Swiss bears sell well in North Carolina

John and Hanna Sturman in front of their souvenir shop in New Bern

Bern Bear Gifts, a shop selling souvenirs from Switzerland, is hard to miss thanks to its central location opposite the City Hall in New Bern, North Carolina.

This content was published on August 22, 2011 - 14:34
Rita Emch in New Bern,

A carved wooden bear holding the flag of the Swiss capital stands next to the entrance to the store, which is owned by John P. Sturman and his wife Hanna, an immigrant from Belp near Bern.

The small town on the East coast of the United States was founded by Swiss immigrants 300 years ago.

Sturman is enthusiastic about preserving New Bern’s Swiss heritage. His grandmother emigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

He first visited Switzerland in 1956, during his time at the US army base in Heidelberg, Germany. It was then that Sturman met Hanna.

“We met a few times before John went back to the US,” Hanna recalls. “I thought that was it.”

But John wrote her letters and the relationship deepened. “She hooked me and I was drawn to her country,” Sturman laughs.

Hanna set about getting entry papers for the US. “But I hesitated, right up to the last moment. I had pangs of conscience about my mother,” she says. The youngest daughter, she still lived at home.

Ironically it was her mother who finally persuaded her to go. “So at the end of 1958 I left for America, just before my entry permit expired.”

Different culture

Sturman’s father worked for the tractor manufacturer, John Deere, and managed to find his future daughter-in-law a job there as a secretary.

“It wasn’t that easy as my English wasn’t fluent. And I had to adapt to a new culture,” Hanna says.

She mentions the direct way some Americans have of asking personal questions, even of people they don’t know well. “For us Europeans, that is a bit strange.”

But she stayed and the couple married. Sturman finished his studies and began his career with the Air Force, which was to take them to many US states and foreign countries, including Japan, Thailand and Ethiopia.

Before his retirement, Sturman was stationed in New Jersey. “We were looking for a suitable place to move to and visited lots of towns. We liked the atmosphere in New Bern, so we settled here,” he says.

Neither seems to have regretted the decision. “The past 28 years have gone by in a flash,” says Sturman, who initially thought he would spend his retirement playing golf.

“But he was bored after a few months,” laughs Hanna. The couple then hit upon the idea of opening a souvenir shop, playing on the links between New Bern and Switzerland.

Swiss Bear

“I felt the town hadn’t done enough to exploit its Swiss, specifically its Bernese, roots,” says John. “The Bern mascot, the bear, wasn’t being used enough to promote the town.”

One case where the link was exploited was the Swiss Bear citizens’ initiative to redevelop and spruce up the historical town centre. Sturman used the name for his shop.

At first the Sturmans concentrated on souvenirs from Switzerland, but they soon realised that they would have to extend their offer.

The little corner shop now stocks goods from New Bern itself, North Carolina, Germany and Austria.

The 300th anniversary of the founding of New Bern, in 2010, and the numerous events held were good for the Sturmans’ business. 2011 is also going well, says Hanna.

The couple still travel to Switzerland regularly, mainly to visit Hanna’s sister, but also to buy products to sell in their shop. Sturman, their daughter and her children all have Swiss passports.

The founding of New Bern

Christophe De Graffenried was born in his ancestral village of Worb in 1661 and died there in 1743. His father, Anton, was Lord of Worb and a minor government official.

De Graffenried studied at the universities of Heidelberg and Leyden. During his travels to London, he met the Duke of Albemarle and other Lords Proprietors of Carolina.

Back in Switzerland, he met a Swiss explorer, Franz Ludwig Michel, who persuaded him to join and invest in a company that proposed to mine American silver deposits and to settle Swiss and Swiss Anabaptists in Pennsylvania or Virginia.

The company broadened its plans to settle colonists in the province of Carolina and to include among them many Palatines.

The company purchased from the Lords Proprietors nearly 19,000 acres of land on the Neuse and Trent rivers, including the future site of New Bern, and on the White Oak River, which de Graffenried called by the Indian name of Weetock.

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