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German ancestry celebrated at Schleswig
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German ancestry celebrated at Schleswig

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SCHLESWIG, Iowa | Eight decades ago, Mayor Jimmy Schultz stood his ground at the center of Schleswig, possibly heading off a riot brought on by anti-German hysteria that gripped parts of Iowa in the days leading up to World War I.

"Schleswig had a community meeting leading into World War I and the citizens decided to keep the name of the town," said Larry Grill, a native of the Crawford County community and author of a book detailing the town's history.

"There was almost a violent reaction on the part of some people toward Germans here," Grill added.

The Schleswig Public Library hosts a major exhibit on how German immigrants have influenced Iowa culture. The exhibit, "German Iowa and the Global Midwest," from the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa will show in the library from Thursday through June 18.

At the center of the week-long display is a Germanfest program across the street from the library at Cheeta's Cafe and Lounge. A German meal will be served while German music is offered, most notably by Maria Petersen on her zither. The Germanfest, which opens at 4 p.m. Saturday, will conclude with a panel discussion.

Grill harkens back to the World War I era, highlighting a period of stark anti-German sentiment in the United States.

"A group billing themselves as, well, 'super patriots,' you might say, nearly lynched Henry Finnern, who edited the German language newspaper in Denison."

The violent faction of Crawford County residents secured a commitment from Finnern to refrain from publishing in return for his safety.

"And then the caravan came to Schleswig as an armed group," Grill said.

Fortunately, residents of Schleswig, which had been founded just 18 years prior, received advance notice. So, Schultz took his spot in the middle of town and everyone else hid.

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"Mayor Schultz gathered the group around and welcomed them to town," Grill said. "He then told the group about the patriotism seen in Schleswig. He read a list of the men from Schleswig who had volunteered for military service. He also listed major contributions that citizens from Schleswig had made for war bonds.

"He then challenged the group to match that record in their communities," Grill added.

As the mayor spoke, his visitors glanced around and noticed that the ends of shotgun barrels began poking out from behind fences and below windows. The posse, in effect, had been surrounded.

"The mayor wished the group a safe trip home and they left," Grill said.

While folks in town stayed safe, there were things that changed as the United States entered the war. The Chicago-Northwestern Railroad dropped the name Schleswig from its route during the war. Instead, this stop became known only as "Stop No. 16."

Thankfully, Grill said, World War I didn't last for years and years. And, immediately after its conclusion in November 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic became everyone's focus. That epidemic, which killed millions of people across the world, found member of the U.S. public banding together in grief and in an attempt to fight the disease, not one another.

Schleswig, whose name comes from a city in Germany, came about after the railroad was placed in an area between the communities of Hohenzollern (named for Germany's royal family at that time) and Morgan. Those two towns seemed to pick up their buildings, literally, and moved to the railroad, establishing a town that some may have wished to name Holstein, after an area in Germany.

"The problem? There was already a Holstein just up the road," Grill said.

So, Schleswig became the name, a name that continues to be celebrated here.

"More Iowans consider themselves to have Germany ethnicity than any other," Grill said. "We want to honor the German culture that was here when Schleswig came into being, as most of the residents then were first- and second-generation immigrants."

You can still see evidence of the German culture here, most notably in the architectural style put into use by at least a half-dozen commercial buildings. Grill said that many tombstones in the cemetery just south of Schleswig also have names and words written in German.


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