January 23, 1936 – The First Conference in Thorndale, Texas, 1897

This article by Rev. G. Birkmann, em., and translated by Ray Martens, first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 23 January 1936.

As good as Rev Birkmann’s memory was, he did make mistakes from time to time and it is one of the purposes of these blogs to not perpetuate mistakes; ie: 

St. Paul Thorndale was founded in 1890 not 1880. The church was built in 1891 and Gesterling was ordained in the same year. Gesterling served from 1891 to 1893—two years. (Source: History of St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church Thorndale, Texas 1890-1940 mimeographed copy.)

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Thorndale was founded in 1880. In the same year, they built their first church, and, in the year following, E. P. Gesterling was ordained and installed in their midst. He remained there twelve years and also served the people who had organized and built a church near the Zieschangs [a location called Brushy Creek or Noack].

At the end of 1893, Gesterling was called to Ebenezer at Manheim, and Rev. Adolf Kramer, who had served for three years as a missionary in Coryell County and elsewhere, succeeded him in Thorndale. Kramer began his ministry in Thorndale at the beginning of 1894 and then served the congregation there for twenty-five years, but then became very sick and had to give up his ministry. He died on August 7, 1924, in Kerrville. He was a man of rare ability, energetic, a go-getter, especially also in his preaching, which his listeners seized upon and did not let go until he stopped talking. He also possessed a keen understanding of practical matters which affected congregational life, and the congregation was well managed and promoted by him. Later they established a remembrance in his honor. Kramer became vice-president of the Southern District of the Missouri Synod in 1903 and was elected president of the Texas District at its founding and first gathering in Houston in 1906. Because he was weighed down with work in Thorndale, however, and because his physical condition was not always solid enough, the congregation in Thorndale expressed their wish that the district excuse him from the role of president after the expiration of his term, which is then what happened. He was blessed in his work for ten more years at Thorndale, and, besides, also at times rendered valuable service to the district.

Kramer had a cheerful disposition and was humorous and lively in his talk. He also liked to come up with the unexpected. For example, in May of 1896, when pastors from Lee and Fayette Counties were gathered with me in Fedor for a “free” conference, all of a sudden, the pastor from Thorndale, Kramer, appeared, certainly not expected and not one to whom a notice was sent. He said, “You did not invite me, but I too wanted to be with you.” Naturally, we were delighted that he bothered to come, for, at the time, when there were no cars yet, that was not so easy.

I want to clarify a bit the expression ”free” conference. There were conferences which were arranged by the district, and anyone who did not attend these had to excuse himself. But because we were about a dozen pastors in Lee County and adjacent Fayette County, we wished to get together more often than those prescribed. Giddings, especially, was the place where we liked to meet.

The “First Conference” identified in the title was one of these. Kramer wanted us to come to his place, and so we gathered in the spring of 1897 in Thorndale, pastors from Lee and Fayette Counties, along with two from Williamson County, namely, C. A Waech from the congregation at the Zieschangs and J. H. Sieck from Walburg, and Rev. Emil Deffner came from Austin. In the territory that we represented, there were up to eighteen pastors, and up to twenty-three in the rest of the state, and so all together about forty-three. From this we see that our synod had comparatively many congregations in our immediate area, while only twenty-five pastors worked in all the remaining area of the state, but certainly in a greater number of congregations and preaching stations.

Just as Rev. L. Ernst from Lincoln already once before had driven with me to Thorndale, namely, in 1890 for the dedication of the church there, so this time too we both drive to the conference with my buggy and horses. The road went through woods and sand past new fields, in which stood trees of the kind which had their bark severed with an axe and now were dead or numerous stumps between which the plow had to look for its way back and forth.

New homes stood there, one room with a back room and a porch. On the porch, would be a bucket of water with a gourd alongside as a drinking vessel. These were new settlers and quite negligent, to be sure, or else their fields and houses and other facilities would have looked better.

What did they intend to harvest? Some bales of cotton, some maize, and feed for their thin cattle, which did not find their necessary nourishment in the woods. Perhaps they would soon move on, all of their possession stowed in a covered wagon, and search for a new home. At times along our drive, the road was obstructed, and it was not easy to determine how one had to proceed in order to get to Thorndale.

At noon, we made a stop and allowed the team to rest and gave them some of the feed we had brought along, and also sought out for ourselves what the caring mother had packed.

My traveling companion became talkative after he had satisfied himself and told me many details about his life. He entered the seminary at Springfield as a young fellow and took on a place of vicarage in Iowa after several years of study. There he came to the conclusion to discontinue his studies. He got married and decided to become a farmer. But he found no inner peace, and others also told him that he should go back to Springfield in order to serve the Lord in his church. So, he did this and finished his studies in Springfield in 1883. At the time, there was a serious shortage of preachers, and Prof. Craemer sent out a class called selecta [those deemed ready], who had been especially prepared in order to help out with the urgent need of the church as soon as possible. So it was that Ernst came first to Walburg with his wife and a child, or perhaps two children. He provided five years of service there to church and school, and then was pastor for about fifteen years at St. John in Lincoln.

Toward evening, we, Ernst and I, arrived in Thorndale. For the six [eight?] years that I served Thorndale, I almost always found a hospitable welcome with Mr. Karl Michalk, so we guided our team of horses in that direction. Mrs. Michalk, always friendly, received us happily, and her husband took the time to entertain us during our evening in Thorndale. These people had shown much courage. A number of people from Fedor had turned up here, first of all Mr. Jakob Moerbe and his son August Johann, also Moerbe’s son who was Michalk’s son-in-law, one who had already lived there for quite a while, as had others also, Winter, Heintze, Peter Urban and his son Otto, and Andreas Urban and his father-in-law John Lehmann, Peter Symank, Paul Schulz, all of them (probably also others whom I do not remember now) were from Fedor, and more had come from other areas to join a number who had already lived in the area earlier.

Michalk deeply regretted the death of Jakob Moerbe during December of the previous year and said that, with him, we had a pillar, a man who was genuinely serious about his faith and sacrificed willingly for it.

The next morning, we (Ernst and I) moved on to Rev. Kramer’s home. We found already there a number of pastors who had come in the evening or at night on the train, and some came while we were already enjoying ourselves with Rev. Kramer. There may have been as many as twelve who appeared, but I can no longer say who all they were. By now I still know only a few names to mention. Gresens was there from Winchester. He had come there in 1891. He soon gained a reputation for his preaching, which was very meaningful, and for an assortment of peculiarities. One could not say of him that he was very reserved in what he said. On the other hand, he made his opinion known quickly and quite energetically and often correctly.

Seils from Swiss Alp, a friend and fellow student of Gresens, was to a great extent his opposite. But Seils worked faithfully and profitably in Swiss Alp, a preacher who took his study seriously and always prepared himself well.

Rev. Schaaf was also at the conference in Thorndale. He had already been in the ministry for twenty-five years, first in Kansas, then for about fifteen years in Minnesota, and then for nine years in Texas. At first, he was at William Penn, where he made the congregation build a church, and with two floors at that, including a cellar under the sacristy so that the pastor would have a place for possible garden produce.

Rev. Schaaf was called as professor at the college in Giddings in 1894, but the strongly recruited students stayed away. Schaaf took a call to La Grange in 1896, but soon thereafter became pastor at Loebau, Lee County. In 1899 he left to a place near St. Louis. He died in August of 1925, in William Penn, where he had lived in retirement with a daughter.

One who attended that conference in Thorndale was Rev. August Wenzel. Like his father-in-law Sieck, he left the Texas Synod and had, also like Sieck, successfully completed the colloquy examination and then was called to the congregation in Manheim. After a number of years, he accepted a call to Ross Prairie in Fayette County, then came to Greens Creek, near Giddings. It was likely from there then that he visited the aforementioned conference in Thorndale. He also had a report to make about pastoral visitation of the sick. I do not remember anymore the other papers that were presented, but I do know that we had a service at night with the celebration of Holy Communion. And the participation in the blessed sacrament was indeed the high point of our being gathered together.

Before 1897 Thorndale was not the desired destination of so many as it was later. Significant growth followed later, namely, in 1897 and the following years. And even if Thorndale took away from me so many fine people, yet it did not happen as so many people said that Fedor would come to an end. Thank God that Fedor exists until today. Yet, as often as I think of Thorndale, what appears to me is the very bright glow of a friendly sun, and very many old friends and acquaintances live there.