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Gifford Germans: A Historic Settlement in Champaign County

By Izzy Sauer

Winner of the 2024 Adele M. Suslick Award for Excellence in Research


Fig 1: Gifford Residents in 1917

Image from the Gifford Centennial Book


Located in the northeast corner of Champaign County, Gifford is a rural town with a population of around 900 people (1). Officially founded in 1875, Gifford became a point of settlement for German immigrants in the second half of the 19th century with families moving to the town and its surrounding areas (2). Although the majority of its German population immigrated to the area over a century ago, Gifford’s German ancestry continues to remain relevant to the community’s collective identity and history.


Why Gifford?

As Gifford is such a small town, it is hard to imagine why it became such a significant destination for immigrants considering its relative proximity to Chicago, as many immigrant populations flocked to big cities for work given the opportunities developing with industrialization. For people from more populous cities or suburbs, Gifford may seem like the last place one would consider when moving to the United States.

Gifford’s seemingly random, rural location is what made it perfect for the Germans who immigrated to the area. The majority of the region’s immigrant population came from the same part of Germany, Ostfriesland (‘East Friesa’ in English) (3). Ostfriesland has historically been an agricultural region due to its flat terrain and proximity to the North Sea, with the majority of Gifford’s German population working on farms before their immigration (4). Given Central Illinois’ similar geography to that of Ostfriesland, the region was chosen deliberately so families could purchase farmland and begin working in a field in which they were already skilled.


Fig 2: Geography of Ostfriesland (Pilsum)

Image from Wikimedia

Many of these families seem to have made the move to the U.S. collectively, as many people departed the same exit ports in Bremen and Hamburg Germany, and arrived within the same decades (5). Although Ostfriesland is a rural region known for its farmland, many East Friesians were experiencing job loss throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, forcing many to decide to leave for the U.S. (6). Many East Friesians who initially settled in other parts of Illinois and the U.S. more broadly migrated to Gifford and its surrounding towns, such as Flatville and Penfield, shortly after their arrival to establish a closer-knit community.


St. Paul's Lutheran Church and a German Community

The first Lutheran worship in Gifford was held in 1882 as East Frisians continued to immigrate to the area. As many Germans immigrated to Gifford’s surrounding areas, many of their new residents began attending service in neighboring towns, such as Royal and Flatville. The founding of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church by 16 German families in the spring of 1906 allowed German citizens to become a central part of their community by maintaining their German culture. The church celebrated its founding with the dedication of the new church in the fall of the same year (7). St. Paul’s congregation continued to grow as more families continued to immigrate to the area. Services were held exclusively in German for several decades and continued to be offered by the church following the introduction of English services in 1930 (8).

The growth of Gifford’s community throughout the 20th century can also be explained by the efforts of German families and individuals. As many of the East Frisians immigrated to the area for its geography, many people purchased land quickly, built their homes, and started farming. Given this, many of Gifford’s pioneering families are known for their farming efforts and their positive impacts on the community’s economy and infrastructure. As the town’s population remained relatively small, many of these residents got involved in the church congregation and other social organizations that were established throughout the 20th century (9).


Following the two World Wars and the subsequent division of Germany by the U.S. and its allies, anti-German sentiment was extremely prevalent across the nation. Gifford was no exception, as many of the town’s German residents felt unsafe speaking their native language or practicing cultural traditions. In the case of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, its pastor at the time of World War I received direct, discriminatory, violent threats from people outside of the community (10).


Fig 3: St Paul's Lutheran Church, 1929

Image from The Gifford Centennial Book

The German Fall Festival (1972-75)

Following years of cultural suppression in Gifford, community leaders decided to host a festival in celebration of their German heritage, as approximately 90% of the population was of German descent in the 1970s (11). The first German Fall Festival was held in September of 1972 and was met with a crowd of over 4,000 people. Incorporating traditional song and dance performed by professional groups and residents along with German food continued to attract increasing attendance each year. Gifford’s 1974 festival attracted approximately 20,000 people to the small town. That year, the festival made $42,000 (Over $250,000 adjusted for inflation) which was used to fund Gifford community services, largely exceeding the organizers’ expectations (12).


Although the festival was a massive success in terms of fundraising and attendance, the last German Fall Festival was held in 1975. It was criticized by Gifford residents because of disorderly conduct caused by beer drinking. These incidents led the police to advise residents to bring their children inside and lock their doors during the late hours of the festival (13). To address resident concerns, the Gifford Village Board created a plan to keep alcohol consumption at a beer tent, which was initially approved, and then later reversed, and planning for the 1976 festival came to a halt.


Fig 4: German Fall Festival, 1974

Image from The Gifford Centennial Book

Germans in Gifford Today

Although the population of German immigrants in Gifford has decreased throughout the 20th century, the majority of Gifford’s population is still of German ancestry, and it continues to have one of the highest rates (relative to population size) of German heritage in all of Illinois (14).

Fig 5: German Fall Festival Community Building in Gifford

Image Courtesy of the Village of Gifford

Following the last German Fall Festival, profits made from the festivities were invested into the community through building projects that still stand as important community landmarks today. For instance, the German Fall Festival Building was constructed on Gifford’s Main Street as a community center, continuing to serve as a venue for town and family gatherings. Funds from the festival were also used to purchase a baseball park for Gifford and its surrounding towns, being named after one of Gifford’s pioneer families and organizers of the festival, the Werner-Roesslers (15).


Gifford remains a relevant case study of immigration to the U.S. and the prevalence of German heritage across the nation, especially the Midwest. Although there is yet to be another community-wide celebration of German ancestry following the final German Fall Festival, this collective history of German settlement and community will continue to be relevant for generations to come, in Gifford and across the nation.


Bibliography

1: “Gifford, IL | Data USA,” accessed November 17, 2023, https://datausa.io/profile/geo/gifford-il/.

2: Gifford Centennial (Gifford, Illinois, 1975),

3: Rich Cahan, “German Tradition Is Alive and Living in Gifford,” The Daily Illini, September 18, 1973, https://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19730918.2.49&srpos=3&e=-------en-20--1--img-txIN-german+fall+festival---------.

Ancestry.com Documents 

4: “East Friesland | Frisian Coast, Wadden Sea, North Sea | Britannica,” accessed November 10, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/place/East-Friesland.

5: Ancestry.com Documents

6: Robert W. Frizzell, “Reticent Germans: The East Frisians of Illinois,” Illinois Historical Journal 85, no. 3 (1992): 161–74.

7: “Our Story | St. Paul’s Lutheran Church,” accessed September 1, 2023, https://www.stpaulsgifford.org/story.

8: “Our Story | St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.”

9: Gifford Centennial.

10: “Our Story | St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.”

11: Rich Cahan, “German Tradition Is Alive and Living in Gifford.”

12: Gifford Centennial. 

Curt Pesmen, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Gifford,” The Daily Illini, September 27, 1975, https://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19750927.2.80&srpos=2&e=-------en-20--1--img-txIN-german+fall+festival---------.

13: Curt Pesmen, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Gifford.”

14: “61847 Zip Code | Gifford, IL | 2023 | Zip Atlas,” accessed December 1, 2023, https://zipatlas.com/us/il/zip-code-61847.htm.

15: Gifford Centennial.



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