A Battle Over Beer Split a Texas Town’s Biggest Party

Wayne Klement, a Muenster Jaycee senator, at “Party in the Park”, a festival and fundraiser hosted by the Jaycees at the same time as the annual Germanfest festival held by the local chamber of commerce, at a city park in Muenster, Texas, on April 28, 2024. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)
Wayne Klement, a Muenster Jaycee senator, at “Party in the Park”, a festival and fundraiser hosted by the Jaycees at the same time as the annual Germanfest festival held by the local chamber of commerce, at a city park in Muenster, Texas, on April 28, 2024. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

MUENSTER, Texas — Social media attacks. Intransigent factions. An anonymous letter complaining about the harm done by some neighbors to the harmony of a bucolic Texas town.

The division that erupted in recent months in Muenster, Texas, a farming and ranching community north of Dallas, resembles the political polarization that has ripped apart many communities across the nation.

But the fight in Muenster, a town settled by German immigrants, has not been about politics. It has been about beer.

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Or rather, about how to divvy up the proceeds from selling beer at the biggest thing that happens in Muenster every year: the town’s three-day Germanfest. The dispute has bitterly divided neighbors in a town that prides itself on its Texas German heritage and spirit of volunteerism.

Suddenly, instead of one celebration on the last weekend in April, there were two — two places for the town’s 1,600 residents to partake of beer, sausages and music, each a short walk from the other, on either side of Division Street.

At stake were not only competing visions of the town’s signature event but the survival of the kinds of old-fashioned community volunteer groups that historically formed part of the backbone of American towns. In Muenster, they still do — and Germanfest has long been their biggest moneymaker.

“It put tears in my eyes,” said William Fisher, 83, as he ate breakfast at Rohmer’s, the town’s wood-paneled, schnitzel-serving diner. “All of a sudden, it seems like the town went haywire.”

For some, the split marked the culmination of rising discontent over the growth of the festival, which draws about 20,000 visitors.

That was particularly true after 2018 when the festival moved into a newly built, cavernous indoor space on sprawling grounds at the edge of town.

“It became more of an outsider thing and lost that local touch,” said Leslie Hess Eddleman, a dental hygienist and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. “They turned it into this big show for out-of-towners but not for us.”

But what finally brought about the split was not who attended the festival but a dispute over the beer contract, which was up for renewal.

The Jaycees, a national junior civic organization, had long sold the beer, using its members as volunteers and taking a nearly 80% cut.

The Muenster Chamber of Commerce, which runs Germanfest, wanted to renegotiate, at first proposing an even split, then offering the Jaycees 70% — if it helped to decorate.

“We have 100% of the risk,” said Matt Sicking, president of the chamber and a county commissioner. “If it’s a rainout, we lose everything.”

No deal. No one would budge.

“You ever hear of a stubborn German? They had their minds made up,” said Wayne Klement, 74, a Jaycee senator. That’s when we decided we’ll just have a party of our own.”

The group was encouraged when others joined. Many did: the Knights of Columbus, the Boy Scouts, a local meat seller, the family that puts on a hammer-and-nail-in-a-log game they call “nägelschlagen.”

Soon, it had turned into an all-out rebellion.

Who lays claim to Germanfest could not be more important in a town such as Muenster, which sits in the rolling farmland near Texas’ Red River boundary with Oklahoma.

Businesses carry the German names of families who arrived long ago — the Fishers, the Flusches — and never left. The lettering on police cars promises “Zu Dienen und Beschützen,” to serve and protect. Each year, the high school football team battles its rival in Lindsay, another German-heritage town, in a grudge match known as the “Kraut Bowl.”

Texas experienced several waves of German immigration in the 1800s. Many settled around the Hill Country cities of Fredricksburg and New Braunfels, near Austin, where some schools taught primarily in German.

“The German language held on longer and more tenaciously in Texas than anywhere else in the United States,” said Walter Kamphoefner, a history professor at Texas A&M University.

The founding of Muenster was driven primarily by brothers intent on creating an explicitly German Catholic community. They faced some early challenges: The first church in town was destroyed by a tornado. So was the second one, about three years later.

Life in Muenster still revolves around the church. The town has both a Catholic school and a public school. Families of six children or more are not unusual.

“It’s like in Europe,” said Chuck Bartush, one of 13 siblings and one of the town’s only lawyers. “It’s old school. Medieval almost.”

Muenster is also home to an enduring culture of volunteerism. The Jaycees, whose members are community-minded adults 40 and younger, occupy a prominent perch. Local members include city councilors, business owners and the mayor.

Like many volunteer groups across the United States, the Jaycees has dwindled. In Texas, there were once scores of chapters. Now there are just 12.

The idea for a festival highlighting the town’s German heritage came as the nation was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in 1976. It was an almost instant success, attracting people from Dallas and farther afield. There was tug of war and arm wrestling and, at least once, a beauty contest.

The Jaycees provided perhaps the most important component: the beer. The organization owns a refrigerated truck trailer with space for about 200 kegs and 32 beer taps, and it recently added a similar but smaller trailer.

“We depend on this weekend for our club,” Klement said, adding that the Jaycees had given out $165,000 in donations last year, mostly to local families in need.

Figures provided by the Chamber of Commerce showed the Jaycees took in about $120,000 from last year’s Germanfest, with the chamber making $164,000. Sicking said the cost of putting on the festival kept increasing.

On the first day of the chamber’s festival, rows of tables were filled with people eating sausages on a stick and listening to polka music. Women in dirndls and men in lederhosen toasted one another in synchronized calls of “Prost!”

Down the street at the Jaycee festival in Muenster City Park, bands played classic rock as many in the crowd of hundreds reminisced about the old days. The massive beer truck, with its many taps, occupied a prominent spot on the lawn.

“I’ve been around the world and I haven’t found a town as traditional as Muenster,” said Shishana Barnhill, who grew up in Alaska and married into the family that owns Rohmer’s. “The sense of family in this town is insane,” she said.

One of the town’s few Black residents, Barnhill recalled when a group of white supremacists passed through Muenster and stopped at the diner. It made her uncomfortable, she said, but the reaction in town made her feel supported: “They were not welcome,” she said.

As she spoke, people were packing into the bleachers for the tug-of-war tournament.

“Pull!” many in the crowd yelled.

Afterward, the competitors collapsed to the ground. A spectator proposed to his girlfriend. She accepted.

In the end, the two competing festivals mostly did a good job of ignoring each other. There had been plenty of beer to go around.

Sicking seemed weary of the fight.

“We can sit around here moaning all day, but it’s not going to change anything,” he said. “It’s going to work out the way the good Lord wants it to.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company