April 28, 1932 – Memories of My First Years in Texas, Part II and III

This article by G. Birkmann and translated by Ray Martens first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, Giddings, Texas on 28 April 1932.


II

When I completed my studies at the seminary in St. Louis in the summer of 1876, my professors handed me a call to Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on the West Yegua (now Fedor, Texas). I accepted gladly, for I was ready to serve anywhere I might be sent. Although previously I had troubled myself with Texas little or not at all, an interest in this state now awoke in me, and I read with real curiosity a book about Texas which a fatherly friend and patron gave me. It was the account of Roemer’s trip back and forth through Texas in 1845 and 1846. [Because the dates correspond, one must suppose that this is the same author whose geological information about Texas helped Birkmann learn something about fossils] In it Roemer described not only the various features of nature – he was a great investigator of nature – but also the relationships between settlements to which he came. Already in this book I saw that one should not expect to live in comfort in Texas. But that did not worry me because, like most of the students at Fort Wayne and later at the seminary, I was not spoiled. At Fort Wayne we had to pay forty dollars a year for our board and in St. Louis about fifty, not even one dollar a week [apparently implying that, for that price, the food could not have been all that good]. Our living conditions too were exceedingly simple and limited, with six students in a little living room and fifty to a hundred in a rather large sleeping room. We had to sweep our own rooms, keep them in order, and carry coal for our heater in the room, and so forth. That was good preparation for us, for most of us had to expect very simple accommodations if we were to go to a country congregation.

Rev. Brohm in St. Louis, who had visited Texas before and who had been present at the founding of the West Yegua congregation, asked me where I was going when he saw me at the end of the school year. When I told him, “West Yegua, Texas,” he said, “In that case, you are going to brush country, for the place is nothing but woods.” I found that he was largely correct, for brush is not in short supply on the West Yegua. My little house had a number of oak trees very near, the church stood in the woods with no enclosing fence, and all the animals had a free hiding place under the church. When I did a little walking beside the church, thinking through my sermon, I was in the woods, unnoticed, all alone in the beauty of nature.

For me to make clear to a reader how the out-of-doors in the Fedor area looked so that he understands me, he perhaps would have had to have been to a similar region where no fences were to be seen, apart from those around little fields, rail fences which the settlers themselves had split, and picket fences around yards and other required enclosures, or, if not pickets, then scrub brush cut and dragged together into a kind of fence. Otherwise, the whole area was woods, open everywhere. From time to time, you saw horses or cattle among the trees or in the clearings in the woods or on the larger prairies which broke up the post oak woods. Everyone could own as many cattle as he would commit to feed in the winter. Almost all year long, his cattle roamed back and forth, perhaps feeding on the neighbor’s land while the neighbor’s cattle were looking for nourishment somewhere else. Actually, fences could not be made secure enough to keep out such cattle roaming freely.

When barbed wire came on the scene fifty years ago, that brought a big change. Every property owner wanted to fence his own land. That is how roads leading straight along the borders came to be, monotonous, for the most part, and growing worse with each passing year because not enough work was done for their upkeep. How much more pleasant it was earlier to be able to ride your horse anywhere you liked through the woods, where the paths were not so worn out, or, even if that should become the case, could be changed easily. You just made a new path.

When I came to West Yegua, about thirty of the families who lived there belonged to my church. After eight years, the number almost doubled. At the beginning of the 1880s a major immigration occurred from the same Saxon Lusatia from which our first members originated. These new settlers brought little money, but they came to a place of fellow countrymen and fellow believers, bought land cheaply, and found help and advice from their neighbors, with the result that in a few years they paid off their debts and could better take care of themselves. For the most part, these people were healthy and hard-working and had a number of children who could help with the farming. To build a house with the help of friends and neighbors was not a very major undertaking. A room with a back room and a small porch was already enough for the first year. Upstairs in the attic was a room where some could sleep. Those who had the means built a roomier house, with a large porch on the south side and a hall extending through the middle with several rooms on each side. The building material was purchased in part from lumber yards in Giddings and Lexington, but also was available in part from their own woods. That is, logs were taken to the gin, where ordinarily an apparatus was connected to a saw to cut beams and boards.

As far as clothing is concerned, there was no great pretense. No one subscribed to fashion magazines, and people were satisfied with reasonable, simple clothes, which most probably they themselves had made. As I recall people coming to church, I do not recall anyone being dressed in either expensive or wretched clothes. At home during the heat of the summer, people cut back on what they wore, but, if company showed up, they had to change quickly into something more suitable. That is natural and self-evident.

I wish to ask my readers to accompany me to an ordinary wedding, for I wish to say something about the simplicity and contentment of the early years in Fedor. First, of course, the ceremony took place in the church, in this case the wedding of Andreas Symmank and a daughter of Traugott Patschke. After the ceremony (late in 1876), we went as fast as the horse could run to the Patschke home, consisting of only one large room and one back room. A staircase led to a bedroom in the attic. It was cold, and the room with a fire in its stove was soon filled. There was not enough room for all the guests, and so the young people, of whom there were quite a few, stayed outdoors and enjoyed themselves for hours with cheerful play out in the open. We in the room were the first to be well fed with ordinary food – potatoes, meat, and bread (made with flour and cornmeal), with no shortage of plums and rice. As far as cakes were concerned, the food was no longer ordinary, for the dear women tried to outdo themselves in cake baking for festivities such as this. There was singing too. People enjoyed singing in church as well as in their homes for celebrations of this kind, mostly songs memorized from the hymnal or sung while looking in a hymnal which someone had brought. At the top of the list was Grandmother Patschke, wife of C. Aug. Patschke and mother of Heinrich Patschke. She was a jolly singer who told me about her life in Frelsburg and how she always liked to sing our Lutheran songs. She was also diligent in her attendance at worship, from time to time walking the four miles if no ride was available. She also raised her children well, keeping them attentive to school and to God’s Word.

Of course, we had to give the young people their chance to eat their fill, but we others later resumed our places to listen to what I counted to be interesting and instructive stories about experiences in the fatherland and the new life here in Texas. Plenty of trouble and work with clearing the land for fields, building fences and the necessary structures to house supplies and to provide shelter for the cattle in the winter. The mother went along out into the field to help the father, leaving the smaller children at the edge of the woods, where she could look up from time to time to see them from the field. Growing sweet potatoes is well advised, and cotton works too, if only the price were better – so the talk went. Grow enough corn to fill the crib, plenty to feed the livestock. Maybe the year was not so favorable, but the needs were limited, as long as there was enough corn for bread and to feed the cattle, and the pigs had plenty of acorns so that they could be slaughtered one after the other when the time was right. (Some people penned up and fattened their hogs before slaughtering them. Others let them run loose throughout the year, then in winter went out to find them and shoot them as though they were wild.) In summer you would join a butcher club to get beef cheap each week, the twenty-five to forty pounds a week which a family ordinarily would need.

The pastor and the teacher were the first to be invited to this type of family celebration, a wedding, a baptism, or the like. That is how I became well acquainted with the people and gained an insight into their domestic situation and, through what they shared orally, into their opinions and ways of thinking. In short, I learned to understand them, and I liked them.

In closing, I wish to tell a little about the celebration of a baptism at the home of Andreas Noack. It was fifty-five years ago, and what I am reporting here also could have applied to other homes in my congregation. It was not much different elsewhere. Mrs. Noack set the table – no tablecloth, but it works that way too. She also had no china dishes, but set the food on the table in tin dishes. We sat on rawhide chairs which were almost too low because of how the rawhide had stretched. That did not hurt either. The Noacks and the rest of us were healthy and were blessed with good appetites, and so the dishes gradually became empty. The event was in the cold of winter and Noack’s house at the time was not weathertight – you could see daylight through the cracks. Mr. Noack said that it was healthier not to have air-tight walls because the fresh air coming through the cracks was healthy. When our host was asked whether he did not object when a cold north wind blew, he said that on such occasions they sat by the stove or, if really cold, crawled into bed. The people were wholesome and content and did not regret their [level of] existence. The children grew up, usually becoming larger than their parents. Certainly there were illnesses. Fever and malaria struck at times. People had no protection from mosquitoes.

 III

INTERESTING PLACES.

I am thinking of Heinrich Patschke’s place on Spring Creek, of Darden’s Spring, of the Middle Yegua Lakes (as they were called in earlier times), of what was at the time our rather wild West Yegua, and, finally, of Richter’s woods near Fedor, where the school picnics have been held for fifteen years.

The whole area of Fedor is certainly not as picture-pretty as when one leaves the woods and enters the large San Antonio Prairie, with its clear view of the broad meadows and fields and of the clusters of live oak trees which adorn that prairie. My travel across that prairie was always a pleasant change for me as I made my way to Giddings. But the Fedor region also had beauties of nature such as the alternating woods and small prairies in earlier times. (Now farms and fields have sprung up everywhere where cattle formerly roamed the woods and clearings.)

If l begin by taking the reader to Spring Creek, that is especially because it was a place where we always found a flowing stream, even in the dry summertime, one we knew would never dry up. What a blessing that is in this climate! Mr. Edwards knew this already eighty or more years ago when he settled there and built a little cottage and brought his cattle and horses to where they could roam for miles with enough pasture and, above all, a stream with constant flow, Spring Creek. When I came to the West Yegua in 1876, Mr. Edwards was the justice of the peace – Squire Edwards he was called. I learned to know him when I visited him by order of my congregation and upon the invitation of Mr. John Wuensche. It had been brought up in a congregational meeting that we could get money from the state treasury for our parochial school if we wished to apply for it. Naturally, I knew from the start that this would not be the case because our school was a private institution with religious instruction and the like. But some held on to their opinion that we ought to inquire further, because the squire had said that we could get money. We agreed to ask the squire, and Mr. Wuensche and I rode over to his place, I certainly with somewhat uncomfortable feelings because I knew from the start what the outcome would be, but I believed it to be a question of interest to my congregation and wanted the matter to be brought to a conclusion through the decision of the judge. So it happened that the judge looked at us with some surprise and explained the law to us. We could then notify the congregation that by law we could count on no help from the state treasury. Everyone was satisfied and the matter never came up for discussion again.

Mr. Edwards sold his place on Spring Creek more than fifty years ago, and later a family named Ender lived there. The cottage became dilapidated and perhaps is no longer standing, but the rocky hills from which Spring Creek arises are still as they always were, and the spring flows still without interruption, never allowing the stream to go dry. Mr. [C. Aug.] Patschke, who had come from Frelsburg, settled below the Edwards property and had a field with the creek flowing through it. Now Mr. Heinrich Patschke lives on the same place, where he raised a large family of about twelve children, mostly boys. He had a garden along the creek, one in which he planted sugar cane and other plants, which he could water conveniently because the stream was so near. Heinrich Patschke also had a pond which he created by damming the creek in his field, with a boat on the water. If people came from Lexington to camp out briefly, they could take a little boat ride. But a flood destroyed the dam and pond. In my last years I never saw it anymore. But Spring Creek remains, holding its own, running right along day and night, winter and summer. Certain grasses thrive on its banks, providing nourishment for cattle even during the dry summer. I have also seen ferns and many blackberry bushes in bloom there. Whether they produced fruit I cannot say. But flowers bloomed in abundance in that damp, sandy ground, large stretches covered with brown [?] and fire-red blossoms.

I also saw holly for the first time on Spring Creek, and Mr. Gustav Weiser once brought some to us in Giddings at Christmas time. The tree is much more rare here than in Harris County, a damper climate where one encounters holly more readily.

Darden’s Spring is three miles west of Fedor, not far from Ernst Dube’s place, where Emil Dube now lives. Dr. Darden fifty years ago had a post office (called Darden) in his home. Whether he still practiced medicine then I do not know, but I knew him and visited him in his home. He was a venerable old man with a long white beard. (At the time, it was considered a feature to be proud of to be able to grow a rather long beard, and many a man impressed himself on my memory with such an adornment.) Darden’s Spring was not far from his house in a valley close to Wooly Branch, a tributary of the West Yegua. In this low area shaded by elm and oaks existed a covered well or spring which was supposed to have healing powers (at least that used to be said) and at which now and then people would stop in the summer to drink water. I tried it, but it did not suit my taste very well. Still, it may have had real healing power.

The so-called Middle Yegua is about three or four miles distant from the West Yegua. It has little slope and so flows slowly. It is in an area of woods and swamps and consisted in part of a series of “Lakes,” larger and smaller, certainly not extending for miles, instead only a quarter mile or, in a few instances, a half mile. Because they were so many, they put a special stamp on the region. During wet spells the place was almost unapproachable, but at other times it attracted many hunters and fishermen who pitched a tent there and put out trot lines or threw their nets to catch fish or lay in wait for wild animals with their guns. Fifty years ago one could still find deer and wildcats and probably also turkeys. The fall offered an especially large bounty of wild ducks and geese migrating from the north at the outset of cold weather. The lakes everywhere would be covered with ducks, and, when one flock flew away, another came, again and again, often for days. When I drove to Lexington to preach at that time of year, I heard the noise of the ducks from the lakes close by, some from the water, some from the air, and as I looked up I saw a whole number of flocks flying in circles in the air, showing their intention to land. Today one may be suspicious of such a strong statement, but one can hardly exaggerate what did in fact occur, as older people who traveled about a good bit at the time would know. Of course, one did not always observe such spectacles, only at specific times when the birds were moving about. At the time, no law existed to regulate hunting, nor was there any need for one. Now that has changed. The swamps and lakes of the Middle Yegua also have been drained for the most part, the woods have been cleared and burned, fields have ben enclosed and farms established, and the like. Little patches of water can be found only here and there, reminders of the old days. Wildlife has been reduced; wild ducks and other migrating birds avoid those areas where woods and ponds have become few and far between.

My home was on the West Yegua, only a half mile distant, or about a mile as one followed the road to Giddings. When the Yegua overflowed from time to time after heavy rains, a wide, rushing stream flooded the adjoining fields and brought great harm to our dear neighbors. Ordinarily, we could not see the Yegua [from the house], but, if it overflowed, its water looked like a major river. Yet, the slope was significant enough that after a day or two it would be back within its banks. Usually, the water flowed as a small stream ten or twelve feet wide, but it dried up entirely during a dry summer. Even then, when you crossed over the bridge the stream bed was still identifiable as the Yegua. It would come back because its “bed and barracks” were right here. The adjoining woods, which the stream brought into being and preserved, provided for many birds and other animals. Just enter these woods on a sunny winter day and take a look at the active life which found shelter from storm and cold in the thicket and thorny vines and an ample food supply as well. I saw hundreds of robins on such a warm, clear day pecking on the ground looking for food. I sat on a log and remained quiet until red squirrels came out of hiding and called their greetings to each other. As the woods were cleared, shelter for birds and other harmless creatures was being destroyed with the result that they decreased in number and died out, and those that remained sought out areas more favorable for their existence.

Andreas Richter’s Picnic Area near Fedor lay at a place easily accessible from north and south, not too far from the church and school, and it offered plenty of shade. It also offered places to sit. The people in Fedor in earlier times had no school festival of their own, but they would go with their families to Lincoln or Manheim when something like that was organized there. The idea occurred first to Teacher Roesel to hold a special festival for his pupils. He prepared them with all kinds of songs and presentations, allowing us to have our first school festival in 1915, with a second and third in the years immediately following. It was not held in 1918, a war year, but resumed under Rev. Braner in 1919 and has been held almost every year since. People streamed in from every direction to see what the school in Fedor was up to and to share a happy day.

Good band music was arranged as well, supplied by Friedrich’s Band from Manheim. Mr. Edward Pillack went to the trouble of providing entertainment for the children with his carousel. The demand for barbecue was so great that you had to be on time if you wished to have some. In short, virtually every picnic of the Fedor congregation was a decided success. In 1928 I attended with Rev. Behnken and all his children from Houston. We did not arrive until in the afternoon, and so many people were there that we experienced some trouble in finding a place to park. (Rev. Michalk has announced in the Giddings Volksblatt that Fedor is planning another such picnic on June 24 of this year. I hope it is a great success.)