Round a bend in the highway and there they are, just off the road: staunch rows of gingerbread buildings shoulder to shoulder. The oompah bands striking up rollicking polka tunes. The smell of sauerkraut, pig's knuckles, and freshly brewed beer wafts down the streets and into the little shops selling cuckoo clocks and knockwurst. Welcome to Leavenworth, a slice of Bavaria (with a dose of Switzerland and Austria thrown in), in the middle of Washington state.
In the spring and summer the window boxes, hanging baskets, and planters overflow with bright blooms. In the fall, the doorways and balconies are decorated with brilliant autumn leaves. And in the winter there is almost always a thick layer of snow glistening with thousands of tiny Christmas lights. The little village, 120 miles east of Seattle, is set in a valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains that look, come to think of it, a bit like the Alps.
How could you help but stop the car? Who could resist this cheerful counterfeit confection in the middle of nowhere—thousands of miles away from the original Bavaria?
Not many people do resist—which is the whole point of Leavenworth's existence: stop the car, get out, walk about. Year-round, this small town in Washington's Cascade Range—population 2,100—is full of tourists. They come by the busload to stroll under the decorative overhanging roofs and to shop for $2,500 grandfather clocks or $6 T-shirts. They come for the rich German food and the accordion music (things that they probably don't seek out or enjoy anywhere else). An estimated million and a half visitors come every year to experience Bavaria without the language problems or pesky marks-to-dollars calculations ("How much is that in real money, honey?"). It's easy make-believe for grown-ups.
Visitors tend to walk the streets of Leavenworth wearing bemused expressions. It's all a little goofy—the cute hand-painted signs in old Germanic script, even those for McDonald's, Safeway, and Bank of America. Often an oompah band plays in the Front Street Park gazebo, while the locals walk around in lederhosen and dirndls and ask "How ya doin'?" without a trace of a German accent.
Chamber of Commerce president Sandy Owens estimates 75 percent of the town's revenue is tourist related, and that seems a conservative guess. There was tourism before the town went Bavarian, of course, thanks to the area's abundant outdoor resources—hiking and cross-country ski trails and good white-water rafting rivers. But with so many other places in the Northwest offering similar activities, this was clearly not an economically viable solution for the town. By the early 1960s, plain old Leavenworth was in danger of becoming a ghost town. The few people who remained were worried.
"We wanted to live here," longtime resident Pauline Watson says. "That was our problem."
Leavenworth had been a thriving railroad and lumber town in the 1920s, but after the railway office moved and the lumber business tailed off, not many jobs remained. "You couldn't get a loan to buy a home," Arleen Blackburn remembers. Some two dozen buildings in tiny Leavenworth were vacant. Piles of junk filled the alleys and vacant lots. "It was an ugly place," Blackburn says.
Leavenworth citizens turned to the University of Washington for guidance on saving their town. Committees were formed to explore developing various industries. A few people thought that attracting tourists was the town's best hope and that adopting a unique "theme" would be the answer.
Several themes were considered. A Gay Nineties theme. An old-time Western theme. "But we thought, this is our town, this is where we have to live," Watson says. "Do we want wooden sidewalks and the dirty, dusty look?"
Alpine, though, seemed to be a natural. "The idea had been kicking around a long time," Watson says, pointing out that the local paper had long been called The Echo and a student paper, The Yodeler. Never mind that there were few people, if any, in town who could claim German heritage. The Bavarian idea just seemed to fit with the mountains and the climate. It was something they could live with. "It's pretty; it's clean," Watson says. When they told their university advisers about the decision to "go Alpine," there was a strong reaction: "You're not a German town. You'll end up being a cuckoo clock town."
"They meant it to be discouraging," Watson says, "but we thought that was pretty neat. A cuckoo clock town!"
Finally, in 1965, a handful of business owners decided to try a Bavarian theme and to remodel their buildings. There was no signed agreement, and the city council had nothing to do with it. The "Project Alpine" group simply went ahead, plunged deeply into debt—and profoundly changed their businesses and their town.
Blackburn remembers sewing 36 waitress costumes for the first Bavarian restaurants, using a skating costume pattern. Watson opened the first gift shop and wore a dirndl seven days a week while she listened to Bavarian music. When her daughter's family moved to Berlin, everyone expected her to visit the real Germany. No chance. "Why would I pay money to go there?" Watson said.
Eventually, of course, more and more businesses "converted" as the tourists began to stop. Because of the town's success in turning around its finances by becoming a completely new and foreign place, Leavenworth earned a 1968 "All-America City" award, with absolutely no irony intended.
Now Leavenworth has an official design review board to keep the town as "authentic" as possible—no neon or flashing lights are allowed; wires, antennas, and satellite dishes are disguised. Structures are supposed to resemble those in a Bavarian village of a couple hundred years ago—right down to the ATM machines.
The regulations apply only to the outside of buildings, and inside many hotels, shops, and restaurants the Bavarian kitsch is sparse or absent. But other places have "gone Alpine" all the way, such as Pension-Anna, probably the most "authentic" of the lodgings in Leavenworth. The rooms seem bright even on a gray day, with carved natural wood furnishings against the white walls. Owners Bob and Anne Smith travel to Austria and Germany a couple of times a year, searching for more and more elaborate hand-painted armoires and embroidered costumes. When they go to quaint Alpine towns, they bring along pictures of Leavenworth, Wash. Europeans, Anne says, are fascinated and puzzled at the same time. Why does your town look like this? Why?
"We're playing German," she explains. And they still look baffled. But if they visit Leavenworth, she says, they really enjoy themselves, and more than a few genuine Bavarians have moved to Leavenworth in the last 35 years. "It's not hard to find a German translator," Pauline Watson says. The town is also popular with Japanese and English tourists, but most of the visitors come from the Seattle area.
Diane Hough, window-shopping with her 14-year-old son, Blake, is a fairly typical Leavenworth tourist. Her Seattle family has come here every year for nine years to cross-country ski. "I love it," she says. "I love especially that everything closes down at night. It's time to spend with family."
River-rafting trips are the activity of choice in warm weather months around Leavenworth. From April through July, there is enough water in some parts of the Wenatchee River for white-water adventure, while other parts of the river are gentle enough for inner tube floats.
When cold winds blow, the Leavenworth area is crisscrossed with cross-country ski trails. Trail passes range between $5 and $10 dollars; at Lake Wenatchee, sno-park permits are also required.
Downhill skiers have three sites in the area: Stevens Pass Ski Area, 35 miles northwest of town; Mission Ridge Ski Area, 35 miles to the southeast; and little Leavenworth Ski Hill, about a mile out of town. Many Leavenworth hotels offer special lodging and lift ticket packages.
Many other places would like to duplicate Leavenworth's success. The chamber of commerce gets 15 to 20 requests a year for advice on how to become a "theme" town.
"I think you have to hit bottom first," says Watson, making theme town conversion sound like addiction recovery. And simply changing the architecture is not enough; this is not a case of If You Build It, They Will Come.
"Buildings are only the backdrop," Watson tells the wanna-be theme townspeople. "From there you have to put on the play." Leavenworth is a success because the Bavarian buildings are filled with Wiener schnitzel (veal cutlets) and nutcrackers and oompah music. People come for the plays—every summer an outdoor theater company performs The Sound of Music—and the festivals. "Just remodeling your store isn't going to do it," Watson says.
Back before the first buildings were remodeled, Leavenworth held an Autumn Leaf Festival to celebrate the colorful foliage. It's still one of the most popular draws to the town, bringing people to enjoy a parade, Bavarian street dancing, and food booths. From May through September, Thursday through Sunday, local artists sell their paintings, sculptures, and crafts in Front Street Park. And the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, where a procession slowly turns on the town's thousands of lights (solid colors only, no flashing allowed), is also a favorite. There are dozens of other festivals and celebrations sprinkled throughout the year, including the International Accordion Festival, Maifest, Oktoberfest, and Christkindlmarkt.
These festivals are basically free and, of course, anyone can walk through the streets and see the village anytime for no charge. The idea is that visitors will shop and eat, too, and Leavenworth offers plenty of options for both of those popular all-American activities. Die Musik Box is filled with the expected carousel horse, ballerina, Santa Claus, and clown stuff, as well as wild turkey figurines (playing "Don't Fence Me In") and dozens of small key-turned music boxes for $8 each.
You can ogle historic nutcrackers at the Nutcracker Museum, or start your very own collection of these slightly hideous figures at Nussknacker Haus. In addition to the classic wooden soldiers, the museum's collection of more than 3,000 nutcrackers includes brass and cast iron images of birds, dogs, and dragons from around the world. The Cuckoo Clock has fine handcarved Bavarian—guess what?—as well as little plastic models for less than $20. The Gingerbread Factory sells tasty houses and cookies; in the summer, the gingerbread boys and girls wear swimsuits and sunglasses.
Not surprisingly, the dominant cuisine in Leavenworth's three dozen restaurants is German, and the prominent dress is tourist casual, even at the town's "fanciest" place, Restaurant Österreich. Here you can load up on basics like Wiener schnitzel, sauerkraut, and apple strudel, or occasional specials such as suckling pig or wild boar tenderloin.
Café Mozart Restaurant (where redundancy is never a problem) also boasts of "authentic" cuisine, which no doubt means "filling." The Schwabenteller is three big pork tenderloin medallions in a mushroom sauce, served with a medley salad, red cabbage, and a healthy helping of spätzle—an egg noodle that looks like chips of cauliflower.
The café has an upscale, upstairs atmosphere; downstairs Andreas Keller serves lots of German sausage and noodles in a more pick-up-your-beer-stein-and-sway atmosphere.
In faux Bavaria, the most important meal of the day can be a fat German sausage and a big waffle smothered in fruit and a cloud of whipped cream at Sandy's Waffle and Dinner Haus. Don't wait for an evening meal here—"dinner" means the traditional midday meal and the restaurant closes at 3 p.m.
The challenge for Leavenworth's future, says Watson, the key to maintaining its success, is keeping it a village. "If we lose that, we're sunk," she says. "Fortunately, there are mountains all around." The smallness makes it work. A genuine small town, all dressed up and playing German for tourists.
"There are people who think it's just for show," Blackburn says. "But it's authentic. It's real. We're an authentic American village."
This article was first published in March 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.