Germans and Las Vegas

Germans have been at the center of Las Vegas's development since the city's founding in 1905. Whether German-born, first, or second generation, most migrated to Southern Nevada after living elsewhere in Nevada or the United States, and either had become part of the American mainstream or were in the process of assimilating.

Because Germany was a political entity created in 1871 out of culturally and religiously disparate principalities, German immigrants did not necessarily share similar traditions and practices. Cultural and religious differences, restrictive immigration laws, and anti-German sentiment—increasing especially in the years surrounding World Wars I and II—also provided incentives for rapid assimilation. As a result, German immigrants guarded their heritage by celebrating traditions privately, anglicizing their names, and speaking German only when among family members or close friends. That so many successfully assimilated testifies not only to their determination, but also to the opportunities that they found in Las Vegas.

Between 1900 and 2000, the proportion of Nevada's Germans living in Las Vegas grew in comparison to other parts of the state. In 1910, approximately two-tenths of a percent of the state's German-born lived in Las Vegas. By 1940, that segment had grown to 8 percent. A brief relaxation of immigration laws following World War II, intermarriage between American servicemen and German women, and a general demographic shift in density to the southern part of the state account for much of the postwar increase. By 1990, 62 percent of Nevada's German-born lived in Clark County, that figure rising to 70 percent by 2000. In 2006, Sigrid Sommer, retired honorary counsel for Germany, estimated that between 35,000 and 40,000 are of German descent in Clark County. In 2005, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that approximately 6,900 residents spoke German at home.

Entrepreneurship and industry characterized many of Las Vegas's earliest German settlers. The city's first mayor, for example, was Peter Buol, a son of German-Swiss immigrants. German-born Frank and Martha Matzdorf, who arrived in 1905 in a mule-drawn cart, opened Las Vegas's first hotel and restaurant. Minnie Westlake, the second woman to live in what would become Las Vegas, arrived before 1905 and operated a rooming house in the first wooden structure built on South Second Street. Others, such as Edward Von Tobel, Sr., Jake Beckley, and his brother William Beckley, all of German-Swiss parentage, founded businesses that remained in operation for decades. Among those who went into business in the 1920s and 1930s were German-born Samuel Gelber, who owned an electric shop until 1943, and Richard Roschel, who operated an ice cream parlor. Assimilationist impulses remained strong. Descendants of the Von Tobel family, for example, remember being instructed to speak German only when they were at home.

Germans were among those who shaped Las Vegas's economic, social, and cultural landscape. One key figure during the mid-century years was Cyril S. Wengert, son of German-born Frank Wengert. Cyril, as a banker and manager of Southern Nevada utility companies, was involved in all aspects of Las Vegas development. He also founded and funded outreach and assistance programs through the Community Chest and the Salvation Army, and contributed generously to the building of churches and schools. Wengert, Von Tobel, and the Beckleys were instrumental in the establishment of community service organizations such as the Elks, the Rotary Club, Masonic and Eagles Lodges, and the Chamber of Commerce.

For most of the twentieth century, Germans in Las Vegas expressed their cultural traditions primarily during family gatherings or within the confines of their homes. In part, this was due to anti-German prejudice dating back to the early years of the twentieth century. But it was also because until the 1970s, too few German-born or first-generation descendants lived in Las Vegas to make up for the differences in cultural expression and religion that historically divided them. Some Germans, for example, practiced Roman Catholicism, others Lutheran Protestantism, and still others remained apart from organized religion. Traditional practices also differed depending on an immigrant's, or immigrant family's, origins. At Christmastime, for example, the Christkind, or Christ child, brings gifts to those from southern Germany, while those from the north receive their gifts from Der Weihnachtmann, Father Christmas. Some Germans today also assert that there are regional personality differences. Southerners, they say, tend to be outgoing and friendly, while their northern brethren are typically more reserved.

One by-product of the increasing German immigration population in Las Vegas during the latter decades of the twentieth century was the formation of ethnic groups and associations. One hundred years after peoples and principalities were joined under the German state, Germans in Las Vegas came together seeking fellowship and celebrating their cultural heritage. During the 1980s, an estimated 700 German-born and their first-generation descendants belonged to the German American Social Club of Nevada or to the Deutsch American Society of Southern Nevada. Smaller special interest groups also took shape, including the German Friendship Club, the Schützen Klub (shooting club), the Schuhplattlers dancing group, and two organizations celebrating the Lenten festival of Karneval: the Karnevalgruppe Las Vegas Piepen and the Vagabonds. Over time, year-round interest in clubs and associations waned, but the appreciation for German cultural traditions that they generated within the community at large remained strong. As the century drew to a close, the increasing popularity of festivals such as Oktoberfest, Karneval, and Maifest demonstrated that in Las Vegas German cultural traditions would not be lost.

Las Vegas benefited from the contributions of German-born newcomers from all walks of life. Retired senior citizens donated their time to community service organizations, while others worked as restaurateurs, chefs, academic leaders, businesspeople, nurses, and managers. Two have achieved international fame: entertainers, illusionists, and animal trainers Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn. And, decades after the city's founding, German-born Patricia Mulroy was managing the city's water supply to ensure that enough water would flow into its hotels, restaurants, homes, parks, and golf courses, so that Las Vegas would not come to resemble the dry and dusty place that had once welcomed the Matzdorfs.

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