How the Germans (and Beer) Saved New Orleans
How does one populate a muddy, mosquito-infested, disease-ridden, disaster-prone plot of land in hostile Native American territory? This is the question John Law was employed to answer in the years of New Orleans' infancy. For the reasons already described, the process of building a community proved to be... arduous. So, under his direction, thousands of Europeans were coerced or, more often, kidnapped into immigrating to the New World. Those most susceptible to this were obvious: convicts, vagrants, the poor and homeless, and the gullible. In places like Paris, those that found themselves out of work for three or more days were given a one-way ticket to New Orleans.
However, as it turns out: a looter, thief, smuggler, prostitute, or murderer does not a farmer (or particularly good citizen) make... and that's where the Germans came in.
How the Germans (and Beer) Saved New Orleans
A Tepid Arrival
The arrival of the Germans to New Orleans is credited with Karl Friedrich D'Arensbourg, who hailed from the German section of Stockholm and would actually be considered a Swede by today's standards. D'Arensbourg stewarded over a group of some of John Law's Germans during the Mississippi River Bubble. Germany was weak from war and exhausted Germans, particularly from Rhineland, were eager to find new life in in New Orleans. The few that survived the brutal, disease-ridden and undernourished voyage landed in Biloxi and Dauphin Island.
Their boots had scarcely the time to sink into the floodplain mud before they realized how haphazardly their arrivals and plans for colonization had been thrown together by organizers. Most were sent to an untamed and unsettled region of Arkansas. After little luck and many casualties, this marooned group of Germans made their way down to New Orleans where they intended to demand to be returned home. However, in 1721, upon arriving in New Orleans, D'Arsenbourg, who had become close with Bienville, convinced the Germans to accompany him 25 miles up-river to settle what was considered to be the best land in the area. Today it is still known as the German Coast.
New Orleanians have a lot to thank the Germans for. I mean, they gave us the accordion, for crying out loud (you're welcome, Weird Al). On a much more serious note though, if it weren't for the settlement, farming, and graciousness of early German settlers, New Orleans would probably still be relying on the nutrients found in mead. When D'Arensbourg rallied his company of Germans together, they began producing and selling life-saving products to hungry New Orleanians that were scarcely surviving in their disorganized encampment. The French Superior Council even issued a decree in 1724 to protect shipments from the German Coast en route to
New Orleans. In fact, New Orleanians began to flourish so much from the new German aid that France recommended getting regular “imports” of them.
As New Orleans began to grow, these Germans sought to develop land in the cheaper, less crowded sections of town. Subsequently, they formed three close-knit neighborhoods where Germans were able to freely practice and preserve the language and cultures of their home country.
According to the census in 1850, along the river between Felicity and Louisiana avenue had a 40 percent concentration of Germans. This large, working-class area was known for its rank smell, which was due to the German's industriousness in farming and livestock. This neighborhood boasted a successful slaughterhouse, tannery, tallow renderer, and soap and lubricant manufacturers. Magazine Street, much like today, served as a commercial street, but the businesses you'd find included cotton presses, breweries, ice makers, millwork plants, warehouses for tobacco and cotton, and shops of ironwork.
The New Orleans suburb of Faubourg Lafayette, which briefly became its own city before being incorporated into the city in 1852, was once the New Orleans center for meat processing. After being incorporated, however, Germans seized the opportunity to revive the industry and quickly set up shop. By 1860, nearly half of this population was German, and it’s left a lasting mark. About 30 miles southwest of New Orleans, there was a German neighborhood known at the time as Little Saxony or “The Brewery,” lies a small town known today as Des Allemands or “The Germans” in French. Respectively, nearby Lac Des Allemands is “Lake of the Germans” also known as The German Coast.
For a little over fifty years (1848-1900) German was the largest foreign language spoken in Louisiana; by 1850 one-fifth of the state's population was German-speaking, with over 50 periodicals circulating. In fact, New Orleans had the largest German colony in America below the Mason-Dixon Line. Unfortunately, that didn't spare them from the Americanization process, which can still be seen in some of the bastardized and nonsensical “French” found in New Orleans today. German names such as “Troxler” were transformed into “Trosclair,” or “Zweig” (meaning “branch”) to “LaBranche”. Despite the forced assimilation, their contributions to the city did not dither as New Orleans finally began to grow and prosper. On the contrary, as New Orleanians became more organized, Germans were able to focus their attention on other (arguably more important) contributions that shaped the face of New Orleans... like beer.
Prost! (And Other Contributions)
It should be of little surprise to anyone that there was a time in New Orleans history that the draymen of the city were almost exclusively Germans. In the mid 1800’s, there were thirty or so of these German breweries, which were mostly found at the foot of Canal Street, and each had
its own traditional beer garden. Like today, these German beer gardens served as watering holes offering music, dance, and fine beers for locals wanting to escape the heat and politics that dominated New Orleans. These establishments are still landmarks throughout New Orleans and its skyline: Jax, Dixie, Falstaff. Though for a long time they stood as monuments to The Dark Time (aka prohibition) when they were forcibly closed, Jax was, until recently, the only one to reopen (until it’s permanent demise in 1974). In spite of prohibitionists’ efforts and despite the Katrina-forced sabbatical, Dixie was resurrected in 2017 and New Orleanians are hoping the German brew is back for good.
The German Fabacher family were, for obvious reasons, beloved by New Orleanians. They had a habit of delighting and indulging New Orleanians at the Jackson Brewery on the View Carre Riverfront. At this brewery men were allotted a ration of beer per shift and each department had its own keg.
You can see the German influence in New Orleans bread industry as well. Bakeries like Leidenheimer's, Alois J. Binder Bakery, Klotzbach's, Haydel's, Hubig's Pies are still popular New Orleans Staples today. While most of these no longer sell German-style bread, and instead meet the more ardent demand of French bread and king cakes, their roots can be clearly traced back to early New Orleans German immigrants.
Other notable early German immigrants to New Orleans include Jewish Germans such as Isaac Delgado, Judah Touro, Martin Behrman, and Leon Godchaux, as well Grocer Garrett Schwegmann, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, Brewer Lawrence Fabacher, and Baker George Leidenheimer. And finally, Fritz Jahncke, a German from Hamburg paved the streets of New Orleans and supplied materials for many of our historical landmarks such as Lee Circle and Tulane Stadium.
Relations During The World Wars
While Germans served as a vital component to the creation of New Orleans, teaching us to farm, pave, and more importantly, make beer, we turned our backs on them at the start of World War I and throughout World War II. In 1918 the Louisiana state Legislature passed Act 114. Speaking German was banned entirely from our school system, public or private, from kindergarten to university. All expressions of German culture and heritage were also banned. It was illegal to publish even a periodical with the German language printed on it. Historic German-American business and landmarks were quickly transformed or shut down.
The Grünewald Hotel, even now an important part of our skyline, was mandated to change its name to The Roosevelt. It was inside this historic German hotel that New Orleans' official cocktail was born: the Sazerac. Berlin Street was changed to General Pershing Street (which is, admittedly, a funny choice). And, in a (quite successful) attempt to appease New Orleanians,
the Fabachers named their popular beer, Jax, after their beloved Andrew Jackson. They learned quickly: if you can't beat us, provide us with beer.
Germans and New Orleans Today
Germans played a pivotal role in the settlement of New Orleans, and frankly, I have significant doubts that they could've done it without them. Their industriousness and resolve provided early New Orleans settlers with desperately needed supplies, and most importantly: beer. But unfortunately, despite all the struggles Germans endured to provide to New Orleans culture, from getting us drunk to getting us from place to place, there's little recognition of these contributions today. When Germans were forced to betray their heritage, language, and culture, traditions were forgotten and customs were lost.
In fact, many New Orleanians are surprised to learn that Germans made any contribution to the founding of Louisiana at all, and even more to hear that Germany still contributes greatly today. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Germany contributed desperately needed pumps during the emergency assistance process, acknowledging its close ties to the city and its founding people. So, in response to the dwindling memory most people have of these Germans, there has been a push to recognize their presence and historical contributions. The Deutsche Haus was founded between World War I and II as a social club here in New Orleans and became a gathering place for people sharing interest or heritage in German culture and language. Here, they collected newspapers and detailed records of German organizations and institutions of the time and acted as a voice for the people it represented. Subsequently, it's raised awareness for culturally relevant holidays such as Maifest or Oktoberfest.
I've always had a bizarre curiosity for Germans so I was quite excited to begin researching this topic, and to discover how much they contributed to a city I hold dear to my heart. That being said, I have traveled to Germany several times, and love the people, food and culture. But one of the hardest things about coming home was not lackluster beer quality, as most people would suspect (I'm a die-hard Abita fan). The thing I miss the most about Germany is the bread. There are lots of German tourists that come here to New Orleans, and there's one thing that never escapes comment, “where is the bread ?”. Walking around New Orleans may be a little misleading, as you see signs reading “French bread”, not even realizing the company's roots are, in fact, German. Unfortunately, most of the bakeries don't sell bread that's actually French or German, most like our language here, it's a bastardized combination of several things. So while (unfortunately) things such as German bread and beer is most definitely not the same quality as what you'd typically find in their home country, like so many other things we've adopted down here in New Orleans, we've made it our own, and made it work for our needs. Next time you're munching on a poboy made of a Leidenheimer loaf and washing it down with a Dixie beer, take a moment to say danke to one of New Orleans’ most frequently forgotten founders.