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A new documentary explores how early German immigrants helped shape Missouri

Union Station in St. Louis was developed by German born architect Theodore Link.
Union Station in St. Louis was developed by German born architect Theodore Link.

After they first began arriving in Missouri in the 1830s, German immigrants helped shape the state's culture in myriad ways, as detailed in the book “Explore Missouri's German Heritage” and the documentary it inspired.

The first wave of German immigrants came to Missouri in the mid-1830s. Within just a few years, the German population in the Show-Me State, and St. Louis in particular, increased exponentially.

“People in what we now call Germany — but at that particular time, the early 19th century, were a collection of duchies, municipalities, sometimes Free Cities — were being pushed out by rapid industrialization,” said W. Arthur Mehrhoff, author of “Explore Missouri's German Heritage.”

German emigration writer Gottfried Duden had also painted a glowing picture of life in the Missouri River valley at the time. That account, and others, spurred Germans to build new lives across the ocean.

“There was also a lot of what I would call ‘viral’ newsmaking about what's available in the far west, as Missouri was called,” said Mehrhoff, a former academic coordinator for the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri. “So those push-pull factors, together, created a powerful dynamic feeding the immigration of these German city-states.”

Mehrhoff joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to highlight how German immigrants helped shape Missouri’s culture, including their intentional care for the natural environment — “landschaft” — and civic spaces within cities and towns.

“You'll see it in places like the Old Munichburg neighborhood in Jefferson City,” he said. “The houses were built in such a way to reinforce community. Today, we think of big lawns, etc. But that was not the style of trying to reinforce community.”

He also discussed how Missouri’s German immigrants played an important role in resisting slavery through the efforts of abolitionist writers and the German newspapers that supported abolition leading up to the Civil War.

“German love for what they call ‘freiheit’ or freedom was very strong. It was sort of an animating, almost revolutionary force,” he said. “They brought that powerful sense of independence [and] revolutionary spirit, and certainly, many of them played large roles in the upcoming conflict, the Civil War.”

A documentary film based on Mehrhoff’s book will be screened Feb. 23 at the John B. Busch Brewery event center in Washington, Missouri.

For Mehrhoff, who is of German descent himself, the dive into Missouri’s cultural heritage helped place his own family’s history in a new light.

“Germans talk about 'bildung,' and that's life formation — it's more than just education. It's how you become the person you are through your experiences. Certainly upon reflection, and working on this publication, shed much more light on all the many little things that I took for granted for so long,” he said.

“A lot of things have been lost over the years, and so trying to capture that essence and bottle it so that other people can hold the glass up to the light and savor [it] with you — I think that's the best way to think about one's own heritage.”

Related Event

What: An exclusive showing of “Exploring Missouri’s German Heritage”

When: 5-9 p.m. Feb. 23

Where: John B. Busch Brewery (108 Busch Ave., Washington, MO 63090)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Emily Woodbury
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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