Story Swap draws interest

NEW ULM-About a dozen local history enthusiasts shared some of their favorite New Ulm memories and talked about the future at a Story Swap Workshop Saturday at The Grand Center for Arts and Culture.

Sleepy Eye native Tim Mickelson said he moved to New Ulm after high school because “it was the big town.” He later moved elsewhere and returned to New Ulm after deciding it was the place where he wanted to retire. “I missed New Ulm, so I moved back,” he said.

Much of the discussion revolved around New Ulm’s many drinking establishments, ballrooms and polka musicians including band leaders who were considered some of the city’s biggest characters and celebrities.

“At one point, there were 28 polka bands in New Ulm,” Allen Affolter said. “Some of the musicians once asked me if I would sell them group life insurance. I said are you kidding? Sell group life insurance to bunch of inebriated musicians that run around at 3 a.m.?”

The group talked about the popularity of ballroom dancing decades ago and some of its quirks. “Bands that played in the Gibbon Ballroom were not allowed to play in George’s Ballroom (in New Ulm),” Florian Dittrich said. “There were so many polka bands back then, it didn’t matter much.”

It was said cowboy boots and a half pint of hard liquor were usually allowed in ballrooms as long as patrons behaved. “If you didn’t behave, (George’s Ballroom owner) George Neuwirth would throw you out for three months,” Dittrich said. “And he would remember to the day when you could come back.”

Some of the more dramatic historical events involved some of New Ulm’s leaders during World War I.

Opal Dewanz talked about public meetings held in which some of New Ulm’s leaders voiced support for U.S. neutrality during wartime.

Affolter said the man who baptized and confirmed him, Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC) President Adolph Ackerman. moved to Mankato when wartime issue flared.

Ackerman was involved in a draft protest rally. Like some other local leaders, he did not want to force New Ulm’s German-American residents to fight a war against the “fatherland,” according an account in “125 Years, 125 Stories by Martin Luther College,” a 125th anniversary commemorative book.

Ackerman was removed from the DMLC presidency by the College Board of Control when the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) threatened to close the school, according to the book. The MCPS removed Mayor Louis Fritsche and City Attorney Albert Pfaender from office after an anti-draft meeting was held in New Ulm.

Rumor had it New Ulm, called Kaisertown by some people, was considering secession from Minnesota and the United States and was declaring itself a “free city” of Germany – an action that needed to be quashed, according to the book.

Dewanz told the story of a stubborn bull that was used for breeding on another farm. “I was afraid someone would get killed trying to load it,” Dewanz said. “Florian Dittrich hauled out a cow in big truck and the bull went right up the (loading) chute…sometimes all it takes is a lady.”

Dittrich said decades ago, many tons of Minnesota River clamshells were shipped to button factories in Muscatine, Iowa. One report read that in 1916, carloads of clamshells worth more than $30,000 were taken from the river between Mankato and Montevideo.

Today, no live mussels may be collected in Minnesota. It is best to leave mussels where you find them, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Regarding the future of New Ulm, Dittrich said U.S. Highway 14 improvements were big issues decades ago and still are. “Before Interstate 90 was built, a route through Waseca and New Ulm was considered but some leaders in both towns strongly opposed it. They were afraid it would kill the towns.”

“When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to move to the big city because I didn’t think anything in New Ulm would ever change,” Mickelson said. “Now, around retirement, this is something comforting about moving back here.

Jenny Filzen of New Ulm said she has had family roots in New Ulm since the 1800’s. She said historical building renovations like The Grand Center for the Arts and Culture create new opportunities while maintaining history.

“New Ulm has a lot going for it,” Dewanz said. “I see a great future.”

Dittrich said a small local labor force slows business and industrial growth. “We can’t find enough help here,” Dittrich added. “We could put lots of people to work right now. There are lots of good jobs available here now.”

Stories collected in workshops will be used in a script and music for an original, site-specific theater production: “New Ulm: Old Minnesota Street,” to be performed in New Ulm this fall. PlaceBase Productions, looking for 50 to 100 local performers, musicians, volunteers and anyone else interested, will hold open auditions this summer.

For more information, visit, email or call Lisa Rieke-Knaak at 507-259-9222.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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