This past weekend’s 47th annual Volga German Oktoberfest was the first-ever as a 21-year-old for Isaiah Blackmon, Hays. Stopping at the Ellis County Historical Society’s booth on Friday morning, Blackmon paid $5 and bought one of the commemorative 2019 glass beer mugs.

“I just want a bit of memorabilia,” said Blackmon, who was at the festival with his friend Brendon Brenner, Ellis. “I’m from Hays and I’ve been here my whole life,” Blackmon said, “but this is my first year as a legal adult, so I can participate now.”

Brenner, also 21, was there for the bierocks and brats, he said, a tight end, No. 29, for the Fort Hays State University Tigers.

“It’s my first time as 21, too, but I’m on the football team, so I can’t drink, to keep us out of trouble,” Brenner said. “I came down here to eat.”

And that’s what it’s all about, said Nick Werth, vice president of the Volga-German Society, which puts on the cultural event each year.

“Eat, drink, sing, dance and have a lot of fun,” said Werth, talking over polka music played by the Joe Dolezal band on the stage in Municipal Park. “Oktoberfest goes on every year, rain or shine.”

The 2019 festival started Friday, as it has in the past, but this year for the first time, the organizers extended it to Saturday also.

Gates on Saturday opened following the FHSU Homecoming parade, which started at 11 a.m. Crowds lined both sides of the parade route along Main Street, watching the marching bands and other entries make their way from the north end of Main to the south, ending up in front of Oktoberfest.

“Today is crazy busy, the lines are 20 deep at each of the food vendors,” said Philip Kuhn, vice president of the Volga German Society. “The turnout is amazing for the second day. It was great having the parade lead everybody down here into the second day. Now people can stay and enjoy themselves and then go right into another FHSU activity, the tailgating and the game.”

With armbands available to anyone old enough to drink beer, Werth said the Society typically averages 6,000 to 9,000 issued, depending on the weather. Temperatures Friday were chilly, especially with gusty wind, but that didn’t damper the crowd, he said, especially since Saturday was sunny and warm.

“Yesterday we probably had 7,600 armbands that went,” Werth said. “We don’t know yet what we have today, but with two days, I bet we’ll be sitting at 12,000 people.”

Nonprofit focus

This is the 33rd year that Oktoberfest has been held the same weekend as FHSU Homecoming, he said, and the partnership has turned out to be a good one. Friday was reserved solely for nonprofit vendors, many of which were FHSU student organizations.

Vendor coordinator Lee Dobratz, director of the Ellis County Historical Society, said there were about 35 nonprofit organizations with booths on Friday. Saturday was set to add 15 commercial vendors.

FHSU’s Society for Human Resources Management was selling “Hays, ‘Merica” t-shirts for $20 at their table on Friday, as well as homemade cookies.

“This is our biggest fundraiser every year,” said Maci Hancock, a graduate student in the FHSU Robbins College of Business, who was wishing for better sales on Friday.

“If it was maybe not so cold, we’d probably do a lot better,” she said. Proceeds will help the students pay for a trip to Germany next February to visit German companies and organizations and learn about their policies and labor laws.

“We’ll be getting some new experiences outside of our western Kansas bubble that we live in,” Hancock said. “So, we’re pretty excited and hope we can fundraise today to help with that trip.”

From their booth, the Ellis County Emergency Medical Responders were selling a variety of German foods, including German hash, a mix of dumplings, potatoes, onions and homemade apple brats, said Scott Reese, a paramedic with Ellis County EMS, who was stirring the food on the grill.

The nonprofit raises money to supply rehabilitation services to local firefighters and other first responders when they are fighting fires or handling other emergencies. The services include things like water, cooling, shelter, snacks, and a place to rest, said Charlie Dorzweiler, an advanced EMT who works full time with Ellis County EMS. It all packs into a trailer that is hauled to emergency sites, Dorzweiler said.

“We bought the trailer in 2011 with a loan from the Bank of Hays,” he said. “No tax money has gone into this.”

Dorzweiler made about 700 of the sausages for the Oktoberfest weekend. Lines were deep at the booth on Saturday.

That’s the idea on Friday, said Werth, noting that helping nonprofits has been the purpose of Oktoberfest since his dad helped found the event 47 years ago.

“We focus on nonprofit organizations,” he said. “This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for most of them, so we take care of our nonprofits. They are always welcome.”

When Oktoberfest began in 1972, Werth said, the organizers were raising money for FHSU homecoming floats.

“They had four little vendors and they made over $135,” he said.

Thinking ahead

Each year, at festival’s end, the organizers always take off a bit, then start their planning again for the next year, said Kuhn. With the success of the second day this year and the addition of heated tents, Kuhn said both of those will be back next year.

“The people involved in planning this put thousands of hours into this to get it going,” he said. “We’ll take three weeks off and then restart our meetings, and talk about what worked and didn’t work. We’ve already seen that we want more nonprofits and commercial vendors on the second day. We anticipated so many more people this year, and we hit that mark, and we anticipate there will be more next year.”

Society member Janel Werth Moore, also an organizer, was wearing a traditional German dirndl on Saturday.

Looking around at all the people strolling and eating and visiting, she said, “We’re pleasantly surprised to see this big crowd.”