She was just a teenager when Johanna Welch and her friend decided to take a walk in their hometown of Kirchheim unter Teck, a town near the city of Stuttgart, Germany. The duo decided they’d walk down passed where American soldiers were leveling the glider fields that had been left after the end of World War II, and when they arrived they caught the eye of one American GI in particular.
That chance meeting between Johanna Weber and Jim Welch led to a romance that is still in the making, and their life together here in Switzerland County has led to an amazing marriage and some wonderful times.
And some really great traditional German food.
Johanna Welch married her love for her husband and her love for German cooking about 10 years ago when she and Jim decided to write a book that told the story of their life together as well as some recipes for authentic German food.
“We had people at the house when we catered dinners and they would always say, ‘Johanna, you should write a book’,” Johanna Welch said. “I would always tell my story about how I met Jim as part of my tour program, and they always wanted a book, so I told Jim, ‘maybe we better,’ so we pulled ourselves together and got started.”
Barbara Huffman interviewed the couple and put the book together, which had the story of their lives with recipes in the back of the dishes that she served at the German dinners. Patrons of the dinners really seemed to enjoy the book, so over time quite a few of the books made their way out of the county.
The Welches retired from hosting catered dinners in their home a few years ago, so there wasn’t much of a market for the book until the Switzerland County Visitors Center highlighted cookbooks during Vevay Main Street’s “First Friday” celebration – and Johanna Welch was asked to bring some of her cookbooks downtown and sign some for visitors.
Johanna Welch was born and raised in Southern Germany in the Canton of Swabia. She never knew her father, who died in World War II after being sent to the Russian front to fight after refusing to join the Nazi party. Her mother, Alma, worked after the war cleaning houses and doing other jobs, and Johanna and her older sister, Inge, lived a rather normal life. Later, Johanna’s mother would marry a man named Eric, who would be a wonderful step-father to Johanna and her sister.
“It’s a very beautiful area, nestled in the Little Alps,” Johanna Welch said. “As you would go on one side to Switzerland and the other side to Bavaria, then you would encounter the Big Alps. It seems like on every little knob there is either a castle or the ruin of where an old castle used to be. It is a beautiful area, right between Stuttgart and Munich. The Autobahn actually runs past my town.”
Johanna and her girlfriend took a walk on a Wednesday during their day off, and they decided to walk down past the glider fields, a very popular spot in the community.
“As we approached the glider field, low and behold we discovered that there were American GI’s, and boy – did we love the GIs,” Johanna Welch laughed. “That was 1957, and Jim knew some German and he would come over and talk with us every time he had a little break. He was running a bulldozer and helping leveling the glider field. Towards evening he asked me for a date.”
Johanna Welch said that the date was set for Sunday, and as the day approached, she and her friend weren’t quite sure that Jim and a friend of his would show up for the double date.
“What was really funny was that we sent Karen’s sister out to spy out the situation on her bicycle to make sure we didn’t waste a long trip,” Johanna smiled.
The long trip was a necessity for the time, because even though World War II had been over for more than a decade, some of the German people still harbored some resentment towards American soldiers – and also for the German girls who dated them.
Because of that, the two couples decided to meet at a location outside of the town where no one would know who they were.
The couple hit it off right away, and Jim and Johanna started dating, continuing their dating through the holidays, when Jim spend Christmas with Johanna and her family.
In March of 1958, Jim Welch had to return home to America, so the couple wrote letters to each other.
“Every week I’d get a letter and he’d get a letter from me,” Johanna Welch said. “Kids today couldn’t make it. No texting. No cell phones. No phones at all. If you wanted to make a long distance call it was very difficult and expensive. We just wrote back and forth.”
On January 28th, 1959, Johanna Weber, 17 1/2 years old, left her hometown in Germany and traveled to her new life in America. She and Jim were married on February 8th, 1959.
“It was a big adventure,” Johanna Welch said of her decision to move to America. “It was a pretty big step when I came to America, because people didn’t fly to different places like they do now. Now, you hop in a machine and you can go wherever you want to. I tell people that it had to be love, because it was difficult to leave my family.”
I’ve been here 54 years and I’ve been married 54 years,” she laughed.
Johanna Welch said that although it was difficult to leave everything that she had ever known at such a young age, she felt that children her age were more mature than teens today because of having lived through the war and its aftermath.
The couple lived in Bennington for many years before moving to their home on Fairview Road, and Johanna said that from her first day, everyone has been so welcoming and loving.
That love and sense of ‘home’ remains to this day.
“I’ve been very happy here, and a big part of it is the love that the people have for me and the welcome feeling that they gave me when I came,” Johanna Welch said. “Everybody was so kind and interested, and just loved me. That helped my home sickness, especially before I had my children. That first year was pretty tough. I was a city girl and suddenly I was a farm wife. That was a big change.”
Jim and Johanna Welch have four children: sons Scott, Eric, and John, and daughter Heidi.
The couple began sharing Johanna’s German cooking with everyone in 1972 when they created “The German Corner”, a mobile food kitchen that they took to fairs and festivals. From there, they also began entertaining private groups and tour groups in their home in 1987.
“That was a wonderful business that the Lord blessed us with,” she said. “It was wonderful. All of the people we met and the kindness. What a way to make a living right in your own home. I did some catering, too, but the tours were always my first love.”
The re-release of the cookbook has brought back many memories. Johanna Welch said that she didn’t know if people would want the book, but she got 40 books for the ‘First Friday’ event and prayed that she’d be able to get rid of most of them.
When the event came, all of the books were sold within 45 minutes; and when those were gone, people ordered another 70 copies to be printed and delivered. She’s now about out of all of those, and there are still orders coming in.
“I felt that love again,” Johanna Welch said. “So many locals didn’t even know that we had the book, so it was nice to connect again with so many local people who have shown me so much love. It has been a wonderful experience.”
Now retired, Johanna Welch laughs when she says that she can always find something to fill her time. In the summer her passion is her roses and flowers; and she stays busy with her children and grandchildren. Jim stays busy with woodworking, “…Which keeps him busy and also out from under my feet,” Johanna laughed.
- Pat Lanman