NEW BREMEN AT 175
[Speech given by James Dicke, II at the 175-year celebration at the courthouse in Wapakoneta January 20, 2008]
Esteemed officials, Commissioners, Mayors Metz and Pape, First Lady Strickland, friends…. It’s a great honor to be asked to be your keynote speaker today. In fact, we live in such a hurried age, the very idea of a keynote speaker for an event like this is not even the mainstay decision it might have been in an earlier age. The chance to reflect a bit and gather my thoughts about where towns like New Bremen and Wapakoneta are going in the years ahead was a welcome and refreshing exercise for me. So, I won’t start these remarks today with a joke or with an apology, but rather with a thank you for the opportunity. One of my great, great, great grandfathers signed that charter for New Bremen’s creation 175 years ago; and if my count is correct, that makes our two grandsons, Alex and Charlie, 8th generation New Bremen residents. This is very special indeed.
In 1933, New Bremen staged a substantial celebration of its first 100 years, complete with a parade, floats and speeches. I know because I’ve seen the old photos and have heard from my father, Jim Dicke Sr., about the fun he had has an 11 year old boy attending the party. I even had a vague recollection of a newspaper article I read long ago about the keynote speaker, Frank Tilden Boesel as I recalled, saying he thought towns like New Bremen had clung to the German language too long and that fact had made them less economically progressive. So, I asked my assistant, Julie Ahlers, if she could look in the archives of the New Bremen Sun, the former town paper, at the New Bremen Library and find the article I was recalling. We are fortunate to have these old papers in New Bremen, thanks to the foresight of Betty Komminsk who microfilmed them years ago and gave the films to the local library.
What Julie came back with was even more interesting. On the occasion of New Bremen’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1933, the New Bremen Sun published the full text of Frank Tilden Boesel’s remarks, all 110 column inches or so. I calculate Mr. Boesel spoke about an hour and 15 minutes or more that day. Don’t worry, I won’t read you his speech.
The reproduction quality of the newspaper was not great, but most of the words were readable. As I read, it struck me how much we are all creatures of our times. Frank Boesel was born in 1876 and died at 90 years of age in 1966. By my calculation, he was 56 years old the day he gave that speech. The title of his address was “The Spirit and Ideals of Our Pioneers”.
Mr. Boesel was an attorney by trade, but even for the age in which he lived, his language was not plain spoken. I’ll give you a paragraph from his address as an example. While praising the pioneers who settled the area, he says, “That generation of pioneers which produced so many great picturesque characters – has in my opinion absolutely passed from the present stage of action. That we shall have them again appears to me quite problematical and doubtful. The predominantly commercial and industrial spirit of the present age in which we live and that has so nearly come to our complete undoing, has unquestionably a tendency to lessen the possibility of the reoccurrence or reappearance of such characters and leaders of our past.”
Reading Mr. Boesel’s address and seeing his rather formal newspaper portrait in stiff collar and tie made me actually a little curious to know more about him. I went to my laptop computer, and the Google website, inserting the words “Frank Boesel”. The database of information available on the world wide web is not only amazing, but I have been so impressed with how dramatically it is growing better each year. It had not occurred to me initially to go to Google for Mr. Boesel’s remarks, but in just a few more years would I have actually thought of the microfilm at the New Bremen Library as a first source? We live in an amazing age.
What I did find on Google were several sources telling me that he was president of the Wisconsin Bar Association in 1927-28, the outline of his life’s biography, and even a family genealogy chart. The chart reminded me that he and I both were descendants from an early New Bremen immigrant from Lauterecken, Germany. One more click and I was being told that Lauterecken in the Rhineland of Germany is a small town on the Lauter River, a tributary of the Glan River. It is part of the Kusel Province, which was being created in the early 19th Century, about the time our ancestor was leaving for the United States. One more click and you are informed that you can find a wireless computer hotspot at the Lauterecken Stadt Café. One click more takes you to “U-Tube”, where you can watch a bunch of young people singing songs in German and English at their 2007 LauParty in the Stadt Café. Did I say that we live in an amazing age? One final click and eBay even offered to sell me a 1907 German bank note from the Lauterecken Bank.
We also live in an age with a future full of challenges, opportunities, rapid change and innovation. Thomas Friedman, one of the interesting thinkers of our time, has written a best seller about our age called, “The World is Flat”. It is a must-read book for leaders in our time. If you have not read it, you can go to your local bookstore. The paperback is available at a suggested retail of $16. If you go online to Amazon.com, you can get it in paperback for $9.60 or used for $7.36. Or, new or used, you can buy the hardcover version, the audio CD, the abridged audio CD, the audio cassette, or the large print hardcover… There is a new and expanded and updated version of Mr. Friedman’s book in hardcover for $30, or for $9.60 you can have it downloaded to your Kindle in one minute over a cell phone connection. How many people here know what a Kindle is? How many of you have one? This is how the future is beginning to look for receiving your newspapers, your magazines, and even books, no matter where you are, with an amazing array of choice.
In 1933, the Chicago World’s Fair highlighted what they called “A Century of Progress”. In his remarks that same year, Mr. Boesel uses the buzz words of his age, “Fair Dealing”, “A Century of Progress”… Today, the buzz words of our time are about the “Information Age” and how we are becoming a “service” economy, rather than a “manufacturing” economy.
Competition is also developing like never before. The People’s Republic of China is currently building a public infrastructure equal to the entire United States every three years. India has just announced its new “Tata” automobile at $2500, which is less than the cost of the mandated safety features and pollution controls on an American car. At the same time, much of our aging American bridges and infrastructure need attention.
The world faces tremendous challenges to the environment. While the United States has reduced pollution by 50% over the last ten years while creating 55 million new jobs, places in the Far East struggle with rapidly expanding pollution problems. A case can be made that the challenges for the world seem almost overwhelming. So what does all this mean for New Bremen and places like New Bremen in our 175th year?
Recent years have been good times for New Bremen. Jobs are available, the community tax base is strong, we have a new high school, we have a new town pool, a bicycle museum, and other facilities to be proud about. An active American Legion, a senior citizens’ center, strong church congregations… It’s something like the community of Norman Rockwell’s imagination, where, as Garrison Keillor says, “All the woman are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
New Bremen is a good place to raise a family. Kids can ride bikes to school. People do not have to lock their homes. We joke about locking cars to keep neighbors from gifting us bags of fresh produce from their gardens. Local public schools are proud of the ratings they get from the state. When New Bremen needs a tax levy and the need is properly communicated, it passes. Quietly, the police chief could talk about some challenges he faces, but our greatest asset in New Bremen is still the sense that we all know each other, and look out for one another.
Times do change, however. Walt Schmitmeyer, the local barber, felt it was important to his trade to be able to speak Platt-Deutsch with the old timers, who loved going to a barber where they could still practice the old tongue. Walt retired and the barber who took his place, Glen Scheib, does not find a call any longer for conversation in German. The community has become even more welcoming to new families. There may still be a lot of Dickes, but Boesel is no longer a local name in 2008. The roster of local family names evolves.
There are challenges ahead. The very qualities that make a great community can also get in the way. It is emotionally easier to support a local sports team or the high school band than it is to ask how our high school graduates are doing in college and how we could be preparing them better to compete academically. In small towns, too often the difficult questions which need to be asked for progress to be achieved can feel a little too “unkind”, a little too much like criticizing a neighbor or suggesting the kids are not being given enough educational opportunity. Small towns should ask themselves tough questions, but it is more comfortable not to rock the boat or question too vigorously how we could plan better for the town future, and we can easily fall into a pattern of just handling today’s problems with less attention to the longer range challenges.
Of course, some of the really important structural issues are beyond the capability of local action alone. Yet, things like the quality of electricity, sewage and water services, cell phone coverage and the like are fundamental to a successful community in 2008. When visitors come to town and seem impressed with what they see but cannot get a strong cell phone signal, the reaction may be polite; but it is skeptical. The challenges of leach beds and water quality and bacteria counts and the like may not be apparent to the casual look, but we face the same challenges as any modern community.
World economic interdependence has transformed lives and lifted standards of living in New Bremen, Wapakoneta and around the world. One hundred years ago, a local farm, or even a local company, would have been involved in very little international trade. Most economic activity was local or certainly within a modest geographic reach. Today, the picture is dramatically different; and the new level of economic activity has raised standards of living everywhere. Economic growth must continue.
Our tax system in the United States, now one of the highest in the world, actually penalizes local production and encourages imports. A new book titled “Real Change” released just this week makes the case persuasively. Yet, it will be politically hard to change habits of the way things have been done in the past. Entrenched interests are hard to overcome. Even more challenging, the global economic forces make even the economic actions of our federal reserve less controlling than any of us would like to believe. World economic forces are so strong they bend to no boss.
My Grandpa Webster used to say it is pointless to worry about things you can’t control and I think he was right. On the other hand, very much to our good luck, we are entering an age that, with effort, can be ideal for New Bremen and towns like New Bremen across the world. Computers have made location less important to success. Small towns are no longer isolated places with reduced access to goods and talent and convenience. One can grow a career more conveniently and cost effectively, with more safety and fewer distractions than one finds in any major city. Towns like New Bremen have the best atmosphere in which to actually improve schools and land-use planning and to make long-range community goals a reality. The very congeniality that makes it more difficult to ask tough questions in a small town also makes it easier for people of good faith to come together with their best efforts.
One of the things that resonates through New Bremen’s 175-year history is the community respect for people who work hard and work well on farms, in factories, in offices and in homes. This new century will be a time for these qualities to be especially valued in our world. The “flame” of commitment to “good work” which has served New Bremen so well in the past will be more important than ever in our future.
There is a certain quality in towns like New Bremen that cannot be replicated. Frank Lloyd Wright suggested the creation of what he called Usonian “Useful” Communities. Disney tried creating a town called “Celebration”. Also, a pre-planned community called Seaside exists in Florida, so picturesque it has even been used as a movie set. Developers are creating pre-planned communities with great beauty and utility. Let me just close, however, with the observation that communities can only embody the spirit of the people who call it home. Shared memories, a community history, even the personality a community assumes over time like the patina of an extended family all play a role in making places like New Bremen into life-long attachments. Even if circumstances take you elsewhere to live, there are always important memories for the small town life and earlier times. The desire to return is consistent.
None of us can do more than dip into part of a town’s shared river of experience over the centuries. We are each here for but a brief time on what Frank Boesel called that “Stage of Action”. Nothing stays the same. We make things better or worse and then our turn is over. Yet Ogden Nash wrote a tiny poem called “In Middle” that I feel captures the spirit of New Bremen’s 175 years we salute today. He wrote,
“When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead
So many I love were not yet born.”
Jim Dicke II, speaker, with Duane & Alice Hartwig of New Bremen
In the Auglaize County Courthouse
January 20, 2008