Nestled in the Cascades just a couple hours from Seattle lies a little slice of Bavaria.
Leavenworth is perfect in the winter, with snow gently falling on the steeply sloped rooftops, and hot brats being served on the street.
Okay, okay, an Alpine themed tourist town might sound a little cheesy.
But even true Bavarians, like my mother Ingrid, will attest to its authenticity. From the lettering on each building to the glockenspiel that’s played twice each morning, Leavenworth bears an uncanny resemblance to the real thing.
So it’s hard to imagine that two Pacific Northwest natives who had little connection to Germany were behind the transformation that made this struggling railroad town into the alpine getaway it is today.
In the early 1930’s hard economic times fell on Leavenworth. The town’s only sources of revenue came from the lumber, railroad, and agriculture, and all were struggling. On the brink of extinction, Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, who had set up a restaurant nearby called the Squirrel Tree, saw an opportunity to create something magical.
They had already transformed their restaurant into a Bavarian-themed place with a loud band oom-pah-pahing in the background while frauleins in dirndls served the special of the day. When that began to bring in more and more customers, these two dreamers had a vision:
“And what a beautiful town it would be, spreading out at the foot of spectacular mountains with the crystal-clear Wenatchee River flowing almost through its center. Truly, you couldn’t find a more ideal setting for a Bavarian town.”
I guess Price’s original idea of a Native American themed town didn’t make as much sense at the base of giant alp-like mountains in the middle of nowhere.
Price and Rodgers knew that tourism would be the most important element of keeping the small town afloat, so they made sure that strenuous effort was put into marketing the town. I’m pretty sure their vision of marketing didn’t include Woody Goomsba and his dancing crew of milkmaids:
But the biggest challenge they faced was opposition from the townspeople themselves. They didn’t want two “outsiders” coming in and telling them to change their home into a hokey Bavarian town.
“They got together with the townspeople,” said Laura Anguianl, Lodging and Guest Services Representative at the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce. “It was hard to get with the town. They were pretty much set in their ways.”
But on the verge of abandoning the struggling town altogether, the community, with the help of the University of Washington, started LIFE aka Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone – a self-help project the town needed to climb out of its financial hole.
Price and Rodgers, already heavily involved with the LIFE project, launched Project Alpine, an effort to buy some of the dilapidated buildings and convert them to the Bavarian style.
“They were really down,” said Price. “They [the townspeople] didn’t have a nickel to turn on. Bob Rodgers and I, we paid for houses. We started by buying what we now call the tannenbaum building, and we also bought the bakery building.”
Before long, Price and Rodgers were well on their way to seeing their Bavarian vision come to life. They left the Northwest for Palm Springs in 1986, and eventually, after almost 50 years living together, came out to their families as gay.
Trips to Leavenworth aren’t rare in our family, but we’d never been to see the tree lighting. So this year my boyfriend and I took our moms over to experience a true Bavarian Christmas.
We ran into Saint Nikolaus, who brings the children gifts in Germany. Unfortunately, we didn’t see Ruprecht, his traditional partner in crime that my mother remembers from her childhood. This dark figure accompanies Saint Nikolaus, beats naughty children, and leaves lumps of coal in his wake.
I guess the tourism department wanted to stay away from that character.
In addition to Christmas, Germans celebrate is St. Nikolaus day on December 6th when he comes to fill our shoes with candy. I’m not quite sure why he comes so early and why Santa comes again on the 25th, but hey, I don’t question holidays where I receive gifts.
Advent calendars are another element of a truly Bavarian Christmas. When Leavenworth had the first official tree lighting ceremony back in 1965, many of the store fronts had advent wreaths they would light once a week until Christmas Day.
The origin on the tree lighting also has a unique story. As Price tells it, he and Rodgers would light up their lodge, cabin, and the surrounding trees to create a bright spot for skiers and people driving along the highway so they could see in the dark. Forty-seven years later, it’s expanded a little bit to include the giant evergreen and the rest of the town shops.
For such a small town, Leavenworth has a long history rooted in determination, hard work, and creativity. And for a weekend holiday trip, you can’t find a better place to experience an alpine Christmas. Price had described the whole endeavor as a “miracle town,” and that’s really what the whole season is about: making miracles for others.
Leavenworth is 90 miles east of Everett on Highway 2. Don’t forget to check the pass report before you go!