It was the first glass of Catawba wine I’d had since I was a teenager. Dad always kept a jug of it in the cabinet above the stove, and would have a glass of it from time to time. One day, a girlfriend and I snitched some when no one else was home. It was so dry that it sucked just about every hint of moisture from my mouth. After that, I pretty much lost interest it in.
Until, that is, my husband and I had dinner at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri. We were treating ourselves to a wedding anniversary night out while on a trip to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg, MO for my project, Marian Pilgrimage: Discovering Mary Across the USA.
Who ever said you can’t combine business with pleasure was dead wrong. We did, and it worked out quite nicely!
Hermann is just under 9 miles away from Starkenburg, and rests on the bank of the Missouri River. The area strongly resembles the Rhine Valley in Germany, which is why it caught the eye of a member of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, George Bayer. The Society, concerned by the quick assimilation of their countrymen into American society, sent Bayer in 1837 to scout territory for a new city on the frontier that would be “German in every particular.”
Bayer found what he was looking for and bought 11,000 acres of it – the steepest, most rugged terrain to be found anywhere on the Missouri River.
Problem was, the folks back in Philadelphia didn’t realize the land’s topography, and so they made plans for a city that presumably would spread spaciously over expansive, flat land.
The first 17 settlers arrived to find what one period writer described as “a howling wilderness.” Quite a surprise, I’d say.
Being the characteristically stubborn Germans that they were (I can say that, I was born into a family of them!), the settlers decided to make the best of a bad situation.
Instead of building the elaborate, sweeping city they’d planed on, they used their ingenuity in working with the land rather than against it. The climate and rocky hillsides lent themselves perfectly to vineyards. Within ten years, travelers were making their way down the Missouri River to Hermann for Weinfest, including some of that marvelous German Catawba wine!
By the turn of the century, World’s Fair award-winning Stone Hill Winery had become the second largest in the country. Combined, Hermann’s cluster of wineries produced three million gallons of wine each year. Hermann had become a lively river port.
Sadly, the anti-German sentiment of World War I and, right on its heels, the restrictions of prohibition, knocked the wind out of Hermann’s sails, and the town languished, plunging into the Great Depression a decade before the rest of the US. Looking back, it seems to have been a blessing in disguise (albeit a tough-to-take blessing). The downturn basically froze Hermann in time, preserving much of its amazing Old World character.
I’m sad for the townsfolk who had to endure such hardship during those trying times, but I’m ever-so grateful for what Hermann is today. After 50 years of Prohibition, the wineries were reinvigorated and have become the area’s main tourist attraction. Much of the downtown still is as it was, with 1800s brick homes built in traditional German style hugging the sidewalks along its historic streets. Old-time shops, restaurants, inns, and churches are everywhere. As are, of course, the many awesome wineries. More than 150 of Hermann’s buildings are on the National Registry of Historic places.
Charming? You’d better believe it!
While we were there, we tooled around the town an stopped at its incredible pre-Civil War era City Hall that is indeed a magnificent step back in time. We ate a fantastic German meal (complete with German beer!) at the Tin Mill Restaurant – a former grain mill and brewery dating to the early 1800s and still in its original structure. We rambled along the Missouri, enjoying the beautiful, hilly landscape.
We saw…well…a row of enormous catfish heads hanging on fence posts (I have no idea what that was about, but it was a fun curiosity). We indulged ourselves at an awesome generations-old confectionary called Ricky’s Chocolate Box (highly recommend).
And, as I said, we dined at the Stone Mill Winery, enjoying authentic German cuisine and, of course, the exquisite sweet Catawba wine for which the Hermann wineries are known.
We so enjoyed our time in Hermann, Missouri, which still is “German in every particular.” The history, the beauty, and tales of long ago, and the friendliness of the town completely enchanted us. It is truly a testament to German determination and hard work.
Ah, but that’s only the half of it! Hermann isn’t just about the land and the buildings – it’s about the people as well. I can’t wait to tell you more about them in Part II, including the wonderful Christian family we lodged with.
All Images – Marge Fenelon. Please do not use without permission.