Wisconsin Heritage: Old Language Dies Hard

James Johonnott

It's no Germantown, but it's a pretty German town. German immigrants like the dudes above flocked to Hustisford, Wis. in 1840.
It's no Germantown, but it's a pretty German town. German immigrants much like the dudes above flocked to Hustisford, Wis. in 1840.  (Except these guys actually came to Dunn County. Image: Dunn County Wisconsin Genealogy.)

We all know the American Immigration Story. A family packs up everything it has and leaves on a ship from the “old country” bound for America. They set up a new life, form communities, and they hold onto their culture but inevitably assimilate into the Great American Melting Pot. In the case of Wisconsin, Germans made sure that the pot was filled with mostly beer, cheese and sausage. But that’s not how all immigration stories go, and it’s certainly not the story of Hustisford, a town that spoke primarily German for five generations. Now that’s what I call some serious sturheit.

Over at Mental Floss, Deb Gunther has written a piece on the small town 50 miles north of Madison. In 1840, waves of German immigrants descended upon Hustisford. It wasn’t until the 1910 census, however, that some key differences between Hustisford and other German immigrant communities became clear: a quarter of the population spoke German – and didn’t speak English at all. A third of that number were grandchildren of German immigrants who still didn’t speak English. It wasn’t until 1939 that the town’s German monolingualism began to fade out. In that year a church put out a newsletter saying that it would try to add one English sermon per month. On a trial basis.

German influence runs thick through Wisconsin’s history, but sometimes it’s easy to forget just how thick it is.

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