From actors portraying characters from Hays’ past to commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the city, Ellis County and Historic Fort Hays, history was a highlight Friday at the 2017 Oktoberfest in Municipal Park.

Catherine the Great, portrayed by Cheryl Glassman, made a return visit for this year’s opening ceremony. She was escorted by “Wild Bill” Hickock, played by Nick Glassman.

In 1762, as the ruler of Russia, she invited ethnic Germans seeking religious freedom and exemption from military service to immigrate to the Volga River region of her country.

In the 1870s, that exemption was revoked, and many of the Volga Germans immigrated to the United States — Kansas in particular.

“I am here today to recognize the wonderful Volga-German people who came here from my mother country of Russia. They traveled so many hundreds and hundreds of miles and settled here in Hays, Kan., 141 years ago in February in the cold dead of winter,” she said.

“That says something about these people. They are strong, they are full of faith and most important, their spirits live on in each and every one of us.”

In re-enenactments during the festivities, members of the Hays Community Theater performed mock gunfights, signifying Hays’ Wild West History.

Other actors mingled with the crowd, portraying infamous characters from Hays history such as saloon owners Kate Coffey and Cyrus Goddard, “Grandma” Anna Wilson, whose work established the permanent location for the First Presbyterian Church in Hays, and Elizabeth Polly, “The Blue Light Lady,” who according to legend, haunts the hills near Historic Fort Hays.

During the opening ceremony, Nick Werth, president of the Volga German Society, and Tom Haas, a member of the society, acknowledged the volunteers and sponsors who put together this 45th edition of Oktoberfest.

Haas gave the traditional welcome, speaking in German and English.

But he also had a special thanks for Werth, that he spoke in German.

“I welcomed everyone here, of course. We’re celebrating 45 years here today. I took a little time to thank Nick Werth and his sister, Janel. Their father was one of the first ones to take the lead 45 years ago to start this Oktoberfest,” he said.

“Our ancestors came here many years ago. They came from the communities of Catharine, from Victoria, from Herzog, from Munjor, from Pfeifer, from Liebenthal, from Schoenchen, from Antonino, where I’m from,” Haas said.

With the welcomes and recognitions given, it was time for the traditional tapping of the keg by Haas, Werth and Mayor Shaun Musil.

“He’s taking his time, and I’m thirsty,” Haas joked as Musil filled the first mug, which he then hoisted.

With the ringing of the bell, Haas and Werth declared Oktoberfest — and the beer garden — open.

“Nick and I are going to drink one on the house, but you guys get to pay,” Haas said. “Danke schoen!”

“Eat, drink, sing and dance, and have a heck of a good time,” Werth said, saluting the crowd with his stein.