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THE PROMISED LAND: The roots of Central Texas

0403
 2015
By Ricardo Gándara
Photos by Jay Godwin.

Sometimes, geography and opportunity converge to create a colorful history. The rich farmland of Central Texas is close enough to Galveston that it became the new homeland for European immigrants coming to America by ship in the 1800s to escape hardship and religious persecution.

The first came as scouts and sent word back home: Texas was gold.

Land was fertile and affordable, and there was plenty of it. People were free to worship in church. Opportunity was up for grabs.
And so they came. 

(Courtesy Texas Wendish Heritage Museum)Unlike today’s elaborate white wedding dresses, Wendish brides, like Anna Pietsch, were draped in black, a symbol of the grief and hardship they believed marriage would bring. Anna married Wilhelm Lehmann in 1905 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Warda.
 

Czechs, Wends, Poles and Germans established small settlements like Hranice, Serbin, Chappell Hill and Maxwell. Bigger towns such as Brenham and Giddings thrived, too. Hispanics and African- Americans also played significant roles in shaping Texas.

The settlers brought cultural practices and beliefs so strong and enduring they survive today. Across the region served by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, you can still find Czech polka bands luring dancers with the squeezing of accordions. Stores sell noodles like those made by the Wends and farmers eat Polish dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese. Friends and neighbors gather in a community clubhouse to celebrate their German heritage with a meal including sauerkraut, sauerbraten or sausage.

The European settlers “brought a flavor, a culture and a language that makes Texas what it is today,” said Jo Ann Andera, who has organized the Texas Folklife Festival since 1981 for the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. Immigrants continue adding to the quilt of diversity in Texas, with a Hispanic majority on the horizon. But it’s evolving, Andera said. New immigrants are from places like Afghanistan and Indonesia. “And there’s been a cross of cultures due to marriages. It’s what makes Texas a blend of cultures,” she said.
 
 
MAXWELL 
 
At the intersection of Main and Third streets, Ronnie Duesterheft’s memory drifts back to the 1950s, when he was a boy and it was Maxwell’s heyday.

“W.T. Best, the postmaster, lived there,” he points out while driving through the neighborhood. He remembers busy times at Germer’s Grocery — one of 14 beer joints that Maxwell boasted back then (nearby towns did not sell alcohol). Three cotton gins operated overtime.

Maxwell, 10 miles west of Lockhart, drew Germans to its cotton fields in the late 1880s. They established Lutheran and Methodist churches and a school. Mexican immigrants played an important role in the cotton fields, too.


(Jay Godwin photo)Ronnie Duesterheft, whose German ancestors settled in Maxwell in the late 1800s, sits in front of a stained glass window in Ebenezer Lutheran Church, near his home. The historic church was dedicated in 1924. 
“We’ve only been here more than 100 years,” said Duesterheft, 72, born and raised in Maxwell. He is one of the founders of the Maxwell Volunteer Fire Department and a former Caldwell County commissioner. His family ties to this town are deep. His grandfather, William Schulle, owned two car dealerships here in the 1920s.

Click here to see more photos.

Maxwell once thrived. The railroad knifed through the heart of downtown in 1887, fueling more than a dozen businesses. In the 1960s, the Nagle Manufacturing and Supply Co. gained renown for making a good portion of the world’s wooden coat hangers. Hollywood arrived to make the 1981 film “Raggedy Man,” starring Texas native and Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek.

In 2010, the town had 500 residents, according to the Texas Almanac, but people have been leaving. The registry at Ebenezer Lutheran Church is dominated by family names like Schneider and Schulle. Today, a drive around the area shows a Hispanic influence with many relatives of the well-known Yanez and Gutierrez families living in the community.

Changing names is nothing new in Maxwell. The town was known as New Martindale until 1845, when Thomas Maxwell received a large tract of land from the Republic of Texas’ last president, Anson Jones, according to a 1953 story in the Lockhart Post-Register by B.E. Scheele, who was superintendent of schools.

Scheele also noted events of the day: “It seems that church, school and community picnics were enjoyed by all. Many dances were held in homes. The places were Koerbel and Schawe pastures.”

Today, the active Maxwell Social Club, a community center established in 1953 to host monthly suppers and celebrations, is a link to the past. Members meet monthly to socialize. Potluck meals sometimes feature German favorites, including sauerkraut and sauerbraten.

Duesterheft follows his ancestors’ ways. His German-style sausage is made of venison and pork. Smoking and drying the meat takes up to a month. “It’s just something we do,” he said.
 
 
DIME BOX 
 
Jean Blaha Davis, 80, is always on the lookout for a funeral. She is not maudlin; she’s a historian.

“I approach people at funerals and ask, ‘Can I be there when you go through your parents’ house?’ You can’t believe what I find. I have to keep this going,” she said.

She’s keeping Czech culture alive in the Lee County town of Dime Box, which in 2010 had a population of 381, according to the Texas Almanac. As a founder of the Dime Box Heritage Society Museum, she collected many Czech items on display: a photo of teacher Alice Etzel’s 1925 class at Hranice School, a 1927 property tax bill for $11.38 and an unarmed 100-pound bomb from World War II.


(Jay Godwin photo)Jean Blaha Davis, a founder of the Dime Box Heritage Society Museum, is proud of the metal mailbox that was sent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt filled with local contributions to the March of Dimes campaign. It was returned to Dime Box and is displayed at the museum along with an 1880s-era Czech First Communion prayer book.
Blaha Davis’ grandparents, Jan and Marie Hejtmancik, settled in this area after emigrating from Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. In the late 1880s, the flourishing Czech settlement of Hranice overlooked Yegua Creek here. Now, all that’s left is the old school’s well pump a few yards from St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery. But Blaha Davis’ childhood memories from the 1940s are fresh. “A few families grew maize, sugar cane and cotton. We grew food to feed the animals that fed us,” she said.

A sensible co-op called The Beef Club – a group of 25 families that took turns butchering a calf or hog – fed the community. “The family that butchered shared the meat,” she said. “The next day, it was another family’s turn. One day you’d have steaks and the next soup bones.”

A specialty of the community was always kolaches, hefty fruit-filled pastries. “We grew up appreciating everything we had because others had less,” she said. “We were taught to be kind and not to bicker. When adults talked, we listened.

“We never missed church on Sundays because it was the Czech thing to do. The men sat on the right and the women on the left.”

Before Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, these Slavic people from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia came to Texas in 1850, according to John L. Davis’ book “Texans One and All.” The Czechs focused on establishing self-sufficient farms.

The cornerstone of Czech communities was the Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas (SPJST), a fraternal benefit society created in 1897 in La Grange to ensure the financial security of members through life insurance. But SPJST Lodges served as community centers for dances, community projects and summer camps. Today, there are almost 100 chapters in Texas still promoting Czech heritage.

Blaha Davis finds comfort in history and her heritage. During a recent visit to St. Joseph cemetery where Hranice once stood, her thoughts went to her ancestors. “I’ll be right there next to my parents,” she said.
 
Slavnost May Fest and Tribute to the Immigrants is May 17 at 250 Fairgrounds Road, La Grange; get information at czechtexas.org or 888-785-4500.
 
 
SERBIN
 
While Hattie Schautschick bags homemade spaghetti-like noodles, she recalls a childhood story of how the geese got tipsy on her family’s farm in this small Lee County community.

“There was homemade wine in the barn, and the geese pecked at the cork in the bottles,” she said. The geese stumbled like drunks in a bar in a scene so funny it still makes her laugh.


(Jay Godwin photo)On Monday mornings, friends gather in Serbin to make noodles the old fashioned- Wendish way. From left, Nancy Lambert, Zelda Richards, Hattie Schautschick and Carolyn Jurk gather around a noodle-drying rack in the kitchen at the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum.
Schautschick and her friends gather before 7 a.m. every Monday in the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum’s kitchen to make noodles and share memories. In this unincorporated community 9 miles south of Giddings, the museum and St. Paul Lutheran Church next door are cornerstones of the community. The museum preserves the history of Texas Wends, Slavic immigrants from Lusatia (in presentday Germany near the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic), according to Anne Blasig’s book, “The Wends of Texas.”

The colony of German subculture was established in 1854.

Schautschick, 88, fondly remembers growing up in Serbin, which in 2010 had a population of 109, according to the Texas Almanac. “We got homemade pecan ice cream after the hay was picked,” she said. And, at Easter, she and the other children made small nests of plants, leaves and twigs from the garden. The children hid the homemade nests hoping their parents would fill them with candy and colored eggs.  

While other immigrants sought prosperity, Wends wanted religious liberty and the right to speak the Wendish language instead of German. Serbin’s Wends endured a difficult journey that included a voyage across the Atlantic on the Ben Nevis sailing ship. Some of the original 588 passengers lost their lives to cholera. Led by Pastor Johann Kilian, the Wends landed in Galveston in December 1854.

They overcame hard economic times and yellow fever to build Serbin, which flourished in the late 19th century. Rev. Kilian’s log cabin also served as a school and church. The current St. Paul’s church was built in 1871.

“Wends have always been guided by the Good Lord, and that never goes away,” said Joyce Bise of the Wendish museum. Among the museum’s cultural artifacts are vintage photos of Wend brides in black dresses — symbolic of a dour message that marriage brought grief and hardship.

When the railroad came to Lee County in 1871, Giddings prospered and Serbin shrank. Today, a few families remain. Schautschick lives on some of the original 25 acres that her grandfather Johann Mitschke received for fighting in the Civil War. The Rev. Kilian’s old log cabin sits next to St. Paul’s church, which serves 300 families and 80 children in its parochial school.

It’s home, Schautschick said. “No place like it.”
 
The Wendish Fest is Sept. 27 at 1011 County Road 212, Serbin; get information at texaswendish.org or 979-366-2441.
 
 
CHAPPELL HILL
 
Riding his four-wheeler, Pete Mazurkiewicz, 82, watches the hungry calves on his rolling pasture 60 miles northwest of Houston. He feels good despite bypass surgery, hip replacement and a bum leg. “This is fun,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever done.”

He sounds a horn and the calves faithfully follow him to troughs where he easily empties 50-pound bags of feed. This 50-acre farm is a portion of the larger 176-acre farm that belonged to his grandparents, Lorenz and Anna Mazurkiewicz, who emigrated from Poland in the late 1880s.

Most Catholic Poles came to Chappell Hill to work cotton plantations after Texas slaves were freed in 1865, according to a history written by Virginia Hill and the Rev. Jozef Musiol in celebration of the 125th anniversary of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. The church was founded in 1889 in Chappell Hill.

Back then, Chappell Hill was known as a “Methodist center,” home to the Chappell Hill Male and Female Institute, a nondenominational school founded in 1852. The Texas Methodist Conference changed the school to Soule University, a private college for boys, in 1854. It was expanded to add Chappell Hill Female College in 1856, according to the Handbook of Texas online (tshaonline.org). The railroad soon came and Chappell Hill became a small but important business center.


(Jay Godwin photo)Pete and Pauline Mazurkiewicz live and work on a portion of a farm in Chappell Hill that was formerly owned by his grandparents, who emigrated from Poland in the 1880s.
Click here to see more photos. 

Pete Mazurkiewicz and his wife, Pauline, work the family farm today, just like the original Polish families who lived off the land. “A poor but rich life,” Mazurkiewicz said, taking a pinch of Red Man chewing tobacco. He’s still driven by a strong work ethic. “If you stop, it’s all over,” he said.

His Polish upbringing meant 25-cent days in the cotton fields. Work defined his life. “If you were thirsty, my dad would say, ‘No, you finish chopping the hay first.’ ”

“Two good mules and a plow, that’s all we needed,” he said. Today, his four-wheeler is a reliable substitute, but many of the old ways don’t change. At lunch, his wife prepares Polska kielbasa (homemade Polish sausage), parzona kapusta (steamed cabbage), pierogi (dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese) and domowy chleb (homemade bread).

But things are changing in the community that in 2010 had a population of 750, according to the Texas Alamanac. The Mazurkiewiczs feel crowded by Houstonians buying land around them and building second homes. “Land that was $2,500 an acre 15 years ago is now $30,000. When I’m gone, all this family land will be filled with houses. That makes me sad,” he said. 
 
 
BRENHAM
 

(Maifest.org)Maifest has been celebrated in Brenham since 1881. This float was a highlight of the 1929 parade.
Maifest, one of the oldest festivals in Texas, celebrates its 125th anniversary and Brenham’s German heritage May 1-3 in Fireman’s Park, 901 N. Park St. The festival keeps alive the traditions of immigrants who settled in the area. It even has its own Texas Historical Marker. Maifest, a celebration of spring, was started in Brenham in 1881 by the local fire department and has been held every year except during World Wars I and II. In medieval times in Europe, houses and churches were decorated with flowers and villagers danced around a maypole, believed to have symbolized a tree. Now, maypoles are festooned with long, colorful streamers that dancers weave into an ornamental pattern as they circle the pole. Brenham’s festival includes a children’s maypole dance, a parade, German music, home-brew contests, children’s activities, coronations, a Polka church service, a Royalty 5k run, beanbag tournament and food. Admission to the festival grounds is free; tickets are required for some activities. For more information go to maifest.org.

 

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