Spartanburg's German Connection

Monday, February 08, 2016

Spartanburgs German Connection

Monday, February 08, 2016


Raise your hand if, when you think of Germans in Spartanburg, you think BMW? Me too—so I was surprised to learn that there are 27 German manufacturing companies in Spartanburg County and that the German community here predates BMW by decades, going back to the days when textiles were king of the manufacturing landscape.

In the 1960s, part of Spartanburg’s strategy for keeping the struggling textile industry alive was introduce faster machinery—and to bring the makers of that machinery here to better service and supply the textile mills. Those textile machinery manufacturers were mainly German and Swiss, and the heads of those companies joined Chamber of Commerce executive Richard E. Tukey, industrialist Roger Milliken, and other textile industry leaders in recruiting their countrymen to Spartanburg.

Tukey, in particular, was an enthusiastic and unflagging recruiter, going to such lengths as to convince grocery stores to stock European items such as dark bread. And his wooing did not end with the nuptials, so to speak—even after companies had built facilities and had executives settled in the area, he and his team of Spartanburg delegates continued to look after the newcomers, smoothing their transition and making them feel welcome. (Today, homesick German nationals can find traditional German food at The Deli Korner, 1445 Fernwood-Glendale Road, and at Gerhard’s, 1200 East Main.)

The fruit of those recruitment efforts was an influx of textile support companies in the 1960s: Bruckner Machinery Company, Mahlo KG, Zima, and Hoechst Hercules—all German, Swiss-German, or Austrian.

So, by the time BMW arrived on the scene, bringing with it other German automotive suppliers to the area, there was an established German-speaking community in Spartanburg.

Today there are just over 1,300 households in Spartanburg County where German is spoken, and German is the third most spoken foreign language in the county, following Spanish and Russian. (The census data actually list German fourth, but since “Slav other,” listed second, is not just one language, I took the liberty of calling German third. And really, the number of German and Russian households is close enough that the percentage point is the same, so you can almost call it tied for second.)

The German American Club of the Carolinas, based in Spartanburg, has about 140 members and will to celebrate its 40th anniversary with a special dinner in mid-February 2016. German-born Dirk Schlingmann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at USC Upstate, is president of the club, which is mostly social in nature, although they also host cultural events. With connections to the Goethe Institute and the German consulate, both in Atlanta, the club often participates in events hosted by those groups, from political speakers to performing arts events and a traveling visual arts show.

The group participates in the International Festival in Spartanburg, with a booth selling bratwurst and other German specialties. “It’s always a very popular booth,” Schlingmann says. Special holiday events include Nikolaus parties in early December for children and a German-language Christmas service at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Next year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 100 theses and the Reformation, which will be a big celebration for Germans and Lutherans (among others), and there will be several events planned around that.

In an effort to “youngify” the club, in Schlingmann’s words, he has reached out to younger German executives and involves German exchange students at USC Upstate—which is no doubt a welcome slice of home for a homesick college student or newly transplanted executive. Often, too, he says that non-German families will join for a variety of reasons—for example, a BMW or Draexlmeier executive who is being transferred to Germany for a couple of years. The club has a monthly Stammtisch—a German word that means an informal gathering—at various local restaurants (including Gerhard’s Café, which serves classic German fare). The meetings are announced on their website (www.gaccarolinas.com) and on their Facebook page.

For families who want their children to learn German—or adults who want to learn conversational and business German, the German School Upstate South Carolina (formerly Die Deutsche Schule Spartanburg) offers kindergarten, beginner, advanced, and adult classes at USC Upstate in Spartanburg and St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Greenville.

The spirit of Tukey and his investment in building relationships with German manufacturing, engineering, and other professionals is alive and well in Spartanburg still. The city and county of Spartanburg are in the process of cementing a Sister City partnership with the town of Landshut, with which USC Upstate already has a relationship through its dual degree partnership with Hochschule Landshut (University of Applied Sciences Landshut).

The dual degree program allows students from both universities to participate in an exchange program in the fields of business, computer science, and informatics, ending up with both a German and a U.S. degree—a valuable asset in this area, where the German presence in manufacturing continues to grow.

For a more academic look at the history of German and other international business in Spartanburg, Guten Tag, Y’all by Marko Maunula, is an interesting, readable history, and was very helpful in the writing of this article. It’s available for sale at Hub City Bookshop.



Sharon Purvis, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who has made her way to South Carolina by way of Indiana, Colorado, Peru, North Carolina, and New York. Although she currently works from home, she’s found that writing about the Upstate is a great way to get to know the area—and there’s a lot to know.

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