On February 8, hundreds filled the Cape Coral German American Club’s Von Steuben Hall to celebrate the organization’s 50 years in the city. Among those in attendance for the milestone celebration were local dignitaries, business owners, residents and past and present members of the club. All gathered to share old stories and show gratitude for a club that has been an important part of the city’s history, as well as its present and future. For those who were here in the beginning, the story of the club reads much like the story of the city itself. A story of a few visionaries who saw the potential of growth and expansion, and dedicated themselves to making a difference in the community they lived.
Looking back at the beginnings of the club, in 1964, Cape Coral was a far different city than what it is today. As a matter of fact, it was not even an official city yet (that coming in 1970), but instead a small group of developers, businesses, restaurants, and civic clubs. Among those clubs were the Sons of Norway, Caledonia Club, the Hungarian Club, and the only two clubs that still remain today, the Italian American Club, and German American Club.
In 1964, local restaurant owner Willy Gruetzenbach worked tirelessly to bring Cape Coral’s German Americans together to honor their heritage, socialize among friends, and occupy the free time they had on their hands. The club started out with meager beginnings with 34 original members meeting at the Cape Coral Yacht Club hosting dances, turkey shoots and more to raise money for the club.
Before long, the club grew to over 300 members, and members began searching for property to purchase and build a location where the club could call home. Since much of the population was centered in the South Cape near the Yacht Club at that time, the club began its search in that area. However, they quickly realized property costs in the South Cape were too high and broadened their search to other areas of the city. In 1969, the club found what they felt was the perfect piece of property and began constructing its new headquarters in the “middle of nowhere” on Pine Island Road.
The 1970’s were very prosperous for the club, first by recruiting the city’s number one attraction, Waltzing Waters to relocate from the Rose Garden to Pine Island Road. In return for renting space from the club, members worked as volunteers at the attraction until the end of the partnership in 1982.
Then in 1974, the club broke ground on its original clubhouse, “The Von Steuben Hall”. It was also during that year that the club began a new tradition by hosting its annual New Year’s Eve Ball in the new hall, a tradition that continues today. It was also during this time that the club began hosting bi-weekly bingo events, which at the time became a major draw in Cape Coral, attracting packed crowds every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon.
By the mid-1970’s, the club’s membership had grown to over 700 members. Seeing the popularity of the club, in 1976, club member and former Cape Coral Mayor Bernie Langguth suggested the club host and organize an event to celebrate the nation’s bi-centennial. Who knew then, that one event would become the first of many festivals the German American Club would become famous for over the next 35 plus years.
If the 1970’s were prosperous for the club, the 1980’s took it to an entirely different level. By 1982, club membership had risen over 1,000 members. Membership became so strong that the club’s board of directors closed new membership fearing the mass number of people would overstrain their facilities.
It was in 1982 that the club began hosting its annual Beerfest, better known today as Gartenfest. The event was so popular that the club began running them monthly January through April. Seeing the crowds the Beerfests brought to the club, then club president Klaus Kohl proposed the club begin hosting an annual Oktoberfest, an event widely popular in Germany.
While many today would think the Oktoberfest was a no-brainer idea, it was far from it back in those days. Kohl had to scratch and claw to get the board to agree to host the event. The original referendum to host Oktoberfest only passed by a slim margin in 1985, thanks in large part to Kohl’s persuasiveness. In 1986, the club opened its gates for the first Cape Coral Oktoberfest. The event met with instant success, almost too successful as the club had to additional power lines to accommodate the crowds. In a few years, the club cleared an additional 10 acres of its land to accommodate parking for the event. Today, well over 30,000 people attend the two-weekend annual event, and it has become one of Florida’s largest Oktoberfest celebrations.
Since that time, the German American Club property has become home to a number of events including, car shows, festivals, concerts and much more, making it a second fair grounds of sorts for Lee County.
The club has become synonymous with large scale events in the city, but it is the strong ties to the community that has made a true impact on the city. Each year, the club donates much of the money it makes from its numerous events back to the community. Last year, the German American Club donated nearly $30,000 to area clubs, and non-profit organizations. Over the years, the club has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy causes.
As the club begins its second 50 years, it faces the same challenges as many organizations face, an aging membership and a difficulty in attracting younger members. Many of today’s younger adults do not feel they have the time to become immersed in a club or organization. The membership of the German American Club, while declined from the 1980’s is still strong at over 750 members. Over the past year, the club has hosted its annual Oktoberfest and Gartenfests. It has even added a new event, the Beerfest, which is scheduled to return this summer.
However, the club has also had some hard times over the past 12 months. Club founder Willy Gruetzenbach passed away in November, and former club vice-president Manuel “Dutch” Hallier passed away February 7 of this year. Hallier was instrumental in creating the club’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. The losses of the two men leave the club with only three original members from those days back in 1964. While the club mourns the loss of those who are no longer here, it also is keeping an eye to the future, and its next 50 years. Directing the club as it embarks on its next chapter will be current club president Hubert Prem.
Prem a retired German Air Force Colonel, has been a member of the club since 1996, shortly after moving to Cape Coral. This year he began his second term as president of the club this year. He says moving the club into the future is his primary focus, “We are coming into a very important point in our history. I hope to have the ability to convince our members to work with me and to help keep the club healthy. What is very important is to keep it a good part of Cape Coral and Lee County.” He says a few of his projects will be to maintain the club’s property, and begin refreshing some of its attributes like the clubhouse, parking areas, and picnic areas.” The club is also preparing to host the United German American Society of Florida’s German Heritage Days on March 22 and 23, “This is an honor for our club to host such an event,” says Prem. As Prem told the crowd in attendance at Saturday night’s 50th anniversary celebration, the future of the club looks as strong as ever, “It is a great time to be a German American and a great time to be a member of Cape Coral’s German American Club.”
Jeff Koehn, CapeCoral.com, Feb. 12, 2014