Leavenworth, WA and the Making of a Bavarian Dream
In 1945 at the end of World War II a soldier named Bob Rodgers found himself stationed in the German province of Bavaria. While there, he fell in love with the people, the food, and the charming Bavarian architecture. After returning home to Seattle, he took a job as an inspector with the State of Washington. While traveling around the state doing restaurant inspections, he came across the small central Washington town of Leavenworth. Little did he know that this would be the canvas on which he would render his greatest masterpiece, the making of a Bavarian dream.
Down at the Heels
Leavenworth is located at the base of the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, near the geographical center of Washington. To the west, dormant volcanic peaks rise to 8,000 feet. The region is carpeted with deep alpine forests and laced with clear mountain streams. It’s a popular draw for fishermen and outdoorsmen. When Bob Rodgers first saw it, he was drawn to its recreational potential. The town itself impressed him little, if at all.
Once upon a time, Leavenworth had been a booming lumber town with a population of more than 5,000, but in the 1920’s lumbering fell off, then in the 1930’s the depression hit. Leavenworth fell on hard times. When Bob Rodgers first laid eyes on it in the late 1940’s, it was down at the heels and struggling to survive.
Choosing a Theme
Bob Rodgers met his partner Ted Price in 1955. Bonding over a shared enthusiasm for skiing and flyfishing, they often visited the mountains to recreate. They found themselves passing through Leavenworth with some regularity. So frequent did their visits become that in 1960 they decided to buy a business and settle in. They bought a failing restaurant outside of town and set about reviving it.
They knew little about the restaurant business but understood they had to do something to draw attention. They hit upon the idea of a theme. Ted suggested a Native American motif, but Bob had a better idea. He wanted to model it after the Bavarian restaurants he had seen in Germany.
The Squirrel Tree
They remodeled the restaurant in the Bavarian style and gave it a new name, the Squirrel Tree. To enhance the feeling of authenticity, they served German food, dressed the waitresses in homemade drindls, and introduced a German oom-pah band. It worked. The restaurant prospered. By 1962 patrons were lining up at the door. A couple of years later Rodgers and Price added a Bavarian-style motel next door, and it prospered as well.
At this time, nearby Leavenworth was in dire straits. Businesses were closing, and people were moving out. As if to accelerate its slide into ruin, the State of Washington condemned the town’s dilapidated high school, and the bonds needed to build a new one were rejected by the town’s aging and increasingly impoverished population. It seemed Leavenworth was on its way to becoming a ghost town. This did not bode well for the long term prospects of the Squirrel Tree.
An Outlandish Idea
In 1962 the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce appealed to the Bureau of Community Development at the University of Washington for help. The BCD provided Leavenworth with a self-study program to promote community cooperation and discover resources. Concerned citizens formed an association, Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone—L.I.F.E. — to find ways to revive the local economy. At first they had no tourism committee. Bob Rodgers and Ted Price remedied that. At their urging, a tourism committee was formed, and Ted Price was named its first chairman.
Rodgers and Price proposed an outlandish idea. Why not expand the Bavarian theme they had used in their restaurant to the entire town?
At first their idea was met with a chilly reception. There was no getting around the fact that the Squirrel Tree had been a success, but expanding it to the entire town seemed overly ambitious for a dying town that was down to its last dollar. Besides, Leavenworth didn’t have an ethnically German population. The whole idea seemed—well, random.
The Dream Becomes a Reality
But Rodgers and Price had a strong intuition their idea was just what Leavenworth needed. In 1965 Rodgers and Price took a trip to Solvang, California, a small town that had been made-over with a Danish theme, and which had done quite well as a result. Seeing what a well rendered theme could do for a town, Rodgers and Price became convinced they were on the right track and decided to put their money where their mouths were. They purchased a number of rundown buildings in Leavenworth’s downtown, intending to remodel them in the Bavarian style.
They learned from the designers of Solvang that the key to success was authenticity. Tourists could see through a tacky, insincere replication and would turn away. A comprehensive, first-class job would have to be done if they hoped to succeed.
That meant they would have to hire specialists in everything from Bavarian design and construction to sign carving, half timbering, and Old World stucco techniques. Marshaling their courage, they plunged ahead at great personal risk and poured everything they had into the promise of a Bavarian dream at the foot of the Cascade mountains.
Along the way they got help from others who got swept up in their vision. Other building owners committed to remodeling their properties in the Bavarian style. The chief designer from Solvang got on board. Specialists arrived to lend a helping hand. And financing appeared like pennies from heaven. From 1965 to 1977 the dream village materialized, and Leavenworth was transformed.
A Town’s Spirit Revived
Leavenworth became an eighteenth-century Bavarian town down to the smallest details: overhanging roofs and balconies, delicately carved latticework, wrought iron light fixtures, hand carved wooden signs and whimsical hand painted murals. Rodgers and Price arranged for the flower boxes to be filled to overflowing with colorful flowers in the summertime, and for brightly colored lights to be strung throughout the town in the wintertime. It was magical.
As always, there were the naysayers, crotchety old-timers who clung to the dilapidated and dying town they had grown up in and resented the intrusion of outsiders. But their objections could not quell the growing enthusiasm for the transformation that was happening. Not only did the remodeling revive the town, it also revived the town’s spirits. Rodgers and Price had done something remarkable. They had created a fellow feeling among the town’s residents, a sense of community, of being involved in something greater than themselves, a pioneering spirit.
A Blueprint for Others
Without intending to, Rodgers and Price had also provided a blue print for other towns and neighborhoods to revive their economies, a way to identify something unique and build around it. Today, there are many examples. Mount Airy, North Carolina, Andy Griffith’s hometown, has been reimagined as the “real Mayberry”, with great success. Marfa, Texas has been reborn as a quirky artist’s mecca. And Durango, Colorado has embraced its Old West roots.
But changing a place’s curb appeal doesn’t always succeed. St Louis’s attempt to revitalize Laclede’s Landing with a 19th century riverfront vibe has largely fallen flat. Central City, Colorado is an exercise in gross overindulgence. And Tampa’s retro Cuban Ybor City has never really taken off. What these places have in common is a halfhearted commitment to authenticity married to a weakness for easy revenue generators like gambling and bars. Leavenworth never made those errors.
Leavenworth, WA and the Making of a Bavarian Dream Village
Without consciously doing so, Rodgers and Price took a page out of Disney’s book, focusing on a family friendly atmosphere and an attention to detail. They also emulated Disney with the parades and festivals they introduced to the town: MayFest, the Autumn Leaf Festival, and the annual Christmas Tree Lighting. Being a replica German town, Leavenworth has always had its share of bars, but drinking and partying were never the whole story. Leavenworth was a complete vision, a fully realized dream with theme-inspired shops and restaurants, a fantasie Bavarian.
Rodgers and Price died just months apart in 2015, but they left a legacy that continues to this day. Leavenworth now has more than twelves seasonal festivals as well as a summer theatre program and a center for the arts. It offers unique attractions like the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum and the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm, and the countryside around Leavenworth is now dotted with horse ranches and wineries that cater to tourists. Today, close to two million people visit Leavenworth each year, a complete fulfillment of the promise of their Bavarian dream.
Slideshow of Leavenworth, Washington
My American Odyssey Route Map
Leavenworth History. City of Leavenworth, Washington. Acquired 15 February 2021. Website
Price, Ted. Miracle Town. Creating America’s Bavarian Village in Leavenworth, Washington. Price and Rogers, 1997.
All images by Malcolm Logan, except…
Leavenworth Main Street Today, Leavenworth.org
Downtown Leavenworth, 1964, Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce