Waterloo’s annual Porta Westfalica festival returns for its 40th celebration after a two-year absence due to COVID-19.
The festival will take place on Tuesday, June 21 on the grounds of the Waterloo town center courthouse. It will feature musical performances by the New Hanover Deutschmeisters, Bud Light Brigade, Waterloo German Band and Waterloo Municipal Band.
There will also be a parade starting at 6 p.m., which begins at Gibault Catholic High School on Columbia Avenue, continues south on Main Street, turns right on Mill Street and continues to South Library.
Along with all that oom-pah music and gemütlichkeit, the festival also features a variety of staples, including the tried-and-true staples of potato pancakes and applesauce. There will also be German and national beers and a wine garden.
This event is organized through a collaboration between the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, the Waterloo Lions Club and the Porta Loo Sister Cities.
Waterloo Chamber of Commerce chief executive Candace Gardner said Porta Westfalica Fest is a major tradition for Waterloo.
“I was raised in Waterloo, so it’s always something I think the community is looking forward to participating in,” Gardner said. “Even though it’s a Tuesday night in the summer, it’s very busy.”
George Obernagel of the Waterloo Lions echoed that sentiment, saying the festival plays an important role in celebrating the region’s German-American culture.
“It’s a great event that shares our German heritage with our sister city Germany,” Obernagel said. “And it all comes from the volunteerism of the chamber, Lions and Sister Cities and help from other community organizations.”
This unique Tuesday night summer festival started in 1981 after Sister Cities of Porta Loo was established in 1980. One of the most prominent organizers of the event was Sister Cities of Porta Loo member Vera Kohlmeier.
Through research, Kohlmeier determined that a majority of Monroe County residents in the late 1970s could trace their genealogy to the Porta Westfalica area of Germany. His efforts – combined with those of Helmut Macke of Porta Westfalica – finally made the Sister Cities partnership a reality.
According to research provided by Deborah Cummins of Sister Cities of Porta Loo, this festival was originally meant to be a small affair to celebrate the band Bläserkreis visiting from Germany, but was instead opened to the general public and eventually became the annual celebration that exists to this day.
One of the festival’s defining characteristics is its unusual timing, but Cummins said that can also be attributed to the German band.
Tuesdays in spring and summer were the best days to celebrate the visit of the Bläserkreis.
The first as well as a few other Porta Westfalica Fests actually took place in August, but it eventually became a tradition for the third Tuesday in June – again for the convenience of visiting Germans.
There have been a few wacky antics over the years that add to the appeal of Porta Westfalica Fest – including the flying of the Porta Westfalica flag hung outside Waterloo Town Hall in 1984, and the foiling of a industrial-size grill used by the Monroe County Pork Producers in 2009.
Cummins said there were discussions in the early 2000s to move the celebration to a Saturday for convenience. This proposal was dropped quickly, however, as the organizers did not want Porta Westfalica Fest to grow too large and leave the community like Columbia’s Strassenfest.
Strassenfest was held annually in Colombia to celebrate that city’s German roots from 1960 to 1972, but it became so popular it had to be moved to St. Louis.
Cummins also shared a number of other developments Porta Westfalica Fest has undergone – including the introduction of a beer garden in the 2000s and the brief instance when the event hosted a petting zoo.
She also referenced a 2002 article in which Arlene Baum, former president of Sister Cities of Porta Loo, recounted how potato pancakes and applesauce became a tradition after a German visit.
While the connection between Waterloo and Porta Westfalica has diminished somewhat – particularly the student exchange which has come to a halt due to COVID – Porta Westfalica Fest continues to be a major celebration of the longstanding relationship between the sister cities.
Barbara Johnson of the Waterloo German Band spoke about the importance of this connection and the legacy that Porta Westfalica Fest celebrates.
“It’s wonderful that we continue to have a relationship with Porta Westfalica and run the event every year, carrying on the German legacy, also having the German group as part of that. It’s just an honor to to be able to offer that to the whole community,” she said.