The main causeway at the German-American Festival (GAF) at Oak Shade Grove in Toledo, OH.
Unless you were driving through, chances are that you’ve never visited Toledo, OH. I grew up there, and since I’ve moved to the Philadelphia area, I still return once or twice a year to visit friends and family.
Toledo does have a lot to offer. It has a world-class art museum and zoo. Even if you’ve never been to Toledo, you might be familiar with things that you didn’t even realize came from Toledo. It’s home to the Jeep, as well as the world headquarters for Owens Corning (think Pink Panther and insulation).
Toledo is home to a few famous people as well. Gloria Steinem, Danny Thomas and Katie Holmes all were born in Toledo. Arguably, the most famous Toledoan is Jamie Farr. His character on MASH – Klinger – was written to also come from Toledo on the show. Klinger made the Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball team) and Tony Packo’s hot dogs world famous through his mentions of them on the show.
Toledo (technically the suburb of Oregon, OH) is also home to the German-American Festival, which is one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the country. In fact, Art Mann did an episode of his show – “Art Mann Presents” – at the festival in 2011.
I’ve attended the festival for many years, and my husband’s family has been involved in helping to put on the festival since its beginning. This year, I’m giving you a “behind-the-scenes” look at what it takes to set up the festival, why the festival is put on every year, and some tips when you visit the festival next year for its 53rd edition. So, grab a beer and a pretzel and read on!
WHAT IS THE GERMAN-AMERICAN FESTIVAL?
The German-American Festival is a 3-day festival that celebrates and promotes German and Swiss culture. The festival is put on as a collaborative effort by the 7 “societies” that make up the German American Festival Society. Those societies are:
The American Turners: This group supports physical, cultural and social programs for the family, including a top-notch gymnastics program.
The Bavarian Sports Club: This group originally started as soccer players, but today also has German dance groups, a Ladies Auxiliary and a Motorcycle Riding Club.
Bayerischer Unterstützungs Verein: This group brings together people with a common heritage, and helps support members and their families through illness and death, including providing members with insurance coverage.
GBU Financial Life: This is a not-for-profit group providing life insurance and annuities. They also promote cultural, charitable, recreational, sport, and social activities.
Schwäbischer Unterstützungs Verein: This group is dedicated to the customs of the Schwaben in southwest Germany, and puts on several events throughout the year to celebrate that culture.
Teutonia Männerchor u. Damenchor: The group is dedicated to the preservation of German song, and performs throughout the area. They have even performed in Germany.
Toledo United Swiss: This group is dedicated to the preservation of Swiss song and culture, and bringing together people of Swiss heritage in the area.
Despite what you may think, the purpose of the festival is not to serve Toledoans a bunch of German beer and German food. The purpose is to both raise funds for all of the societies to continue the work they do throughout the year, as well as to promote the German and Swiss culture through food, music and activities.
HISTORY OF THE GAF
The first German-American Festival (GAF) was held on August 27th and 28th in 1966 at Raceway Park in Toledo. The idea for the festival started in January of that year, when a letter was written to the 7 societies to discuss having a “Continental Day” to bring everyone together. That first festival was a success, and the festival quickly began to grow.
By 1969, the festival had grown to a 3-day event, and was outgrowing its current home. So in 1975, it was moved to the grounds of the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee, OH.
Also in 1969, the GAF Society purchased a little over 32 acres of property in Oregon, OH, which became the home of Oak Shade Grove. That property has since grown to over 75 acres, and became the official home of the GAF in 1987.
This past weekend was the 52nd Annual GAF, and it has gotten bigger and bigger every year. Today, people travel from around the country and the world (I met a couple that had traveled from the Toronto area) to attend the festival.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO PUT ON THE GAF?
While those who attend only see what happens during those 3 days at the end of August, putting on the festival is a huge undertaking, and volunteers work year-round to make it happen. There is an overall chairperson of the event that coordinates everything, and then individual chairpersons for everything from food to music to beer, that has responsibility for making everything happen.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, lots of people volunteer their time to do everything from setting up the grounds, to setting up the various booths, to coordinating volunteers for the weekend, to ordering the food and drinks. Over the course of the weekend, over 2000 volunteers make sure things go off without a hitch. Those volunteers do everything from serving food and drinks, to husking corn, to scooping ice cream, to picking up trash.
Behind-the-scenes look at the “kitchen” area, where all of the food is prepped. Note the corn waiting to be husked.
Bags of potatoes staged behind the potato pancake booth.
Getting the chicken dinner booth ready at the festival. The large metal machine is what they roast the chickens in.
When the festival wraps up on Sunday night, those same year-round volunteers work to tear everything down and get Oak Shade Grove back to its “normal” state.
The festival is very expensive to put on with expenses including purchasing insurance, renting tents/tables/chairs/etc., purchasing food and drinks, and hiring musicians.
So, the next time you attend the festival and are enjoying your chicken dinner and pitcher of beer, think about all of the work and money that goes into making sure that the festival is a seamless experience for everyone that visits.
I’M CONVINCED – I WANT TO GO NEXT YEAR. WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?
The GAF is always held the last full weekend of August, so you can mark your calendar now for August 24-26th, 2018.
Where to Stay: If you are traveling in from out of town, there are a couple of hotels close by Oak Shade Grove. The Comfort Inn East (https://www.choicehotels.com/ohio/oregon/comfort-inn-hotels/oh073?pmf=yext&mc=llyxyxpx), the Hampton Inn Toledo/Oregon (http://hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/ohio/hampton-inn-toledo-oregon-TOLTOHX/index.html), and the Holiday Inn Express – Toledo-Oregon (https://www.ihg.com/holidayinnexpress/hotels/us/en/oregon/tolor/hoteldetail?cm_mmc=YextLocal-_-USA-_-TOLOR) are all close by and good options.
Tip #1: While there is plenty of food to eat at the festival, there are also some very good (and famous) restaurants in Toledo to visit if you have the time. Tony Packo’s (www.tonypacko.com) is a Toledo tradition. Try and visit the original location on Front Street, which is very close to Oak Shade Grove. If you are looking for a good steak dinner, Mancy’s Steakhouse (www.mancys.com) cannot be beat. In fact, it’s typically the first meal I have every time I go to Toledo.
How Do I Get In: There is an admission fee for entrance to the festival. You can purchase your tickets on-line in advance at a discounted rate (www.germanamericanfestival.net) or purchase them at the gate. There are both 3-day and single day passes available.
Tip #2: Save yourself some time and buy your tickets on-line. A lot of people attend the festival, and at peak times, the lines to purchase tickets at the gate can be quite long. You’ll also save some money, as the entrance fee is discounted if you buy in advance.
How Do I Get There: There is plenty of parking at the festival grounds. In addition, the GAF has partnered with several local businesses, and there are shuttles that run from remote locations throughout the city. While you do need to pay for the shuttle, it’s a great option to allow you to get to and from the festival without the hassle of parking.
Tip #3: If you do choose to drive and park at the festival grounds, make note of two things. First, the parking is all in a field, so if there is a lot of rain the field can get quite muddy and difficult to navigate. Second, you need to have a designated driver. While this is always a good idea when people are drinking, the police in the area are very strict, and there will be check points to make sure that everyone is being safe.
I’M HERE – NOW WHAT DO I DO?
Once you get in the gate, there are two things you want to do immediately. First, if you are under the age of 30 (or look like it) and plan on drinking, show your ID and get a wristband. While you still may be asked for your ID as another layer of protection when ordering a drink, having a wristband will save you a lot of hassle. You can get your wristband right at the gate.
The second thing you want to do is buy food and beverage tickets. Everything at the GAF is purchased with tickets – not cash. You will find ticket booths located throughout the festival grounds, and they take both cash and credit cards. Each ticket has a cash value of 50 cents. The prices on the signs at each of the booths is the number of tickets – not the number of dollars. For example, in 2017 a chicken dinner cost 16 tickets, which is $8 worth of tickets.
Tip #4: Don’t buy tickets at the first ticket booth after the entrance gate if the line is long. As mentioned, there are lots of booths located throughout the grounds, and the ticket booths immediately next to the entrance gates tend to be the busiest.
Tip #5: Tickets are colored and are ONLY good for that year’s festival. They cannot be used for any other event at Oak Shade Grove, or for the next year’s festival. So, only buy the number of tickets that you need so you aren’t left with extras. You can buy tickets in any increment, so it’s better to go back and buy a couple more if you need them, than buy too many and be stuck with them.
The Food: There is lots of delicious food at the GAF. My personal favorite is the chicken dinner, which consists of ½ a roasted chicken, German potato salad, corn on the cob, and a roll. It’s so delicious that I have one every day of the festival.
The best meal at the GAF in my opinion! A chicken dinner with a good German beer to wash it down!
Other German favorites are the various brats, potato pancakes and schnitzel. If you want something sweet, check out the funnel cake, cream puffs, roasted almonds or ice cream. There are also lots of delicious pastries and baked goods.
Be sure to check out the Swiss House (near the front entrance of the grounds). Not only do they have delicious food you can eat at the festival, they also have all sorts of meats, sausages, and cheeses that you can take home with you.
Tip #6: If you are visiting on Sunday, be sure to get your favorite food early in the day, or you may be disappointed. On particularly busy weekends, they will start running out of food. If you are looking for a chicken dinner late Sunday evening, you may be out of luck!
The Drinks: Of course, it wouldn’t be a German-American Festival if there wasn’t beer. Lots and lots of beer! At the festival, you will find one of the biggest selections of German beer around – both on draft and in bottles and cans. They also recently started serving some beer from Black Cloister, which is a local craft brewery in downtown Toledo. Of course, if you aren’t brave enough to try a German or local beer, you can get plenty of Labatt Blue Light as well.
Tip #7: Buy a pitcher or boot and bring it back with you next year. When you purchase a pitcher or boot of beer, you pay for the pitcher/boot itself and then just pay to refill it. However, if you bring back your pitcher from previous years, you don’t have that extra cost. I’ve seen people that still have the old style buckets that they sold in lieu of pitchers many years ago, and they still bring those back every year to be refilled.
Tip #8: If you are looking for German beer, visit the Old World Biergarten, which is where I volunteered most of the weekend. They have some amazing beers. It was $3 for an 8 oz. draft of Labatt Blue Light, and $4 for a German beer. Spend the extra dollar and get something higher quality.
My husband and I helped set up and worked the Old World Biergarten, which is where you can get all of the German beers in bottles, cans and drafts.
If beer is not your thing, there are plenty of other choices. There is a wine garden that serves several German wines. You can also get mixed drinks, and the ever popular Jager shots.
For those of you that don’t drink, there are soft drinks and water available throughout the festival.
The Entertainment: There are plenty of things to see and do at the festival as well. For kids, there is a whole carnival section with lots of rides and games.
Tip #9: You do have to pay for the carnival rides and games separately, so be sure to bring some extra money so you don’t end up with a screaming child that can’t go on the rides!
There are plenty of activities to try and catch throughout the weekend. Some of the highlights are as follows:
Opening Parade/Ceremony: On Friday night, the festival holds an opening parade and ceremony, where members of all of the societies parade onto the grounds to kick off the festival. You’ll get to see all of the society’s flags, as well as the traditional German clothing and musical instruments.
Contests: There are several contests held throughout the weekend. There is the Steintossen, which is a stone throwing competition. There is also the Masskrugstemmen which is a stein holding competition. If strength contests aren’t your thing, you can enter the pretzel eating contest as well. For kids, there is the Hummel contest. Parents dress up their children to look like some of their favorite Hummel figurines.
The area where the stone toss and stein holding contests are held.
Tip #10: If you want to see one of the contests, get a seat early. These events are typically very popular and seats can be hard to come by.
Music: The festival features traditional German music played by bands from around the country. There are also local dance groups that come and perform traditional German dances.
Tip #11: If you are attending Sunday, stick around for Polka Floyd (yes, you read that right). They are a polka band that covers Pink Floyd music, and they always close out the festival on Sunday night from 6 to 10:30 p.m. You will find them playing on the stage near the Old World Biergarten.
Polka Floyd covering all the Pink Floyd hits and closing out the festival!
Other Activities: If you are up early on Sunday, come for the German church service Sunday morning. Another fun activity this past year was the Handlebar, which was a vehicle that takes you for a ride around the park while you pedal.
My husband and I riding the Handlebar! Be ready for a workout if you get a seat that requires you to pedal.
One of the main attractions of the festival is the Glockenspiel, which is located in the back portion of the festival. Every hour, the party starts in front of the Glockenspiel. There will be music, dancing and general antics. They also throw out swag, so be sure to be there to get your chance to snatch some beads or some cool suspenders!
The picture is a little blurry, but be sure to check out the Glockenspiel every hour and see what sort of antics will take place!
The huge Maipole is located near the back entrances. Be sure to check it out when you’re on the grounds.
For those of you that have been to the GAF in the past, I hope you learned a bit more about the history and why the festival happens every year. For those of you that have never been, I hope you’ll consider coming out for the 53rd Annual GAF in August of 2018.
That’s a wrap! As soon as the festival shuts down on Sunday night, the volunteers begin the long clean up process.
As the saying for the festival goes “Bring a guest and come to the Fest!” Prost!
Have more questions about attending the GAF? Comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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