small towns

It Fakes a Village

Welcome to Leavenworth—Bavaria in the heart of Washington.

By James Ross Gardner October 3, 2006

NO ONE IN Leavenworth stays in character quite like the milkmaids at the Fudge Hut. Those same embroidered blouses, dirndl dresses, and floral tiaras may deck cashiers throughout town, but these sweets-vending fräuleins have resolve, even when accosted by a tourist suffering from yodel fatigue. “That’s annoying,” the tourist barks, tilting his sunburned pate toward the stereo belting out the brilliant throat work of a burgeoning yodel star. “What is it, like the Tiny Tim of the Alps?” The young milkmaid behind the counter says without expression, “It is not annoying,” then seamlessly transitions into a smile that melts the customer like a block of chocolate amaretto swirl on a summer day and says, “How can I help you?”

This is what happens when a town spends 40 years pretending it’s somewhere else. Generations have been raised to both defend and celebrate the eccentricities of Leavenworth, population 2,300. And for generations, however much it may baffle one’s own sense of taste, the city has won over its guests.

Suck down that fudge, step out onto Front Street, and see for yourself. You know a town’s got something good going when even Starbucks bends to its will. Elbow your way onto the main drag of this faux-Bavarian village jammed with dazed window shoppers, silver-haired posses on Honda Gold Wings, and adventurers in search of rental gear, and behold mighty Starbucks looking like Geppetto’s cottage along with everything else citywide. Call it chalet-chic.

City planners decided not to let the town complete its trajectory into economic ruin. Their solution: "Go Alpine."

That’s because in 1965 city planners decided they weren’t going to let their busted logging and railroad town complete its trajectory into economic ruin. Their solution: “Go alpine,” as more than one Leavenworthian can be heard saying today. And if you squint your eyes and bend down low, the Cascades circling town can sort of pass for Alps. The city adopted strict building codes—low-slung roofs, flower boxes, stucco, and gingerbread trim—and the residents became quasi scholars of all things Bavarian. Parents sent their kids to folk dance classes, musicians learned how to squeeze the accordion, singers took up yodeling. Leavenworth went from near ghost town to a polka-cranking tourist destination so believable that bona fide German ex-pats have moved in.

The makeover runs deep. Wells Fargo looks dog-eared—as if 500 years of European history were weighing on its timbers. The copy center is called Das Copy Shoppe—near Alpensee Strasse. It goes on and on. Kris Kringl is a year-round Christmas retailer. Simple Treasures traffics in prints by self-proclaimed painter of light Thomas Kinkade, whose folksy paeans to bucolic small towns seem modeled on Leavenworth, with its quaint and at times grating pageantry, and where sunlight splintering through the toothy Cascades casts spotlights throughout town, as if The Sound of Music had been reproduced as a rock opera.

Speaking of pageantry, Leavenworth hosts 20 festivals a year, most notably Oktoberfest, a three-weekend bacchanal that drew some 10,000 visitors last year. And like the original annual beer bash in Munich, Germany, hops play a big part in this fest, the ground zero of which is the Festhalle at the south end of town.

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Penchant for pageantry Locals don lederhosen and dirndls.

Image: Hank Leukart

But don’t get so distracted you miss out on the region’s most abundant resource: Leavenworth is a hub for mountain adventure. Hike any one of the 2,500 miles’ worth of trails in surrounding Wenatchee Okanogan National Forest. (The four-mile Icicle Ridge trail is a favorite, but info on others can be found at Saddle up with the wranglers at Eagle Creek Ranch for a hoofed tour of some of the same terrain. Or splash along the Wenatchee River with the white-water raft guides at River Riders.

Once you polish off one (or two) of those activities march back into umlaut-ville for a high-carb regimen of sauerkraut, sausage, and beer. Lots and lots of beer. The München Haus is an outdoor pavilion-style eatery and beer hall. Charbroiled sausages dunked in the Haus’s signature apple-cider kraut goes down nice with the Hofbrau Munchen on tap.

Sleep it off at the Bavarian Ritz right on Front Street or the Howard Johnson Inn half a mile down the road. Or even better, let the Bavarian illusion wash away at Ducks and Drakes, a bar where the closest thing to German you’ll hear is a Scorpions ballad on the house speakers.


Oktoberfest drew 10,000 visitors last year.

This is where Leavenworth loosens its lederhosen. Local firemen in unironic handlebar mustaches drink alongside river guides. Bachelor and bachelorette parties get rowdy. Mixed in are tourists who’ve had it with the Ricola shtick, including sun-burned adventurers just off the raft and Seattleites who wanted a new venue for the weekend. On a recent Saturday night Seattle courier and Auburn resident Ben Hyres sat at the bar draining mugs of Blind Pig Dunkelweisen with his friend Matt Mayobski of West Seattle. Hyres and Mayobski roll up from the city a few times a year, especially during Oktoberfest. “You should see it,” says Hyres, his baseball cap twisted off to the side. “This bar is packed, the whole town is packed.” Behind him one of two bachelorette parties in the bar explodes into a screaming frenzy. One of the women turns to Hyres and asks, “Will you kiss the bride good luck?”

A few stools over, locals Travis Collier and Don Welch talk about family. Collier, a biologist at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, says, “There’s no better place to raise kids than this town.” Let your children breathe fresh air and learn the lost art of diplomacy working at the Fudge Hut. Makes sense.

Still, some of us are just as happy to visit, get lost in an old European fantasy, hit the white water now and then, and throw back a few with some of the nicest people in Washington State. Besides, doesn’t the whole Bavarian thing get old? “Not really,” says Collier. “We don’t even notice it anymore.”

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