For over 120 years, the Hermann Monument has cast a long shadow over New Ulm and is now synonymous with the city.
Few communities in the United States are as strongly identified with an image as New Ulm is connected with Hermann.
The monument is located in Hermann Heights Park overlooking the city, but images of Hermann are everywhere. His image is sold as souvenirs, his shadow is on street signs and he’s even appeared in The Journal’s masthead.
Every year in September, the HermannFest celebration is held in the parks surrounding the monument. With this much focus on Hermann the Germann, it can be easy to forget the statue has not always been there.
The history of New Ulm’s Hermann Monument begins over 2,000 years ago with the real Hermann, born around 16 B.C. His father was the chief of the Cherusci tribe. Shortly after his birth, Hermann was taken hostage by the Romans. Hermann became a Roman citizen and was admitted into the Roman army. He secretly conspired to unite the German tribes against Rome.
In 9 A.D. he drew a Roman legion into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. The battle lasted three days, ending on Sept. 11. In the end, the Roman legion was annihalated. This battle and subsequent victories by Hermann prevented Rome from expanding its empire into Germany. Historians believed that without Hermann’s victory against Rome, there would be no German culture as we know it today.
Over the centuries, Hermann became a symbol of German nationalism through poems, plays and songs. In 1838, a German sculptor named Ernst von Bandel began working on a memorial to Hermann located in Detmold, Germany. The creation of the monument took decades. The cornerstone was laid in 1841, but it would not be completed until 1875. The memorial instantly became a symbol of German national unity. Less than 25 years later, a second Hermann Monument would be erected in New Ulm, Minnesota.
New Ulm’s Hermann Monument was the idea of Julius Berndt. Berndt immigrated to the United States as a young man and settled in New Ulm in 1857. Berndt was a founding member of New Ulm’s Sons of Hermann Lodge.
In 1881, Berndt began suggesting an American version of the Detmold monument be created. By 1885, he began actively campaigning to create the monument in New Ulm. The National Sons of Hermann organization agreed, but placing it in New Ulm was contentious.
Larger urban cities like Milwaukee and St. Paul campaigned for it. At the time, some viewed New Ulm as a community located on the edge of the wilderness. New Ulm’s population was under 4,000. Some lodge members believed the monument would be seen by more people if placed in an urban area.
However, Berndt had secured an acre of land on a hill in New Ulm to build the monument and this ultimately swayed the national organization to place it in New Ulm. Later supporters of the New Ulm location would cite the community’s German heritage and resilience through hardships such as the U.S.-Dakota War, as a reason it deserved the monument.
Sculpting of New Ulm’s Hermann began in 1889. The statue construction was completed by a company in Ohio a year later and it was shipped to New Ulm.
The front page of a June 1890 edition of the New Ulm Review featured a sketch of the completed Hermann statue. The sketch contained a brief article describing the statue. The manufacturer of the statue described it as “the finest piece of work of the kind ever attempted on this side of the Atlantic.”
New Ulm had the statue by July 1890, but no stone foundation to place it. In 1893, an eight-cent tax was imposed on Sons of Hermann members to cover the cost. Eventually, fundraising paid off and the base was complete with the majority of money coming from the remaining Sons of Hermann lodges and other German organizations.
In 1897, the Hermann Monument was complete and the Sons of Hermann hosted a dedication ceremony on September 25 of that year. The National Lodge also held its annual convention in New Ulm. The community of less than 4,000 people saw an influx of thousands of people, many of them members from the various lodges, but also major state dignitaries including then-Gov. David Clough.
A committee was formed to prepare for the dedication. New Ulm residents were asked to decorate the community. Articles in the newspapers requested anyone with a carriage help transport lodge members arriving at the train station to various events in the community.
The Sept. 15, 1897 edition of the New Ulm Review reported the National Sons of Herman Lodge would begin its annual session. The Review would feature detailed coverage of the convention and dedication ceremony. The newspaper estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 people were in New Ulm over the two days leading up to the monument dedication. A grand parade was held through town featuring men dressed as German warriors followed by Roman-style chariots.
Though the monument was dedicated in 1897, it was not formally completed. The original plan for the monument included four lion statues at the museum base. It would be over 100 years before the lions were put in place. Cast iron lions painted to match Hermann’s patina were added in Sept. 2001.
In 1929, the Sons of Hermann gifted the monument to the City of New Ulm. For over a century, New Ulm has maintained the monument, making repairs as needed.
One of the larger projects was in the 1950s when a cement-like covering was placed over the limestone foundation. Another restoration was completed in 1973 and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Hermann would see the most significant restoration after sustaining significant damage in a 1998 wind storm. One of the wings on Hermann’s helmet fell off in the storm. A closer examination of the statue found several structural problems including a rotten right foot, cracks and bullet holes.
In February 2003, the statue came down for repair. For over a year, Hermann was absent from atop his perch. A total of 32 different holes were repaired, the helmet wing was reattached, a new right foot was attached and his right shoulder was repaired. The renovated statue was returned to the top of the monument in November 2004.
In 2013, a special celebration was held near Hermann Monument to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the New Ulm Battery and the 125th Anniversary of construction starting on the Hermann Monument.
The festival was held on the anniversary of Hermann’s victory in the Teutoburg Forest. The dual celebration proved popular and in 2014 the community turned it into an annual tradition called Hermannfest.
Hermannfest is the newest festival in New Ulm, but it celebrates one of the oldest residents of the community. Hermann’s statue will likely reside in New Ulm for centuries come and remain a symbol of the community.