Utica Maennerchor, German Population Boasts Long History In Utica
In January 1865, a small group of German settlers came together at the Bierbauer Brewery in West Utica with one goal in mind: to promote German and American choral singing, along with their culture.
Three months later the Utica Maennerchor was already making history.
Leo Schwenzfeier is one of the oldest active members of the group, joining in 1957. Since then, he says the club has grown exponentially to more than 530 members, including the likes of college professors, businessmen and even State Senator Joe Griffo.
"In April, they already had their first outing and gave a concert at the Steuben Lodge," Schwenzfeier said. "A week later, they had a public appearance at the Utica Train Station when Abraham Lincoln's funeral train passed through Utica on the way to Springfield, Illinois, his final resting place."
Schwenzfeier says because of the high number of Germans in the city during the late 1800s and early 1900s and because of ample work in the city's many textile mills, the club was able to grow quickly and find a dedicated base.
After spending a few years meeting at the brewery, the club finally had enough funds to buy a property on Columbia Street.
"That building, believe it or not, served the Maennerchor for 71 years. But, then we had to let it go because the Utica Urban Renewal Agency took over that land to build a complex. From there, we moved over to Howard Ave. in North Utica. Well, 25 years later, so to speak, we had to give up that piece of property because they wanted to use it for the ramp that goes to 790."
That's when they moved for the last time, to their current location on Flanagan Road, in Marcy.
In between the moves, the Utica Maennerchor kept singing, winning competitions and earning recognition for their longevity and choral skill. Schwenzfeier was proud to note that the organization is the second largest German club in New York, and the largest singing society in the state. At any given concert, around 50 members of the Maennerchor can be found, including nearly 30 women and more than 20 men.
Notable Germans in the community are also featured at the Maennerchor, displayed in a case near the front door. Among the names mentioned include Nicholas Herkimer, Baron von Steuben, Paul Hoffman, F.X. Matt, George Weaver and Reverend Andrew Wetzel. Mother Marianne Cope and Mother Bernadine Dorn also find their names adorning the shrine to influential Germans in the city.
Still, Schwenzfeier says the group is looking for younger members, a task that can only be helped with more public outreach. The group is highly involved in the city's activities, Beer and Brat nights, pie sales and their upcoming Edelweiss dinner/dance on April 6th. Maennerchor representatives were also instrumental in establishing Utica's "German Day" ceremony, which is held on October 6th and includes a flag raising and other recognition.
But, all of these events take time, and Schwenzfeier was quick to mention every single person who makes it possible.
"These are dedicated people," Schwenzfeier said. "Everything that you see around you is through volunteers. We put in about 10-11,000 volunteer hours here, so it's a big upkeep."
Some of those hours are jam packed into three days during the summer, when the club hosts its annual Bavarian Festival, bringing in German bands from throughout the region to play traditional German music and other selections.
Schwenzfeier says all are welcome to join the club, as long as they are able to follow one rule.
"It's a friendly type of place and for me... I love to come here," Schwenzfeier said. "Nineteen years ago, I had a heart attack and heart bypass, so I do not want to confront anybody that's not pleasant on the board or get into any conversation that is unpleasant. So, this is the place I like to come."
The Utica Maennerchor has had a long and extensive history in the city of Utica, including architectural and historical footprints. If Leo Schwenzfeier gets his way, the club will be singing its songs for a long, long time.
To see video of the annual Bavarian Festival, click below.