Remembering Dr. Joe Wilson

The obituary written by George Boerger first appeared in the October 2018 edition of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter.


Dr. Joe Wilson made incredible contributions to uncovering our Wendish history, a story he discovered through his Wendish bride, Adele Herbrich. Our paths crossed in 1986 when Weldon Mersiovsky pointed me in Dr. Wilson’s direction for help in my own family research. He was a help to me over the years and a wonderful person. Having great respect and esteem for him, I always referred to him as Dr. Wilson, even though I counted him as a friend.

Joe never sought the spot light. He was much happier researching and writing than mingling with large crowds of people. St. Paul Lutheran congregation welcomed Dr. Wilson’s expertise as he took on the task of translating birth, baptismal, confirmation and death records recorded by Rev. Jan Kilian and Kilian’s son, Rev. Herman Kilian. St. Paul members had as much respect for him as he had for them. It was a cherished relationship that lasted for decades and spanning three pastors.

Joe learned Wendish but it was probably only his fifth language. He studied French in college and in 2005, when he met my wife, he immediately spoke French to her. My wife commented that it was the way French was spoken around 1900 and he spoke it well. It had been more than 50 years since he studied the language in college, yet he retained it exactly. How is that possible?

One of Joe’s earlier and largest projects was translating from the old German script to English the baptismal records recorded by Rev. Jan Kilian. Kilian’s records were descriptive and meticulous, but so was Dr. Wilson. With a little help from a graduate student assistant, the records were translated word-by-word and phrase by phrase. Everything was proofed and reproofed, as Dr. Wilson wanted no errors. The result of this work was a book that has become the foundation of family research for many people of Wendish descent. Wilson’s quest for perfection has been immensely beneficial to users of the translated records.

In translating Kilian’s death records, it was a challenge to accurately translate cause of death because terms used in the 1800s were quite different to modern-day medical terms. But Dr. Wilson researched and deciphered Kilian’s words.

In the early 1990s, computers were not what they are today. While Joe employed the latest technology, the index was still prepared by hand, and that in itself was a major undertaking. There are several thousand entries of names including the baptized children, the parents, and the witnesses/sponsors/godparents. As an example of the challenges he faced with his translation project, the index lists six different Johann Noack’s, a Johann Ernst Noack, two Johann Hermann Noack’s, and a Paul Noack whose first name – Johann – was not recorded in the baptismal record. As anyone who has researched his/her Wendish ancestors has learned, the Wends often went by their middle name, and just as often their first and middle names would be reversed in records. Can you imagine figuring out if this is Johann Noack #3 or an additional Johann Noack? There were also seven Maria Noack’s! It would be enough to give me a headache!

Dr. Wilson was one of the great pioneers of research on our Wendish ancestors. While he is no longer with us, his work will outlast us all.

George Boerger


Nostalgic About Picket Fences

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 25, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One of my favorite framed photos which I displayed on the console in my church office for many years found its way home with the rest of the church-office garniture when I retired.  Taking it out of a storage box and re-locating it on a table on the sun porch brought back memories of eating lunch at the Picket Fence Tea Room in East Bernard many years ago. 

            The photo of my oldest daughter rocking her first born in a rocking chair on the porch of the tea room was mounted in a wooden frame simulating a white picket fence.  The framed picture made me feel nostalgic not only about my oldest granddaughter’s babyhood days and the Picket Fence Tea Room, but also about “picket fences” in general.  Both my parents and my grandparents had white picket fences around their front yards, my parents’ fence painted white, my grandparents’ whitewashed.  The older pickets at my grandparents’ were more elaborately carved and more pointed than the newer ones my parents had erected.

            The picket fence has been the Middle-Class American look since the 1700’s, and was considered as American as apple pie.  The word “picket” is French, and the original French word, “piquer,” meant “to pierce,” thus the picket was used originally as a weapon (like a spear) in the 1600’s.  These wooden slats with points were first used by Americans to create fences around their gardens, though I doubt that pointed sticks ever kept any predators out of the garden.

            When I was growing up in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Dime Box, the picket fence signified the happy, peaceful life in the country or in the suburbs.  I guess that’s why those of us who are older are so sentimental about wooden fences, spaced apart, with points.  In today’s world, you are more likely to see a solid board fence (no spaces) with rounded or square tops, or chain-link fences.  This past May, The New York Post ran a story in the Real Estate Section, headlined, “America’s New Dream Home Doesn’t Have a White Picket Fence.”  Picket fences apparently are no longer on any American’s list of what a nice home should have.

            My maternal grandparents’ picket fence, erected at the turn of the Century, was whitewashed, whereas my parents’ fence was painted white.  White wash is a solution of dissolved lime and chalk which would whiten the surface of the wood but not coat it like paint does, and this was the standard method of coloring a fence white in the 19th and very early 20th Century. 

            In fact, in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, the famous fence which Tom tricked his friends into working on was whitewashed rather than painted.  Twain said Tom had a “bucket of whitewash and a long handle brush,” which he was supposed to use on the fence as punishment for skipping school.  Although many of us may picture a picket fence in our mind’s eye, Twain describes the fence as a 9-foot high board fence, which means there were no gaps between the boards. A picket fence would have been a lot easier to do! 

            There are still many small towns in Texas with many homes built in the early and mid-1900’s that sport white picket fences framing their front, and, in some cases, back yards.  So, if you are often nostalgic like me, you can take a Sunday drive through those towns and almost revisit the good old days.  However, there is a trend which I am seeing among the younger adults these days to want vintage things, including picket fences, —  that’s why collectible and antique places are so popular these days.  If the trend continues, who knows we may return to erecting vintage wooden fences which we will have to whitewash regularly.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


How We Loved Sears and Roebuck!

This article by Ray Spitzemberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 18, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s true, I write and talk a lot about the good old days, perhaps even to the extent of being obsessed with the past. Of course, I’m not alone, there are plenty other people around, especially older ones, who express a great deal of nostalgia for bygone days.

            No doubt that’s why the Business News headlines this week were so disturbing to me. After many days of media speculation about the impending bankruptcy of Sears, it was announced on Monday that Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with plans to close 142 more stores. As the media reported the falling off of sales in Sears stores and their stock dropping on NASDEQ, I hoped they were wrong, because Sears has always been close to my heart, and these company downturns were like watching a dear friend dealing with serious problems. But Monday’s news confirmed my worst fears.

            Originally, Sears Roebuck and Company, as they were known back in my growing up days, was founded as a catalog business, with its primary customers being rural folks. Sears and Roebuck meant a lot to me and my family in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and to most of rural America.

            In those days, they were awesome, — you could order, through the mail, almost anything thing from them, including a house ready to be assembled. The house was delivered to you with directions for putting it together, board by board. The Isenhower family in Lissie once ordered and erected a house from Sears which still stands today.

            You could, believe it or not, order real dogs from Sears, — they were probably hunting dogs, but I don’t remember for sure. And grave markers, — you could order a tombstone by mail order.

            One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is the arrival of the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog. People today cannot imagine the joy, the delight, the wonderment my brother and I felt when my parents brought that Christmas wish book home from the Post Office! We wanted everything in the book!

            Of course, being a family of limited means, we were allowed to choose only two items from the great book. One of my choices was always a water color set, and Sears had three levels, the Basic Set, the Basic-Plus Set, and the Deluxe Set, the higher the level, the higher the cost. I knew better than to ask for the highest level. Nothing gave me more joy than getting one of those watercolor sets for Christmas. Even the Basic Set sounded good to me.

            The catalog had a huge selection of men’s denim overalls, very popular items for families living in rural areas like ours. Much of the time, my father wore overalls and so did my brother and I. There were dress clothes, too, even men’s suits.

            My mother ordered baby chicks from the catalog, and so did many other people in Dime Box. I remember going downtown to our little Post Office, and, a block away, you could hear hundreds of little “peep, peep, peep’s” coming from the open windows of the P.O. As a child, that delighted me enormously.

            Wood stoves and wood heaters were available through the catalog market, also kerosene cook stoves and heaters. Not to mention those new-fangled electric refrigerators!

            In a sense, I suppose, Sear and Roebuck was the of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and we bought many wonderful items that were not available in local retail stores, at prices we could afford. “Good ole Sears and Roebuck,” we used to say.

            So what has happened to them? Pundits are busy trying to answer that question, with all sorts of explanations, but I don’t think anybody knows for sure. I still have a warm spot in my heart for Sears and always will.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


Barbeque Reigns In Texas And Tootsie Is Its Queen

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 11, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Just about every town in Texas has a “barbecue place,” that is, a Meat-Market/Eatery type of establishment, which sells barbecued meat by the pound and by the plate. Ours in East Bernard, our course, is Vincek’s Smokehouse, twice named, since it opened in 1985, to the top 50 Best Places to Eat Barbecue by Texas Monthly. Like most East Bernard residents, I am proud of our barbecue place, and any time out of town people come to see us, we take them to the Smokehouse! They’re impressed with the kolaches as well as the barbecue.

            During my growing up years in Lee County, Texas, there was such a place in Giddings, called “The City Meat Market,” where you could go in the back of the meat market itself and eat barbecue served on a paper towel on a long table with benches. I can’t remember whether they had kolaches or not, but it seems they served homemade bread.

            In the good old days anyway, those establishments barbecued their meat by burning logs and shoveling wood coals under the meat. Many men, like my father, did the same thing at home, each one having his own preference for wood. My daddy liked to barbecue with mesquite wood, but many others felt pecan wood created the best flavor. Once, when I wanted to barbecue with charcoal, my father accused me of being too “citified.”

            Barbecue establishments have gone a long way since the 1940’s, as barbecue has become “King” in Texas, the Texas Monthly chronicling “The Best Barbecue Places in Texas” every year. Today, we even have the Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas, to which the newly famous Pitmaster, Tootsie Tomanetz, was named in September of this year.

            Tootsie is Pitmaster at Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington, Texas, about 20 minutes from Giddings and 25 from Dime Box. Snow’s was named the “Best Barbecue Joint in Texas” by Texas Monthly, not just once, but twice. Receiving such honors caused barbecue sales to double and triple, as Lexington is only about an hour’s drive from Austin, and Austin folks overflowed the town. Snow’s Barbecue became the “in” place. Even the New Yorker wrote a story about Snow’s.

            Snow’s Barbecue is owned by Terry Bexler, whose nickname is “Snow,” The story goes that when his mother was pregnant with him, someone asked his little brother if Snow wanted a little brother or a little sister, his brother replied he wanted a little snowman. So, when he was born, folks started calling him “Snowman.”

            Since Tootsie, Snow’s now famous Pitmaster, was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in September, 2018, she has been the Queen of Barbecue in the media, most recently being asked to appear on Good Morning America. Texas Monthly called her “Snow’s Queen,” and she is sought after for interviews by many newspapers.

            When the Hall-of-Fame story about Tootsie Tomanetz broke, I thought the name sounded very familiar, but then “Tomanetz” is an old Lee County name. It wasn’t until one of my Spitzenberger cousins posted the media stories about her on Facebook, referring to her as “his cousin,” that I finally recognized the name.

            I can’t claim her as my cousin, but here’s the deal. Tootsie married my aunt’s sister’s son, my aunt having married my daddy’s brother, thus really an “aunt-in-law.” While I can’t claim her as kin, I can claim her as “almost kin,” lol.

            Kin or not, I am very proud of Tootsie Tomanetz and the way she has been honored and continues to be, mainly because I love it when good, kind, humble, hard-working, highly skilled folks are recognized and honored.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


Celebrating Great Books in October

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 4, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors used to celebrate Great Books Week during the first week of October. I don’t know if this is something the American Library Association recognizes or not, or if anybody has ever heard of GBW. But here we are in the first week of October, and I want to talk about great books.

            Those of us who taught school for many years used to wonder exactly which books were the “Great Books” our youngsters should read. I’m not sure anyone ever agreed on which books should be on the list, and the list changed as new books were written. Public school teachers believed reading great books prepared their students for college.

            Many parents have also been concerned about which books their sons and daughters should read before going to college. In fact, even when I was a teenager, lists would come out of the “100 books you should read before going to college,” and I’ve seen similar lists ever since, — some say “50 books you should read,” and some as little as 25.

            Most of them contain some of the same book titles and/or authors, but today’s lists include books not yet written when I was in high school. I usually see books on those lists that I wouldn’t include, and I notice omitted books I would include, but then who am I to judge.

            I have always loved to read and was known to read anything in sight, even the family dictionary at home and encyclopedia volumes at school. However, I was rebellious enough not to want to read what the teachers in my life thought I should read, and certainly balked at a long list of great works the learned ones expected me to devour before I went to college.

            I must confess that I went to college and graduated from college without reading all the great books of the Western world.

            In those days, there was a push for reading the Harvard Classics before heading off to college. The Harvard Classics were a 51-volume set of classic works first compiled in 1909 by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot. There were a lot of awesome books in that collection, and, believe me, if you read them all, you would be a well-educated person. I don’t see great books like that on some of today’s lists.

            Not having read the Harvard Classics before college, and beginning a career as an English teacher, in a belated manner, I subscribed to a buy-a-Harvard-Classic-book-each-month-deal. And, believe it or not, I read a “classic” each month, every month, for years.

            Just to give you an idea of what this collection of great books was like, some of the authors I read were Plato, Epictetus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Emerson, Newton, Rousseau, Descartes, Bacon, Montaigne, Milton, just to name a few. As you can tell, this was pretty heavy reading. You see, as a teacher, I felt I needed to know what many of the great minds of the world over the centuries were thinking.

            A side effect of reading many good books is improvement in your own writing ability and vocabulary. You can’t learn to write without reading good books.

            Today’s lists include such great American humorists as Mark Twain and Eudora Welty. Twain and Welty are great writers and a lot more fun to read than Descartes and Montaigne, but still great books. Still, you can learn to like to read good books that aren’t that much fun.

            Many famous novels today are “R-Rated,” and I wouldn’t want to recommend that our youngsters read them. Vulgarity or obscenity is not a quality I admire in a book.

            Great books should also be good books, and this first week in October is a good time to start reading some.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.


Collectors, Collections, and Too Much Stuff

This article by Ray Spitzenberger frst appeared in IMAGES for September 27, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Recently when I took the boxes of “things” from my church office out to my backyard studio, to either store or assimilate them into the overflowing accumulations of books, paintings, frames, art supplies, etc., I re-discovered my huge collection of baseball cards in the loft. Many years of collection baseball cards, now piled high in the loft, made me shake my head in disbelief.

            Of course, the collection was really small compared to the shelves of books in the studio and in the house that I’ve accumulated over the years. Like most people, I enjoyed collecting things, — such as stamps and model airplanes when I was a kid and art prints when in college. Van Gogh used to collect Japanese art prints and would buy them even when he was broke and barely had enough money to buy food. In college, I did the same thing, only it was prints of Van Gogh’s paintings that I bought.

            My mother was too frugal to collect things, but one of my aunts collected salt and pepper shakers, and my wife’s aunt collected silver ice tongs which she never used. But, then, most people don’t collect things to use them.

            Why do people collect old stamps and rare coins, for example? Prestige? Probably just for fun. Sometimes it starts out as a hobby and ends up as an obsession, but even as an obsession, it can be a very pleasant, albeit expensive, pastime.

            My grandmother collected things for more noble reasons. She collected tinfoil to help in the War effort; she collected string, rubber bands, and paper bags, to be reused and to avoid being wasteful; and she collected feathers for the purpose of making pillows and feather comforters.

            As a collector, I can affirm the fact that collecting is not much fun if the sought-after items are too easy to obtain. Most collectors like the challenge of a certain amount of difficulty in adding to the collection. One challenge I never met with baseball cards was obtaining a rookie card for each of the best pitchers in both the National and the American leagues.

            When I was called to serve as pastor at St. Paul’s 29 years ago, I moved into an office with one wall cross (which may have been a remnant from the old church). The next couple years, I added a couple more crosses of my own to the wall. Church members would come into my office and say, “Oh, I see you collect crosses,” and then they’d give me a wall cross or a crucifix for Christmas. This came to be a tradition among some members, and I was delighted to mount each new cross on the wall. Even the VBS students would make me a cross, and on the wall it went!

            To make a long story short, when I retired from St. Paul’s a year ago, I had run out of wall space! The walls were literally covered with crosses and crucifixes and I cherished every one of them. Needless to say, now that the collection has been brought home, I have not been able to mount all those crosses and crucifixes onto my studio walls. And I left only one cross (actually a crucifix) at the church, the one already hanging on the wall when I officially began my ministry in 1989. I lovingly placed it in the archive case in the Narthex.

            As a collector, of all the various collections I acquired over the years, I enjoyed the wall cross collection the most. Next would probably be my collection of family photographs, which capture many happy and memorable moments in my life.

            Even without trying, a person collects a lot of “stuff” in 84 years, much of it having very little monetary worth, but, in the case of the wall crosses and photos, an enormous amount of sentimental value. From now on, I don’t plan to collect any more “things,” but I do want to hold on to the ones I have, — so many of them are teeming with memories.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.