February 18, 1931 – Heinrich Nehrling, Teacher and Friend of Nature

This article by Rev G. Birkmann first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on February 18, 1931. It has been translated from German by Ray Martens.


            Nehrling was the first teacher at the school of Trinity Ev. Lutheran Church in Fedor, Texas. Before that, he was also the first teacher of the school of Trinity Ev. Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas, founded in 1879. As a result, some reported memories of him will not be unwelcome to many readers of the Giddings Volksblatt.

            Nehrling has received so much prominence—first, certainly, as one acquainted with birds and, later, as an expert on plants—that he was a significant person among scholars in his fields, all of which Prof. G. Eifrig, teacher of natural history at our teachers’ college at River Forest, Illinois (Missouri Synod), brought to light when he published Nehrling’s biography in the School Journal of the same synod. A picture is also provided there. In that article, Nehrling is recognized in a fitting way for his gifts and achievements, accentuated with warm praise.

            It is not my intent in what follows to document Eifrig’s work or, perhaps, to reproduce the same thing in an excerpt from it, as interesting as this might be for those who never saw the named article. I myself knew Nehrling very well and was able to visit him more than once, and from time to time he also wrote to me in great detail—sad to say, at the time I was no diligent correspondent.

            I learned to know Nehrling in 1879, when he came from Chicago to Texas. His state of health—he suffered from a tightness in his chest—led him to wish to find healing in a milder climate. He stopped first in Serbin with his friend and fellow student, Teacher Gerhard Kilian. Both had studied at the teachers’ college in Addison, Illinois, at about the same time. Kilian entered there in 1867, took his examination in 1872, and then was called to Serbin. Nehrling entered the college in 1869 and finished in 1873. Then he managed a parochial school near Chicago (Harlem) from 1873 to 1874, then took a call to a school within the city and served there until he came to Texas. In the Serbin area, he saw himself around in nature with enthusiasm. Everything was of interest to him, woods and prairie, trees and bushes, shrubs and flowers, but what caught his attention in particular was what had feathers and wings, and what caught his fancy soon swung to the species of birds. He had already felt drawn to nature from a very early age in the place of his birth, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. While he was still a boy, Wisconsin had much virgin forest and prairies in their original condition, and only here and there small settlements and farms. For the most part, one saw woods and marshes and lakes, a paradise for the birds that stayed there in abundance. Here Nehrling’s inborn love of nature was awakened and nourished, and, already when he came to Addison, he had been stimulated by significant knowledge of a scientific nature out of his own observation.

            One of his teachers in the institution was Dr. Hermann Duernling, teacher of mathematics and natural science and one who had written some instructive books about mammals and birds in this country. In Addison and then, later, as teacher in Harlem, near Chicago, Nehrling found opportunity to satisfy his liking for the study and observation of nature.

            But, especially, he could not abandon his liking when here in Texas he found a new and very rich area for his love of nature. From Serbin he made visits in all directions, and this applied to woods and fields, lakes and swamps, open prairies and thick brush, even the thickets in the bottoms (Rabbs Creek and West Yegua).

            I learned to know him at this time, where and with whom I do not remember anymore, but I do remember that I was pleased to learn to know him. He was so different, had so much to tell about curious things that he had seen in nature up north. Also here in Lee County, he had already observed so much about the life and doings of animals which everyone likes, namely, the feathered world, which delights the eye and ear. There is an exception. I do not wish to imply that the screech of the owl at night delights the ear, nor that the sight of a certain bird [vulture?] while it is eating delights the eye, but exceptions establish the rule. The friend of nature takes it all in, and to him it is proper that everything is as it is. He would have it no other way.

            In 1880 I met with Nehrling again in Houston. He was serving Trinity (Rev. Tim. Stiemke) in Houston as teacher in their school. I spoke with him a number of times. One time during my visit Teacher Hennig (at the time in Rose Hill) was also present. Nehrling again told about excursions which he had made in the vicinity of the city. Houston at the time as small and surrounded by pine forests. It was not far to the thickets of the San Jacinto River or the Big Cypress or Spring Creek or the like.

            Certainly, the drive out there to these places took longer than it does now, but one also had more time, no one hurried much, and no one expected another person to hurry. Some free days were available to a teacher on which he could amuse himself in the open spaces of nature, and such recuperation was quite necessary for Nehrling. It was good for him to stay active in the open, and, as a result, he reached an advanced age.

            On the occasion of the visit the I made with Hennig in the setting of Nehrling’s home, Nehrling expressed the wish someday to write a detailed work about the birds of North America. Hennig gave him a cheer, and, without doubt, I did not try to dissuade him. Nehrling already had written a great deal about birds in different German-American newspapers and in publications in Germany, and for those many approving opinions were expressed.

Nehrling in Fedor

            In May of 1881 Nehrling was called by the Fedor congregation. The congregation showed real courage with this call, and was right in doing that, for, apart from the two in the Serbin congregations, neither Lee County nor Fayette County yet had a regular teacher.

            Admittedly, they had very little wherewithal in hand to build a house for the teacher, so he had to help in its building, which in his book (Die nordamerikanische Vogelwelt [The Bird World of North America]) he called a little house made of boards. It had no fence at first, and the animals of the forest took up residence around the house and even under it. The result was that certain little animals in unbelievable numbers gave trouble to the teacher and his family. Later, with a good enclosure, the drawback was corrected. But there were wasps that flew into our houses (usually what we called mud daubers), and scorpions, as well, which crawled up and down the walls in goodly numbers and at night strolled over the face of the sleeper. There were centipedes, whose bite was dangerous, and furthermore furry spiders, large ones (usually called tarantulas), whose bite was more dangerous than that of a snake [?; non-venomous, perhaps], as Nehrling says (in his book). Then too, ants in two bad varieties: the red one, whose bite is painful and often paralyzes or even kills young chickens, geese, or ducks, and the carrier ant, which reduced to nothing Teacher Nehrling’s beautiful flower garden in a single night. The area was especially rich in snakes. He had never seen as many as he did here. Once one crawled through the window next to him, a big chicken snake. He often had snakes in the house. They killed his caged birds and ate them. Naturally, Nehrling kept a number of birds in order to observe them, how they behave, so that he could later write it all in his book.

            The portrayal above is taken from the book. When I first read pages 93 and following, I was not satisfied with it. I thought that the man exaggerated greatly. It was not that bad back then, for I had already lived in the area five years before Nehrling, and I did not have to undergo such adventure. Surely some of all this existed, wasps, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas too, and ants aplenty, and maybe also a snake in the house, but yet not all at once. That snakes often invaded Nehrling’s house is easy to explain by the fact that he kept birds in cages, which enticed the snakes.

            But Nehrling also says in his book that many of the problems got better later on, and he praised the area in which he lived as especially beautiful and rich in glorious created things like beautiful flowers and colorful birds. How lovely the same post oak woods, which are otherwise so monotonous, become in April and May, when nature clothes itself in fresh green. Nehrling saw there on the West Yegua a number of birds and a number of flowers which he had not known previously. Again and again he would go out into the woods along the West Yegua and its branches, and how often did he stand there or sit on a stump and observe all that his friends (the little and the big singers) did, including how they built their nests, for each bird builds a unique nest in its own way. Nehrling paid attention to their behavior and made notes so that he could portray it all at a later time.

            So he reports that once he stood next to a tree on a stream that flowed into the West Yegua when first he saw a black-crested Titmouse looking at him, then flew to the ground next to him, and then grasped the leg of his pants. Why? He was looking for the ticks and other insects that had gathered on his clothes. Finally, it flew to his shoulder and even on his hat. As he walked away, the titmouse followed him until he had gone entirely outside its territory. And so we see that a mutual love and familiarity existed between him and the creatures he loved.

Nehrling in Milwaukee

            At the end of 1882, Nehrling accepted a call to southwest Missouri (Freistadt), where he stayed until April of 1886, then stopped for a while in Florida before he lived in Milwaukee for twelve years, in part as an employee of the local tax collector (Konrad Krez), for which he especially well suited, and in part as the administrator of the city’s public museum. During these years I visited him again in Milwaukee and was frequently in his museum.

            It was during that time that he prepared for publication a large book on birds. It appeared in 1891 through the publishing firm of Georg Brumder of Milwaukee. A splendid work in quarto format (about 12” x 10”), three inches thick, weighing eleven pounds. It was adorned with thirty-six beautifully colored plates and bound in red morocco leather. So the book was rather expensive, eleven dollars, and the high price may have contributed to the fact that the work did not have the sales one might have wished, for it is a very valuable work, precisely because of the lively portrayal of individual birds According to their way of life, nest construction, their entire conduct. Professor Eifrig said that, next to the famous Audubon, Nehrling’s book was the most interesting and best on this subject. Three years later the same work appeared in English Translation under the title The Native Birds of Song and Beauty.

Nehrling in Florida

            For his last thirty or thirty-five years, Nehrling occupied himself with the world of plants. Already while he lived in Milwaukee, occasionally he spent some time in Florida and bought a piece of land there near Gotha, where he planted orange trees and, shortly after the turn of the century, moved there permanently and devoted himself with all of his energy to the cultivation of flowers, green plants, palms, and the like. For a while he took a position in service to the government of our country for minimal compensation and cultivated wondrous amounts of plants and flowers and occupied himself much as Burbank did in California as he produced new varieties through cross pollination, for example, spineless cactus, except that Nehrling did this with other varieties, such as amaryllis and with green plants such as caladiums. He once wrote me that he had 1,200 examples of caladiums. In Gotha he created a glorious garden, whose beauty was described in a book by an American. But, when somewhere around 1915, his wife, Sophia née Schaeff, from Oak Park, Illinois, was taken from him by death, he moved farther south to the area of Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida. His address became Naples-on-the-Gulf, Florida. The temperature there was almost tropical. There now he could, without having to fear a frost, plant palms and bamboo and whatever else. He lived there in a simple bungalow among his plants, living out his dreams to the full, that is, experimenting with all kinds of new plants, which, in part, he imported from distant lands. So, for example, he imported a variety of oak from Australia. And while in Florida, he wrote a whole array of books about the plants which he had altered and with which he was surrounded. Once, about two years ago, he had three books published in New York at the same time. He was a well-known and honored man in learned circles. He also received visits from learned professors and from wealthy men who came to their properties in Florida and received the advice of a capable plant investigator. Nehrling was befriended by the well-known Edison, as well as by Mr. Ford, and, when invited, sometimes spent time with them.

            Nehrling remarried in his old age, this time an Anglo-American from Ithaca, New York, who in his latter days, when severe suffering overtook him, could provide him with tireless care, especially since she was trained as a nurse. At the end, Nehrling moved back to Gotha, Florida, where he died in the blessed hope in Christ on November 21, 1929, at the age of 77.