By Sarah Hall
Esslingen Fest 2019 celebrated a transatlantic partnership – between Sheboygan and its German Sister City – that is now 52 years old, yet still continuing to grow.
Bonds of shared German heritage. Bonds of learning and student exchange. Bonds of common commitment to encouraging international peace and acceptance. Bonds over beer, brats and hearty German food. Even bonds of marriage.
All of these have strengthened the ties between Sheboygan and Esslingen and were more than reason enough for a party to honor the visiting German delegation, here for the first time since 2015.
About 400 local residents attended the fourth annual event – which in many ways resembled a reunion of long-time friends – at 3 Sheeps Brewery on September 15, and enjoyed craft beer, German food and music, raffles and other festivities. Onions were featured prominently, in the spirit of Esslingen’s own “Zweibelfest” or onion fest; the southern German city of 92,000 people is also known for its huge sculpture of an onion.
“How important it is to keep up these connections,” said Katrin Radtke, Esslingen’s International Relations Officer, who was here on her first visit to Sheboygan. It’s one way of bringing people together and encouraging open-mindedness. It’s also good to learn that there’s more than one way to do things.”
Radtke was one of 15 Esslingen residents who spent five days in the area, touring facilities, meeting and dining with members of the Sheboygan Mayor’s International Committee, promoting the People to People exchange student program and dedicating Sheboygan’s Sister City Peace Gardens overlooking Lake Michigan while also rededicating the Peace Pole there.
“People are so friendly and helpful here,” Radtke noted. “I felt so welcome, and the city looks so nice and clean. Esslingen is a medieval town, with narrow streets, but everything here has so much space!”
The partnership between the two sister cities has its roots in the more troubled times of World War II, and evolved from an unexpected camaraderie that sprung up between between a Colonel Saunders, an American officer stationed at the army base near Esslingen, and Dr. Hans Rues, a German prisoner of war at that base.
According to Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen’s 2017 blog post marking the 50th anniversary of the sister city arrangement, Colonel Saunders confided in Dr. Rues that the American soldiers needed more housing. “Dr. Rues said, ‘My men are so homesick for their families. If they could go home for two weeks, I know that we could easily find housing for your men.’ Colonel Saunders granted this unusual request, and a lifetime friendship developed between the prisoner and captor.”
Years later, when local volunteer Sylvia Weber suggested at a meeting that Sheboygan should have a sister city, Colonel Saunders was there and recommended Esslingen. The Sheboygan Common Council voted in 1967 to endorse the proposal, and although Esslingen officials were at first taken by surprise to be approached, they quickly accepted the sister city offer.
In more recent times, a marriage is one of the many unions which grew out of the municipal relationship and helped to cement international ties. Beth Keckonen of Sheboygan and Martin Hejl of Esslingen first met on a student exchange in 1986, when she was 16 and he was 11, stayed in touch and eventually married twenty years later, in 2006.
“If we want to live in peace, we have to come together,” said Esslingen visitor Jutta Fahrion, who has travelled to Sheboygan many times in the past and is newly retired after working in international relations for its Sister City.
She initiated the popular new Esslingen Fest feature of offering German specialty cuisine at the event and – along with local Mayor’s International Committee member Carolyn Miesfeld – oversaw the recipe selection and more than four hours of food preparation at First United Lutheran Church.
Fragrant onion dumplings called maultaschen proved to be the biggest hit of the German specialties served, and was the first to sell out. “Three giant pans gone – just like that,” said Miesfeld.
Also featured were wurstsalat (sausage salad), krauterkase (bread with cheese), brats, hamburgers, baked goods and both German and Esslingen’s own particular potato salad.
Esslinger’s version is served cold, includes chopped sour gherkins and mustard and has a distinctive sweet-sour taste. The brats from both places, however, are quite similar.
“I think the biggest difference between our cities is in how we cook food. We do it a very traditional way, and most of ours is handmade. But Americans often buy their food prepared at the store and just warm it up,” Fahrion pointed out. She said her favorite aspects of Sheboygan are “the harbor, the nice people and the mayor.”
Firefighters Marcel Kessler and Paul Leonidis of Esslingen, who were returning to Sheboygan for the second time, spent hours meeting and riding along with Sheboygan Fire Department members. They were particularly impressed with the city’s fire prevention education program offered in public schools and hope to start something similar back in their hometown.
“There are definitely differences between our departments that we can all learn from,” said Sheboygan firefighter Cal Hughes.
Rich Miesfeld, who co-chairs the Mayor’s International Committee along with Julie Vandersteen, wife of Mayor Mike Vandersteen, praised the Esslingen Fire Department for being excellent hosts: “When we go over there, they take us on adventures. They took us on a trip down a river, had us climb a ladder and do ‘platform rides’ and always put on a dinner for us.”
Esslingen International Relations Officer Katrin Radtke took special note of the Maker Space at Mead Public Library, which she especially enjoyed touring. She said she was very interested to pick up ideas about how to offer programs that attract different age groups and learn about different ways to deliver services and streamline infrastructure.
The sister city collaborations have an impact on the younger generation as well. Minnie Hoffman, 14, of Oostburg went to Esslingen this summer for the first time and spent three weeks there as part of the student exchange program offered to both middle and high school students.
“It opened my eyes to learn what other countries are like. You tend to think of stereotypical things when you think of other countries, but then when you visit, the actual experience is different.”
When asked to name the benefits the exchange program offered to his family, Tom Riemann of Sheboygan said, “You don’t have enough pages for that! Thirty years ago, my daughter went on an 8th grade trip to Esslingen.
On one of her last days there, she called home to say she wanted to go back (for a longer time) as a high school junior … You can’t work together with people from other countries until you get to know one another.”
“We find that our exchange students come home more open to different ideas and people,” Carolyn Miesfeld pointed out.
And opening minds is what the sister city project is all about.