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Gene Beckman grew up as an only child on a family farm in the town of Cole Camp, smack in the middle of Missouri. As a boy, he only spoke Plattdüütsch, a dialect of low German. He didn’t learn English until he went to school in a one-room schoolhouse.
“I tell kids in school now, we had it tough,” Beckman says. “We didn’t have any indoor restroom to go to, we didn’t have any school hot lunch. We didn’t have any water fountain to go to. We had to go to the pump to get well water and a lot of us ate just biscuits and cornbread that were left from breakfast.”
Fast forward about 80 years, and Beckman still remembers his Plattdüütsch — even if most German Americans do not.
“The language is the heart and soul of the immigrant community,” says Bill Keel, who studies German immigrant communities and language at the University of Kansas. “It’s the glue that holds their whole culture together.”
According to the U.S. Census, about 49 million Americans claim either full or partial German ancestry. But only 2 percent of those German Americans actually speak the language.
German immigrants in the Midwest came from different parts of Europe, including modern-day Germany, Austria, and Russia, and settled in communities in both Missouri and Kansas. Some of this migration happened before Germany united as a nation in 1871, and the regional dialects at the time varied significantly. (Standard German only developed a conventional spelling system in 1901.)
Many Germans settled in Missouri largely due to the poetic imagination of Gottfried Duden, a German lawyer who came to the United States in 1824 and owned farmland west of St. Louis. When he returned to Germany three years later, he wrote a book called “A Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America,” in which he admired Missouri’s splendor and fertile land.
In the 1830s, a wave of immigrants from northern Germany settled in the Cole Camp, Missouri, area, bringing with them their farming skills and Plattdüütsch.
Neil Heimsoth is the glue keeping Cole Camp’s Plattdüütsch-speaking community together. A retired illustrator for the U.S. Forest Service, Heimsoth worked with Gene Beckman to translate over 40 country songs into their Plattdüütsch dialect as part of their Low German theater.
Now, Heimsoth hosts monthly Plattdüütsch-speaking groups at a restaurant in Cole Camp, where people can gather to practice speaking while they play cards. The group has almost 25 members and leans toward older-aged adults. Heimsoth says he wishes there were more members.
Little towns in Missouri and Kansas preserved many different dialects of German, which can sound completely different from one another. KU Professor Bill Keel and his team of researchers have made a map of the dialects in Kansas, but they’re disappearing. (The Missouri map is forthcoming.)
Many historians trace the loss of German language to anti-German discrimination during World Wars I and II. Keel attributes the decline to changes in education and people becoming less isolated. He notes that most of the people he interviews for his research who still speak their German dialect are in their 80s and 90s.
"Why are they now the last generation?" Keel says."Well, if you look at some of the social aspects of the United States, Kansas, Missouri; the Model T is introduced in 1908. Our system of paved roads gets going in the 1920s and ’30s. A high school education becomes a major factor between the two wars. Prior to World War I, very few people completed high school."
Despite the challenges, Cole Camp residents have tried to maintain a strong German identity. The town’s downtown strip, for instance, has German-themed shops and hosts an Oktoberfest every year.
In 1989, when the town celebrated its 150th anniversary, a German dance troupe traveled to Cole Camp for the festivities. Neil Heimsoth says the festival marked a turning point when many Plattdüütsch speakers in town became proud of their language.
“We had people who had been kind of ashamed that they were German because of the Second World War, and all of a sudden they were proud that they could talk German,” he says.
For that 1989 festival, Neil Heimsoth and his wife Marilyn Heimsoth helped publish the “Little Red History Book,” which documents the story of German immigration in Cole Camp.
A few years ago, the Heimsoths created a German immigrant memorial, where people can buy bricks in honor of their families who immigrated to the region. The memorial has become a focal point of German pride in the community.
Bill Keel says that while a community’s efforts to try and keep a culture alive through special festivals is admirable, it’s still not enough if the language is fading.
“They may try to keep a cuisine, a special food going,” he says. “They may have festivals that they’ll celebrate, but without that language, really the core of that culture is decimated.”
Neil and Marilyn Heimsoth, Gene Beckman, Sam Cole and dozens of others in Cole Camp are trying their hardest to keep that from happening.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the dialect of German spoken in Cole Camp, Missouri. That Low German dialect is Plattdüütsch. It's also spoken in north Germany. Plautdietsch is a dialect spoken by some Mennonites.
Celisa Calacal is a freelance contributor at KCUR 89.3.
Suzanne Hogan is the host and producer of KCUR's A People's History of Kansas City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.