Little more than a dot in the softly rolling landscape of Southeastern Indiana, Oldenburg, known as the Village of Spires because of its soaring church towers, is the perfect place for a taste of Germany this holiday season.
The village, remarkable for its early 19th century charm, clean streets and handsome homes and businesses (80 of Oldenburg's 115 homes were built before the 20th century began and the entire village is on National Register of Historic Places), celebrates the Christmas season during the 8th annual Holiday Under the Spires on Dec. 4. Visitors can enjoy horse drawn trolley rides, visits with Santa, musical performances, a Jingle Bell Jog and Elf Fun during the day-long festivities.
But even more, they can enjoy the flavor of a small German village, more than 170 years old, tucked away in rural Indiana.
Founded in 1837 by two German speculators who decided to name the village after their home region -- the province of Oldenburg in Northern Germany, the village retains its German heritage. Street names end with strasse, the German appellation for street, and many of the homes are still known by the names of their original owners.
The Herman House, built in 1870 and accented with an ornate, pressed-metal cornice, is on Perlenstrasse. Waechter's Cradle Shop, built around 1840 by wheelwright Eberhard Waechter, who made wheat cradles and spinning wheels, is on Wasserstrasse. And the Scheper Store/Farmers and Merchants Bank/Sisters of St. Francis Residence, circa 1855, belonged to Frank Scheper and functioned as a general store, saloon, hotel and bank and is located on Hauptstrasse.
Gaily painted fire hydrants show the faces of the original owners whose homes they front and area businesses have names such as Schwestern (German for sisters) Gallery featuring the work of local artists and the Brau Haus, a restaurant serving Oldenburg's Lieblingsgeruchte (favorites) such as fresh bratwurst with sauerkraut on rye served with German potato salad and vorspeisen (appetizers) like sauerkraut balls with Dusseldorf mustard.
Not long after the land speculators named the town, Germans from nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, bought land and erected a log cabin Catholic Church. In 1844, Father Franz Joseph Rudolph became pastor of Oldenburg and he asked Mother Teresa Hackelmeirer to establish the Holy Family Church, the Franciscan Monastery and Immaculate Conception Convent and Academy.
As the town grew, so did the churches and new solid structures with soaring spires began to dominate the village's skyline.
Today, driving south on Ind. 229, which curves as it winds its way into Oldenburg, the view seems reminiscent of the Swiss alps -- cows wander snow-covered pastures and in the distance, the Victorian Romanesque and Baroque-style Francescan chapels and churches are seen topped with a variety of peaks, a rare Zwiebelturum or onion dome and Gothic peak among others.
Oldenburg is proud of its history and there are several walking tours, including "A Franciscan Adventure," which meanders through the complex of buildings belonging to the Sister of St. Francis of Oldenburg, who first came here in 1851.
The grounds include a 300-acre farm (monasteries used to be self sustaining with dairy cows, carpentry shops and crops), the Immaculate Conception Chapel built in 1889 with a 161-tower and belfry, stone grotto with hedges in front spelling the Latin word for peace, Our Lady of Fatima Shrine and the Oldenburg Academy, which opened in 1852 as a boarding school for girls though it's now co-ed.
Then there's a walking tour of the village where some 600 residents live. A brochure highlights what to look for on the tour including such details as the stained glass windows at the Convent Chapel, the tin façade of the 1861 Hackman-Munchel Store - the largest secular building in town. Caspel Gaupel, a 19th century master tinsmith added that touch in 1899. His work can be seen on other buildings in the village as well.
Other architectural touches to look for include the engraved sun and moon and initials I.H.E.H. on the Huegel House's stone lintel. The initials belong to the original owners who built the house in 1845. The moon and sun mean that this tavern and inn was open day and night.
Though much of Oldenburg's population still has Germanic routes, the dominate menu item on the town's two best known restaurants -- the Brau Haus and Wagner's Village Inn -- is pan fried chicken and gravy.
"We serve our brats and metts (smoked sausage) with homemade sauerkraut that a man up the street makes for us and that we keep in a big ceramic crock that was sent over from Germany," says Betsy McCray, the daytime bartender at Wagner's, which is located in a historic red brick building. "But we're noted as having the best fried chicken in Southern Indiana."
According to McCray, what makes their chicken so good is not the recipe but the cooking method.
"We use the same cast iron pan to fry our chicken that we've used for years," she says. "It hasn't been cleaned since 1988, just scrapped and seasoned, the way a good iron skillet should be maintained. We also make pan gravy for our mashed potatoes and we fry our chicken in lard which gives it that great flavor."