How a logging town in Washington became Little Bavaria

Claudine Zap
Claudine Zap

Willkommen to Leavenworth, Wash. The tiny town, located in North Central Washington's Cascade Mountains, has remade itself to look like a Bavarian village.

The town didn't always mimic an Alpine wonderland. Before the first settlers arrived in 1885, the area was the home of native Yakima, Chinook, and Wenatchi tribes. It became a mecca for settlers who arrived to trade in gold and furs. By 1893, a railroad turned the outpost into a bustling logging town.

When the railroad was rerouted in the 1920s, the sawmill shut down and the town fell on hard times. Leavenworth was "on the brink of extinction," according to the town's website. By 1930, the population had dropped 20 percent, to about 1,300.

But in the early 1960s, the town rallied and, inspired by the picturesque mountains surrounding it, turned the place into a Bavarian village. The downtown buildings were renovated with decorative elements, such as a glockenspiel clock and plenty of flowers.

The city council made changes in the building code to allow for authentic Bavarian roofs and balconies, including gingerbread trims, stucco exteriors, paint colors, mural work, and flower boxes. The town started hosting festivals such as Oktoberfest to bring in tourists.

The plan worked. "It's an interesting little town with an interesting history," Jessica Robinson, of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, told Yahoo Travel.

After 10 years, the entire town had "Bavarianized," as Robinson put it. The shop owners also play their part, and dress up in lederhosen or dirndls, the traditional German clothing.

Robinson added that some 2 million yearly visitors descend on the village, which has a population of 1,989, to be transported to a quaint, lederhosen-filled world in the middle of Washington. "It's Bavaria in your backyard," she added.

The town is already prepping for Christkindlmarket, a German-themed outdoor craft fair held on Thanksgiving weekend. "It's a tiny parade," Steve Lord, who owns the Taffy Shop and organizes vendors for the event, told Yahoo Travel.

But it's big on charm, filled with lanterns made by children and featuring an appearance by Santa Claus.

Tourists have been known to get in the spirit, donning the traditional German costumes for the various festivals, such as the Christmas lighting festival that happens over three weekends in December.

"We have a lot of traditional Bavarian festivals," Robinson noted, "and people love it."