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What became of Buffalo’s proud Germans

German picnic at Teutonia Park, 1905.

“Buffalo is a truly typical German-American city, and owes much of its greatness and prosperity to the thrift, liberality and enterprise of its 100,000 German residents,” wrote The Buffalo Sunday Truth in an 1886 piece called “Thrifty Teutons.”

The article continued: “The finest residences, the principal business blocks and the handsomest public edifices here own their origin to the enterprising Germans, and the reputation that the Queen City of the Lakes enjoys for hospitality and sociability, is largely owing to the worthy sons of the Fatherland and their no less worthy scions who preserve a love of the region of the Rhine – they do not love Germany the less for being citizens of this glorious republic, but they love America more!”

Buffalo was a city of 250,000 and more than 100,000 were proud Germans in 1886. It raises the question, in a city known for ethnic parades and festivals, where are the thinly veiled beer blasts dedicated to the people who brought beer to Buffalo in the first place?

The answer, of course, lies in a pair of world wars where millions of Americans met their deaths at the end of German rifles.

Before the wars, German culture was more than just occasional potato pancakes in a bar. It was everywhere in Buffalo.

Teutonia Park was a private German picnic grounds where many events and festivals were held before the war.  Billed as “The family resort of the East Side,” East High School was eventually built on the spot.

German dragoons in Teutonia Park before the outbreak of World War I.

Most of Buffalo’s first brewers and meat packers were German, as were many of the tavern keepers who brought together beer and sausages to serve in their gin mills. It was in German John Gohn’s tavern that German baker William Wahr’s kimmelweck rolls were first popularized with the beef of weck sandwich.

So many of the great builders of Buffalo from chemical and electricity giant Jacob Schoellkopf to retailer William Hengerer were sturdy Buffalo Germans.

When on the campaign trail for re-election as Buffalo mayor in 1887, Bavarian-born Phillip Becker gave audiences the choice to hear him speak in German or English. More often than not, he spoke to the crowds in his native tongue.

But then in Buffalo and around the country, as the U.S. was drawn into World War I, and then the rise of Nazism and the U.S. entry into World War II, many of those once pridefully German-American institutions became just proudly American.

Deco Restaurant sausage ad, 1932.

It isn’t as if the German heritage that was integral to life in Buffalo disappeared, it just started going by different names.

Occasionally the change was stark, like when Buffalo’s German American Bank became Liberty Bank in 1918.

Other times, the links to our past are literally links. Our city’s special love for our sausages and hot dogs can be traced back directly to meat packers like our still-beloved Sahlen, but also to second generation German-American Gregory Deck, the entrepreneur who turned a hot dog stand into a chain of hot dog stands, founding Buffalo’s Deco Restaurants and cementing our bond with the tube steak along the way.

And of course, there was perhaps the most famous Buffalonian of the 20th century, television’s first real star, and a man who loved the city so much he made it part of his name – Howdy Doody’s pal Buffalo Bob Smith.

Clint Buehlman and Buffalo Bob Smith.

Smith grew up in one of the East Side’s many German enclaves, attending Masten Park High School and graduating under the name he was born with – Robert Emil Schmidt. He joined another German-bred classmate, Clinton Buehlman, to become two the most beloved entertainers in the earliest days of Buffalo radio.

In the 1940s,  Smith went on to fame and fortune in New York City, while “Yours truly Buehly” dominated morning radio in Buffalo for more than 40 years, until his retirement from WBEN in 1977.

And even as Buffalo’s German-founded breweries like Iroquois, Simon Pure, Beck's, and Lang's closed, our city’s very German love of beer has clearly never gone away.

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