Sauerkraut Unites Folks: Delicious Food, Polka Music, Good Conversation all Part of Special Day in Wishek, N.D.

Bahr, Jeff. "Sauerkraut Unites Folks: Delicious Food, Polka Music, Good Conversation all Part of Special day in Wishek, N.D." Aberdeen American News, 21 October 2007.

WISHEK, N.D. - The first thing you notice at Sauerkraut Day is the long line of people outside the Wishek Civic Center.

As you approach, you hear the sound of music and good cheer coming from inside the building.

Then, as you walk around the corner of the Civic Center, you're hit by the first wave of sauerkraut.

The annual Sauerkraut Day in Wishek is a big, German-flavored party. A giant crowd gathers every year on the second Wednesday of October for a meal of sauerkraut, wieners and mashed potatoes.

The 82nd Sauerkraut Day, on Oct. 10, drew more than 1,100 people. It's unusual for a major civic event like this to take place on a weekday, and at lunch time.

What else is unique about Sauerkraut Day? How about this: the meal is free. Customers are invited to buy $1 raffle tickets, but the lunch itself is free of charge.

“In my book, anytime something's free, it draws people,” said head cook LeRoy Wanner.

Prominent servers

The meal is furnished by the Wishek Association of Commerce. And the food really is served up by local business people. A host of business owners and other community leaders, including the local school superintendent, were among those dishing out the meal. The Lions Club was also out in full force.

The Wishek High School Choir performed during Sauerkraut Day on Oct. 10 in Wishek, N.D. Fronting the choir were 10 high school students playing the accordion, nine of them girls. Playing the piano is Janet Wolff, who has been Wishek's music teacher for 20 years.
Not only do you get a free meal, but you also get entertainment that adds to the atmosphere. The Wishek High School Band performed polkas and marches. After that, the Wishek choir performed such tunes as "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Du, Du Liegst Mir im Herzen." Fronting the choir were 10 high school students playing the accordion, nine of them girls.

“I think they feel a little bit special,” Wishek music teacher Janet Wolff said of the accordion players. "People sure stand up and pay attention to them when they play. It's so wild to see 10 accordion players on the stage at one time, and they're all in a public school setting."

Why a Wednesday?

The big question is, why is Sauerkraut Day on a Wednesday?

"Tradition," said former Wishek superintendent Delmar Zimmerman. "They tried a weekend a few years ago. It was almost a complete failure."

Another question is, why is the meal served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., instead of in the evening? Mainly because the meal attracts a lot of retired people and out-of-towners.

Over the years, Sauerkraut Day customers have had to battle snow, rain and cold wind.

"Your older people want to eat and get home," Wanner said. "If they get snow, they don't want to be on the road."

A Sauerkraut Day meal consists of sauerkraut and wieners, mashed potatoes, speck, cheese, buns, coffee and pop.

The sauerkraut and wieners are prepared, not at the Civic Center, but in the garage at city hall. The mashed potatoes are whipped up at the school. "At the Civic Center it's only dished out," said Wanner, 63.

Five cooks

A total of five cooks, including Wanner and his 35-year-old son, Pat, prepare the meal. They use 110 gallon cans of sauerkraut, 500 pounds of wieners and 200 pounds of speck, which is actually bacon.

Beginning at 6 a.m., they prepare the meal in six vats, each of which holds 60 gallons. The sauerkraut, wieners and speck are mixed with water.

"We also put our secret potion in there," Wanner said.

What's in the secret potion? "That I can't tell you," he said. "My son wouldn't like it if I told you. He's going to take it over one of these fine days."

Wanner has been the head cook for more than 20 years. "I'm built like a salesman's car - not too bad-looking, but a hell of a lot of miles."

Hundreds of people wait for their sauerkraut outside the civic center in Wishek, N.D., on the morning of Oct. 10.
At the Civic Center this year, 1,140 plates of food were served. Meals are also taken to the school, the nursing home, the hospital and Wishek Manufacturing. Sonya Schumacher, president of the Association of Commerce, estimates that 250 to 300 people enjoyed those meals.

The total number of patrons has often been 1,700 to 1,900, Wanner said. "When I was young, they used to have as high as 2,200. There used to be 1,500 or 1,600 at the Civic Center alone."

Eaten outside

In the early days, the meal was served in the old fire hall, next to the old city hall. The food was handed out a window to customers, who then ate it outside.

Ferdinand Vossler of Wishek, N.D., has been to virtually all of the 82 Sauerkraut Days. At left is his daughter-in-law, Judy Vossler of Minnetonka, Minn. Standing are Judy's son, Peter, and his wife, Elisabeth Schwaer, also from Minnetonka. Their 4-month-old son is Alexander Ferdinand.
A man who remembers the first Sauerkraut Day - and every other one - is Ferdinand Vossler, 94.

He's been to "practically every single one of them," said his daughter-in-law, Judy Vossler. "He was born 15 miles south of here."

Zimmerman, who was Wishek's superintendent for 22 years, didn't grow up too far away.

"I always tell people I'm from out east - from Lehr. It's 10 miles east of here," he said.

But lots of people drove several hours to get to Sauerkraut Day. Those interviewed included people from Mandan and Glen Ullin, N.D., Selby and Aberdeen.

The man who came the farthest surely was Dale Ost of Brasilia, Brazil. A North Dakota native, the 57-year-old Ost has lived in Brazil for 39 years. He was enjoying his first Sauerkraut Day with his family. His father, Oscar Ost, lives between Lehr and Fredonia.

Oscar, 83, used to be a farmer and a rancher. "Now I'm a loafer," he said.

Gift to customers

Why is Sauerkraut Day free?

"This was started because the business people wanted to show their appreciation to their customers through the years," Wanner said.

But not all the people serving food are business people.

A reporter, apologizing as he butted into the line, discovered that the person he was confessing to was Kelly Schmidt, North Dakota's state treasurer.

"I told my husband I'd buy him lunch," said Schmidt, one of the people serving food. Her husband took the day off from work, and learned he would be traveling from Bismarck to Wishek.

"I do a lot of things across the state, but this is our favorite," said the state treasurer.

She was also helping her re-election chances. As Schmidt briefly addressed the crowd, she mentioned that events such as Sauerkraut Day "bring home who we are and what we are and what we believe in." The next time election day rolls around, she said, we need to remember "what we stand for."

Friendly folk

Among the people dining on sauerkraut in Wishek were Priscilla and Benjamin Grenz of Selby, right. Next to Priscilla is her sister, Iona Bettenhausen of Wishek. At far left is Iona's friend, Ellen Vetter of Wishek.
The reporter, who came to Wishek alone, felt very comfortable at Sauerkraut Day. The people sitting around him were so friendly he felt he'd known them for a long time.

"Wishek has good people," said Gladys Bauer, one of the friendly Wishek people.

During Sauerkraut Day, the inside of the Civic Center is loud and fun. It's also unique. Where else can you see nine high school girls playing the accordion?

After the meal ends, other entertainment is provided. With all the excitement going on, you won't be in any hurry to leave.

And the rest of your life, whenever you smell sauerkraut, you'll think of Wishek.

Reprinted with permission of the Aberdeen American News.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller