German Park Is Heimplatz for Summer Festivities

In one wee outpost of Germany, pretzels are beating cookies, four to one. On August 25, about 4,200 pretzels and 1,000 cookies will be consumed at a picnic and dance for the masses at German Park, home of the German Park Recreation Club. The club's kitchen will also cook up 800 pounds each of potatoes and sausages, 100 each of burgers and hot dogs -- and 1,200 eggs will be made into spaetzle.

The German Park Recreation Club was founded by a group of men in 1938 as a social club on property they purchased at 5549 Pontiac Trail in Ann Arbor. "From then on it grew and the dance group was established in the '40s, then a public picnic had already started, and so it grew over time," says president Martin Boos.

Boos, an automotive engineer at Robert Bosch, LLC, transferred to Michigan from Germany 15 years ago. He learned of the club through colleagues and married a local woman who knew about German Park since childhood.

The club is best known for picnics held for the public from 4 to 11 p.m. on the last Saturday of June, July, and August every year. Attendance rises as summer wanes: about 2,500 people pay $5 apiece to attend the June event; 3,000 come in July, and Boos expects about 3,500 next weekend.

Prep starts on Fridays, when the kitchen crew assembles at 6 a.m. to hand-make everything, returning again on Saturday morning at five to run the spaetzle dough through a press and turn potatoes into potato salad, Boos says. "A member, he does [the potatoes] for over 40 years. And he just actually transferred the recipe to a younger member. She is now responsible for the recipe, to keep the heritage going."

Also ongoing, every Wednesday the German Park Dancers rehearse for picnic performances of schuhplattler, dances from the Bavaria region in the south of Germany. The kinder group is for children age three and up, and there are teenage and adult cohorts. Everyone dons traditional dress – dirndl for women, lederhosen for men.

"I always say 'How neat is that, to see teenagers having fun making these traditional dances and growing that heritage.' That's really nice to see," says Boos. The dancers are accompanied by German Park's musicians – two guitarists and an accordion player who is the 90-year-old daughter of one of the founders.

Bands play Bavarian Volksmusic, or Trachtenmusik, through the evening. Sorgenbrecher played in July, and Enzian is forthcoming. "The whole night is about dancing. Everybody can dance up on the dance floor. And it's packed, I can tell you that!" Boos laughs.

A contingent of the regular membership returns for the Sunday morning clean-up. There are 110 members, plus a scattering of those 70 and older who are descendants of the founders. German ancestry is not a condition of membership.

"Usually they have some connections to Germany, but it's not a must from our side," Boos says. "It's just to have some interest in the German culture and also an interest in a family club."

If you'd like to join, appearing at the 9 a.m. Sunday clean-up is a good start. "We show how we work and how our process works, and if you're interested we invite you to a membership meeting and then you can apply for it," Boos explains. Applications are accepted in October, after which follows a one-year trial period. After the trial year, new members are voted in in November.

Meetings are held monthly year-round, and wintry Friday nights are for board games and hands of euchre in the new basement clubhouse. Kids are welcome. The group also travels, sometimes to Germany, or to fellow clubs. Members see it as a networking opportunity for the big German expat community in the area, Boos says.

The Michigan chapter of the German American Chambers of Commerce reports that Michigan ranks first nationwide in the amount of capital stock investment from German companies, and according to Crain's Detroit Business, five of the ten largest foreign-owned businesses in southeast Michigan are owned by German companies, including the Robert Bosch Corp, Continental Automotive N.A.,  and ThyssenKrupp USA.

The chamber also goes on to say that Michigan is home to about 350 German-owned companies and that it has more people working for those companies than any other state. Furthermore, more than 75 Michigan-based firms have operations in Germany.

But the German contingent is hardly all work and no play. Other local clubs, Detroit Schwaben Unterstuezungs Verein and GBU groups in the eastern Detroit suburbs and Toledo among them, have dance and social events, such as Oktoberfest and Bock Beer Fest.

"The German community clubs, they all get along very well, and we respect our visits to each other."

To commemorate the German Park Recreation Club's 75th anniversary next year, a history booklet is underway. A gala will be held in October of 2013, and then another winter and spring will be spent planning for the next summer's picnics at the 20-acre property on Pontiac Lake Road, where the picnics have been held since 1948.

"The founding fathers did something smart, no question about that," says Boos.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, poet, and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her last feature column was "Let the Bells Ring".
All photos by Doug Coombe