August 10, 1933 & September 14, 1933 – Rev. Birkmann Reports His Experiences in Dallas More Than Fifty Years Ago

This article by G. Birkmann first appeared in the Giddings Deutches Volksblatt, Giddings, Texas, on August 10 and September 14, 1933. It has been translated from German by Ray Martens.

At the end of August, 1879, when I had been in Fedor for three years, I received a call to the newly founded Zion congregation [still there today and being served in 2015 by the Rev. Robert Preece]. After his first year at Sherman, Rev. Proft traveled to preach in Dallas beginning in 1878. Proft knew me rather well and had recommended me to the congregation at Dallas. When I received the call, I wrote immediately to Visitator [long-ago version of a Circuit Counselor] Koestering in Altenburg, MO, because our congregations in Texas at the time belonged to the Western District, and Koestering was our Visitator and had also visited my congregation the year before (1878). I also asked experienced brothers in the ministry for advice. First I rode to [consult with] the elderly Rev. Geyer in Serbin, who left me uncertain, though he did not try to dissuade me. Then I sought out Rev. Stiemke in Warda, but he likewise chose not to give specific advice. But the letter from Koestering suggested that it would be good for me to go to Dallas. As a result, I placed the matter before my congregation in Fedor, and they gave me their consent for me to take the call.

At that time, I had my sister Pauline with me, and she was also prepared to go with me to Dallas. I sold my household contents to people who gladly gave me what I had paid for them, and we were on our way. First, to be sure, to Giddings, because, apart from the Houston Central Texas Railway, which went through Giddings, there was nothing that went to Dallas. In Giddings I had a telegram sent to an officer of the railway in Houston to ask for a free trip for my sister and me, a request which was granted at once.

The next morning, after a change of trains in Hempstead, we arrived in Dallas. The officers of Zion congregation, who had signed my call, greeted us in the waiting room of the depot, Karl Ax, Ludwig Ax, Brokowski, Weiermueller, and perhaps a Mr. Schulz as well. They disclosed to me that they were unsure about whether they should already have a pastor, for they were so few and the prospects were less than secure. But Rev. Proft had told them that they should venture such a step in God’s name, and so they proceeded with the call. That was a surprise to me, and at first I felt a little disappointed, but I could see that the people were friendly and were not trying to turn me away. They apparently thought it advisable to serve me clear wine [i.e., be up front with me] right at the beginning.

So I pulled myself together and spoke words of encouragement to the people, and then they told me that they already had a plan for what to do next. A building site was to be selected and a chapel built. Mr. Karl Ax had the necessary money ready for the project.

The little church building became ready for use in the next six weeks. It stood at 111 Live Oak Street, near where the Texas Pacific Railway passed by. Until our building was completed, we held services every Sunday in the lower part of the city in an English-speaking Baptist church, where Rev. Curry was pastor. These people sought no compensation. They also had a large reed organ, so our singing went well. I was always happy when our people, both members and visitors, here and elsewhere, would undertake to sing along powerfully, a benefit to and good preparation for the sermon following.

When our little church was completed, it was formally dedicated and I was installed by Rev. Proft. In the evening, I preached in English for the only time while I was in Dallas. Otherwise, all preaching was in German, and no one wanted anything different. The German language was still in use in most homes. A large number of German newspapers also existed in Texas, including a weekly published in Dallas by Mr. C. F. Alter and read by Germans living in north Texas. We also gave attention to presenting the German language in school. I had a number of students in school in Dallas whose parents chose to send them to me precisely because of the German.

Even before our little church was finished, I began to teach school in the residence which I had rented temporarily as a place for my sister and me to live temporarily. At first there were only three or four students who came, and we met only in the mornings. But I was pleased and happy to be active in my calling also as shepherd of these lambs until more children could join us. And more did come, until we had twenty-five to thirty.

But then our church was ready, with two small rooms attached to the back as a residence. For the first time, I did not have my dear sister with me, for we realized that the living area was too limited and our income too small. My sister took a position with a family who paid well for her services. One year later she married Teacher C. F. Braun, then in Serbin, later in Saginaw, MI. Both left this life some time ago. So then I lived alone in the two little rooms behind my little church in Dallas.

During the week I conducted school in the church, on Sundays I preached there. We had seating room for about eighty-five, and sometimes all the seats were taken, but, as a rule, there were not more than thirty or forty in attendance. (Only about ten were voting members.) A number of families or single individuals also joined with our group regularly even though they were not affiliated as members.

Dallas fifty years ago had a rather small population, barely fifteen thousand, and improvements were quite meager and paltry by today’s standards. There were only a few sidewalks, and on rainy days our people could hardly make their way over the very sticky ground. But I had the Karl Ax family from the country always there, even though they had to drive fourteen miles in their farm wagon. Others from outside the city itself also came regularly, rain or shine.

I would like to say something more about the brothers Karl and Ludwig Ax. They originated from Steeden, near Runkel, in Nassau, Germany. Their pastor had been Friedrich Brunn, who for years had labored as a valuable witness for pure and correct Lutheranism. Our seminary in St. Louis received many students from Brunn. Both Ax brothers first arrived at New Orleans, where they attached themselves to Rev. Tirmenstein’s church. They came to Dallas at the beginning of the 1870s. There Karl acquired a farm in the area, and Ludwig made a good living as a tailor.

In 1874, their former pastor Tirmenstein paid a visit to them in Dallas. Probably as a result of that visit, Candidate Andreas Baepler was called (sent, rather) as a missionary to Dallas. But in only a year, after he had married a daughter of Karl Ax, Baepler left Dallas. The two brothers and their families then had no pastor for three years, but they did conduct Sunday devotions. They were well acquainted with Walther’s [printed] sermons. For the three years that I was in Dallas, both brothers faithfully did their part for the maintenance of the church and were about the only ones regularly to make a contribution to my support. Most of the rest of my income came from the school. Tuition was one dollar a month per child, and, if there were twenty­five who were paying, that brought in enough for me to live on. No outside help was available at the time, for Texas had no mission board to support people in my position. I was able to take my meals at a boarding house, though making my way back and forth in the heat of the summer was no small challenge. But in the fall of 1881 [i.e., after two of his three years in Dallas], two of my sisters came to Dallas. Kaethe, the older, stayed with me and took over the school for me, a task for which she was prepared. She taught school from 1881 to 1883, in the latter year all on her own, for I went back to Fedor at the end of 1882. She continued to serve the school for a while during the tenure of Rev. Theo. Kohn, who came to Dallas in 1883. But near the end of the same year, she married a music teacher in Dallas named Haas. That family later moved to Galveston, where the storm of 1900 cost them their lives.

Visitors came only rarely, but several struck me as significant and have stuck in my memory. A Dr. Haas (his name, unless I am mistaken) came from Philadelphia or from elsewhere in the eastern part of the country to see what type of Lutheran churches might be found here in Dallas. When this man arrived, it was still early and I had to get dressed first. Then he paid the Missouri Synod the compliment of being quite active and industrious, and he suggested that its pastors worked diligently. He would hardly be able to believe that of me, for he almost came across me still in bed. However, I agreed with him and was pleased with the compliment that this rather well known pastor paid our Synod. On another occasion, someone brought me a little child to see whether I would baptize it. He had come fifty miles to search out a Lutheran pastor. He had no sponsors. I should take care of that for him, as, in fact, I did.

Once a man came with a confession and a request which moved me deeply. His confession was that his heart was greatly weighed down because of his sin, and his request was that I speak to him words of absolution in spite of his sin. He had come from far away, from west Texas, to look for a Lutheran preacher to share the absolution with him. I spoke with him for a long time to console and absolve him, and then he went back home again.

Rev. Andreas Baepler, who later served for more than forty years as a professor, visited me a number of times when he came to see his relatives, the Karl Ax family. While he was still serving as a pastor in Mobile, his wife fell ill, and he brought her to her family in Dallas, where she died after a number of weeks. I had to conduct the funeral in Garland, near Dallas.

Even though I lived so distant from brothers in the ministry that we could not visit, I compensated somewhat by attending conferences more frequently and, one time, a convention in New Orleans in February of 882, when the Southern District met for the first time there. I was also in Fedor three times during my Dallas stay, once for the wedding of my sister [Pauline] to Teacher Braun, another time in the fall of 1881 for a conference (when Maisch was still pastor there), and one more time. The Fedor people could not forget me, and their congregation called me again when, at the end of 1882, Maisch went to Walburg. After careful consideration and with the concurrence of my congregation in Dallas, I accepted it.

Rev. Proft served Dallas and Denison from his place in Sherman between 1877 and 1879. When he built a church in Sherman, he gathered a part of the money from churches up north, but a remaining debt (for lumber) was unpaid, and he was in danger of losing the building. He had only a few members. He had anticipated that German Lutherans from Pottsboro (eleven miles northwest on the Red River) and other neighboring settlements would come, but that did not happen. Roads were bad and distances were great. The situation was desperate.

At this very time, I visited with him and became acquainted with the arrangements. He lived in a nice home, but had just accepted a call to Missouri, and I was to succeed him in his work in Sherman and Denison. As we made the drive to Denison with his horse and wagon, I observed that he carried a revolver, unloaded. He said he carried it because of the danger of attack by highwaymen. What came of this remark was that I watched every bush and tree the whole ten miles. We arrive unmolested, though I wondered what good an unloaded pistol might have done.

We visited several families, including one of a saloon keeper, who had no interest [in the church] but had a very hospitable and Christian-minded wife who always welcomed and hosted the pastor with no objection from her husband. A second home we visited was that of a shoemaker, whose wife was a sister of the well-known and respected pastor of our Synod, C. A. Frank, who edited The Lutheran Witness in its first years. This family came to our worship services, held in an English-speaking Presbyterian church. About ten or twelve typically gathered. I preached there, but it struck me as awkward to be speaking to so few in so large a building. It suited me much better to preach to small groups in private homes, where people could gather in a more intimate setting to sing hymns and to hear the lessons and sermon. I served Denison as I best I could for a while, until Rev. Kohn was able with new enthusiasm to gather and serve these people, even though nothing much ever developed there. The Sherman congregation did, however, manage to move forward, in spite of the fact that their building was repossessed.

I had more joy in my attempts to serve at Pottsboro, where a number of families welcomed me and put me up for several days at a time. One such family was Sternberg, from Randolph County, Illinois, not far from my childhood home. They had belonged to the congregation in Steelville [IL] and were well adapted to Lutheran worship. Another family was that of father Schleier, who came with his grown children from Frankenmuth, MI. (This is the father of Teacher C. M. Schleier in La Grange, who came to live with his parents in 1881 when yellow fever forced his school in Memphis to close, and who then taught confirmation classes in Pottsboro for a time.) With the Sternbergs there was always conversation about our home in Illinois, about abundant production on farms and in gardens and orchards. Mrs. Schleier liked to recall her childhood in Bavaria, from where she and her husband came, how she would leave before dawn to get to Rev. Loehe’s church in Neuendettelsau. [This must have been almost contemporary with Birkmann’s father’s brief time there.] Yes, this Rev. Loehe was a preacher of the grace of God and had published collections of his homilies, of which Mrs. Schleier had one. She could also talk for hours about their experiences in Frankenmuth. Both families enjoyed their northern experiences more than those in Texas, and eventually went back to the very congregations from which they had come.

The Thurnau family was from St. Charles, MO. Other names I remember are Knorr, Sommerfeld (from Southmaid), and a Hoeldke family (from even farther away). A Hoeldke daughter married Teacher Schleier; another married Teacher Daenzer. Both of these teachers served in Fedor, Schleier 1883-86, Daenzer 1894-1902.

It is not true that the north Texas counties are desolate places. There is good farm land there. But the families who came and went again simply were accustomed to the comparatively lush conditions of their Midwest farms and too old to adapt to the new and different circumstances.

Mr. Sonntag from Lebanon in Collin County – the one who brought the baby to Dallas for me to baptize – invited me to visit him on an occasion on which he gathered the neighbors for a church service. He picked me up at the station and we drove thirteen miles to the area of Lebanon. (He had served [in the German army] in 1870 against the French and counted himself to have been spared miraculously.) Only two or three German Lutheran families lived there, and, though they came for this service, I was not invited back, nor did I return – too few, too far – and I had plenty to deal with nearer home. Sonntag, though, was an energetic and entertaining man.

Arlington, over toward Fort Worth, was a place with only a few houses, separated from Dallas by woods and pastures. In Arlington lived a blacksmith named George Lampe, his brother, and Mr. Kloepper, a farmer and the father-in-law of George Lampe. For these three families I conducted services once a month, with a few more joining us. This group was later served from Fort Worth, until they became a congregation in their own right.

I also preached in Fort Worth, the first Lutheran preacher to appear there. I was told to search out Peter Smith, the mayor of Fort Worth, to secure a place to gather. He turned out to be very friendly and provided a room so large that it had a pronounced and disturbing echo. The first Missouri Synod pastor to live in and serve Fort Worth was J. Schulenburg. When I visited him in 1893, he had gathered a congregation, still meeting in a lodge hall. Their first little church was built two years later.

In the summer of 1882, President Stiemke of New Orleans said that I should go to serve a small number of families which had come to his attention in Honey Grove. What had happened is that a Mrs. Ryser had written to her former pastor (Heid in Peoria [IL]), who, in turn, had written to Stiemke about a number of families who yearned to be served by a Lutheran pastor. When I came I was greeted by a number of people who did all they could to publicize my arrival and to secure a place for worship. That place was a vacant public school in disarray and bad repair, requiring a lot of fixing and cleaning. There were about ten or twelve families, mostly from Bavaria, though the Rysers were Swiss. I visited the congregation a number of times, always happy to go there, although the train trip, by way of Sherman, was about 120 miles. The congregation organized under Rev. Kohn [named above as serving in Denison] in the middle 1880s.

My travel costs were met by collections from among those in attendance. I was satisfied that my expenses be covered and sought no additional compensation. Payment enough was my pleasure in the task itself and the interest of the people.