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The new Brown County Historical Society exhibit, Loyalty and Dissent: Brown County and World War I, tells a local story with national implications. When the United States declared war in April 1917, more than half of Brown County residents were first or second generation Germans. Even today, based on the U.S. Census, it is the most German city in the United States. The German language could be heard in country schools, local stores, and around the county’s many saloons. Then, suddenly, Germany – the homeland – was the enemy, and young men and women were called to arms to fight against the “Huns.”
The exhibit looks at the stories of those who served in the military – soldiers, sailors, physicians, and nurses. Some made the ultimate sacrifice for their country – soldiers like Sleepy Eye native Albert Trebesch. Friends described him as of a "good disposition, always feeling happy and cheerful.” Albert went missing in action in July 1918 and never came home.
On the home front, Brown County’s citizens joined together to support the Red Cross and buy Liberty Bonds. They changed their eating habits to conserve flour, sugar, and fuel, or joined the newly-organized Home Guards. Many, though, were labeled as “enemy aliens” – forced to register with the government and turn in their radios and rifles.
America’s entry into World War I led to one of our nation’s greatest tests of the First Amendment and its limits, set in a climate of suspicion about the loyalty of those who dissented from U.S. involvement in what they saw as a European conflict. In Brown County, neighbor turned against neighbor, as suspicion and fear damaged old friendships and longstanding social relationships. National newspapers openly ran stories, calling Brown County, “Kaiserland.” Federal and state undercover agents roamed the county, listening for disloyal comments. Some, like Rev. Adolf Ackermann, the director of Dr. Martin Luther College, lost their jobs because of their public opposition to the war.
This story is told through photographs, documents, and a collection of WWI artifacts. Visitors will step into a recreated trench and hear the sounds of battle. One learning station has video interviews with Brown County residents who lived through those years – Kurt Bell, Marion Pfaender Downs, and Dr. Ted Fritsche.
The exhibit opens to the public May 6, 2017 from 10am-3pm. On May 4th, there is an exclusive Reception and Tour fundraiser with historian Dan Hoisington. Call (507) 233-2616 to reserve your space and to contribute to the cause. On May 5th is a member-only opening reception with the Comrades of Valor and music by Molly Henig from 5-8pm. The Brown County Historical Society is located at 2 N. Broadway, New Ulm, Minnesota. For additional information, visit www.browncountyhistorymn.org.