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Omaha Magazine

Ich Liebe Omaha: Oktoberfest (and Beyond) at the German-American Society

Aug 22, 2023 02:50PM ● By Tamsen Butler
german american society oktoberfest

Illustration by Midger.

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Omaha’s German American Society (GAS) was founded in 1883, serving as a cultural hub for German Americans to explore their heritage for 140 years and counting. The club celebrates all things German—not just the Bavaria region, as is the case for many German societies in the US—and welcomes all, regardless of ancestry.

Frank Friehaut, entertainment director and former GAS president, was hooked after his first visit. A fourth-generation American with German ancestry on both sides of parents, he grew up with “a lot of German traditions. Different things like opening gifts on Christmas Eve, different meals, like the Sauerbraten my mom would make.”

“After I moved to Omaha, my wife and I drove past the club a couple times and said ‘Boy, we both have German ancestry.’ Then a friend invited us out and it’s just been a blast ever since,” Friehaut recalled. “We started doing the German folk dancing, wearing the Lederhosen, and having a great time. It’s a great club to meet other families, other couples, and different aspects of the sub-organizations of the club.” 

He’s been with the Society for more than 20 years.

And while the GAS does indeed host an annual German Day Oktoberfest celebration (the largest in the state), it’s far from the only opportunity to participate in Germanic culture. With a wide variety of annual celebrations and sub-organizations, the German American Society provides Omaha residents the chance to experience authentic German cuisine and culture year-round.

When asked what aspects of the club feel the most authentically German to him, Friehaut responded, “Everything from the German food, of course, the beer. There’s a shooting club, the air rifles, the German dance, the singing clubs. Both the formal chorus and the men’s chorus. There’s the Turners, which is the gymnastics—we still have the kids doing that. There’s a men’s club that was birthed out of that. So there’s a lot of different aspects to the German culture that just makes it a lot of fun.”

“Most of those clubs stem from clubs that are out of Germany. In Germany, there are huge shooting clubs that have shooting fests like in Hanover and other cities, so these clubs come from over there,” added GAS chairperson Michael Olk. “The traditions of singing and dancing all come from Germany, so they were continued here. All those aspects are a part of how we celebrate the greatness of the German culture.”

Olk further explained, “It’s an apolitical club, non-political—it’s all just the fun features of the German culture. You don’t have to be German to belong. As a matter of fact, we have a lot of members who aren’t."

Freihaut added, “Obviously, Germany itself has had a very checkered and horrible history that we never want repeated, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some great aspects of our culture that we want people to enjoy. That’s where our ancestors came from and that’s what we try to get out there that there are neat aspects of the German people who came and settled in Nebraska.”

President David Hollran clarified that the Society hosts 11 sub-organizations and 10 activity groups. Whether members want to learn how to make authentic German sausage, how to shoot an air rifle, speak German, or sing four-part harmonies to German songs—or even brew German beer—there’s no shortage of cultural activities.

Olk, who is also the Society’s cultural director, said, “If you come and you see all the sub-organizations,  you’re going to be able to immerse yourself in every aspect of German culture—the dancing, the singing, the sausage-making, the wine-making, and the beer-making.”

As for those curious to sample German cuisine and drinks, Friehaut bills the German Day Oktoberfest festivities the best bet for variety.

”Bratwurst is a favorite for me, but they also make a wonderful rotisserie chicken and on Saturdays we roast a pig,” he explained. “People always think of the brats, and they’re always there and always fantastic, but I love the chicken and the pork dinners. These are suckling pigs, so they’re 55-60 pounds and we get them from a special place in Iowa and they go on a spit. We even put a special oil on the skin so it’s crispy brown, and it just turns round and round…”
Served with the chicken or pork is German potato salad, Sauerkraut, and a hard roll. 

“Then if you get a nice cold Stein of beer with that and, like a friend of mine used to say, ‘It’ll make a puppy pull a freight train’ it’s so good!” Friehaut exclaimed.

Hollran also suggests that people attend the annual Christmas in Germany celebration to try the Glühwein, which is a hot, mulled wine.

For every annual celebration, most of the food is prepared by Society volunteers or kitchen staff. During German Day Oktoberfest, the Society recruits between 140 and 160 volunteers a day. The need for volunteers is the reason the Society combined German Day and Oktoberfest into a single celebration. 

“It’s a little different than any other Oktoberfest around town because we’re the German Club and we try to put the culture stuff out there,” Friehaut noted. “It’s celebrating our German culture; showing Omaha and Nebraska our culture. We try to make that a full-family event and we’ve tied that into Oktoberfest that worldwide, everybody knows.” 

This year’s German Day Oktoberfest celebration will be the 139th one the Society has celebrated and is widely regarded as among the more authentic in the country.

The same goes for the many other ‘fests’ hosted by the GAS, whether it’s Bockfest (which celebrates the making of Bock Bier), Maifest (celebrating the arrival of Spring), or Fasching (a carnival celebration akin to Mardi Gras).

“When you go to one of the restaurant or microbrew Oktoberfest, they’re essentially just beer or food,” Freihaut explained. “When you come the German American Society, we put that cultural aspect to the forefront so you actually see the folk dancing, the German singing, and the food we try to make authentically. 

“In fact, the sausage club makes the bratwurst!”
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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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