The wonders of New Wallum

OK, everybody, all together: “It’s the mostwonderful timeof the year!” (I love it when we sing together; it makes me tingly inside.) It’s summer and time for the Much Anticipated Annual Weeds Vacation Edition.

Last year, we talked about vacationing in Sleepy Eye. It was mentioned that we have a water park and a lake. I tried not to brag that up too much, because, well, some cities don’t have a water park and a lake. It’s a sore spot with them. Even some cities that think they’re sort of a big deal. Unbelievable as it sounds, some places that are county seats don’t have a water park and a lake. It’s kind of sad, really. I mean, you can live a perfectly good life in a place without a water park and a lake. But why would you?

This year, the Much Anticipated Annual Weeds Vacation Edition stays right here in Brown County. Whenever we have friends visiting, we like to spend a day in that quaint city found at the confluence of two great waterways. Yep, right there where the Ruheheim Creek and the Minnesota River flow together, it’s that charmer of a place, New Wallum.

New Wallum is proud of its German heritage. They tell you that. Then they tell you again. You could say they wear their Germanness on their sleeves. It’s sort of weird, really, all those people with little German flags taped to their sleeves.

There on the hillside, overlooking the Ruheheim Valley is that glorious symbol of Germanity, Bauer the Sauer. The giant copper statue honors the German folk hero, Bauer. Legend has it that Bauer accidentally ate some rotten cabbage and found it wasn’t so bad. His discovery of sauerkraut saved the German people from famine. It is also said that Bauer had something to do with chasing the Romans out of Germany. But historians now believe the Romans simply got homesick for a good bowl of pasta.

Yessiree, German roots run deep in New Wallum. As a matter of fact, during World War I, there was some question as to the allegiance of the citizens. The City Council compromised and agreed that they would side with whoever was ahead. By World War II, the town was firmly behind America, and the Council agreed to back the Germans only it they won.

Way back, the original settlers of New Wallum were members of the Stern Society. The Sterners were grumpy, agnostic men living a spartan, disciplined lifestyle who hoped to create a utopian society. Then came their first Minnesota winter. And if you think you’re going to survive that without faith in the God Almighty, you got another think a coming.

The original Sterners left. Thank goodness. But the Stern Society lives on in New Wallum. For years, they have offered gymnastics classes to the children in town. There, they learn skills they will use as adults in New Wallum: standing on one leg, walking a straight line, counting backwards, and the always-fun touching your fingertip to your nose.

The other legacy of the agnostic Sterners was that grand festival, Hereticfest. For years Hereticfest attracted happy-go-lucky heretics from Hither and Yon. There was even a bus from Yon. Hans Kung, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins ? all the greats performed at Hereticfest. Then, there was always Amateur Night, when local heretics took the stage and argued things like “Catholics and Lutherans, you’re not the boss of me!” and “Why can’t I marry my cat?”

No Hereticfest was complete without those kings-of-fun, the Discord Singers. Every night at midnight, the Discord Singers were on the main stage leading the crowd in traditional German beer consumption songs. Dressed in lederhosen, arms locked, swaying back and forth, they hardly ever fell over.

The city of New Wallum has always taken pride in its festivals. The common element has been beer. Sometimes there are costumes, sometimes there is music, sometimes there is dancing. All the time, there is beer. When I was a kid, my folks took me to the old Waltz Days Parade. Livestock tanks filled with beer lined the sidewalks. I was eight and a couple years too young to drink. It was one helluva party. The next morning, no one could remember the parade, and there was a gawdawful mess to clean up. So Waltz Days was cancelled.

Since then, a number of festivals have come and gone. Berlin Wallfest was very German but only lasted a few years. Drunkfest was wildly popular, but was really a bit too descriptive. Bavariapaloozabacchanal is the current summer wingding.

There have been efforts to turn these perfectly good beer bashes into family affairs. Wet blankets have made it more difficult to drink to excess. Today you have to purchase coupons in one tent, go to another tent to learn a secret password. After that it is up a steep hill and over a moat filled with man-eating bullheads. It worked. Beer sales plummeted from 10 gallons per fester to 9.5 gallons. Sobriety is not exactly rampant, but the bullheads get a few every year.

The one constant through the years has been that tastiest of New Wallum traditions, Mel’s Beer. Mel’s Brewery is the nation’s oldest brewery owned by a guy named Mel. Locals have been enjoying a glass of Mel’s for almost as long as there’s been a New Wallum. Mel’s great grandfather Mel founded the brewery. He also built the stunning mansion that stands today amidst the German-style vegetable gardens.

It wasn’t always easy for the brewery. Mel’s grandfather Mel had to soldier the brewery through Prohibition. In those dark days, Mel’s came out with a fermented sauerkraut juice that was actually 9 per cent alcohol. No federal revenuer would come near the place because of the stench. Then Mel’s dad Mel guided the brewery through the years when Miller and Bud were taking over the beer world. New Wallumers weren’t about to drink that thin gruel.

Today, Mel’s Brewery is strong and looking to the future. Mel’s two sons, Mel and Mell, have taken an interest in the family business. So hoist your glass of Mel’s on high, and toast to New Wallum. “Ein Prosit, der Gemutlichkeit!” (There is no literal translation of that; it means something like “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.”)

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