Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Discovering New Ulm’s Goosetown, across the tracks and down by the river August 2, 2012

DISCOVERING SOMETHING totally unexpected rates, for me, as the plum, the prize, the most interesting aspect of travel.

And you needn’t journey far to find these places. Last Saturday while driving to southwestern Minnesota, my husband and I stopped in New Ulm because I wanted to see the Defenders and German-Bohemian historical monuments. Well, we never did get to the Defenders marker.

The German-Bohemian sculpture and marker in German Park.

But we eventually got directions for and located the immigrant sculpture overlooking scenic German Park. As lovely and manicured as that park is, and I’ll share photos in a future post, it was not the highlight of our visit.

Rather, it was Goosetown which captured my fancy.

We drove across the railroad tracks and past the old Valley Grain Co. to reach Goosetown.

Goosetown is that side of New Ulm—across the tracks and down by the river—where mostly Catholic German-Bohemian immigrants began settling in the late 1800s. They were primarily farmers or retired farmers, of peasant stock. And they kept geese, which wandered and fed along the banks of the Minnesota River.

Goosetown residents worked at the local roller mills, including the Eagle Roller Mill. That mill and the New Ulm Roller Mill once made New Ulm the third largest milling center in Minnesota. The New Ulm flour millers had elevators in three states.

And so the name Goosetown became attached to southeastern New Ulm, specifically to South Front and South Valley streets. The immigrants who lived here labored in nearby roller mills and breweries and worked as carpenters, masons and cigar makers. Women supplemented the family income by making Klöppel lace and/or sewing feather-filled bedding. Families also gathered clam shells from the river for pearl buttons.

At first thought, it all seems rather romantic, this stretch of Gȁnseviertel next to the railroad tracks and river. But I expect life there was hard as families, many of them living in two-room houses, struggled to survive. I also expect, and New Ulmers can correct me if I’m wrong, that this area of town wasn’t always embraced by the community at large. You know that thing about “the other side of the tracks.” Every community seems to have that part of town perceived as less than positive whether due to poverty or people who are different from the majority. Riverside land (and Goosetown is no exception) was once the site of town dumps, which should tell you something, too.

Sisters Amber, 8, and Kiera, 4, pose with Gertie the Goose, a statue donated by Dr. Ann Vogel of New Ulm and located in Riverside Park.

I likely could have learned even more about the history of Goosetown had the Regional River History & Information Center, 101 South Front Street, Riverside Park, been open. The center is housed in the former Franklin School.

Kiera showed me another goose tucked into a flowerbed in front of the river center.

Today New Ulm embraces the heritage of Goosetown with a plaque and statue in Riverside Park. There’s also an occasional Goosetown reunion and Victor “Fezz” Fritsche, leader of the one-time Goosetown Band, was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 1991.

The logo for the Goosetown Roller Derby Girls who have names like Deutschland Dolly and SoUr Kraut.

Most recently, in January, a flat track roller derby team, Goosetown Roller Girls, was founded.

Goosetown Storage, once the home of Minnesota Seed Company.

A side view of Goosetown Storage, with signage pointing to its original use as the location of Minnesota Seed Company. Anyone know the history of Minnesota Seed?

At least one building is labeled Goosetown Storage and the New Ulm Fire Department has a Goosetown Fire Station next to the train tracks.

Engine House No. 3, commonly known as the Goosetown Fire Station, was established in 1890. The newer station pictured here houses two pumpers. A 47-foot drill tower (not shown here) stands nearby.

Even so, I was unaware of this ethnic treasure until we happened upon Goosetown on Saturday. New Ulm is best known to the touring public as the site of a major battle during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862; for the August Schell Brewing Co.; the Hermann the German Monument;  the childhood home of author and illustrator Wanda Gag; the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame;  the Glockenspiel; the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity; Way of the Cross stations; the home of Minnesota’s 14th governor, John Lind; and most certainly as a city that features all things German. You can see how historic Goosetown could get lost in that long list of New Ulm attractions.

If you’re like me and appreciate the lesser-known, less touristy aspects of a community, drive across the tracks and down by the river in Anytown. Perhaps you’ll discover a place like Goosetown, rich in heritage and sturdy brick buildings and stories stitched into the land, if only you knew those stories.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from New Ulm.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Goosetown Roller Girls image comes from the team’s website.