New Bern celebrates its 300th birthday in style
Founded in 1710, the small United States town of New Bern has just held its official birthday party with VIPs from both North Carolina and the Swiss capital.
It was a fitting occasion, with not only English but also the Bernese dialect being spoken in the local streets of the town, which was founded by Bernese citizen Christophe de Graffenried.
The Bernese contingent was made up of two groups from Switzerland – the Village Street Band from Münchenbuchsee just outside Bern, which played at the ball, as well as a travel group with veterans of a hobby shooting team.
It was easy to feel the warmth and enthusiasm of those who attended, with young and old making it an occasion to remember.
Despite the crowds and the VIPs from near and far, the police and security presence was very discreet and even Mother Nature played along with the weather.
Among the VIPs were US descendants of de Graffenried, family members from the Swiss capital and Beverly Perdue, the first woman governor of North Carolina and herself a native of New Bern.
Others included the outgoing US ambassador, Urs Ziswiler, the Mayor of Bern, Alexander Tschäppat, and his deputy Barbara Hayoz, as well as the ambassador of Ghana.
Tschäppät and Hayoz had to delay their arrival because of a budget debate at home but managed to turn up in time for the gala dinner, much to the relief of the organisers.
“We have enjoyed some magnificent moments in the past few days, Christine von Graffenried told swissinfo.ch on Saturday. “The identification of the people with their town and the link to Bern is very impressive.”
Her brother Aloys agreed with her and both pointed out the difference with the “old” Bern. “The cordiality and the feeling of one big family is simply different from Bern, where the people are much cooler.”
One spontaneous gesture really went down well; it was the auction of a work of art that had been painted only hours before during a concert of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Aloys and Christie bought the painting and gave it to the town as a present.
The day had a particular meaning for the brother and sister. Their late father who left a strong family mark with New Bern, a factor which is still very much appreciated today, would have been 97 years old on the day.
A high point, and the hallmark of any US festival, was the parade during which 300 years of New Bern history unfolded . People lined the route hours before to find the right spot.
Horses and riders, horse-drawn carriages, old-timers, fire engines, marching and other musical groups, women’s organisations, military units, VIPs, politicians from history, scenes from the history of the black population of New Bern and much more. “It was an extraordinary parade,” commented Ambassador Ziswiler.
It came to a standstill on two occasions: once was when the mayor of old Bern travelled by in a carriage and two of his friends stopped the procession to say hello to him.
The other was a little later when three alphorn players stopped to play after the ambassador had invited them to perform.
On the evening before the festivities, Ambassador Ziswiler alluded to the many similarities between Switzerland and the US, with both being called “sister republics” because they had learned much from each other.
Despite bilateral problems such as Swiss bank UBS, the case of film director Roman Polanski and the ban on new minarets in Switzerland, the two countries enjoyed good relations.
Ziswiler also had a word for both Bern and New Bern: “The old Bern has a river and the Alps, New Bern has two rivers and the sea not far away. You could say this would result in a perfect city.” It was perhaps a nice twist that Ziswiler’s first name is Urs, a Latin name for bear.
Although he turned up late, the mayor of Bern, Tschäppät, had no problems to fit in to the festivities with his usual sociable and uncomplicated behaviour.
New Bern mayor Lee Bettis made a joke about that: “He has a somewhat reserved nature, doesn’t he?” he quipped.
Bettis hopes that the ties between the two Berns will continue, with both sides managing to learn from each other.
Tschäppät was also enthusiastic about the event: “When you see this enjoyment, the commitment of these people for their town and their love of “old” Bern, it’s a friendship to treasure and one that will hopefully continue,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“The people here love Switzerland, love Bern, love the bears and they look after that. There’s a message for us. They are proud of their town and we Bernese could do well to take a piece of this enthusiasm and realise what kind of paradise we really live in.”
Three hundred years ago, the Bernese Christophe de Graffenried founded the New Bern settlement on the east coast of the US with a group of emigrants.
There were about 100 people from Bern and 650 Germans from Pfalz. Only about 250 of the Germans survived the harsh trek to Carolina.
Von Graffenried and the emigrants from Switzerland followed a few months later. Their passage went by well, as did the first period of their settlement.
There were problems and fighting a year later with the Tuscaroras, a group of Native Americans related to the Iroquois. Von Graffenried was imprisoned and only just escaped with his life.
After an attack by the Tuscaroras in which about 80 Britons and 70 settlers from von Graffenried’s group were killed, British troops pursued a war against the attackers and enslaved survivors.
Von Graffenried left New Bern a disappointed man in 1713 returning to Switzerland in 1714. The following 296 years of New Bern’s history was written by others but the name remained.
The town of around 28,000 residents (now a tourist destination) has managed to pick itself up after difficult economic times in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The old town centre has been renovated, and along the shores of the river there are now hotels, a conference centre and a yacht harbor.
A modern centre has also been built to show off the history of North Carolina to a wide public.
The history centre will be officially opened in October but during the jubilee weekend, it showed the exhibition: “300 Years of New Bern”.
This was on show in the Swiss capital from December 2009 to May 2010.
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