June 17th, 18th, & 19th
History of Schützenfest
The German festival called Schützenfest, or Marksmen's Festival, has a very long and fabled history, with its origins on the European continent. While less well known in America than its counterpart, Oktoberfest, the festival is much older and steeped in tradition.
Schützenfest Beginnings in Europe
As the legend goes, it all started in the fifteenth century in Europe when a marksman (Schütze) shot down an eagle that had attacked a small child. The people in the village were so joyous about this newly-found "hero" that they made him an honorary king of the village for a year. In subsequent years, the villagers would hold a festival to commemorate this occasion, having a sharpshooting competition, with the winner becoming honorary king for a year. Thus began the tradition of the Schützenfest in many parts of Germany and Switzerland.
This legend was based on some truth, as in these earlier times, when most men were farmers, they were all trained in using arms, and became a paramilitary of sorts, known as the Wehrbauren, or farmer soldiers. They would fight for their leaders when called upon to do so in the many wars and incursions that took place in those days, and then would go back to their farms when the fighting was over. They would celebrate by holding sharpshooting contests, with the winner being honored for his shooting skills. This was a more logical beginning for the Schützenfest, but not nearly as romantic as the marksman downing an eagle to save a young child's life.
The Beginning of Schützenfest in Cincinnati
With such an influx of German immigrants to the Greater Cincinnati region in the mid-1800s, it was only natural that a Schützenverein (Rifleman's, or Shooter's Club) and accompanying Schützenfest would be started in a matter of time. On July 1, 1866, a group of Civil War veterans, mostly German immigrants, founded the Cincinnati Schützenverein. This group purchased the building and grounds of the Fairmount Theological Seminary that were situated on a hill in the Fairmount area of Cincinnati, naming the area Schützen Park. The organization held its first Schützenfest in the park that same month, which was the first one to take place in Cincinnati. The hill on which Schützen Park was situated eventually became known as "Schützenbuckel Hill". The Schützenverein held all its festivals and social events at this park, and by 1868, the Verein had over 250 members. Many of the members were from the 9th Ohio Infantry Regiment, as well as other Civil War regiments; many were also prominent German brewers, such as Christian Moerlein, Conrad Windisch, and Gottlieb Muhlhauser.
The Schützenverein building burned down and the property was donated to the city of Cincinnati in 1912 to be used as a park, called St. Clair Heights Park, which still exists today and is located at Fairmount Avenue and Iroquois Street. This park had gained notoriety earlier when purportedly in 1875 or 1881, depending on whose account one believes, Annie Oakley (then Annie Moses) outshot her future husband, Frank Butler, in a shooting contest at the park. There is even a sign at St. Clair Heights Park today declaring the site of the "Annie Oakley/Frank Butler Famous Shootout".
Other Schützenvereine besides the Cincinnati Schützenverein were founded in the Greater Cincinnati area during the late 1800s, with names like the "Plattdütske Vogelscheeten Gesellkup (Low German Bird Shooting Club)", the "Deutsche Schützen Gesellschaft (German Marksman's Club) of Covington, Kentucky", the "Norddeutsche Schützen Gesellschaft (North German Marksman's Club)", the "Lewisburg Schützen Verein" in Covington, and the "Landwehr Schützen Verein (National Guard Marksman's Club)". All of these shooting clubs were very active and held their own Schützenfests at different parks throughout the area. By 1910, there were seven Schützenvereine in existence in the Greater Cincinnati area.
The royal tradition carries on!
Unfortunately, after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, anti-German hysteria reigned, which eventually brought the demise of all of the existing Schützenvereine. They weren't the only victims of this hysteria, as German street names were changed (e.g., Bremen Street became Republic Street), German language newspapers were forced to shut down, the German language was no longer taught in schools, and many other anti-German activities were perpetrated.
Schützenfest at Cincinnati Kolping
After the war, the Catholic Kolping Society of Cincinnati arrived on the scene, being founded on November 26, 1924 by German immigrants. One of the first things that the Society did was to lease some property in the spring of 1925 on the Little Miami River, and then hold its first Schützenfest there on August 30 of that year. Many of the early members had come from the northern regions of Germany and fondly remembered the Schützenfest from their homeland. The Schützenfest had returned to Cincinnati! From that point on, a Schützenfest has been held by the Cincinnati Kolping Society every successive year, with the exception of 2020 because of the Coronavirus pandemic, with its 96th festival being held in 2021.
The first Schützen King of Cincinnati Kolping was Benedict Wenker, who was also the first president of the Society. He was made King by proclamation before the Schützenfest began, and then Rudolf Promberger, who actually won the shooting contest that first year, became the “second” King. Thus in 2021, the Cincinnati Kolping Society is crowning its 97th King at its 96th Schützenfest.
The Schützen King is a special title of honor conferred upon the lucky person who succeeds in shooting down the last piece of the wooden eagle at the annual Schützenfest. Anyone who has been a Kolping member in good standing for three or more years is eligible to shoot at the eagle and try his skill with the .22 rifle. The winner is officially crowned king for a year.
Planning for the Schützenfest begins a year in advance and it takes an army of volunteers to prepare for the event. Each year, many of the details are tweaked to help grow the festival and to attract a more diverse audience. To enhance the authentic German experience, top-tier German musicians perform, special homemade German food is prepared, special German beers are brought in, and talented German folk dancers perform. A team shooting competition and a 1K Bier Dash Fun Run have been added to the festivities in recent years. The Cincinnati Kolping Society looks forward to holding the Schützenfest for many years to come!
Nancy Pelzel, July 2021