Where can you find beer, pretzels, polka music, German food, and a giant dancing chicken? All are staples of New Orleans Oktoberfest, hosted by the Deutsches Haus, the local German organization with the slogan "The German Presence of the Gulf South." Held for the last few years at the brand new Haus on Moss Street in New Orleans (across from City Park), the Oktoberfest event has relocated a few times in recent history. The event has been affected by hurricanes, hospitals, and even by World's Fairs—and is almost as rich in heritage locally as the original version overseas.
Oktoberfest started as a celebration for the Bavarian crown prince's wedding in Munich in 1810. Despite the name, the original event started in September, ironically, and ran two weeks through the first Sunday in October. Although now over 200 years old, the history of Oktoberfest in New Orleans as we know it only goes back as far as around the mid-to-late 1970s. The Deutsches Haus, located then at their original home on S. Galvez, was happy to host both the Oktoberfest event as well as Volks Fest (traditionally held around May-June) to celebrate their German heritage. There was even an Oktoberfest Parade that started in the French Quarter, went down Canal Street, and ended at the South Galvez Haus location, according to Former Deutsches Haus President Keith Oldendorf, who now serves on the Board of Directors. I'm told by several of the older members that many years ago, they used to pull a pretzel oven down the parade route so that they could hand out hot and fresh pretzels to the crowds to drum up interest.
When the World's Fair came to New Orleans in 1984, that additional marketing was no longer needed—because among the other things learned from the World's Fair, an important lesson New Orleanians took away was that biergartens are great. When the Fair was finished, folks now in love with the biergarten concept sought out a local opportunity to have German bier (beer) year-round and the Deutsches Haus was eager to show off their heritage. That's when the Oktoberfest event really started blossoming, through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.
When the S. Galvez location (established in the 1920s) was wrecked during Hurricane Katrina, members rallied to rebuild the house in time to reopen less than two months later for Oktoberfest. There was a countdown clock hung up on the wall and everyone watched it closely, chipping in to work and putting their own home rebuilding aside to make Oktoberfest a reality. That 2005 Oktoberfest was the biggest event seen to-date, but also the most bittersweet, as the Haus would soon be losing their beautifully restored building and land due to the new footprint of the new LSU/VA Hospital. There's an extremely touching documentary by Justin Nystrom and produced by Loyola University called This Haus of Memories, which highlights the rebuild and the last days of the Haus. It's currently available on Vimeo.
The Deutsches Haus was eventually able to secure new land on Moss Street, near Bayou St. John, and for the next few years while involved in new construction, the Haus temporarily relocated to a Metairie rental location between their Mid-City spot and the new build. They affectionately called this the "Halfway Haus." The Oktoberfest event was moved to Kenner, in this time period, and it was then that the event changed from a five-weekend long event to a much shorter two-weekend offering, mostly because of the effort required to transport the setup from Metairie to Kenner, according to Oldendorf.
In 2018, the Moss Street location was able to host Oktoberfest in the parking lot and had its grand opening the following year on the Deutsches Haus's 91st anniversary. Since then, Oktoberfest has increased in both crowd-size and nostalgic elements were reintroduced, until of course the recent pandemic forced everything closed in 2020. Just like in 2005, everything was rebuilt from the ground up just to be shut down again.
This year is not without its challenges, but the Haus hopes to stick to the theme of their last 90+ years: perseverance. As of the printing of this story, the 2021 Oktoberfest event is on and is scheduled for the last two weekends of October and the first two weekends of November, going back to the original longer format at long last. The Fest will be held at the Deutsches Haus, at 1700 Moss St. For more information and timely updates, visit deutscheshaus.org.
It's important to note that even though Oktoberfest is the largest event at the Haus offered by far, they have year-round events, including weekly German language classes, movies, choir and club get-togethers, and cultural events.
Hopefully you can go to the festival and experience gemütlichkeit. The English definition for this German word is hard to verbalize, but it's basically the warm, happy feeling you get when you are with friends. If that doesn't describe Oktoberfest, I don't know what else does. New Orleanians and Louisianians rebuild continuously because this is our home, and our history and traditions are worth celebrating. The Deutsches Haus' Oktoberfest is no exception.