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Opinion

December 5, 2013

Traces of Laurel: Coming of the Swiss

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The coming of Swiss immigrants to establish a colony in Laurel County was a watershed event in the history of our area. There is no way to write about it completely in this short column, so I won’t try.  The following four paragraphs are from a paper I wrote on the subject several years ago and will give a short background on the subject:

“The final attempt by Swiss immigrants to develop an independent colony in the United States was made in Laurel County, Ky., in 1881.  This settlement was the result of an effort on the part of Kentucky’s newly-formed Bureau of Immigration to compensate for the fact that the state had been all but ignored by European immigrants in the past.  This effort was assisted by the active intervention of three men in Switzerland – Otto Brunner, Paul Schenk, and Karl Imobersteg – who were anxious to capitalize on Kentucky’s deficiency.             

During the first three months of 1881, with the help of John Proctor, director of the Kentucky Bureau of Immigration, Brunner and Schenk searched for appropriate land on which to establish their Colony.  They worked out a deal with local landholder Jarvis Jackson to purchase a large acreage “on the plateau between Woods, Hawk, Pine and Sinking creeks.”  Brunner then went back to Switzerland to recruit the necessary immigrants.  Schenk stayed in Kentucky to oversee preparations for the settlers.  Karl Imobersteg, the other partner in the venture, provided capital in exchange for assurance that all immigrants would book passage to America through his steamship booking agency.

In the spring of 1881 the immigrant families began to arrive in Kentucky.  Initially, 42 families, 75 percent of whom were from Bern, Switzerland, made land contracts with Brunner and took up residence in what was to become known, among Laurel Countians, as Swiss Colony.  The official name given the settlement by the Swiss was Bernstadt.  Between 1881 and 1890, several hundred Swiss immigrants came to Bernstadt and other areas within Laurel County to make their homes.

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