All Over the Map: How Leavenworth became the PNW’s own slice of Bavaria
It was a little over 50 years ago, in 1965, when work began in earnest to convert Leavenworth from a little Cascade foothills railroad and lumber town to a Bavarian-themed tourist destination.
The story of how this once-struggling community on the east side of Stevens Pass along Highway 2 in Chelan County remade itself is worth remembering, especially in this era, when small local retail businesses everywhere are figuring out how to survive in a world becoming increasingly dominated by online shopping.
Before the town decided to undergo an ersatz Bavarian transformation, here’s a quick little summary of Leavenworth history.
In 1891, the settlement of “Icicle” (or, some say, “Icicle Flats”) was founded on the south side of the Wenatchee River, not far from the current location of Leavenworth.
In October 1892, the Great Northern Railway, which was building the western portion of its transcontinental route from the Twin Cities to Seattle through the Cascades, bought property on the north side of the river to establish a “division point.” A division point is a big rail yard for maintenance and configuring locomotives and other tasks necessary for hauling passengers and freight up and over the mountains.
This meant people and jobs in what had been a remote stretch of the Cascade foothills.
So, the city leaders of Icicle moved the settlement across the river and adjacent to the Great Northern’s property. In 1893, the community was renamed “Leavenworth” for Captain Charles Leavenworth, who was affiliated with the railroad, and who ran a real estate concern known as the Okanogan Investment Company.
For the next 30 years, Leavenworth grew slowly but steadily because of the railroad and lumber industry. However, in 1922, the Great Northern Railway moved the division point, along with all that activity, 30 miles east to Wenatchee.
Then, in 1929, as part of the route realignment for the new Cascade Tunnel, the Great Northern bypassed Leavenworth almost completely with a new route that carried passengers and freight through Chumstick Canyon rather than Tumwater Canyon.
Thus, from the 1930s up through the 1950s, Leavenworth struggled, and the downtown area gradually became a mass of vacant storefronts. But the old Tumwater Canyon railroad grade — leftover when the town was bypassed — had become the route of the Stevens Pass Highway in the 1920s, and that offered some hope for the town, especially as automotive tourism grew in the 1950s.
New “LIFE” for Leavenworth
It was in the early 1960s when the Leavenworth Women’s Club launched a project they called LIFE, which stood for “Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone.” They got some planning help from a University of Washington program called the Bureau of Community Development, to come up with ideas for revitalizing the town’s economy.
Meetings were convened and committees were created, and consensus was gradually achieved. For their efforts, the Women’s Club even won a $10,000 prize from the Sears Roebuck Foundation in 1964, the equivalent of $83,000 in 2019 dollars.
The UW plan recommended making over the look and feel of the town to attract tourists, and then using the theme to create a series of annual events. Three options were suggested for possible themes: Gay Nineties, Western, and Alpine.
It may have been a foregone conclusion that “Alpine” would be the town’s choice, if only because of the Cascade scenery. But there were other factors that tipped the balance away from “Gay Nineties” and “Western.”
A few years before the UW made their recommendation, Bob Rodgers and Ted Price had already decorated the Squirrel Tree Restaurant in 1959, 15 miles west of Leavenworth toward Stevens Pass, in Bavarian style.
And there were other factors, too: A coffee-table book of Bavarian photos owned by a Leavenworth resident, and another resident who had spent years living in Bavaria.
Leavenworth boosters had also been impressed by the Danish-themed settlement of Solvang, California for inspiration. Eventually, once “Alpine” had been chosen by residents in a vote, they hired Solvang architect and designer Earl Peterson to help with the transformation.
By 1965, “Project Alpine” was officially underway. The Autumn Leaf Festival had launched the year before, and volunteer Leavenworth emissaries were putting on lederhosen and visiting places like Seattle to recruit tourists. By 1970s, much of the commercial part of town had been transformed with Bavarian-style façades.
By pretty much all measures, the effort was a tremendous success, as a magnet for tourists and their tourist dollars. While some historians and critics have called the faux Bavarian decorations disingenuous and wrong, people from other communities have been impressed. Some have even followed Leavenworth’s lead to reinvent themselves. In the early 1970s, the Methow Valley community of Winthrop, in Okanogan County, went all-in with a western theme.
It hasn’t been completely smooth, though. In 1996, a community group called “Projekt Bayern” was formed to “revitalize waning interest” among the merchants, and worked to make Leavenworth’s Bavarian décor and costumes for locals to wear during special events as authentic as possible. In the late 1990s, the group launched Leavenworth’s annual Oktoberfest, which continues to grow.
The head of Projekt Bayern nowadays is a retail merchant named Tibor Lak. Lak says that the 1990s revitalization effort was successful, and that it continues to this day. For the record, Lak says he owns two pairs of lederhosen. He says Leavenworth’s Bavarian-themed architecture is popular with merchants and visitors, and it’s part of the building code, too.
The future of Leavenworth
So, will it ever go away?
“Only if you want [Leavenworth] to die,” Lak said.
Ernest Palmer of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce agrees that the Bavarian theme is now a permanent part of the town.
“There are towns across the country that are dying and that are empty, and our town is thriving,” Palmer said. “There might be times where we think, ‘Oh, another accordion player?’ but I think we all really enjoy it.”
How many pairs of lederhosen does Ernest Palmer own?
“Only one,” Palmer admitted, quickly adding, “But Projekt Bayern has a whole warehouse of costumes that they loan out for festivals.”
Looking back over the past century of Leavenworth history, it’s apparent that before the creation of “LIFE” and the launch of “Project Alpine,” Leavenworth’s earlier success had depended on the continued presence of the railroad – and then that connection got taken away.
So, if you’re one of those critics who doesn’t think much of a fake Bavarian village shoehorned incongruously into the Cascade foothills, can you blame the people of Leavenworth for taking the matter of their economy into their own lederhosen-loving hands?
Let’s all raise a frothy stein and toast to their continued success!