July 14, 1932 – My First Trip to Austin

This article by Gotthilf Birkmann first apeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 14 July 1932. It is translated here for you by Ray Martens.

Memories of Visits That I Made to Austin Many Years Ago

G. Birkmann, Pastor emer.

Hufsmith, Texas

If one drives from Fedor to Giddings, then, before he gets to the so-called Red Hollow, he uses a short stretch of the old Brenham and Austin Road. If the old San Antonio—Nacogdoches Road today has the honor of being made into a major state highway, then the old Brenham and Austin Road has earned this honorable attention as well, for in earlier times the people who lived in the southeast part of the state traveled on it when they wished to go to Austin, members of the legislature and probably even General Sam Houston, who lived first in Old Washington and later in Huntsville.

But when I first came to Texas, the Houston and Central Texas Railroad to Austin had been completed for several years, and one did not need to travel anymore with horse and wagon.

I made my first visit to Austin in 1878. I was given the task of conducting a service in Dessau, near Fiskville, six miles north of Austin and, on the same occasion, to ask whether in the future they wished to have a pastor of our synod. Three years earlier a number of people there had called Rev. Hofius, and he remained there one year before he went to Harris County. I preached in the home of one of the earlier people of Rev. Hofius and in the afternoon held a discussion with several people. What they wanted, though, is that the one they called to the settlement teach at the public school, and they made clear that they expected a sermon from him only every other week. I had to tell them that under these stipulations they could receive no pastor from us. The man who was providing my lodging was not of the same mind as the others, and he went later to the Missouri Synod congregation in Walburg.

I drove back to Austin from Fiskville. I needed to take care of a number of business matters. I had received a check from St. Louis that I could not cash in Giddings, as best I knew, because there was no bank there as yet. There were few banks in the state at the time. The bank in Austin that I sought out and against which the check was charged said that I must prove my identity. But I did not know anyone in Austin until it occurred to me that Mr. Pauli was a member of the legislature. Earlier he had been postmaster in Giddings, and he knew me. Soon I found him at the capital—the old capital—where I blended in with the crowd of members of the legislature and asked for Mr. Pauli. Then he went with me to the bank, but soon told me that he too was not known at the bank. Then we approached the well-known Julius Schuetze, who declared immediately that he was ready to go with us to the bank, and, when we arrived, Mr. Schuetze certified that he knew Mr. Pauli, and the latter that I was the one to whom the check was made out.

Then I went to the well-known eye and ear doctor, Dr. Dohmen. He examined me thoroughly and gave me the necessary medicine to take along. After a brief use, it helped me wonderfully. Dr. Dohmen was a German from Milwaukee who, because of his health—he had tuberculosis—had come to Austin. He had an extensive practice; his name was generally known. Sadly, he died already a few years ago in Austin. He had a child, a son, who was blind, and whom he, the eye doctor could not help. This lad later went through the state university in Austin and also studied at Harvard and then became one of the professors at the distinguished Harvard University. I do not know whether he is still living.

Then I took a closer look at the city and its surroundings, in part by riding a street car and in part on a cart for which I had to pay additionally, which seemed reasonable to me. I allowed myself to be taken across the Colorado River and onward a couple more miles and took a look at the seven or more hills of the city from the south side. There were a great number of businesses on Congress Avenue and on Pecan Street, most buildings of two or three floors, a few a little higher. The city at the time probably had no more than 10,000 residents. But it was beautiful and interesting, even if it was difficult to climb up and down the green hills on which the residences stood. It was sometimes like mountain climbing, and the sun fully warmed up the limestone rocks.

In Austin in 1883

The new capital was visible from afar. It was built in the early 1880’s out of granite from Burnet County, if I am correctly informed. I have seen massive quarries in Burnet County, out of which the granite for the capital doubtlessly was cut. I had, as I just said seen the old state building. It was so ordinary looking that we today likely could hardly find even a courthouse that would not be more imposing. People from Serbin were among those who worked on the old capital. Mr. John Wuensche told me that he had been one of them. The building burned down, and many documents were lost as a result. It was probably under Governor Roberts that the contract was let for the new building at the beginning of the 1880’s. A firm from Illinois undertook the task of building and received for it three million acres of land from the state. I have seen nowhere in the north or elsewhere so gigantic a building. Already at the time that the building was coming into existence, it filled thousands with admiration. Big crowds watched the workers and the machines as they lifted stone upon stone and inserted them into the walls.

At the time, in 1883, we had no Missouri Synod congregation in Austin, though there was a church of the Texas Synod. Just at the time I was in Austin, there was a meeting of this synod. At night there was a service at which the newly arrived pastors were ordained. Rev. Weiss from Victoria preached, and after a hymn by the congregation came the ordination. What was new to me was the phenomenon that an entire number of pastors stood at the altar and participated in or assisted with the ordination. It may have been that the majority of the pastors present took part.

My Visit to Austin in 1896

A number of families in Austin in about the year 1890 invited Rev. Hermann Kilian in Serbin to preach for them. He did this repeatedly, and other pastors in Lee County helped in this effort. In 1892, the convention of the Southern District decided to invite the old, respected Rev. Heinrich Schmidt, who at the time happened to be in Texas, to preach in Austin and to make a beginning in the formation of a congregation. He worked in Austin with good effect, and during the next year, 1893, Rev. Emil Deffner was installed in Austin. He served the congregation for five years and also diligently conducted a Christian day school. In 1896 he invited the pastors of south Texas to a conference. This was the first gathering of pastors of the Missouri Synod held in Austin.

We had an evening service with communion. Rev. Tietjen of Shiner preached. He was suffering, but yet he spoke with joy and force. But only a few months later it was reported that he died in Shiner after a long chronic illness. The main speaker [at the conference] was Rev. Schaaf, who interpreted for his brothers the Gospel which says, “This man associates with sinners.” We took a look at the city and its surroundings one afternoon. Rev. Deffner was a skilled oarsman and boatman. He took me to the lake above the dam. As we arrived, he showed me a row boat in which I had to take a place. He released the chain and then rowed around on the water until we reached the opposite shore, very romantic and mountainous, an area which we would have liked to have examined more closely. But we saw all kinds of [  ] shapes which made it seem doubtful to us that we should get any closer. So we went back and left our row boat. Then Deffner showed me the power plant at the dam, into which the river poured its water, which then drove the wheels which generated the electric power. There were large apparatuses and machines and dynamos, and Deffner wanted me to explain them to him. I had to confess that at the moment I was not capable of that.

In conclusion, however, I would still like to point out that the congregation in which Deffner first worked grew nicely in the course of years. Rev. Tegler followed Deffner, and for twenty-six years Rev. K. G. Manz has served them faithfully and skillfully. They have a beautiful church with a pipe organ and a new school building in which Teacher Wilkening and also at the present time Mr. Karl Fehr teach.