Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sheboygan is bratwurst capital of the world, not America: Why?

- Daniel Higgins

SHEBOYGAN - Are you looking for the Bratwurst Capital of America or the Bratwurst Capital of the World?

For the Bratwurst Capital of America, head to Bucyrus, Ohio.

For Bratwurst Capital of the World, head to Sheboygan.

How can a city be the Bratwurst Capital of the World without also being the Bratwurst Capital of America?

The answer to that question goes back more than 50 years, when delegation­s from each city traded brat insults, a county judge got involved and both sides had a fry-off to settle the debate.

Tempers don’t flare unless folks are stuffed full of brat pride. Both cities have the pedigree to boast about their bratwurst.

Sheboygan’s Brat Day gets big, rowdy and (for a decade) banned

Sheboygan County bursts with German heritage. Nearly half of county residents claimed to have German ancestry, wrote Beth Dippel, executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, in her 2014 Sheboygan Press history column: “The sausage that made Sheboygan famous.”

“We have brat frys on weekends like folks have barbecues in the south and Chicago has its deep-dish pizza,” Dippel wrote.

In the 1940s and 1950s, more than 50 meat markets served county residents a score of sausage varieties, Dippel wrote.

A 1952 Sheboygan Press headline dubbed Sheboygan the “Bratwurst Capital of the World.” To make its case, the article tallied bratwurst production of four local makers during the “outside fry season” from mid-May to mid-September: 312,775 pounds. Figuring six brats per pound, that’s almost 1.9 million brats. Estimating “three brats to a foot,” that’s almost 119 miles of links.

The next year, Sheboygan’s bratwurst got its own day.

Sheboygan hosted its first Bratwurst Day on Aug. 13, 1953. Festgoers consumed an estimated 7,000 pounds of brats and enjoyed activities such as crowning a bratwurst queen, a brat-eating contest, a parade, square dancing, polka music and fireworks.

Run by the Sheboygan Jaycees as a fundraiser, the fest’s popularity grew during the next dozen years and drew as many as 100,000 people. However, vandalism and drunkennes­s by some brat revelers led to passage of a 1966 referendum to end Bratwurst Day.

The Jaycees started a new festival named German Days in 1969 ... that evolved into Sheboygan Days in 1975 ... that again became Bratwurst Day in 1978 to mark the 125th anniversar­y of Sheboygan being officially chartered ... and that morphed into Sheboygan Brat Days.

The years without a brat-specific fest left the grill cold for Bucyrus to fire up its claim as bratwurst capital.

A year after Sheboygan voters said “nein” to another Bratwurst Day, the Bucyrus citizens said “jawohl” to its first Bratwurst Festival in 1967. Six bratwurst manufactur­ers donated prizes for the bratwurst queen to be named and her court. The festival was held in conjunctio­n with Col. Crawford Days that year before becoming a full fledged festival in 1968.

While there wasn’t a local news story touting brat totals from local sausage makers, the good folks of Bucyrus embrace their German ancestry, too. Doubly so for bratwurst made from family recipes dating back to the 1830s when German immigrants settled in the region.

Even armed with brats made from secret recipes, festival planners weren’t sure how many people would attend a festival centered on a food mostly unknown outside communitie­s with large German heritage. It would be a couple of decades before Johnsonvil­le Sausage (based in Sheboygan County, for the record) would spread the joy of bratwurst across America.

Bucyrus festival organizers needn’t have worried. An estimated 80,000 visitors turned out to enjoy brats fresh off the grill, see a bratwurst queen coronated and enjoy other activities.

Emboldened by early success, the festival returned 1969 with promises of being bigger and better.

The Battle of the Brats would soon ensue.

Bratwurst Capital of America? Them is fighting words

By February 1969, The Sheboygan Press was fired up about the bratwurst festivitie­s in the northweste­rn Ohio burg.

“Arise, Sheboygan bratwurst lovers!” a February 1969 article read. “Our reputation as the ‘Wurst City of the World,’ is in jeopardy. Bucyrus is trying to steal our stuff.”

Tensions went from simmering to a brat-splitting eruption in 1970.

Discover America Travel Organizati­on, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting tourism across the United States, included the Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival as one of its top 20 summer attraction­s in 1970.

For the 1970 festival, the Bucyrus police department sold a ceramic tile trivet inscribed with the words: “Bratwurst Capital of the Nation.”

Bucyrus doubled down on its newfound fame quicker than you can order a double brat at Sheboygan Brat Days.

Harley Barstow, Bucyrus Chamber of Commerce executive secretary, offered to charter a plane for Sheboygan Mayor Roger Schneider, Pat Werner (Sheboygan Press president) and L.N. Mathieu (Sheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce president) to attend the Ohio festival and plead their case for being the best of the wurst.

The Sheboygan contingent arrived ready for a fight with 120 bratwurst, 60 Sheboygan hard rolls and a “court injunction.”

Judge John Bolgert — yes, an actual judge who at the time presided over Branch 3 of Sheboygan County Circuit Courts — rendered a “decision” bestowing the title of “Bratwurst Capital of the World” upon Sheboygan, and barring all other claimers from using it.

Schneider read Judge Bolgert’s declaratio­n to a Bucyrus envoy greeting the Sheboygan brat ambassador­s upon arrival. As a peace offering, he relinquish­ed Sheboygan’s Bratwurst Capital title to Bucyrus for the course of its Bratwurst Festival.

The Bucyrus Telegram-Forum splashed the entire front page with Bratwurst Festival news on Aug. 17, 1970. The article on the “Battle of the Brats” said the Wisconsin contingent couldn’t convince the Bucyrus crowd that Sheboygan made the best wursts.

The Sheboygan delegates prepared their brats for a crowd at the Bucyrus

Chamber of Commerce Office in hopes of changing minds. Yeah, no. That didn’t work.

Dick Edmond‘s Telegraph-Forum story reads that “almost without exception, the local bratwurst lovers stuck with their product, stating that while Sheboygan bratwurst was tasty, it still didn’t compare to Bucyrus bratwurst.”

Generally, it was reported that Ohioans found Sheboygan brats to be nothing special. The Telegraph-Forum story described the Sheboygan bratwurst flavor as “much like the type of sausage one would get in the morning with breakfast.”

Sheboygan delegates (according to an Aug. 17, 1970 Sheboygan Press story) responded to that insult by accusing Bucyrus brat makers of stuffing their sausage casings with “sauerkraut and sawdust.”

That wouldn’t be the last good-natured brat burn bandied between the cities.

Let’s settle this with a good old-fashioned brat fry-off

The cities sparred again for the title of Bratwurst Capital when a Bucyrus delegation was dispatched to Sheboygan’s festival in 1971.

Sheboygan opted to defend its title with a “fry-off.”

The brat war victor would be decided by three judges: Bob Long (a former Green Bay Packers wide receiver who ran a Pizza Hut in Sheboygan at the time), Kenosha Mayor Wallace Burkee and Dr. Hans Rues from Germany. Sure, Rues was from Sheboygan’s sister city of Esslingen, Germany, but would a selfrespec­ting German commit bratwurst perjury?

Rues rebuffed the Ohio brat for its lack of “knack” saying it was “too smooth” while praising Sheboygan’s version as “the kind you want to eat more and more of. And they’re not too spicy.”

After hearing Dr. Rues’ stinging indictment, the Bucyrus delegation accepted defeat graciously. Yeah, no. That didn’t happen.

Accusation­s of bias were hurled at the judges. Barstow, the Bucyrus chamber of commerce executive secretary, shared a resolution from his mayor stating that their city “has long been acknowledg­ed and acclaimed as the ‘Bratwurst Capital of America.’”

Barstow accused Sheboygan of being a jealous pretender scheming and conniving to usurp the coveted title of bratwurst capital from Bucyrus.

It appeared that Barstow’s wife, Marge, would keep tensions from parboiling over when she commended on Sheboygan’s “wonderful hospitalit­y” extended to her and the other members of the Bucyrus delegation. Then she turned up the heat.

“Your brats are filled with water,” she charged.

Throughout the articles, it appears the ribbing between the communitie­s was given and received in a good-natured manner. Even if neither side budged on the Bratwurst Capital claims.

Brat battle reduced to a simmer, both festivals going strong

Bucyrus and Sheboygan have apparently agreed to disagree and accepted one as the “Bratwurst Capital of America” and one as the “Bratwurst Capital of the World.”

In a 1974 Bucyrus city council meeting, the Bratwurst Festival committee chairman made a pitch to replace the the city limit signs with ones that include the “Bratwurst Capital of America” slogan.

There have been a few title flare-ups. Both festivals continue to draw wurst enthusiast­s, except in 2020 when both were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sheboygan Brat Days is held the first weekend in August and Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival on the third full weekend in August.

It’s a good bet all the publicity from the Brat Wars of 1970-’71 boosted festival attendance and possibly tourism to both cities. If that’s the case, count the brat decision as a split: win-win.

 ?? GARY C. KLEIN/USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN ?? Betty Schmitt of Sheboygan is all decked out in Brat gear during the Brat Day Parade in August 2017 in Sheboygan.
GARY C. KLEIN/USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN Betty Schmitt of Sheboygan is all decked out in Brat gear during the Brat Day Parade in August 2017 in Sheboygan.
 ?? SHEBOYGAN PRESS FILE/SHEBOYGAN COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER ?? An extra big bratwurst was on hand for the 1954 Bratwurst Days in Sheboygan, Wis.
SHEBOYGAN PRESS FILE/SHEBOYGAN COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER An extra big bratwurst was on hand for the 1954 Bratwurst Days in Sheboygan, Wis.
 ?? SHEBOYGAN PRESS FILE/SHEBOYGAN COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER ?? Street signs were temporaril­y changed in 1954 prior to an early Bratwurst Day in Sheboygan, Wis.
SHEBOYGAN PRESS FILE/SHEBOYGAN COUNTY HISTORICAL RESEARCH CENTER Street signs were temporaril­y changed in 1954 prior to an early Bratwurst Day in Sheboygan, Wis.

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