The Concordia Choir, the “heart” of Spokane’s German-American Society, will celebrate 100 years of existence tonight with German food, beer, dancing and singing – lots of singing.
The event – which begins at 6 p.m. at the Deutsches Haus, commonly known as the German Hall on Third Avenue near downtown Spokane – is sold out.
But the history of the Concordia Choir is not tied to just one event. It reflects the changes in Spokane – and the world – over the past century.
“One hundred years of anything, especially of a choir, is quite an accomplishment,” said Eberhard Schmidt, president of the Concordia Choir.
The early years
German immigrants arrived in the Inland Northwest in the last decades of the 1800s. Wheat land beckoned, and the Germans settled in farm towns throughout the Palouse. Other immigrants worked in the forests and in North Idaho mines.
Closer to Spokane, they opened butcher shops and bakeries – and established breweries. By 1900, Spokane boasted five German breweries, producing the richly flavored beer the immigrants missed from their homeland.
The German-American population thrived. Its proudest symbol became their meeting hall (now the Deutsches Haus), which opened in December 1897.
It was built on railroad property on the site of a former dairy; when society members remodeled the building in the 1980s, they found beneath the main floor old bottles, cow dung and hay bales.
The immigrants had arrived with another German tradition: singing in choirs.
In the early 1880s, for instance, a German choir greeted in song the first Northern Pacific trains to chug into Spokane Falls, as the city was called in its younger years.
“In Germany, every little village has its own choir, still today,” Schmidt said. “This was brought here. It was a social thing and still is. We have our choir rehearsals and afterward we have coffee and cake and sit and talk.”
In 1911, several German choirs combined to form the Concordia Choir.
Soon, they were traveling to song festivals – “saengerfests” – throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada. In one of these early years, Spokane’s choir traveled by train to San Francisco, festival host that year.
Choir members asked the brewers to donate a train car filled with beer, Schmidt said. They did. The train picked up additional choirs in Portland and by the time the singing train reached San Francisco, the beer was all gone.
The middle years
During World War II, when Germany became the enemy of the United States, the choir’s public performances stopped. The German Hall was closed.
“The building basement was converted to the Galena Club and rented as a private club for civilian and military personnel,” according to a 1971 Spokane Daily Chronicle article.
German-Americans kept a low profile here. Choir members still sang together, but in private homes.
“They had to go underground,” Schmidt said. “Nobody wants to talk about that period anymore. No one is alive from that period anymore.”
The end of the war, however, infused the German-American Society with new members, because war refugees from Germany arrived here.
The choir experienced a resurgence in the 1950s, culminating in the 1958 North Pacific Saengerfest. Choirs from Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and British Columbia descended upon Spokane.
The Spokesman-Review reported on July 6, 1958: “Congratulations continued to pour in for the grand concert at Lewis and Clark High School. More than 1,200 persons attended. … It appears that many lovers of the German-American song festival will spend many hours recalling the music they heard in ’58.”
Concordia Choir has 45 members. Most are 50 or older.
They sing almost all their songs in German. Some of these songs have their roots in ballads from the Middle Ages. Some were penned by famous composers: Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart, for instance.
The choir performs four times a year in Spokane, and it also performs in retirement communities, particularly during Oktoberfest in the fall. Every two years, the choir travels to regional saengerfests.
The choir welcomes new members.
Schmidt said: “You don’t have to be German. Or German-American. Or speak German.”
You do have to be willing to learn the songs in German, however, but he added: “We learn on the job.”
The choir is proud of its younger members, including a high school student and her 20-something sister, daughters of a mother from Germany.
Choir members know they won’t see many German immigrants in the Inland Northwest anytime soon.
One hundred years ago, as the first Concordia Choir came together, immigrants traveled to America, seeking opportunities not available in their homeland.
Now, Germany is booming. In 2010, its economy grew at its fastest rate in 20 years. Unemployment is at 7 percent, an almost historic low.
Tonight, the Spokane choir will welcome the Liedertafel, a choir from Kelowna, B.C., that will also sing a selection of German songs. After the concert, people will dance to the Alpenfolk, a musical group from Snoqualmie, Wash.
“We are so proud to look back at the long history of the German-American Society in Spokane,” Schmidt said.
In that spirit, the choir will sing its last song of the evening in English.
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
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