March 31, 2022
I previously mentioned I had happened on the town of Altus as I wound my way back to the Interstate on Tuesday. The attraction signs along I-40 are not for Altus, but for Wiederkehr Village. Wiederkehr Village is the smallest city in Arkansas with a population of 38. The town was incorporated in 1975 to prevent annexation by nearby Altus (800+ population). Wiederkehr Village is renowned as the home of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars. The incorporated area includes the exit off I-40 and the highway leads directly to the winery. The winery includes Weinkeller Restaurant, the Weingarten Event Center, a gift shop, and a nearby RV park. The wine cellar was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The Wiederkehr Weinfest is one of the oldest and most popular festivals in western Arkansas.
When I looked online, I found that the Arkansas River Valley remained sparsely populated until after the Civil War. The US government initially gave the land to the Cherokee who had been removed from the eastern states. The Cherokee were later moved farther west to Oklahoma, and the land was opened for European settlement. The population did not grow until after the coal mines and railroad industry attracted workers in the 1870’s. Many of these emigrants were from Germany or the German speaking side of Switzerland, including Johann Andreas Wiederkehr. Wiederkehr and his wife Katherine came to Altus in December 1880, and then built a cabin on St. Mary’s Mountain to the north and east. Wiederkehr was a shoemaker and leatherworker, but also vinted wine for his family’s use. The eager miners in the nearby coal-mining towns became customers for his wine, and the Wiederkehr Wine Cellars was born. The winery survived during Prohibition by gaining permission to produce sacramental wine for the church.
Wiederkehr Village has no post office, no schools, no churches, and no businesses aside from the wine cellar, its restaurant, and gift shop. In 1980, the village discussed plans to promote the city with a Passion Play, but instead left development to promotion of the wines. The first Weinfest was held in in 1963 and celebrates the heritage of the Swiss-German immigrants who settled Wiederkehr Village. The grandson initiated the festival after he returned from a research trip to Europe to study winemaking (oenological) and attending the local festivals. State law barred the advertisement of alcoholic beverages in dry counties, so the winery owners used Swiss-German (Schweizerdeutsch) spellings on the billboards. Although the law has changed, the traditional spellings have remained. The festival grew over the years and guests often exceed 2,500.
THOUGHTS: The Wiederkehr Weinfest hosts Arkansas’s Championship Grape Stomp. The winner receives a bronze shoe trophy honoring Steve Little, (former UA field goal kicker) and qualifies to attend the World Championship Grape Stomp in Sonoma County, California. While I have yet to attend this festival, I have attended many other cultural celebrations. These tend to be associated with a church or enclave which allowed cohesion in the new land, and as residents were isolated from the community due to language, appearance, or faith. By joining these celebrations, we can get a glimpse of another perspective. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.