner (DLT) was originally known as Harugari Leiderkranz, and served the city’s substantial German-speaking population at a time when German immigrants were coming to the Midwest in large numbers.

“Dayton has such a rich German heritage, dating to the mid-1800s,” says Judy Schneider, DLT’s public relations liaison. From 1840 to 1940, countless German families settled in what is sometimes referred to as the “German Triangle” formed by nearby Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, and Dayton saw many German-speakers come to the area to start businesses or work in the city’s many manufacturing plants. According to Schneider, at one time there were over 20 German-owned or operated breweries in Dayton, and German was the main language spoken east of the Miami-Erie Canal in the city.

“My relatives exposed me to everything German in the area—taverns, bakeries, churches,” adds John Koerner, the chairman of Germanfest Picnic.

While anti-German sentiment in the aftermath of World War II brought a stop to the area’s enthusiasm for German tradition, DLT continued to thrive, and the area’s German community remained close-knit. The club has met every Thursday evening since its inception, and has grown to include singing choirs and even a folk dance group.

Germanfest Picnic was launched in 1983 when Fred Bartenstein, one of the leaders of Carillon Park at the time, approached DLT about starting a German heritage event to bring Carillon more visibility. What started as a small gathering of DLT members quickly grew into something much larger. “From there, we have added events and activities, and expanded the menu and beer selection to get to where we are today—one of the largest and most authentic celebrations of all things German in the tri-state area,” Schneider proudly explains.

Until this year, the picnic has always been held at Carillon Historical Park. A joint venture between Montgomery County’s official historical organization and its largest German club has always made sense, and the picnic has long benefitted both parties. Picnic organizers were surprised, then, to find they needed a new home for their event early this year when they were informed by Brady Kress, Carillon’s CEO, the park would be discontinuing its relationship with DLT. The controversial break-up—amply covered by area media—left a bad taste in the mouths of picnic organizers, and left them scrambling to find a new venue for their keynote event. The Dayton community—whether of German lineage or otherwise—fought to keep this beloved festival alive, and DLT received a large number of suggestions for a new location. RiverScape MetroPark became the most popular choice, and a new relationship was formed.

While Schneider and Koerner were a bit apprehensive about moving such a large festival to a new location and sorting out the associated logistical issues, they’re excited to see the picnic come to downtown Dayton where it will be more visible and accessible.

“Our motto this year,” Schneider says, “is ‘same old Gemütlichkeit, just moved to a new location.’” If you’re wondering what Gemütlichkeit means, you’re not alone. When asked about the word—which the organizers like to say describes the ambience of their festival—they explained it doesn’t have a direct English equivalent, but Schneider says it encompasses a feeling of “warmth, friendliness, and good cheer, [as well as] coziness, peace of mind, and a sense of belonging.”

Koerner puts it succinctly: “It’s what packs the great beer halls in Munich during Oktoberfest.”

That’s a sentiment that’s sure to appeal to any lover of German beer, and Germanfest Picnic will have plenty of it, including authentic imported German brews and American craft brewing renditions of classic German styles.

“Our lineup is pretty impressive,” says Koerner, who started out as a “beer truck captain” when he first volunteered for the picnic in the 1990s, and then graduated to running the festival’s entire beer operation, one of its biggest draws for guests.

Fans of German beer will have no shortage of options when they step into Germanfest Picnic’s several beer tents in August. For attendees whose drinking calendar revolves around the annual release of Oktoberfest lagers—a rich, amber beer with a clean, toasty profile, and the traditional brew of Munich’s eponymous fall celebration—Christmas comes early this year; Germanfest Picnic will have some of the first Oktoberfests of the season on tap, including excellent examples from Munich breweries Paulaner and Hofbrau. Paulaner will also be bringing their flagship Munich Helles-style lager and their Salvator, a rich and decadent Doppelbock, while Hofbrau will also be bringing a Helles and a Dunkel. Bottled German beers from Erdinger and Ayinger will also be available.

Those desiring American craft beer will not be disappointed either, with numerous U.S. craft breweries contributing their best German-inspired brews. Rhinegeist Hans Vienna lager will be there, and Dayton Beer Company—one of the sponsors of the picnic’s 5k/10k on Saturday—will be brewing a German-inspired brew that will debut at the festival.

“Folks who love beer will be treated to the most favorable festival pricing around,” says Koerner, adding that even the premium brands will be no more than $6 a beer. Drinkers ordering the 16-ounce draft beers will find it good practice for the stein-lifting contest that will take place at a time yet to be announced. Beer will also be available in sampler flights, and those who don’t love the sudsier German libations but still want an adult beverage will find a selection of German red and white wines, as well as several Jägermeister products.

All of that beer will be matched by an equal bounty of traditional German foods. In addition to a wide variety of food vendors offering their own German culinary creations, DLT’s food team, led by Trudy Campbell, prepares many specialty dishes themselves. They’re peeling over a ton of potatoes by hand for the picnic’s legendary potato salad. “Our potato salad is unmatched,” Koerner claims. “You’ll have a hard time finding anything as good. I’ve tried!”

Schneider also recommends seeking out the schnitzel and their wide variety of authentic desserts, including the Beinenstich, or “Bee Sting Cake,” which she describes as “a sweet yeast dough with a baked-on topping of honey and almonds and filled with a vanilla custard or cream.”

Beyond food and drink, there will be plenty to see and do at Germanfest Picnic this year. The move to RiverScape has allowed the festival to expand its hours, opening at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday instead of the 5 p.m. launch of previous years. The picnic will open on Friday at 5, with the opening ceremony and traditional beer keg tapping at 6:30. Numerous musical groups will be playing German-influenced tunes on the RiverScape Music Pavilion stage throughout the weekend, from accordion-accompanied polkas to guitar-driven modern rock and just about everything in between. Friday evening will also see a performance by Madame Gigi’s Outrageous French Cancan Dancers, who perform comedy and stunt-filled versions of France’s favorite dance, while finding a way to work in some German tunes while they’re at it.

Saturday morning will kick off with a 5k/10k race at 9, which will travel along the riverside bikeways. Registration information can be found at the Germanfest Picnic website. The festival grounds will open at 11 on Saturday, and attendees will enjoy a market of German craft vendors, as well as numerous activities for children, including puppet shows and a play area. The festival will close at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday morning at 10 before the main festival opens, a “Polka Mass” will be conducted at the Music Pavilion by Father Bill Myers, a retired priest from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This is a traditional Catholic Mass, but all of the hymns will be accompanied by the Alpen Echoes Polka Band, with several being sung to actual polka melodies.

Speaking of church, Germanfest Picnic will have a unique opportunity at the 2017 event to celebrate a pivotal point in the history of Christianity in Germany and around the world. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, proclaiming his disagreements with the state church and launching the Protestant Reformation. The event signaled the birth of the world’s Protestant denominations, and Germanfest Picnic will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event this year by making it the centerpiece of their Cultural Display, which changes year to year. The German Embassy in Chicago is sending an interactive exhibit for the display, and the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. will be sending a life-size Playmobil figure of Martin Luther that guests can have their photos taken with.

Parking for the event will present a bit more trouble downtown than it did at Carillon Park in recent years, so Koerner suggests planning ahead. A free RTA shuttle bus will run through downtown to drop off and pick up guests at the picnic, and a map of its route is available on the event’s website. A free bike valet service will be offered for the first time this year, allowing guests to pedal to RiverScape without worrying about the safety of their ride. Bike Miami Valley will check-in and monitor bikes until riders come to retrieve them.

With over 50,000 annual attendees and so many activities going on, it can be easy to miss how close-knit the Dayton Liederkranz-Turner and the team who heads up Germanfest Picnic really are. “I like to emphasize that we are a community festival,” says Koerner. Profits from the picnic go not just to maintain DLT’s aging clubhouse in the St. Anne’s Hill neighborhood, but to fund scholarships for area youth. Since the group began awarding scholarships in 2001, they’ve given out over $50,000 to graduating seniors, and they’ll be awarding $7,000 in scholarships to seven students during this year’s opening ceremonies. Koerner is also quick to point out that numerous other community organizations benefit from Germanfest Picnic, including Special Olympics, United Rehabilitation Services, and many others.

When asked about the future of DLT and their Germanfest Picnic, Schneider and Koerner both acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining a historical heritage group when many of the original purposes for the group have changed over the last century.

“Last year, the Dayton Liederkranz-Turner celebrated 125 years of promoting and preserving German culture and traditions in the Miami Valley,” Schneider says, “and we look forward to 125 more. To be able to do that, we need to attract new, younger members. The Germanfest Picnic is a major way to introduce ourselves to potential new members in the community.” Visitors to the picnic will be able to sign up to join the club at the event.

“I believe the DLT will continue well into the future,” Koerner adds, “although its mission, emphasis, and form may evolve with the times and the membership.” The chairman encourages visitors who enjoy the annual three-day celebration of German beer, food, and fun to consider joining or helping out with the humble club that puts it on. “Without DLT members, there is no fest.

“And by all means,” Koerner quips, “don’t leave without tasting the best German potato salad on the planet.”

Germanfest Picnic takes place Friday–Sunday, Aug. 11–13 at RiverScape MetroPark. For more information, please visit DaytonGermanClub.org.

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David Nilsen
David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at DavidNilsenBeer.com and reach him at DavidNilsen@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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