NEW ORLEANS — When France needed more people to move to Louisiana 300 years ago, Germans were among the first to respond.
“There were advertisements in Germany, the Rheinland in particular, for people to come here,” says Judge Barron Burmaster, President of the German-American Cultural Center. “They promised them a land of milk and honey. It was going to be this great place.”
The Germans were ready for the hard work required in the New World. When they got to New Orleans, many of them settled upriver in what came to be known as the German Coast. They became farmers and provided food for the city of New Orleans. This became a lifesaver when the first major hurricane hit New Orleans in 1722.
“Wiped out a lot of things in the city. Wiped out any farming in that area,” says Burmaster. “The German Coast got hit, but was able to survive–not nearly as hard. So, the city survived after that hurricane basically on the food provided by the Germans on the German Coast.”
Burmaster says another wave of German immigrants arrived in New Orleans in the mid-1850s.
“A lot of people estimate that by the middle of the 1850s, one in every five people living in Louisiana spoke German as their primary language,” he says.
German immigrants started many businesses that New Orleanians will remember.
“The breweries–Jax Brewery was owned by the Faubachers. The Falstaff Brewing Company. Dixie–all those places were started by Germans,” says Burmaster. “The restaurants–Kolb’s, which was probably the last major German restaurant here.”
“The Roosevelt Hotel was originally the Grunewald Hotel,” says Burmaster. “It was a German hotel. And, it became the Roosevelt.”
The World Wars were a tough time for Germans in New Orleans because Americans were fighting a German enemy overseas.
“The legislature actually passed an act during WWI to prohibit the teaching of German in schools and using the German language,” says Burmaster.
He also points out a time when some of the German influence was erased.
“All those streets around Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans were named after Napoleonic victories,” explains Burmaster. “And, one of Napoleon’s victories was at Berlin. So, when WWI came around, well, we couldn’t have a street named Berlin. So, it became General Pershing after the famous WWI general.”
Many Germans settled on the West Bank in Gretna when it was called Mechanicham. Today, the German-American Cultural Center is in Gretna and is a resource for people exploring their German heritage using the center’s genealogy room.
The German-American Cultural Center is celebrating a German Maifest Saturday (May 12) on the neutral ground of Huey P. Long Avenue in Gretna. It’s from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. There will be German food, German music, and German beer. Also happening on the neutral ground is the “Stroll the Avenue” event from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., with more than 70 artists, crafters, and gardeners displaying and selling their work.