Von Steuben Day is a holiday traditionally held on a weekend in mid-September (von Steuben was born 17 September), celebrating the Prussian-born Baron Friedrich von Steuben, who arrived in the United States (US) as a volunteer offering his services to General George Washington in the American Revolutionary War.
Von Steuben is still regarded as one of the most important German Americans, as his training of the young American troops made victory against the British possible and thus his work helped in gaining independence for the US. The day is generally considered the German-American event of the year; celebrations focus on parades in which participants march, dance, and play music.
The German-American Steuben Parade is an annual parade traditionally held in cities across the US on Von Steuben Day.
The New York City parade is held every third Saturday in September. It was founded in 1957 by immigrants from Germany who, being part of the largest self-reported immigrant ancestral group in the US, wanted to keep the traditions of their German homeland alive.
The Philadelphia parade, founded in 1970, is normally held on every fourth Saturday in September.
The Chicago parade was featured in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
While Steuben Day is celebrated in many cities all across the US, the largest crowds gather in New York City. Every year on the third Saturday in September, German-Americans celebrate the Annual Steuben Parade on Fifth Avenue and an Oktoberfest-style beer fest complete with food and live music in Central Park. The Parade was founded in 1957 and has grown into one of the largest celebrations of German and German-American culture in the United States.
In 2007, German-Americans celebrated the 50th Anniversary of this affair and welcomed former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as Grand Marshal (see below) and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl as Guest of Honour. In 2017, the Parade celebrated its 60th anniversary with Grand Marshals Admiral Nielson from the Germany Navy along with longtime Parade Volunteer and German-American Community Leader Heinz Buck.
The first Steuben Parade was held in the German neighbourhood of Ridgewood Queens. In 1958, the parade moved to Yorkville known then as Germantown, and lined up on 86th Street. Over the years, as the event grew bigger, it drew an ever-larger number of spectators. Soon it gained the City’s recognition and marched up Fifth Avenue, turning on to 86th St, and marching all the way across to First Avenue to cheering crowds. 86th Street was once the heart of Little Germany and was affectionately called the “German Boulevard.” It hosted many German shops, Konditereis, Biergartens, Vereins, theaters, restaurants, newspapers, and dance halls.
Today, the parade still marches up Fifth Avenue but now ends only at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street. It is led by cadets representing the German Language Club of the Military Academy of West Point, which was founded by General von Steuben. The three-hour-long parade is dominated by traditional German groups, spectacular colourful floats, and marching bands, clubs and organisations from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, as well as the US and Canada, wearing their traditional German costumes. The parade honours one or more Grand Marshals, who are either American citizens with a German background or German citizens with a distinct relationship to America.
Every year the German-American Steuben Parade is led by cadets representing the German Language Club of the Military Academy of West Point, which was founded by General von Steuben. However, it is not a parade in the military tradition. The rest of the three-hour-long parade is dominated by traditional German brass music groups and marching bands, by clubs and organisation wearing traditional German Tracht, as well as by carnival groups, marksmen or representatives of other traditions. For many years, the parade has had a strong Bavarian theme, dominated by men wearing Lederhosen, women in Dirndl and groups dancing the traditional Schuhplattler. Recently though, the parade opened up to represent more German themes.
Grand Marshal and Guest of Honour
Every year, the German-American Steuben Parade is led by one or more Grand Marshals, who are either American citizens with a German background or German citizens with a distinct relationship to America.
The Grand Marshals in 2009 were Congressman Michael McMahon, Fox 5 TV reporter Linda Schmidt, A&P Chairman Christian Haub, and Parade Co-founder Ted Dengler. In previous years, Grand Marshals included Hollywood star Ralf Möller, NYSE CEO Duncan Niederauer and Colonel Gail Halvorsen, the “Candy-Bomber” from the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift.
In 2007, celebrating the 50th Anniversary German-American Steuben Parade, the Grand Marshal was former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who was born in the Franconia region of Bavaria in Germany. The Guest of Honour was Dr. Klaus Scharioth, the German Ambassador to the United States. Also invited was former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is known to have a deep personal friendship towards America.
Over the years the Steuben Parade has been led by many distinguished Germans and Americans. Former Grand Marshals include Donald Trump, Siegfried & Roy, George Steinbrenner, Carol Alt, Eric Braeden, John Roland, Louis Freeh, Norbert Schramm. Several Mayors of New York City of non-German background have also led the parade, including Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, and George Pataki.
Among the Guests of Honor have been three German presidents: Walter Scheel, Richard von Weizsäcker and Johannes Rau, as well as other dignitaries from the political and economic fields, including state prime ministers Erwin Teufel, Kurt Biedenkopf and Bernhard Vogel.
While the German-American Steuben Parade itself is held on the third Saturday in September, starting at noon, there are other festivities all weekend. Usually, up to 35 music and costume groups from overseas are greeted at City Hall Park on the Friday preceding the parade. On the eve of the parade a gala benefit banquet takes place as a fundraiser for the parade.
The parade itself leads directly to the German-American Friendship Party in Central Park. This is the largest beer fest in New York, featuring many German brands on tap, as well as traditional German food such as bratwurst.
Each May, the German-American Steuben Parade Committee crowns a Miss German-America, who serves as Queen of the Steuben Day Parade in September. She is selected on the basis of her German-American heritage and her knowledge of German culture, and is expected to promote the parade and its events and numerous German festivals throughout the New York region each summer.
Past winners include: Nicole Radske, Christina Rom, Melissa Gratzl, Virginia Kovak, Stephanie Russell-Kraft, Denise Manukian, Kirsten Mueller, Kristina Kren (2013) Stefanie Kraker (2014) and Samantha Hart (2015).
The cornflower is the official flower and the logo of the German-American Steuben Parade of New York City, as it widely grows in both Germany and the United States. Also, the color blue symbolises friendship and hope. In addition the Cornflower was the national Flower of Prussia since its introduction by Kaiser Wilhelm I to honour his mother Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and because of its colour (prussian blue).
The parade and all related events are organised by the German-American Steuben Parade Committee. Since 2014, the committee has been led by General Chairman Bob Radske. The two Vice Chairwomen are Nicole Miskiewicz and Melissa Alke-Sparnroft. The membership of the committee consists of representatives of a multitude of German-American organizations from the New York metropolitan area, some involved in the founding of the parade in 1957. The Steuben Parade is overseen by the German-American Committee of Greater New York, a non-for-profit organisation registered in New York with 501(c)3 status.
To celebrate the accomplishments of Baron von Steuben, the Philadelphia Von Steuben Day Parade is 50 miles from Valley Forge, where Steuben trained the Revolutionary Army. Philadelphia is where the Continental Congress met to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was also home to Benjamin Franklin, who was sent to France by the Continental Congress. It was during this trip that Franklin was introduced to von Steuben.
In addition, in 1683 William Penn invited the thirteen German families from Krefeld to join his “Grand Experiment”. They eventually settled and founded Germantown, now a section of Philadelphia. In 1983, a parade celebrated the 300th anniversary of the founding of Germantown. At that time, a group from Krefeld brought with them the Tri-Centennial Bike, a thirteen-seat bicycle, that has become a feature of our annual parade.
While the German-American Steuben Parade itself is held on the fourth Saturday in September, starting at noon, there are other festivities all weekend. On the eve of the parade a gala benefit banquet is held at the Cannstatter Volksfest Verein.
On Parade day itself, the day begins with an Ecumenical Service at 10:00 am. After the parade, participants are welcome to join the Oktoberfest held by the Bavarian Volksfest Verein, on the grounds of the United German-Hungarian Club.
The parade and all related events are organised by the Steuben Day Observance Association of Philadelphia and Vicinity. The association is currently led by General Chairman Thomas Markow, and two Vice Chairmen, Werner Fricker and James Schwartz. The membership of the association consists of representatives of a multitude of German-American organizations from the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The Steuben Day Observance Association of Philadelphia and Vicinity is a non-for-profit organisation registered in Pennsylvania with 501(c)3 status.
Von Steuben Day in Culture
The Chicago parade was in the 1986 John Hughes movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, even though other movie details indicate that the film takes place near the end of the school year, not in September or on a Saturday.