School buses will be waiting at St. Louis Lambert International Airport Thursday night to pick up a large group of guests ready to explore Washington.

The group of 46 Marbach am Neckar, Germany, residents are coming to Washington to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the sister city program between the two cities.

“We’re excited,” said Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy. “We want them to experience our community and recognize the influence they’ve had on us.”

The group is expected to arrive late Thursday and will be in town until Wednesday, May 24. A packed itinerary has been prepared for the Germans.

“I think they’ll be able to really get a real flavor for Washington and what it’s all about,” Lucy said of the activities planned.

For the last several months, a committee has been preparing for the group’s visit. Sister City Chairman Karen Straatmann said the group has spent countless hours organizing the trip.

The goal was to create an itinerary that showcased the city for the German visitors.

Lucy said the city booked school buses to help transport the Germans because the committee learned Germans are “enamored” with school buses which don’t exist in their home country.

To help haul all of the luggage, the Washington Fire Department is lending a vehicle and a trailer.

Lucy pointed out that the Washington and Marbach am Neckar fire departments have developed a “fond relationship” with each other over the years.

The Germans will meet with their host families in Washington Thursday night. Straatmann said the host family aspect is one of the best parts about the program.

Straatmann first got involved in the late 1980s when she was asked to be a host family. She said the experience, and future trips to Marbach, have built long-standing friendships.

“We’re all so much the same,” she said. “Once you get to know someone from another country, another culture, you realize there are not so many differences after all.”

On Friday, the group will attend a welcome brunch at the Fire Training Center and watch a demonstration with Washington fire and police. Later in the day, the group will tour St. Francis Borgia Church and the Gary Lucy Gallery downtown.

Lucy said the church tour will help illustrate the connection Washington has with Germany. The stained-glass windows in the church were shipped to Washington from Germany.

The annual Art Fair, Winefest will be going on in Downtown Washington Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The visitors will have an opportunity to check out the event. Lucy said if anyone spots a German visitor they should feel free to say hello.

“People should reach out and introduce themselves and make them feel welcome,” he said. “We’ve told them over and over how welcoming we are — and I think that’s our German heritage showing through because they’re all so welcoming over there.”

The schedules for Saturday and Sunday are less structured. The group will spend time with their host families and travel around the St. Louis area.

Monday will feature meetings and tours at city hall, the library, police station, historical society museum and St. Francis Borgia Regional High School. The group also will have lunch at Lions Lake.

A highlight of Monday’s schedule will be a bench dedication that is open to the public. At 11:30 a.m. the city will host a dedication ceremony to recognize the Sister City program at the caboose on Front Street near Marquart’s Landing.

The itinerary wraps up Tuesday with more tours. The German visitors will have a chance to tour Riegel Dairy Farm, Clemco, Fricks Quality Meat Plant and Deppe Farm.

“All of those things are what makes us who we are in our community,” Lucy said. “To be able to go inside and behind the scenes — we’re very grateful.”

The day will end with a banquet. Lucy said 250 guests connected with the Sister City program are signed up to attend.

The group is scheduled to leave Wednesday morning.

Both Lucy and Straatmann said they’re excited to greet the visitors. Last year the two were among the 20 Washingtonians to make the trip to Germany and were blown away by their reception.

The Washington group was greeted warmly and treated very well. Washington is hoping to return the favor.

“Marbach has really embraced (the Sister City program) more enthusiastically than we have,” Lucy said. “Last year, there were 20 of us and we were all like ‘Wow, we can’t wait to have them over here.’ ”

Sister City History

The idea to establish a Sister City program came out of plans Washington was making in the late 1980s to mark the city’s sesquicentennial in 1989.

Walt Hatcher, who had just moved to Washington in 1987 after spending 30 years in the U.S. Army with his last post in Germany, served on a subcommittee of the sesquicentennial group to research cities in Germany that would make good Sister City candidates.

In early 1988, the Washington Sister City Committee, led by Hatcher, was formed.

Marbach am Neckar was suggested to the committee by Professor Peter Etzkor, St. Louis, who was the regional vice president of Sister Cities International, said Hatcher.

In spring 1989, Bernie Hillermann, Bill Miller Sr. and Jerry and LouAnn Michels made a goodwill visit to Marbach, and that fall, Washington Mayor Steve Reust and his wife Jo-Ann also made a trip to Marbach.

A group of Marbachers came to Washington in 1989 to help the city celebrate its 150th anniversary. They stayed with host families, as would become a custom of the Sister City program. A student exchange also is part of the program.

The Sister City partnership became official in 1990 when documents were signed by leaders of both cities on Nov. 11 in Marbach. A second set of documents were signed by both leaders the following spring in May 1991 in Washington.

The official celebration to mark the 25th anniversary in Marbach took place May 2016. Original plans to celebrate in 2015 were rescheduled so more Washingtonians could make the trip.

Subsequently the official celebration of the Sister City’s 25th anniversary in Washington was postponed until spring 2017.