By Mary Hall
In 1938, a group of German immigrants living in Washtenaw County who routinely gathered at each other’s homes to socialize and share stories about “the old country” pooled their money together, at the time $500, to purchase a lot of land on which to gather. They purchased 10 acres at 5549 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor – and German Park was born. A similar piece of land in Washtenaw County selling today would go for approximately $145,000.00.
However, it was not a real estate investment this group was interested in. Back in the 1920’s, many German immigrants came to the United States in search of a better life. Ann Arbor, Michigan specifically was then known as “German Town” and was a popular destination for these travelers. While they looked for work, newcomers were often welcomed to stay with those who had come before them and had time to establish themselves with a place to live and employment. But times were tight during the Great Depression, so as a means of entertainment, these settlers would take turns gathering at one’s home to sing songs, dance and drink – even though Prohibition was then in effect, many created wine and ciders in their cellars.
With the establishment of the German Park it was first assumed it would be a picnic area for what was becoming a large membership of immigrants to gather. Soon, however, came the idea of sponsoring picnics open to the public to raise money to cover the many updates, new buildings and picnic tables and other amenities they wanted to add.
Eighty years later, German Park is still holding those picnics, and doing all the work in the background are its’ members. Wally Jarvis, grandson of founding member Anton Jarvis, said some members, such as himself, have family members in the group that go way back. Others have decided to seek membership after attending a picnic and seeing the camaraderie between the members, watching the skill of the Trachtengruppe dancers, or listening to the music which encompasses everything from polkas and waltzes to rock and roll.
Members and preregistered volunteers are the mainstay of this organization. Along with the picnics, members enjoy other outings together. Recently they have gone to Europe, the Fisher Theater and participated in euchre tournaments. They prepare and serve the food which, save the sausage, is all homemade, and clean up the next day. Volunteers, who must contact German Park before an event to volunteer, are given free food and drinks in exchange for their help. They also have a “Designated Driver” program which offers its own benefits.
The picnics, which are family oriented, are held the last Saturdays of June, July and August and run from 4 through 11pm draw approximately 2,500 visitors each picnic. The menu, which still includes all items original to the first picnic at German Park such as Bratwurst, Knackwurst, Sauerkraut, Potato Salad, and Spatzen also includes hot dogs and hamburgers among other items. Naturally they serve several traditional German beers and a few domesticated beers, wine, various soft drinks and water. Along with the German Park Dancers who perform twice per evening, live music is provided. There is a large sand-box area with toys and games for kids. President Wally Jarvis added, “Something new last year was that we have an ATM, which a private company brings in, and then takes out at the end of the picnic,” said Jarvis.
Directions to German Park can be found on their website (www.germanpark.org) and parking is free. Entry to the park is $5.00 per person (kids twelve and under are admitted for free) and anyone under the age of 21 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to enter. T-shirts, mugs, socks and rain ponchos are available for purchase. German Park does not accept credit or debit cards. For more information, visit www.germanpark.org .