German Park continues tradition in Ann Arbor

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Nearly 80 years ago, a handful of German immigrants banded together, borrowed $600 and bought a wooded tract of land outside of Ann Arbor to practice their traditional dances and celebrate Bavarian culture.

And every summer since then, the aptly named German Park has hosted summer picnics with a spread of German and American fare, Bavarian and Michigan beer, Oompah bands and folk dancing, sometimes drawing as many as 3,000 to 5,000 people to the 10-acre site on Pontiac Trail, north of Ann Arbor.

“We have carried on the tradition of good music, good dance, good beer, good food and good, clean fun,” says Wally Jarvis, president of German Park Recreation Club. “The picnics are a total blast. It’s a good place to bring family and friends.”

Before buying the land in 1938, the German community in Ann Arbor met wherever they could, finding an empty lot or along a local lake to dance, play music and drink beer.

“Ann Arbor was a German town. A lot of German immigrants came to Ann Arbor because the climate was very similar to Bavaria,” Jarvis says. “At the time, Germans were meeting at various places around here, looking for a place to dance, to hang out, play their instruments, have beer and maintain the traditions of Bavaria. They wanted a place of their own.”

The picnics, which are open to the public and draw people from all over Metro Detroit and beyond, are held the last Saturday of June, July, and August, a tradition that Jarvis believes has been only interrupted a few times.

“It’s a local centric event but people definitely come from out of town, from all over southeastern Michigan,” says Margaret Wyzlic, communications manager for the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s definitely a high-spirited event, very cultural intentional, super fun and high energy.”

Saturday’s menu features bratwurst, knackwurst, hamburgers and hot dogs, German potato salad, sauerkraut, Spatzen, a variety of desserts. The beer list boasts German brews such as Spaten, Spaten Optimator Dopplebock and Franziskaner, and a rotating selection of Michigan craft brews. Bud Light is also available for those who do not like heavier beers, Jarvis says.

“We have incredible traditional food,” Jarvis says. “A lot of it is made by scratch on site by our members. Everything is homemade except the sausages, sauerkraut and some of the desserts.”

On Saturday, the Bavarian Showtime Band will perform music; German club members will perform Schuhplattler, a traditional-style dance in which the men stomp, clap and strike the soles of their shoes, thighs and knees. “It’s very colorful, precise and very pretty,” he says. Performances will be at 6 and 8:30 p.m.

German Park, owned and maintained by the club, is a park in every sense of the word. Largely wooded, the site includes two picnic pavilions, including Thompsen Halle, an original building from when the park opened, and three picnic areas. Guests will find ample picnic tables and seating. There’s also a large sandbox for children to play and a grove for chance games of catch or soccer.

“We take pride in maintaining a park-like atmosphere. It’s mostly shady so everyone stays pretty cool,” Jarvis says. “We really have something for everyone out there. The sandbox is huge and sits in the back corner of the property. German club members are known to throw coins in the sand so kids can have a treasure hunt.”

Jarvis notes that families with children often come early to snag a picnic table, and guests often line up before the gates open at 4 p.m.

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit-based freelance writer.

German Park Picnic

4 p.m. Sat.

German Park

5549 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor

Admission: $5; parking is free

(734) 769-0048