Most Americans aren't "from here." We "come from" somewhere. My own heritage is mostly English and Scottish—both of my parents' families come from Indianapolis, Indiana, a center of the Scottish diaspora in America.
Wisconsin, where my father relocated our family when I was seven, absorbed immigrants of many nationalities—Czech, Polish, Swiss. They're all outnumbered, however, by the Germans. In the same year Wisconsin became a state, 1848, many Germans were forced into exile by the collapse of the Revolutions of 1848, and many—mostly from Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Brandenburg—came to Wisconsin. Here, those reformists and former revolutionaries created the basis for Wisconsin's progressive political traditions.
In the second half of the 19th century, more than a million Germans immigrated to America. Milwaukee, then and now Wisconsin's largest city, was deliberately transformed into a center of Germanic culture. It became known as Deutsch-Athen, or "the German Athens." In 1900, fully one in three Wisconsin residents was either German-born or had at least one parent who was. German was the primary language of the Milwaukee public schools until 1922—all the way through the First World War.
According to local historian John Gurda, there were two heavy body-blows to Germanic culture in Milwaukee in particular and Wisconsin in general in the early 20th century. The first, of course, was the First World War, when suddenly German descent was something Americans wanted to be very quiet about. Much of Milwaukee's German pride was de-emphasized in those years. The second was Prohibition—Milwaukee's German culture had revolved about beer-brewing and beer-imbibing, and although many of Milwaukee's famous beers—Blatz, Schlitz, Gettelman, Pabst, and Miller—survived, Prohibition interrupted many Germanic traditions locally. Today, all but one of the great beers are gone. Miller, the sole survivor, is still brewed here, but the company is owned by the British.
Wisconsin's German heritage isn't so evident now on the surface of things. Our most important immigrant group is now Mexicans. We are still the sister-city of Schwerin, the capital and second-largest city of the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where many of our German families originally came from, but relatively few residents of the city know that. Still, many of the city's most prominent families have German surnames. And although "Smith" is said to be the most common surname in America, here in Wisconsin they're far outnumbered by "Schmitts" and "Schmidts."
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Aubrey Silvertooth: "There are still a bunch us here in Texas. Many did change the name from Schmidt to Smith during World War I. That almost caused a divorce between my German great-grandfather and my English great-grandmother. The discord lasted until 1972, when he passed away. She almost had a coronary when she saw the headstone at the cemetary said Schmidt instead of Smith. There are a slew of Czechs down here as well. Come visit one day!"
Featured Comment by Paris: "It is odd to think about the inter-European prejudices that used to be common here. My wife's best friend from high school was warned, seriously, not to marry her German surnamed boyfriend because 'Germans all beat their wives.' It's been 30 years and so far so good, but we're keeping an eye on him. My father, whose surname was not obviously Italian, went away to college in the 1930s, when 'wop' and 'guinea' jokes were common. He never told anyone about his nationality, and never brought a college friend home to meet his immigrant parents."
Featured Comment by Carl Blesch: "I have to weigh in here as a Milwaukee native of German heritage. I was told that my grandmother's brother, a university professor in the early 20th century, had to stop teaching German during WWI, and to keep his job, learned Spanish and started teaching it. One of my early ancestors, upon emigrating from Germany, opened a brewery in Green Bay. I saw a photo of it in that city's Neville Public Museum. During my 1950s–60s childhood in suburban Milwaukee, I took gymnastic lessons at the Milwaukee Turners, a club descended from the German 'Turnverein' tradition. And I remember attending the annual folk festival at the Milwaukee auditorium, which of course was dominated by Milwaukee's two predominant ethnic groups, the Germans and Poles."