This article appeared in the April 2011 Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society of Serbin, Texas. (www.texaswendish.org)
That was the year.
The "afterglow" of the World's Fair of 1968 was still alive.
After all, people from all over the world had been to San Antonio, Texas. They experienced its ambiance ... and still had reverberations of the excitement that had taken place there. Capitalizing on those feelings ...calling people back to their ethnicity ...calling them back to their roots, the folks at the University of Texas chose to host a celebration ...a celebration of the similarities and of the differences of the many ethnic groups in Texas. What a melting pot!! So, it was determined to host this wonderful celebration of all these ethnic groups in one place and at one time. So what shall it be called?
"Let's call it the 'Texas Folklife Festival!"
Oh, wow, that means that first of all, all the ethnic groups have to be identified. That should be easy enough: German, Spanish, Mexican, Polish, Czech, Chinese, Japanese...and the list goes on. But, research shows that there's another group. The Wends. The who??? A fairly large group of them settled close to Giddings, Texas and called the settlement Serbin. The who?? The Wends!! Never heard of them!! How do we find one? Well, let's go to Serbin. This was likely very much as the conversation may have taken place back in 1971, when the Texas Folklife Festival was begun. And so it happened. While it was too late for the 1971 Festival and while it is not certain what individual was first contacted, nonetheless, an invitation was extended to become part of the Texas Folklife Festival the following year, 1972. And there began what was to be called the "Wendish Culture Club." And how many members? Well, it started with five little old ladies: Lillie Moerbe Caldwell, Emma Wuensche, Laura Zoch, Frieda Wendland, and Gertrude Mitschke. So it was that, in 1972, the "Wendish Culture Club" made its debut at the Texas Folklife Festival and became what today is known as the "Texas Wendish Heritage Society." Armed with a card table, some cookies, some fig preserves and not much else, these little ladies braved the brutal August heat, proudly proclaiming their "Wendishness" among the Germans with their bratwurst, the Cowboys with their stew, the Chinese with their eggrolls ...etc.
Fast forward to the year 2011.
The Texas Folklife Festival is now 40 years old. And the Wendish presence there is 39 years old. If I were to try to mention all of the folks who made the Wendish presence known at the Texas Folklife Festival over the past 39 years, I would certainly leave out many important people so, I'll not even try. But, memories do pervade my mind as I recall my own involvement, to a greater or lesser degree, with the Folklife Festival for, at least, 35 of the 39 years. In those early years, the primary fare was homemade noodles (and here I need to mention one person, namely, Evelyn Kasper, who is practically made of water, eggs and flour for the thousands of .noodle she's made over these many years), pickles, and Shiner beer (we were and are one of the few booths who offer this Texas favorite) at the Festival.
If you've been to the Festival over the past decade or two, you'll know where we are located. A lovely place, shaded, cool, large...a nice respite from the chaos going on around us. But, back in those early days, such was not the case. We had a tiny little comer, immediately across from where we are now. Hot, windy, and small. But, it was directly on the thoroughfare. Hundreds of people passed right before our eyes. How to get them to notice us? Well, why not "hawk" our products ...and sing? While the really hard work of cooking noodles was being done chiefly by the volunteers who came from Serbin, Rev. John Socha and yours truly were unrestrained in our efforts to lure folks to try our fare. While Socha would sing in both Wendish and Slovak (one could never really tell which was which), yours truly would unabashedly (but, sometimes embarrassingly) shout "Homemade noodles!! Get your homemade noodles right here!" All the while the REAL workers were cooking, taking tickets, manning the beer booth, etc. As a sidebar, it is worth mentioning that, in those early years, on occasion, and because we worked on Sundays, the volunteers would even gather on Sunday morning, before the Festival opened, to hold a small worship service...to keep us focused on why we were there.
For all the effort put into the Festival, the primary work was being done long distance, via Serbin. We needed someone local. So in 1982, who should step up and take the lead but Ron and Cindy (Karcher) Knippa? And almost immediately, the whole Festival, where the Wends were concerned, took on a new and better perspective. From a booth that simply was trying to raise money through ticket sales, the Wendish booth became one of the most educational booths at the entire Festival. And that, after all, was the point of having the Festival - to promote not only the ethnic foods, but also an education into the culture. To this day, the Wendish booth at the Texas Folklife Festival remains not only one of the most unique fares with regard to palate, but, certainly, one of the most educational booths. And that is because of the efforts of Ron and Cindy Knippa. What was once just noodles, pickles and beer evolved into noodles, pickles, Koch kase sandwiches, pickled watermelon rinds, barbecued chicken legs (with Kieschnick/Knippa sauce), lemonade, ginger snap cookies and much more. Along with that, one will find crafts and books for sale. And virtually nowhere will one find, at the Folklife Festival, a booth so rich in ethnic education ...with posters, photos and "on spot" individuals who can answer the frequently asked question, "Who Are The Wends?". This brings up another individual who I dare not leave out of this article. Ron Lammert, a Wend, authored what is likely the most widely distributed publication on the Wends heretofore. One can only guess how many people have learned about the Wends from Ron's brief publication. Ron not only authored the publication, but has "snatched from the fire" some remarkable photos of early Wendish life in Texas.
Okay, I said I wasn't going to mention names. Forgive me. LOTS of names left out. It is not intentional. But, let's get back to "basics". Do you realize that had it not been for the initial invitation to these "five little old ladies" to participate in the Folklife Festival, what is now the Texas Wendish Heritage Society may never have been? Think of it! But, thanks to the "guts" of these ladies and the kind invitation from the Folklife Festival, we have grown from what was once just five members of the "Wendish Culture Club" to some 1140 members of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society!!
Today, as a result of the fortitude of those five ladies, we have an organized society, a museum and an annual Wendish Fest, to boot!! And if you go to the Folklife Festival these days, I promise that you'll find people who stop by and say, "I had to get the noodles. It's the first place I come when I get here" and "Who are the Wends?" What an opportunity to share our culture, our heritage and our faith!!
This year marks the 40'h anniversary of the Texas Folklife Festival. And right behind it, marks what will be, in 2012, the 40th anniversary of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society. So why not celebrate?? Why not reconnect with your heritage?? Make it a point to visit the Folklife Festival this year.