More and more area communities are throwing up their beer steins and toasting to the historic Bavarian festival of Oktoberfest.
The German festival has been around for more than two centuries to celebrate the wedding of the Bavarian king Ludwig in Munich in 1810, but it’s just now gaining popularity in many Western Pennsylvania communities.
It’s also taking on a much different meaning locally.
“There is something about being able to walk around the streets with a beer in your hand,” said former Canonsburg manager Terry Hazlett, who helped organize the first Oktoberfest celebration in the borough 15 years ago. “People like that. It’s that fall weather, and they have a beer in one hand and a pretzel in the other. It’s fascinating.”
That’s probably not what the Germans envisioned more than 200 years ago when they celebrated Ludwig’s royal wedding in a field called “Theresewiesen” outside of Munich. Bob Dodge, a Washington & Jefferson College professor who teaches German history, said those first festivals invited the town’s residents and included plenty of beer drinking and horse races.
The festival begins in mid-September and usually lasts 16 or 17 days. The celebration has expanded a couple of days in recent years to now include Germany’s “Reunification Day” on Oct. 3 that signifies the reconciliation of the fractured country in 1990, Dodge said.
“It’s a bigger deal (here) than it actually is in Germany,” Dodge said. “The attraction in Germany is that they get a lot of tourists. They sell this Oktoberfest there. In North America, it has taken on a life of its own and I think that has to do with German immigration.”
That certainly is the case now in the Pittsburgh area.
Canonsburg officials hoped their festival, one of the first of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, would promote local businesses and become a fundraiser for the borough’s Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been extremely successful,” Hazlett said. “It just kept expanding over the years. We picked Oktoberfest because there was a hole for that kind of festival in Western Pennsylvania.”
It’s also inspired many similar Oktoberfest celebrations in the area. That was the case when Heidelberg, a small borough in Allegheny County about 20 miles north of Washington, wanted to leverage its German name to celebrate the festival.
Heidelberg officials organized their first Oktoberfest in 2011 because they wanted the town to have its own fall community event. Borough Manager Joe Kauer never heard of the festival until about a decade ago, but figured it would be a natural step to organize one in town.
“You can’t take the back seat when your name is Heidelberg and everyone else is doing Oktoberfest,” Kauer said. “We’re a default embassy of that German town. That German connection made it a prime spot for Oktoberfest.”
It rained the first year, forcing organizers to scramble while trying to move all of the festivities into borough’s fire hall. But the festival has grown over the past two years with more activities and borough officials have coordinated with neighboring towns so as not to overlap their Oktoberfest schedules.
“We wanted something where it would grow and bring people down to the park and showcase the municipality as a great place to live, work and play,” Kauer said. “This is exactly what we hoped for.”
But it’s probably not what Ludwig expected on his wedding day more than 200 years ago. However, Hazlett expects it to keep on growing here.
“I’ve organized a lot of festivals and that one caught on a lot faster than all of the others,” he said.