Editor's Log

German Influence in Texas

Editor's Log

Polkadate October 2019. As this month focuses on Oktoberfest celebrations, we look at the German influence in Texas. The works by Lonn Taylor, the first curator of Winedale Historical Center in Round Top, set a good foundation for this article. Add information contributed by musician Robert Herridge, who is also an officer in the Texas German Society, along with research by this writer, and you have a bit of Texas history that is wundebar!

The idea of Germans not being ruled by others took seed and sprouted in the year 9 AD (no typo, 2,010 years ago.) when a German-born warrior named Arminius (Hermann) defeated the Roman Legions who had conquered Germany and Europe. More about Hermann later.

It can be said that the German settlements in Texas started with the French Revolution (1789-1799) during which the peasants banded together and overthrew the monarchy. This united all French-speaking people in a struggle for liberty, equality, and fraternity, and gave the world its first modern nation-state.

UNITED IN VEREINS

The idea of a country with all people of a certain ethnic group had a special appeal in Germany, which emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 divided into 39 independent states, which was an improvement over the 300 independent states that had made up Germany before the French Revolution, each governed by its own prince, duke, or bishop, most of whom were not from the region.

Between 1800 and 1870 the German people created a number of institutions which they hoped would bring about unification in some form. These were associations of Germans with similar social interests: singing, hiking, gymnastics, dancing, marksmanship, agriculture, and others. They were called vereins (clubs) and gave the people a sense of being German as opposed to being identified as a member of a duke’s province (i.e. a Saxon). The gatherings of these clubs also allowed communication between regions without the eavesdropping of the royalty.

Perhaps the most common of the clubs founded in Germany and later made its way to Texas is the turnverein (turner = gymnastic) which was established in Berlin in 1811 and had 200 members who performed gymnastics to strengthen not only their physiques but their willpower, their communal spirit, and their characters. These turnvereins were military in structure and had roots in the medieval jousting tournaments.

Another surviving club, which eventually crossed the Atlantic, is the saengerbund (singer’s federation). The national sangerfests (singing festivals) were in themselves powerful symbols of the German nationalist movement; the idea of hundreds of voices of the people, not performers, from all of the German states united in German song caused observers to reflect on the beauty of a united Germany.

A speaker at the Saengerfest of 1827, saw another even more revolutionary level of meaning in the movement: “The ridiculous barriers of class fall before the power of song, the whole choir forms a family united in concord, joy, and enthusiasm.”

Songs like Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland (What is the German Fatherland) extolling the glory of a united Germany were sung en masse. Space will not allow a more thorough examination of the singing societies but will be delved into in an upcoming TPN issue. The saengerbund’s story goes hand-in-hand with the other vereins.

So how do these two examples relate to Round Top or Cat Spring or Dallas or Fredericksburg, Texas?

In the 1800s, European immigration into Central Texas started out as a trickle with Friedrich Ernst (1831) and Joseph Biegel (1832). Their letters back to the old country were published in newspapers and provided a ray of hope to the peasants of Central Europe attempting to survive the constant feuding and revolutions between the upper classes and a few began to make the trip to Texas. When the academics and intellectuals in Germany attempted their own revolution in 1848, and lost, they became persecuted men and found refuge in the United States (958,000 from 1850 to 1860). The escapees settled primarily in a swath from Pennsylvania to Iowa and surrounding states along with a good number heading to Texas; thanks to Ernst and Biegel. By the 1850s, an estimated 20,000 German resided in Texas.

PROMOTING CULTURE

With the slow growth of prosperity by the more cultured Germans joining the farming communities, the appearance of public music, singing, and dancing began sprouting in Central Texas. The latest influx of Germans brought with them their love of organizations that promoted varying ideas, i.e. agricultural, singing, dancing, marksmanship, and hiking. It is thought that in the old country the vereins served as a cover for the peasants to unite and share their ideas, most of which were not allowed by the royalty. In America and Texas, they were comparatively free from the oppression of the Prussian empires that dominated what was then Germany. The new citizens could focus on scratching out a living on their small farms which were mostly in the hilly, forested areas of Austin, Washington, and Fayette counties. The immigrants began using the various vereins to maintain their culture.

Many of the refugees from the failed 1848 revolution were academics and lacking in farming and subsistence skills. In the Austin County area around Cat Spring (one cat, one spring), a number of these academic families banded together in 1856 to form the Landwirth Schaftlide Verein, which assisted them and established farmers in the region by learning and executing new and productive agricultural techniques. The organization eventually developed into the Cat Spring Agricultural Society (still in existence today).

They met at the Turner Hall (built by the turnsvereins) for many years and held dances on various dance platforms when the weather was conducive. A new hall was needed and in 1902, the present magnificent 12-sided hall, still in use, is a testimony to the engineering and carpentry skills of Joachim Hintz. Hintz also built two other “round” halls for the vereins in Bellville and Peters Hall (near Bellville). His style was copied throughout Texas. Another active hall founded by the Turnerverein is La Bahia Hall (1907), west of the two previous halls. The gymnastic parallel bars are still in the backroom. The Turnverein chapter was formed in 1879, and had two previous halls before the current structure.

HILL COUNTRY LOVE

The establishment of the Adelsverein Verein zum Schutze deutscher Einwanderer in Texas, (Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas) in 1842, based in eastern Fayette County, enabled the development of the Fredericksburg area in the Hill Country by providing food and support from the fertile and well-watered Central Texas area. The Adelsverein was also designed to smooth out the bureaucratic tangles of the new country and communicate with the old country. As the Germans battled drought, Comanches, insects, and remoteness; the agricultural development slowly took root (pun intended) in the sparse, rocky surroundings of the Hill Country. As the settlements grew, the vereins were formed to assist each other.

The target-shooting clubs, or Schuetzenvereins, actually pre-dated the 19th-century German unification movement. Prior to the common use of gunpowder, crossbows were used. Hunting has always been a survival skill in all cultures prior to the development of preserved foods and refrigeration, and a good marksman put food on the table every day for families. The clubs held regularly scheduled target-shooting festivals (schützenfests), to which their members marched through the streets with their rifles, behind their banner, and sometimes accompanied by a brass band. This tradition is still alive both in German Central Texas and the German Hill Country.

Round Top, a primarily German settlement, in Fayette County recently held it 146th annual Schützenfest on its property with festivities honoring the winner of the morning’s target shooting with the traditional crowning of the König (king of shooters), a parade carrying him on their shoulders, and the serving of everyone present a glass of beer by the König. This portion of the festival was followed by a performance by a band from Germany, the authentic Bavarian band, Blasmuk. For more information on their festival see documentary film maker Erik McCowan’s Good Times at the Schützen Verein on YouTube where he aptly captures the flavor of these festivities.

MORE VEREINS

Grapetown, near Fredericksburg, has its Schuetzenverein Hall, which is still active. In Lavaca County, the fine Appelt’s Hill Dance Hall and Gun Club still hosts target shooting fests and special events.

Not all dance halls had verein associations, some areas were sparsely populated, yet the community banded together and built halls such as Gemeindehalle (Common Hall) which later became Luckenbach (Engels) Dance Hall. Twin Sisters Dance Hall (still going strong since 1879) was a community gathering building then, as it is today, and is supported by a devoted volunteer staff (this writer witnessed the staff building washer pits in the early evening lit by their vehicle headlights). Twin Sisters holds periodic dances and the 5th Annual Festival of Texas Fiddling will be held there in December.

The German Texas Hill Country communities had and has many halls, some were privately owned, but all catered to the community. Doss, Cherry Springs, Spring Creek, Klein’s, Ottmer’s, Schmidt’s, and Seipp’s Halls (see TPN November 2018) were all “non-affiliated” but of German origin and available for use by all organizations.

Anhalt Hall (1887), west of New Braunfels, is a mammoth structure built by the local farmers for a gathering spot to learn about and market their product. Over the years it has been expanded and is very active. It too, is a testimony to the engineering and carpentry skills of the Germans. Upon entering the hall, one cannot help but stare at the intricacy of the woodworking in the ceiling.

German culture is still celebrated in the Hill Country with city festivals and the surviving dance halls. Another major center, although not with German origins is Tomball, north of Houston. Muenster, northwest of Fort Worth also keeps its German cultural identity.

MORE ON HERMANN

Now about Hermann. When the warrior Hermann and his tribes drove Julius Ceasar’s Roman invaders out of Central Europe in the year 9 AD, he was naturally hailed as a hero by the people. His name became synonymous with the German people who resisted invasions over the centuries as a descriptor phrase. In 1840 as the Germans arrived in New York, the Hermannssöhne (Sons of Hermann) organization was founded to perform a similar tasks as the Adelsverein in Texas in assisting their kin in adjusting to the New World. As with other European refugees, the Germans arrived destitute, not speaking the language, ignorant of laws and customs, and had no jobs.

The Sons of Hermann assisted their fellow Germans in getting settled and provided a gathering spot with their halls. As the Adelsverein discontinued their services, the Sons of Hermann moved into Texas and began building halls wherever they were needed. Many of these halls still survive and are being used by the communities.

For more information on German influence in Texas culture, please contact the Texas German Society at www. texasgermansociety.com or the German-Texan Heritage Society at www.germantexans.org and then attend one of the upcoming festivals.

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