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By Staff | Oct 22, 2013

The potato pancakes were hot and crispy, the schnitzel bigger than the bun and dripping gravy.

And the beer?

It was cold and plentiful, served up by the pitcher, stein and overflowing cup by lederhosen-garbed volunteers Saturday as the first weekend of the German American Club’s annual Oktoberfest celebration got into full swing.

Now in its 28th year, the Cape Coral fest that opened Friday is the largest of its kind in the state. The two-weekend, six-day event attracts festival-loving, beer-drinking, polka-dancing visitors by the thousands from all over Florida each October.

Nearly 35,000 attended last year and crowds of up to 40,000 are not unusual.

Among the crowd this past weekend were Barbara and Gene Welch, who came over from Lake Placid.

“We’re here every year,” said Barbara, whose black and red drindl ensemble included the traditional bodice, blouse, skirt and apron. “We’re of German decent; we love it.”

She and Gene also love to dance; for them, it’s the high point of Oktoberfest.

“We dance every dance,” she said while taking a break in between songs near the outside music stage, one of three featuring live entertainment.

Gabriele and Dieter Reins, from Beverly Hills, Fla., also enjoy the dancing and live music.

“We were here last year,” said Gabriele, attired in a pink and green drindl. “We like it. We try to attend all of the Oktoberfests possible; it’s our heritage.”

Celebration of one’s roots was a common theme among attendees.

“We’re all German,” said a chicken-hatted JoAnne Howanietz, when asked why she and her party of six attended. “It’s our heritage; it’s what it’s all about.”

She and husband Frank hail from Chicago where Oktoberfest always meant a celebration with 50-60 family members and close friends.

Oktoberfest in the Cape is a good substitute, the couple agreed.

Not all attendees were Oktoberfest veterans, though.

Susie Rodocker, from Bonita Springs, was a newcomer to the Cape event.

She said she was having a great time.

“It’s the first time I’ve been,” Rodocker said as she watched the dancers and musicians on stage near the beer garden. “It’s so fun.”

Meanwhile, compliments on the food were not lacking.

Seated at one of the crowded tables under the huge Oktoberfest tent near the main stage, Ilona Menzel and Chris Menzel divvied up plates of fest fare as Ursula Hampel looked on.

“Excellent,” Ilona pronounced the shared goods as she enjoyed her first taste of a plate that included smoked ham hocks and sausage.

German American Club officials were pleased with the first weekend turnout.

“Friday was a record-breaker, the best Friday we ever had,” said Oktoberfest Chair Stephen Amann.

Saturday attendance was about average, Sunday a tad below, perhaps due to the heat.

But with low humidity and cooler temperatures forecast for the final three days, turnout should be should be right up there, Amann said.

“It should be an absolutely perfect weekend,” he said. “We’re right on track, really.”

As always, the food was a big draw with potato pancakes – made from a secret recipe developed by Amann’s wife, Joyce, the club secretary – topping the popularity list.

“We sold tons of food,” Amann said. “All of the German specialty foods went very well.”

In addition to the vendor fare served up outside, the club also offers sit-down dinners in the air-conditioned lodge dining room for those who prefer table service or just a cool spot to relax.

Sauerbraten or schnitzel, accompanied by dumplings, German red cabbage and noodles, are this year’s offerings.

Oktoberfest continues this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Oct. 25-27. Hours are Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday from noon to midnight, and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. at the German American Social Club at 2101 S.W. Pine Island Road.

Admission is $5 in advance, $6 at the gate, with children under 12 free. Advance tickets are available at the German American Social Club, the Chamber of Commerce of Cape Coral and all Hess Express Stations in Lee County. $1-off coupons also may be found on the cover of this Friday’s Weekend Breeze.

For more information, visit CapeCoralOktoberfest.com .