The History of the G.A.F.

The Beginning

The earliest date on record is January 24, 1966, on which Frederick W. Schwesinger, Financial Secretary of the GBU District 510, wrote a letter to seven local ethnic Societies - American Turners Toledo, Bavarian Benevolent Society (BUV), Bavarian Sports Club, Greater Beneficial Union (GBU), Teutonia Männerchor of Toledo, Toledo Schwaben Verein, and United Swiss - to discuss in a meeting the possibility of having a "Continental Day" to bring together all claimants of German and Swiss heritage. On February 3, 1966 a meeting sponsored by the GBU was held at Howard Johnson's Hotel. All seven societies were represented and also at subsequent meetings on March 3, March 17, April 28, May 19, June 16, June 28, July 28 and August 4. In these meetings, the planned event was named "German-American Festival" and for getting it started, each Society contributed $300. On March 3, 1966, officers were elected. These members of the seven societies organized the beginning of the G.A.F. On Saturday, August 27, and on Sunday, August 28, 1966, the first German-American Festival was held at Raceway Park on Telegraph Road. 


The German-American Festival was the first large scale ethnic event in Toledo. In the years to come, it was copied by other ethnic societies. Despite a start on a meager financial budget of $2,100, with worries about unpredictable events and with large amounts of credit looming overhead, the first Festival was a big success as the American public welcomed the event. The $21,000 profit was equally divided among the seven societies. Edward Kemper, Attorney at Law, stressed the need for incorporation. A Committee consisting of Hans Ersepke, Henry Pfaff, George Recknagel, Robert Willets, and with Edward Kemper, statutory agent for the G.A.F. Society, wrote its Constitution and By-Laws and submitted those to the State of Ohio. On December 29, 1966, the G.A.F. Society was formed by the seven societies at a meeting at the Bavarian Hall and with Robert Willets, as temporary Chairman. The Societies were asked to invest $500 of their $3,000 earned, as original Stock in the Corporation. Encouraged by the success of the first event, the members agreed to hold further German-American Festivals. On January 9, 1967, the G.A.F. Society was incorporated as a non-profit organization under 501(c)3 under the laws of the State of Ohio. The original incorporators were the presidents of the seven societies. In fact, state law was changed to permit our incorporation. The G.A.F. Society's logo was designed by Henry Pfaff of the G.B.U. Its seven stars represent the seven societies and the letters, G.A.F. are set in Old English script. In 1977 it was enhanced by Helmut Seike upon his establishment of permanent record albums of the German-American Festivals.


The second German-American Festival in 1967, was attended by 14,000 visitors and netted $21,500. However, under the laws of incorporation, distribution of the income among the seven societies was no longer possible. With these funds available and members' support in UNITY, the G.A.F. Society was on its way up. 'Twas a long way to Tipperary, however! In 1967, it was the intent of the founders of the G.A.F. Society, with profits from the German-American Festivals, to establish a German-American cultural center, to dedicate itself to the purpose of perpetuating cultural, athletic and scholastic achievement and in addition, to make sure that the seven societies would have a home and never to lose their identity. Mission Accomplished!

A New Home

The Festival was held annually at Raceway Park until 1974. It had grown to a 3-day event in 1969 and due to the Park's extended racing business, the Festival needed to find a new home. The Festival was moved to The Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee, where it remained until 1986. Rental fees had increased from $1,250 at Raceway Park, to $14,500 at the Recreation Center. In 1987, the Festival moved to its final home, Oak Shade Grove in Oregon, OH.


Shortly after incorporating, the G.A.F. Society began actively searching for a home of their own. In 1969, the 35.25 acre "Eischen Grove" in Oregon, OH, was purchased. It was a massive undertaking by the membership. In June 1969, the property was renamed Oak Shade Grove. Val Helldobler was its custodian for ten years. In March 1971, Tax Exempt Status for the G.A.F. Society was obtained from the IRS. Over time, Oak Shade Grove has grown to 75.83 acres. Individual members helped to raise and donate money in order to purchase surrounding areas of the original parcel of land. In September 1978, the mortgage was paid off and at a ceremony at Oak Shade Grove, the members burned the Mortgage Paper. While in the sixties, the American Turners, the Bavarian Sports Club and the United Swiss had club houses of their own, the other societies did not. The Swiss sold their hall in 1974 and the Turners sold theirs in 1991. Now, members of all 7 of the societies could find shelter at Oak Shade Grove. 


On January 24, 1976, during construction of the Club House, a Corner Stone was buried in the hearth of its Fire Place. It contains history of the G.A.F. Society, program books from the early Festivals, ground breaking pictures and the names of the workers who spent more than 4,200 hours for this addition. On January 24, 2000, the Corner Stone was removed and opened by Hans Henoch, the youngest member alive who was present at its laying. The spade with which ground breaking was done, was gold-plated and can be found in the Black Forest Cafe. 


The Maibaum, German symbol for the arrival of spring, was constructed by many volunteers who donated about 4,700 hours for this project. The Bavarian Sports Club's younger generation took special pride herein. It is the third of its kind in the U.S.A. and by its 63 feet, the tallest. The other two stand in Milwaukee, WI, and Frankenmuth, MI, respectively, and they, too, were erected by German-Americans. It carries the crests of the seven societies, the ones of the G.A.F., the State of Ohio and its State Bird, the Red Cardinal, and those of the cities of Toledo and Oregon. It is crowned by a wreath, the symbol of life, and by an eagle, German and American symbol of freedom. The Maibaum represents UNITY; namely, the oneness of the members of the G.A.F. Society: Those of German and Swiss descent born in this country and those who once came from Europe, joining  their skills with Americans. Together, Germans and Americans now are upholding culture and traditions of yesteryear. The Maibaum is anchored onto a 3 ft deep concrete foundation and it took a 100 ton crane to raise it. At night, spot lights illuminate this monument of German tradition. In 2015, the project of restoring the Maibaum was undertaken by members from each of the societies. All new figures were cut out and painted and the Maibaum was rededicated in May of 2015.


In 1982, the G.A.F. Retirees Club was formed. The Toledo Schwaben Verein and the Frühschoppen-Club donated $1,800 towards the furniture of the Club House (Chalet). The largest single donation for the purpose was made by Robert Willets. Max Graf donated three large cow bells. John Kaman made the fixture and the leaded glass windows. In 1973, Promissory Notes of  $100 to $500 were offered the members. By the end of 1989, these Notes were redeemed. Several members donated their investment back to the G.A.F. Society. In 1985, the Toledo Schwaben Verein and the United Swiss donated towards the construction of new restrooms on the picnic grounds. In 1986, 400 members donated towards the Drainage Project. In 1991, the United Swiss donated the cost of the three flag poles at the Grove's entrance. The final project on the grounds was the new Schútzenhaus, which was dedicated in 2002.

The Legacy of the G.A.F. Society

The G.A.F. Society and the 7 Societies that belong to the G.A.F. continue to host several events throughout the year. German Mardi Gras (Fasching or Karneval) is celebrated every winter, the singing societies host regular concerts, the Bavarian Schuhplattler groups host annual dances, and members continue to support the ever-growing German-American Festival every August. The larger society has it's own Scholarship Awards and many of the separate societies have Scholarships to give, as well. In just the 80s and 90s, over $50,000 worth of scholarships were awarded to local students.


The Festival works hard not only to maintain it's history of being run by 2,000 volunteers, but also to support local food suppliers and companies with it's purchases. In the last 50+ years, the Festival has pumped millions of dollars back into the local economy and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


The G.A.F. Society is a proud member of the greater-Toledo community and we aim to continue to share our love for German- and Swiss- heritage for a long time to come.