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The Heritage-Filled Midwest

Groups will find much to love in small Midwestern towns that celebrate ethnic heritage in a big way.

In Missouri wine country, lush vineyards perch on bluffs and hills overlooking the river; the area reminded the Germans who settled Hermann, Washington and Augusta of their Bavarian homeland. Charming Lindsborg, Kansas, also known as Little Sweden, USA, boasts red-brick streets and European-style storefronts filled with working artists’ studios, museums and shops selling Scandinavian imports. In Wilber, the Czech Days Festival draws 50,000 visitors, and in 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation naming Wilbur the “Czech Capital of the USA.”

Groups will come away with a deeper understanding of the Amish lifestyle and Amish beliefs while touring northern Indiana’s renowned Amish museums and farmsteads, or sharing the back roads with buggies. And in the heart of Iowa’s Corn Belt, picturesque Pella transports visitors to the Netherlands.

Hermann, Washington and Augusta, Missouri

Within an hour’s drive of each other, the charming towns of Hermann, Washington and Augusta beckon with outdoor patios, live music, award-winning wines and plentiful German food. Quaint inns, from simple to luxurious, lie tucked among the rolling green hills and river banks.

Charming Washington boasts more than 500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the 1800s brick structures contain boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. Among Washington’s many events are the Main Street BBQ and Bluesfest, and the Washington Fine Art Fair and Winefest.

“Washington makes a great hub in Missouri wine country with 50 area wineries,” said Bridgette Kelch, who serves as executive director for Downtown Washington Inc.

Just across the river, Augusta holds the distinction of being named the country’s first designated wine appellation, or region, by the American Viticultural Association. Napa Valley followed three years later.

And in well-preserved Hermann, groups will find wineries, museums and more than 100 bed-and-breakfasts, guest houses and inns. The entire community celebrates Oktoberfest. Each weekend, the Hermannhof Festhalle, which resembles an authentic Germanic hall, hosts German bands and serves bratwurst from locally owned Swiss Meats.

“I really urge groups to come during the weekdays for Octoberfest,” said Kay Schwinke, group tour coordinator for the Hermann Area Chamber of Commerce. “Groups can have the same experience without the crowds.”

Lindsborg, Kansas

In Lindsborg, Swedish appeal blends with sophisticated culture. Throughout the town, 47 pieces of original artwork decorate street corners, neighborhoods and building facades. Almost 3,500 people live in this tiny community that celebrates its heritage every day of the year.

“We’re experiencing a rebirth with more historic buildings undergoing renovations and new group-friendly restaurants and shops,” said Holly Lofton, director of the Lindsborg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We treat people like royalty when they come here and put together custom packages for every group, right down to the smallest details.”

The Red Barn Studio features the eclectic craftsmanship of Lester Raymer, who took discarded or mundane objects and transformed them into beautiful works. Small World Gallery showcases the work of National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson. The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery on the Bethany College campus displays his artwork and offers tours of Sandzén’s still-intact studio.

The Hemslöjd gift shop, an “adventure in Swedish tradition,” sells unusual and practical Swedish gifts, crafts, housewares and more. Visitors can check out the workshop and visit with folk artists or crafters as they make Dala horse signs and other specialties. Downtown accommodations include the 19-room Swedish Country Inn, reminiscent of small inns found throughout Sweden, with its imported Swedish furniture and Swedish breakfast buffet. 

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.