The History of Oktoberfest in Hays
A Volga German Tradition
Since 1973 Hays, Kansas has held its own Oktoberfest as a celebration of its Volga Germans’ heritage and their vibrant community. The event arose from a partnership among Fort Hays State University, the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and locals with German heritage. In order to accommodate the locals and alumni returning to the area for Fort Hays State University’s Homecoming festivities, Oktoberfest takes place on the Friday of that weekend. The festival includes traditional food, beer, music, and in recent years, international cultures.
Since its inception, the event has been a huge success, and thousands attend every year to partake in the traditional food and fun.
Origins of Oktoberfest
Hays organizers sought to emulate the internationally-known festival that takes place in Munich, whose history goes back centuries. The wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen occasioned the first Oktoberfest in 1810. The pair invited the citizens of Munich to join the wedding party in feasting, drinking, and dancing in a nearby field, now called the Theresienwiese (Theresa’s fields) to honor the bride. The event was so successful it became an annual gathering that included horse racing, agricultural exhibitions, and carnival.
Today, this Volksfest celebrates German culture and brings millions of visitors from around the world to its two week-long party.
Germans from Russia
While Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen celebrated their new union with those in Munich, many of the Germans who would later come to settle in Ellis County were preparing for winter in a very different part of the world. Almost 2,000 miles away in the Volga River valley of Russia, a series of agrarian villages—bearing names such as Katharinenstadt, Herzog, and Obermonjour—were beginning to take root after a generation of struggle on the Russian Steppes.
The Volga Germans, as they are often called in the United States, took a long and winding journey from their traditional homelands in the Central Europe to countries around the world. In the eighteenth century, the German speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire were continually under the threat of political instability and war. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) brought numerous hardships to the people of the warring German states. An opportunity for a new life appeared for war-weary German families.
Shortly after becoming the Empress of Russia in 1762, Catherine II—who would later be known as Catherine the Great—sought to remedy many domestic and foreign challenges that plagued her expansive empire. Influenced by the European Enlightenment, Catherine slowly developed an enlightened autocracy in Russia that supported many liberalizing initiatives that attempted to bring peace and prosperity to her people. One of her earliest policy decisions supported foreign immigration as a means of increasing Russia’s population base, securing labor for the region’s undeveloped natural resources, and infusing local populations with European agricultural practices and technologies.
Before ascending to the throne, Catherine was known as Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a daughter of a German ruling family. She retained a fondness for her place of birth and its people. Consequently, she looked to Germanic nations when considering who should be invited to immigrate to Russia. She composed a pair of manifestos, which were widely-circulated in German-speaking lands, welcoming outsiders to bring their expertise, work-ethic, and dreams for a better life to Russia. In her second manifesto, Catherine made a detailed list of assurances and benefits that would be extended to incoming families, including thirty-years free of taxation, exemption from military service, religious and cultural freedom, local autonomy, and interest-free loans for homesteaders to begin settlement and cultivation of unimproved lands.
Russian recruiters flooded Europe looking for intrepid families willing to try their hand at a new life in a far-off land. During the 1760s, many German peasants took up Catherine’s offer and made the arduous journey from their homelands into the remote and untamed lands of the lower Volga river valley.
The Russian Experience on the Volga
Many of the promises enumerated in Catherine’s manifesto never materialized for the German immigrants who made the difficult journey to their allotments on the Volga and found a bitter Russian winter waiting for them and little in the way of housing, equipment, or food. To make matters worse, nomadic peoples hostile to Russian encroachment and the new foreigners settling in their vicinity became a continual threat. However, after almost a generation of perseverance on the land, the Volga Germans established themselves and became prosperous. Preferring village life, they formed small agrarian communities and adopted methods of farming that allowed them to survive and thrive on the Russian plains.
However, during the nineteenth century political pressures and new impositions from Moscow made the Volga German presence in Russia increasingly untenable. Many of the assurances given by Catherine were revoked as Russian peasants voiced their displeasure with the advantages the Germanic outsiders had been granted. Russian serfs, who lived in state of slavery for centuries, had traditionally worked much of the land in abject conditions. The Russian state had been liberalizing their policies regarding the plight of serfs since the eighteenth century, and in 1861 Alexander II finally emancipated this group from their ties to the land and their landowners.
These newly recognized Russian citizens harbored animosities toward the Volga Germans and others seen as outsiders because of the benefits extended to them upon their arrival. Those who saw themselves as native Russian exerted political pressure on their government to revoke the incentives extended to groups such as the Volga Germans.
Due to the remoteness of their landholdings and their preference for living in small communities rather than larger urban areas, the Volga Germans stayed relatively isolated, retaining their language, customs, and sense of community over generations on the Russian plains. Demands for Volga Germans to pay taxes and accept compulsory military service like their Russian neighbors excited tensions. Further indignities, such as the Russia governments refusal to print decrees related to their community in German as well as Russian, infuriated the communities.
The Volga Germans began looking for new options and new opportunities. America seemed a possibility for a people with agricultural know-how and a desire to live in peace.
Kansas and the Great Plains
An initial scouting party was sent to America to check on the suitability of the land and the feasibility of relocating a number of families from the Volga to the American west. A recent German immigrant who worked for Union Pacific in Topeka had heard about people in Russia interested in settling in Kansas and extended an invitation for them to explore the lands in Kansas that the newly-laid railway lines made accessible. The party found conditions suitable in Ellis County, and throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s families began making the long journey from Russia to Kansas where they formed villages and worked the land. The legacies of these people live on in the local Oktoberfest celebration.
For More Information see the Following Sources
Official Centennial History of the Volga-German Settlements in Ellis and Rush Counties in Kansas 1876-1976
John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) .
Also see these online resources: