Small town still creating history
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Phil Allen and Jacob Paul
Oldenburg’s story began in 1817 when William George from Pennsylvania settled in southeastern Indiana. Twenty years later, he sold his land to J. Henry Ronnebaum and Henry Plaspohl, who found the gently rolling landscape to be much like that in their native Germany. They platted a town here that they named Oldenburg, after their hometown, and they encouraged others to join them. Most of the people who came were German Catholic immigrants from Cincinnati.
In 1844, Father Franz Joseph Rudolf arrived from Alsace, France, and founded the village’s first church in a log cabin, initially naming it St. Mary’s. Later, there was a stone church, and then in 1861 — when two brickmakers set up shop in town — the current brick version with a clock tower and carillon was built.
When the priest discovered a need for teachers, he sent for Sister Theresa Hackelmeier, a Franciscan nun from Vienna, Austria, who spoke German. She founded the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg while establishing a convent and the Oldenburg Academy of the Immaculate Conception that would eventually house some 800 members of the religious order, as well as high school girls coming for boarding school.
Father Rudolf died at 56 and Sister Theresa at 33, but the settlement they created remains much like it was then. Today, it is known as the “village of spires” in honor of the town’s multiple steeples. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
In the 21st century, the town remains idyllic. Its 650 or so residents walk their dogs, ride their bikes and look out for one another. The crime rate is almost nonexistent, and the local police station shares quarters with the Creek Bottom Brewery and its Tap Room bar.
Its rich history makes Oldenburg the perfect spot for a day trip or a weekend getaway.
“We’re proud of our history and our heritage, and we like to share it,” said Jeff Pauls, who has retired as the town grocer but remains active in civic affairs. “But we don’t want to become a tourist trap.”
Residents have managed to keep their town pristine, except during Freudenfest (festival of fun) when for two weekends of the year the population swells. Held the third week in July, Freudenfest has been known to bring in as many as 12,000 visitors to town. The two-day event features German food, a beer garden, traditional dress and games and contests. The revenue helps to fund improvements and the maintenance of the town’s infrastructure. Bricking Pearl Street was one such project and building a shelter house was another. The streetlights here are original, and the fire hydrants are painted to represent town leaders throughout the years. Characteristic details such as these need constant upkeep, and the festival proceeds help.
On the first Saturday in December, Oldenburg celebrates Holiday Under the Spires. Lights strung from the top of the Maypole by the Harvey Branch Creek transform it into a Christmas tree, and the packed schedule of events includes musical performances by the Sisters of St. Francis vocal and chime choirs; open house at the Eagle Fire Station with hot chocolate, soup and miniature golf; an art and craft fair; breakfast with Santa; visits with live reindeer; bourbon and eggnog tastings; and more. The church carillon plays carols throughout the day.
But any time of year visitors will experience and enjoy Oldenburg. Exploring its history is reason enough to come, and regardless of one’s faith, the church is a good place to start. Inside are the sanctuary with its painted ceiling, extraordinary stained-glass windows and a wood carving of the Sorrowful Mother that survived a tumultuous journey from Europe. On the altar, is a detailed carving of “The Last Supper,” and the stations of the cross along the walls were carved by a local artist.
In 1912, modern pews replaced the box benches that were auctioned off to earlier parishioners. Men sat on one side of the aisle and women on the other, and wealthy families vied for seats in the back so they could easily escape a fire if one were started by the candles used to illuminate churches at that time. Outside, there is a stone cross that honors veterans, and it is said to have a relic of the True Cross encased in a tiny window at the top.
At the convent across the street, Sister Claire Whalen gives an informative tour that is well worth taking. She guides visitors to the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and shows them the terrazzo floors, an eye-popping garden, nuns’ bedrooms and dining areas, and mementos from across the years.
Marian College was founded by these sisters in Oldenburg, and later, moved to Indianapolis, so they are fans of the school’s teams and have one case filled with sports memorabilia. Outside, Sister Claire points up the street to the convent’s cemetery with its simple, identical crosses and across another street to the newer, now coed high school academy.
She only gives tours in the afternoons Monday-Saturday, and she requires a week’s advance notice. She charges no fee but happily accepts donations.
Also associated with the convent on the edge of town is the 200-acre Michaela Farm, named for Sister Michaela, another of the convent’s founders, who once ran the farm.
For many years, the nuns grew their own produce, eggs and beef, and the farm is still active today. Visitors from all over the county stop in at the untended Farm Store to select what they need and leave cash using the honor system. The farm was recently purchased by Greenacres Foundation, a nonprofit that is building an education center where students and guests can go to learn about jobs on the farm, sustainable agriculture, farm ecosystems and much more.
At all times of the year, the Maypole, reminiscent of ones in Europe, displays shields that represent all the elements residents love about their town – from agriculture and religion to festivals, the fire department and a visit from Morgan’s Raiders during the Civil War. The red-and-yellow pole reflects the flag of both this village and its German namesake.
Shopping in town is limited but spectacular. A Beautiful World sells home décor pieces, clothing items and gifts like candles and linens. One of the owners is an interior designer, so the artful displays make every item deliciously tempting.
Just across the street is Carriage House Antiques, where a former bank is home to treasures that are pricey but genuine — many from the Civil War. A delightful array of colorful small items is arranged inside the vault, and the best part here is that Sister Cleo Werner comes over from the convent each day to make delectable homemade ice cream. Customers can relax at an ice cream parlor table while they savor their cup of cherry cordial or cone filled with butter pecan, among many other flavors.
Since Oldenburg is small and the street signs are written in both German and English, it’s easy to get around. Straight down Main Street from these two emporiums is the Schwestern Gallery of Arts with its artworks by some 70 Indiana artists and gifts such as textiles, ornaments and soaps. German articles such as lederhosen and dirndl skirts are available at the Golden Turtle Trading Center.
When it’s time for lunch or dinner, three restaurants provide tempting meal options. Wagner’s Village Inn, famous for its lard-fried chicken prepared in iron skillets and family-style meals, has won the James Beard award for American Classics.
The Brau Haus serves up tasty, deep-fried chicken along with German specialties, such as pork schnitzel with red cabbage and potato pancakes. Sauerkraut balls with Dusseldorf mustard top the appetizer list and sides include German potato salad.
The Pearl Street Pub offers a cozy atmosphere in historic surroundings and is famous for its burgers, of which there are several versions on their diverse menu. The Village Store offers fresh-cut meat and groceries on days when a picnic seems like a better idea.
Hotels in Batesville, three miles away, accommodate larger numbers of guests, but local options are available for those who want to soak up Oldenburg’s quaint ambience.
The Historic Drees Haus, an 1870s home, is constructed of locally made bricks, as are many other homes and buildings in town. These buildings, as well as the convent and the ornate wall around it, are on the architecture walking tour, a self-guided exploration made possible with a printed guide available at selected businesses around town.
Another option is Haupt Haus, located high on a hill with a beautiful view of the entire town. And there’s the stone Federalist-style Huegel Haus, erected in 1845. It was in disrepair for years but is currently being restored. Soon it will be open to welcome lodgers who can’t bear to leave Oldenburg and decide to stay on for another day.