Stories to Swap
By Fritz Busch
NEW ULM – The history, stories and memories of New Ulm flowed freely among a dozen people Wednesday at a Story Swap Workshop to help create a community-based theater production that will take place on Minnesota Street later this year.
New Ulm mechanic Terry Johnson weighed in. “Kids used to go to the back door of neighborhood stores and fill a bucket with beer and cigarettes and bring them back to the blacksmith shop,” said Johnson. “All the small stores had charge accounts.”
Ashley Hanson of St. Paul-based PlaceBase Productions said she and Andrew Gaylord have visited many places in town and talked to people. “We’re looking for things that may not be in history books to color and flavor the lives of people. …We’re still absorbing stories and ideas.”
Former New Ulm Mayor and Councilor Joel Albrecht said he moved to New Ulm 58 years ago after his military service and found life so interesting here that he just couldn’t leave.
Johnson said he moved to New Ulm in 1967 after attending some of its celebrations. “My mother said you have to live here 50 years to fit the groove,” Johnson said. “New Ulm’s a fantastic town, very proud of its heritage. …There were 27 bars or stores that sold beer and/or liquor here in 1967.”
Lee Weber grew up in New Ulm but lived in Mason City, Iowa for 35 years. He wants to retire in New Ulm. “There is more happening here of interest than any place I’ve been,” Weber said.
“I’ve always considered New Ulm the center of the universe,” Yvonne Weber said.
Grace Hennig said she lived in New Ulm as a pre-schooler before moving to Illinois, Michigan, California, Germany and Wisconsin before returning to New Ulm. “I remember getting lost in town as a four-year-old. There was a public alert for me on the radio before I got back home,” Hennig said. “I appreciate how much there is to do here now.”
Benny Seifert came from a musical family, and he took up music at age six, doing his first accordion gig for 25 cents. He now plays several musical instruments and plays at nursing homes. Seifert recalled playing with local polka bands that performed live in studio for KNUJ Radio from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. daily.
A Junior Air Raid Warden who made sure people turned their lights off at night during the war, Seifert became a medic in the service. He returned to New Ulm, became a Licensed Practical Nurse at Loretto Hospital, then worked for decades at New Ulm Manufacturing, which became Caterpillar.
“Stores were open late downtown on Saturday night,” Seifert said. “People would park downtown and visit in their vehicles. Farmers would drive tractors to town. There was even lots of booze during Prohibition. People made moonshine in underground stills and hauled it to Chicago in hidden places in hearses.”
Colorful business owners included Dannheim Dairy owner Don Dannheim. He was pictured on the back page of the Sunday Journal in boxing trunks and boxing gloves.
“This is the only place I know of with its own artillery unit (the Battery) and a February Mardi Gras,” Weber said. “Every community needs festivals that identify it and this place is loaded with them.”
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).