To commemorate the bicentennial of the United States Library of Congress, Congress launched a project that would provide a time capsule of American culture in the year 2000. Local Legacies documented and celebrated more than 1300 festivals, gatherings and observances taking place in diverse communities across the country.
One of the unique community traditions registered as a Local Legacies project was the Tell City Schweitzerfest. The late summer rite began in 1958 as a commemorative project of its own—residents of the Perry County seat sought to mark the 100 th anniversary of the city’s written history. Tell City was founded in 1857 by a group of Swiss-German immigrants living in Cincinnati in search of a place where industrial and agricultural workers could live together in harmony. The “Swiss Colonization Society,” as it came to be known, chose the southern Indiana locale for its arable land, adjacency to the river and the railroad, and the state’s intolerance of slavery. (It has also been suggested that the region’s hills were reminiscent of the old country.)
The deliberation with which the site was selected was matched by the methodical platting of the city’s three square miles and the design of its broad streets, named for American statesmen and inventors and European luminaries. Originally named Helvetia, the Latin word for Switzerland, the spot was rechristened Tell City in homage to the legendary Swiss liberator William Tell. A statue of the famed marksman and his brave son in Tell City’s park is a copy of one in the town square in Altdorf, Switzerland.
Beyond carnival rides and performances by the municipal band, the Schweitzerfest beer garden recalls Tell City’s ethnic heritage, the focus of the annual summer celebration. As one resident declared–
Let other cities have their Indians, their Kentuck rifles, bear fighters, stagecoaches or battlegrounds. Tell City has had the miracle of the Swiss Colonization Society, the birthright of hard-working, fun-loving Swiss and Germans, and steamboats. After 100 years, our heritage still holds: Tell City is still a “river town” full of beer-drinking Germans who make chairs, pretzels, and fifty other products, who enjoy music and fun, and have a lousy basketball team. But, for color and interest, we’ll take it!
The photographs, recordings and other materials collected during one year’s Schweitzerfest—along with more than 1000 other Local Legacies projects—are permanently housed in the Library’s American Folklife Center.
For more information on Tell City and Perry County, go to http://www.countyhistory.com/perry/start.html