The Germans and Division Street

The long-standing influence of Germans in Ann Arbor showed up at places like (l to r) the Heidelberg, Metzger's and the Old German.

The long-standing influence of Germans in Ann Arbor showed up at places like (l to r) the Heidelberg, Metzger’s, and the Old German.


For a long time, the Michigan Men’s Glee Club has sung “I want go back to Michigan,” with its memorable line “Back to Joe’s and the Orient.” Joe’s (1913-1920) was a saloon facing courthouse square in Ann Arbor, and the Orient was another one nearby.

Both bars stood west of Division Street, then and now a north-south thoroughfare dividing the campus on the East from the town on the West. Division divided the drys from the wets; if you were on campus and you wanted a beer, you had to go west. (The story of the west-side saloons and their successors were lovingly depicted by Jim Tobin in his Michigan Today story What Division Street Divided.)

The cultures divided by Division Street divided more than the wet and dry sides of town; it separated cultures and even languages. On the East were the English, and on the west, Germans.

Until well into the 20th century, you could expect to hear English spoken on State Street and German on Main.

Germans were prosperous merchants, and their names are preserved in the names on the west side of Ann Arbor: Allmendinger Park, Bach School, Miller (< Müller) Avenue, Mack School.

Many German settlers in Ann Arbor were spurred to emigration for religious and political reasons. The Forty-Eighters had failed in efforts to make Germany more secular and democratic, and they came to Ann Arbor skilled in the professions and eager to create in the new land an old and, at the same time, a modern world. When the family of Christian Gauss arrived in the 1860s, they were fleeing Prussian autocracy and made a special point of buying property on Liberty Street so the children might be born on Freiheitsstrasse. Gauss (1878-1951) became perhaps the most famous Michigan alumnus to pursue an academic career. After graduating from Michigan, Gauss ended at Princeton where he taught, among many others, Woodrow Wilson in the field that would now be called Comparative Literature.

The Schwaben Verein, founded in 1888, was one of several German social and cultural institutions, and its former meeting spot, Schwaben Halle, still stands in downtown Ann Arbor.

In 1879, Louis J. Liesemer founded Die Washtenaw Post, a German newspaper circulating mainly on the West Side and in Western Washtenaw County. In 1894, he regretfully brought the paper to an end. Young people preferred the English papers, and, consequently, the advertisers did too. People made fun of the mixed language spoken by those assimilating to English: “Die cow hat über der fence gejumped, und hat alle die cabbages abge-eaten” (from Herter and Stollsteimer, 2009, 26).

A further blow to German in Ann Arbor was the sinking of the Lusitania and the consequent rise in anti-German feelings as America entered World War I. (Though the University of Michigan escaped the wave of nativism, the legislature in Texas obliged the university there to cease instruction in German.)

World War II further enflamed anti-German sentiment, and William Metzger—proprietor of Metzger’s Restaurant—felt obliged to publish a circular declaring that he was American born, never active in the Bund (the German-American fascist organization of the 1930s), and enthusiastically in favor of America. And soon thereafter his sons Walter and Hans went to war.

As late as the 1960s, one might hear German spoken in Metzger’s (or the Old German or the Heidelberg) during mid-day Sunday dinner when multi-generation families sat down to feast on German food. Then, as now, one could go to German Park, dance the two-step and drink from never-ending pitchers of beer.

German has faded away west of Division Street, though there are still people who grew up there in German-speaking homes.

Words from German that survive in Ann Arbor English are mainly found in the menu of Metzger’s Restaurant (now moved farther west to, appropriately, Zeeb Road): spätzle, rouladen, kassler rippchen, jagerbraten, among many other traditional dishes. The Schwaben Verein still meets, though German is spoken ceremonially only at the opening and close of meetings.If the story of English in America is to be told properly, it needs to include the story of the other languages that shaped English here. German is no longer what it was in Ann Arbor, but it has not vanished or been forgotten.

This article contains a correction: the original version incorrectly identified Walter Metzger as having declared his American allegiance; in fact it was his father William. Walter and his brother Hans later served in the war.


  1. Ralph Scheffler - 1960's

    Lived and taught school at AA high school in the ’60’s, when the Prezel-Bell was famous, then off to Metzger’s or the Old German for dinner. I remember my friend Patti Parron who owned the Brown ? on State Street after football Saturday’s. I was the week-end branch manager of the lst TV bank in A2 at the Ann Arbor Bank downtown in 1965.
    What a great town; they put in the new trees on main street to beautify the downtown area.


  2. Vaughan Parker - 1949

    “Though the University of Michigan escaped the wave of nativism, the legislature in Texas obliged the university there to cease instruction in German.)” My dad was DeWitt Parker, head of the Philosophy Dept many years ago. I believe I remember correctly that his best friend, a professor of German, had to leave U of M because teaching the german language was banned.


  3. Wa;ter Metzger - Just a Friend

    I enjoyed the article \\\” The Germans and Division Street\\\’ I am the Walter Metzger in the story, but it was my father William Metzger who who had to publish an \\\” Open Letter \\\” in the AA News stating that he was a loyal American Citizen not a Nazi sympathiser .My father was German born but I was born in a home on Freitstrasse (w.Liberty St) and I did go to war and fought for my country as did my brother Hans..


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