History of Oktoberfest USA—La Crosse, Wisconsin
Approximately 5,000 miles and over 150 years of history provide the only major differences between La Crosse, Wisconsin and Munich, Germany during late September and early October each year. This time of year both Munich and La Crosse are filled with “merrymaking” and a carnival atmosphere known in both cities as Oktoberfest.
One of the achievements which helped La Crosse gain a 1961 All-American City Award, Oktoberfest, USA, is one of the few authentic Old World folk festivals held annually in the United States. Each year, numerous local industries, civic and fraternal groups plus hundreds of area residents, working on a voluntary basis, combine their efforts with those sponsoring La Crosse Festivals, Inc., in developing and presenting the annual autumn festival.
Origins Of Oktoberfest In La Crosse
The first Oktoberfest, USA, was held on October 13, 14, and 15, 1961…but the planning began many months before. In early 1960, civic leaders had agreed that La Crosse needed a community wide activity of some sort. The city had been without such an event since 1921. Because that earlier celebration had been a winter carnival, many of the leaders were in favor of renewing this idea as a La Crosse tradition.
However, there were problems involved with holding a winter event on the same dates each year. First, as we all know, it is virtually impossible to predict the winter weather in Wisconsin from day to day, much less a year in advance. Second, assuming the worst, the costs of providing artificial ice and snow were prohibitive. Finally, there were several winter carnivals in the area, including the internationally known St. Paul Carnival. The proximity of Minneapolis and its highly successful summer festival, Aquatennial, tended to rule out a similar event. Although neither festival was completely dismissed, it was agreed upon that a fall celebration was the best answer.
During the fall of 1960, several officials of the La Crosse based G. Heileman Brewing Company were also discussing an annual promotion. News of these discussions spread through the firm, eventually reaching the malt house, where two of the employees of German origin suggested an autumn festival similar to the Oktoberfest held annually in Munich. The idea was quickly accepted, for two primary reasons:
- October is the time of color, as the leaves change from summer green to the brilliant fall colors.
- Early October usually marks the end of the harvest and the preparation for winter. It was believed that a festival at this time would provide an ideal “relief valve.
As the idea for an Oktoberfest grew, it quickly became apparent that there would be much more to do than could be handled by a single firm. It was agreed that the Oktoberfest should be a completely civic enterprise. Early in 1961, brewery officials contacted the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce and proposed the idea to chamber members. It was accepted, and both agreed that the chamber would act as the sponsoring organization.
An Oktoberfest Committee was established to oversee the proposed annual celebration. This committee set forth five primary objectives for the fall festival:
- to promote local pride in La Crosse
- to obtain national publicity for La Crosse
- to promote “tourism” to La Crosse and the Coulee Region
- to involve a large number of people
- to break even financially, while remaining a non-profit organization
The almost unbelievable growth of Oktoberfest, USA, since that first year has made reality of all the objectives. It was conceived as a holiday for the community and accepted by the community on those terms. In 1962, the name “Oktoberfest” was registered with the State of Wisconsin. In 1963, “Oktoberfest, USA” was registered and listed as a trademark with the federal government. In 1965, the newly-formed La Crosse Festivals, Inc., purchased the assets of Oktoberfest from the Chamber of Commerce and became the sponsoring organization.