German histories combine at Oktoberfest
By DAWNE LEIKER
A community celebration created to breathe new life into Fort Hays State University's homecoming festivities will celebrate its 40th anniversary in October.
The first Oktoberfest celebration, organized by Ron Pflughoft, FHSU alumni director from 1970 to 1974, took place at 10th and Main streets in downtown Hays, and featured a beer garden, Volga-German food and a battle of the polka bands.
Leona Pfeifer, retired FHSU faculty member who worked with Pflughoft to organize subsequent Oktoberfest celebrations, took a few moments in early September to reminisce about the early days of the festival.
She remembered Pflughoft had visited Germany and attended an Oktoberfest years before the first FHSU event. He asked Pfeifer to help him bring a similar celebration to Hays.
Pfeifer, a native of Munjor, enlisted the help of three of her students, raised in nearby Volga-German communities, to rally support of their community members in bringing traditional Volga-German food to the event.
With Antonino, Catharine and Victoria community members participating, several Volga-German culinary favorites were added to the celebration.
"Most people were favorably impressed," Pfeifer said.
The next year, chamber of commerce sponsored Oktoberfest, and with its support, other outlying communities began to jump onboard.
Pfeifer said she had hoped to name the event "Das Volga Deutschefest" to better reflect the culture of the local communities, but was overridden by Pflughoft, who preferred Oktoberfest.
"Since it was Oktoberfest, the emphasis came on the 'German' Germans rather than the Volga-Germans," she said. "So it was kind of a mixture, and you wouldn't know which was which."
The second year, the event was moved to the north side of the dike in Frontier Park. In conjunction with the celebration, the battle of the polka bands was a big community draw, Pfeifer said, with spectators crowding the National Guard Armory during the evening hours.
Historical demonstrations, such as goose-plucking, polka dancing demonstrations, butter churning, stone setting and cow milking, lent an educational dimension to the event.
Through the years, though, Oktoberfest came to be associated more with excessive drinking than with traditional Volga-German foods and music.
"It changed from the emphasis on the Germans from Russia to kind of a free-for-all," Pfeifer said. "The beer drinking just got out of hand."
"As the years went on, it got worse," added Dolores Pfannenstiel, who worked many years in the Oktoberfest booth sponsored by the St. Francis of Assisi Parish of Munjor.
However, from inside the booth, she said, the focus was on cooking and serving bratwurst sandwiches, crock pickles, cream bean noodle soup and kuchen.
Preparations for the food booth started weeks prior to the event, Betty Pfannenstiel said.
"We had a little booth set up the second year, and we had a stove in there," Betty Pfannenstiel said. "Our grocer at Munjor would make our sausage and bring it in, and then we kept it hot on that stove because we couldn't keep up with just one stove."
"Oh, my gosh, that sausage," Dolores Pfannenstiel agreed, shaking her head. "I just can't believe how much.
"We started browning and putting it in the oven at five in the morning and going all day strong."
Through the years, Francis Schippers, one of the early organizers of both the Oktoberfest and the Volga German Society, was instrumental in keeping the tradition vibrant. After Schippers' death in 2009, his sister Eleanor Schippers, who has served as secretary for the event for 16 years, took up the torch.
As a historian of the event, she keeps news clippings of all the Oktoberfest celebrations in three large boxes.
"Oh, I go nuts when I start on this," she said, laughing as she sorted through the clippings. "I've got it all through the years."
"As I go through that stuff, I think about so many of them (original Oktoberfest organizers)."
She recalled only a few of the Volga German Society founders now survive. The original group included Francis Schippers, Norbert Dreiling, Dan Rupp, Jack Wilhm, Lawrence Weigel, Lavern Dechant, Larry Werth, Delbert Walters, Gene Jacobs, Rupert Pfannenstiel, Leo Dorzweiler and Leonard Herrman.