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Raining on the Parade

Little towns need a claim to fame. Lehr, population about eighty, bills itself as the “Smallest City in USA Situated in Two Counties.” In 1948, when the population was more like five hundred, the town fathers worded the slogan a bit differently: “The smallest city in the United States incorporated in two counties.” Logan and McIntosh being the two counties.

This, I would submit, is not a resounding claim to fame. A more compelling one is suggested by the recent (23-25 June 2023) celebration of the quasquicentennial of Lehr — which, since I have a hard time saying “quasquicentennial,” I’m just going to call the 125th of Lehr.

We drove over for the 125th on Saturday, a day I was glad I am a duck hunter, because I had a full set of GoreTex in my truck. Talk about raining on your parade — the Gods dumped four inches on Lehr that day, the pace of inundation ranging from a drizzle to a drench. It was a bad day for the vendors, although I tell you, that Brandenburger outfit from Forbes with its homemade smoker, they make brisket into an art form.

And the parade went on, only a little behind schedule, perhaps in vain hope of a let-up in the downpour. Of course the Lehr folk carried on; as their ancestors would have said, “Wir sind ja nicht aus Zucker,” which is to say, We’re not made out of sugar.

Their history is deep, and it is thoroughly German, of the German-from-Russian variety. For their Golden Jubilee in 1948 they published a 143-page history book, at which time they already were struggling for that compelling theme of identity. The book falls back on the cliched trope of frontier progress, heralding the rise from “only a wind swept prairie with tall grass” having “no houses, no business places, no fences, no telephones, no electric lights, no trees, no roads,” only “buffalo, deer, and antelope, and the sly Indians [who] roamed the prairies,” to “the city of Lehr, large farms, and acres upon acres of golden waving grain.”

We read that the Lehr Association of Commerce organized in 1945, with the names Grenz, Goebel, Kranzler, Brause, Boehler, Eichhorn, and Schade prominent in the organization. Most prairies towns, even in German-Russian country, have English-speaking yankees at the center of town society, but Lehr is German-Russian to the core. They are folk known across oceans and centuries for adapting, evolving, and persisting.

Local settlement dates from the 1880s, with German-Russians trekking in from Ipswich, on the Milwaukee Railroad, into homesteading lands on the very northern edge of German-Russian settlement. The town of Lehr crystallized on the initiative of, and was named for, a farmer named Johann Lehr. He provided the forty acres on which the town was platted on the route of the Soo Line then under construction across the coteau.

By 1948 the Lehr Germans already were experienced town managers — they got that beautiful WPA town hall built with federal dollars, a building that still stands and ought to be restored. Now, in the meantime, their descendants have spruced up the round-top Legion hall, with Mayor Chanucey Brown donating two years of his salary to the cause.

The Legion was vitally important to salvaging the centennial celebration, as events were relocated to it and people crowded in, creating a jovial atmosphere that belied the weather. When twice as many people signed up to eat strudels as were expected, the Lehr ladies, true to their heritage, scaled up. There was a celebration after all, and a memorable one, and may I say, a metaphorical one. Adapting and persisting — with strudels — there is your theme of community, past, and, we should hope and resolve, future. Well done, Lehr.

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