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2. Birkmann Letter to George Engerrand

Friday 05 October 2096 at 5:43 pm.

The second is a report of Birkmann's personal observations of Wendish people in their Texas surroundings, written in English in the form of a nine-page letter addressed to a Prof. George C. Engerrand, who had solicited information from this seventy-five year old pastor, living in retirement in Giddings. The fact that Engerrand is the author of a book which appeared in 1934 (The So-Called Wends of Germany and Their Colonies in Texas and in Australia, University of Texas Bulletin No. 3417, published May 1, 1934, and reprinted in 1972) explains the circumstances. (Prof. Engerrand was a member of the anthropology department of the University of Texas at Austin from 1920 until his retirement (and death) in 1961. He had been born in France (1877) and received his undergraduate education there. He held research and teaching positions in Belgium (1898-1907), Mexico (1907-17), and Mississippi (1917-20) prior to his time in Austin. Three articles in the Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 32 (1961) commemorate his life and contributions.) It is clear from what is said that the two knew each other, had met in person, and intended to meet again. Rather remarkable is the fact that the account was written on August 26, 1929, two days after the tragic drowning death of Walter Gersch, Freda's husband and his son-in-law. In a second cover letter, dated September 11, 1929, the date on which the material was actually placed in the mail, he explains the timing by saying, "I wrote to occupy my mind," after what in an earlier paragraph he described as "the most grievous experience of my whole long life." That second letter also acknowledges with thanks Engerrand's expression of sympathy, which has to mean that there was some intervening contact.


Appearing below is a report written in English on August 26, 1929, by the Rev. G. Birkmann, living in retirement in Giddings, and sent with a cover letter on September 11, 1929, to Professor George C. Engerrand of the University of Texas. Happily, Rev. Birkmann saved carbon copies of his writing, now in the possession of Ray Martens. Martens has made minor revisions of the kind that Birkmann said he would have made had his limited eyesight allowed that. Pages 6 and 8 of the report are missing

Giddings, Texas

Sept. 11, 1929

Prof. George C. Engerrand

Austin, Texas

Dear Professor Engerrand:

I thank you very much for your kind letter of recent date expressing your sympathy to me in my present bereavement. This is, indeed, one of the most grievous experiences of my whole long life, yet we know that even these inscrutable ways of God are for our best and serve to make us prepared to think of eternity and of meeting our God—I hope to stand before Him clothed in the righteousness of my dear Savior, Christ Jesus. There is none other name.

Dear Sir, today I am sending you pages I have written during the days after we had heard of the loss of our beloved son-in-law, Mr. Walter Gersch. I wrote to occupy my mind and to be of some little service to the work on the Wends you are going to write. I have noticed with pleasure what you said in a letter to me, namely, that my notes were of "extreme importance," as you expressed it. I am obliged for your kind appreciation of my efforts, still I want to say that I do not attach very much importance to my notes, except that they reflect my impressions of the folk among whom I labored for so many years.

My idea in writing down what came to my recollection was to assist us when we could meet again, in deliberating on and talking about my experiences. Whatever may seem (in my written statements) queer or harsh or difficult to understand may be explained by me orally. I do not mean to say that I have made no mistake in what I have written. I know well that in judging a people one must know them well and must be unprejudiced and charitable and all of that. I am very desirous of having another talk with you.

With great respect, yours truly,

G., Birkmann

In reading my pages please remember that I am unable to revise my writings on account of my poor eyesight.

Giddings, Texas

Aug. 26, 1929

Dear Prof. George C. Engerrand:

Your kind notice that you can make use of my notes has encouraged me to write some more briefly about the conditions under which my people lived in their environment. This, of course, had some effect on them and changed their way of living as compared to the old country from which they had come, and this new environment very likely has had much influence on the character of the Wends that were born and raised in this country.

I have been told repeatedly that when the first colony came to Serbin under Rev. John Kilian, the land was open post oak country, with no brush or young trees as you see them now. The trees were standing apart, with grass growing between them, and the grass was said to have been very tall, so as to hide horses and cattle lying down in it. I think this is correct, for I have had many similar observations during my first years in Fedor, although at that time there were some portions of the woods full of brush, consisting of young trees, briars, and so on.

Most of the trees in the uplands were post oak, with some black jack (oak), hackberry, and several other kinds. In the creek bottoms there were pin oak, elm trees, pecans, sycamores, hawthorn (crataegus), and many others. These bottoms and their thickets were the winter homes of many birds, as there was plenty of shelter and food, nuts and berries.

We have in the so-called post oak section, not only woods but also prairies, some comprising an area of several miles, as the San Antonio prairie, lying six miles northwest of Giddings. In Fedor we had several smaller prairies, and these prairies, studded with mesquites and in some places with cactus, have a different soil and different plants from the post oak land, with the result that the character of the country there is quite different, an agreeable change in the appearance of the country. [p. 2] The soil of the post oak land is not always the best, for there is much sand in places and hard clay in others, even though some of the post oak land is good. The prairies are considered better as a rule. Some have fertile soil; others, however, also have much gravel in places, making farming as hard as in the post oak. The best fields are in creek bottoms, but to clear away the heavy growth of timber and brush there was hard work. So it was that bottom lands were not the first to be utilized, especially because they were also subject to occasional overflows.

The question is sometimes raised nowadays as to why these people did not select the great fertile prairies in other parts of Texas for their colonization. Could they not have bought land there just as cheaply as in the post oak region? Certainly, if they could find anyone to give them good title to the land. It is a well-known fact that most of the prairies of Texas were unsettled in former days, while the wooded parts came under cultivation. The reason is simple: At the time no wire fences were to be had. Nobody knew of any fence of that description. They had rail fences, or fences made of stone or other material. And they had to have wood for building their homes and for all other building purposes. They needed wood for heating and cooking. Of course, they could have settled in such prairies where they had woods in the neighborhood, but to settle in large, extensive regions bare of wood was out of the question.

And now I shall try to tell a little about the settlement of Fedor by the Wends. The congregation was established in 1876, a few families making the beginning. Mr. Andrew Melde, it is true, had lived there since perhaps about 1856, on the farm where Mr. Reinhold Melde is now living. Mr. Andrew Pillack had bought a place on the West Yegua probably a year of two before 1870, and these two families—Melde and Pillack—from time to time went to Serbin to attend worship. In Fedor there were also a few old American settlers, among them Shearn, West, Wilson, Beard, Cole, Riggs, and some others whose name I cannot now recall. Mr. Hester, a German from Hamburg, also lived on a farm later owned by John Zschech and now owned by [p. 3] his son, Gustave Zschech. The Cole farm in 1870 came into the possession of August Polnick, a Wendish family with two sons, August and Andrew, both of whom continued to live in Fedor for a time after the death of their father, but in the beginning of the eighties moved to other parts of Texas.

Mr. Boback deserves special mention as one of the founders of the Fedor community. He bought a league of land (so I was informed) and parceled it out and sold these parcels to a number of Wendish people who had either long been residents of Serbin or who had come over from the old country during the year 1869 or so. Mr. Boback was a fine and generous man who donated fifty acres of the league he bought to the newly founded church at Fedor. This land is still in the possession of the church, and the church and school buildings along with the residences of the teacher and pastor are there, now for almost sixty years. The year after the founding of the new congregation (or perhaps a year later) Mr. Boback sold out and sought a new home in the state of Missouri. (The settlement of Fedor did not at that time bear that name, but the church was designated as the Ev. Luth. Church at West Yegua, Burleson County. Lee County was organized in 1874 from parts of Fayette, Washington, Burleson, and Bastrop counties. Serbin formerly was in Bastrop County, and Giddings, (founded 1871) was in Washington County.)

In 1873 the congregation at Fedor grew considerably in that about a dozen families came from Serbin, among them Jacob Moerbe, August Dube, Carl Dube, John Wuensche, Andrew Falke, Sr., John Zschech, Ernst Drosche, and several other Drosches. Also a few families came from Frelsburg: Andrew Symmank and Patschke, the father of Mr. Heinrich Patschke, who is still living in Fedor. Also Mr. Peter Urban had come at that time from Germany—he had two sons, Herman, one of the best known men in our Lee County, and Otto, who died several years ago in Chicago after living there for many a year.

In the beginning of the eighties there was considerable immigration from Germany also of the Wends, and the Fedor church gained quite a few of these families, among them Mr. Carl Jenke, who had six sons, John Becker, Mr. Kaiser, Mr. Herzog, Andrew Zschech, John Lehmann, Gust. Schulz, and one other Schulz (a near relative who later removed to California).

Also Traugott Patschke, brother of the previously mentioned C. A. Patschke, and Mr. John Krautschick. All these, I think, came over from the old country. Some others from Serbin joined the Fedor church in the late seventies or early eighties: [p. 4] Mr. John Schubert and Andrew Handrick.

I shall mention a few names that should have been recorded somewhat earlier in this paper, as these people had already been in the congregation when I came in 1876: Mr. Sucky, who soon died, leaving his widow and several daughters, Mr. August Bluemel, a Handrick who did not come from Serbin, as also Andrew Noack. I must also not overlook Mr. Ernst Winkler, the brother of Carl and Wilhelm Winkler, who settled in what is now The Grove, Coryell County. All these Winklers came out of the Serbin church in the beginning of the seventies in the last century. Ernst Winkler had several sons, Herman, August, and Carl. August is dead, the others are still living in Fedor.

There were and still are also some Melchers and Lerches in the Fedor church. I am not sure, however, of their Wendish origin. It is very difficult in some cases to state the original descent. I am sure, however, that most all those mentioned above came from the Lusatias.

I shall say something now about the dwellings I found at Fedor in 1876. They were, as I suppose, of much the same kind as they had in Serbin. Some of the houses were log huts, either one room and a back room where they had a kitchen stove, or a log house with several larger rooms divided by a so-called hall, and some smaller rooms back of the larger ones. In front was what was called a porch or "gallery." Some houses were built of sawed lumber—the wood being post oak or, in some cases, pine. Some of these houses were quite comfortable, keeping out the cold in winter and admitting plenty of breeze in summer and having a good roof to keep out the rain. Others were simply shacks or huts, shelters from the worst. In such a house you would get a little wet in a downpour, but not drenched, and you would shiver some in the cold, but not freeze altogether.

I have read about floors made of earth (loam) in Serbin, but in Fedor I do not remember ever having seen such floors. And I have never noticed people cooking their meals outdoors. But my time was twenty years after the Serbin colonization.

During my later years in Fedor, better houses were built. Still, I often imagined that in a German community more attention would have been given to the building and furnishing of homes and to the planting of orchards and to keeping things in good order and maintaining a finer appearance generally. The Wends here were not as progressive as they [here at least one full line is missing] [p. 5]

Some of the Wendish immigrants were without means, and they first became renters. They gave as rent one fourth of their cotton and one third of their corn crops. Most of them, however, had some means, enough, at least, to make a first payment on a piece of land where they intended to remain. They, of course, also had their difficulties: clearing of their land of timber and brush, the breaking of the soil, the grubbing out of tree stumps, the splitting of rails and soon fencing their fields, and then attending to the sowing, cultivating, and gathering of crops—if they had any. Cattle and horses and hogs, as a rule were not kept in pastures or lots, the only exception being work animals and perhaps milk cows and their calves. The cattle were running at large and seeking their subsistence in the woods or on the grassy prairies or seeking shelter in winter in the thickets of the creek bottoms. From time to time each farmer had to send out his boys to look after his stock, round them up (as they call it), drive them home for the young animals to be branded, each proprietor having his brand. In the same way the hogs had to be gathered in and marked by splitting their ears. When in the fall there was a good mast (as they call the acorns), the hogs fattened up pretty well on that feed and were either killed right out in the woods or put in pens and fattened with corn.

So it came to pass that you saw in the open a great many tame animals, all having their owners, who knew their own by their marks and brands. And some farmers knew the brands of all their neighbors, and the roaming animals were supposed to be as safe from robbery as those kept at home. In the last twenty years at Fedor conditions have changed. Now most of the farm animals are kept in pastures with great wire fences built around the whole land of each farmer, while in former time only the fields had been fenced in.

The climate of Texas allows for outdoor work in winter, except when a furious norther makes people stay in the house for a day or two. Plenty of work all the year through was the lot of these people, and they seemed to like work better than sitting behind their stoves. They were an industrious lot, even children and women helping, especially when cotton was to be hoed or thinned out or picked—a time at which the children were most useful, sometimes better able to make headway than their elders. And this cotton picking sometimes lasted for two or three

[P. 6 is missing in its entirety]

[p.7] pile was used up when they got another load of melons from the field. This was in the good old summertime, in the month of July and part of August. I think that these people also found roasting ears to be good in their season. I do not know, however, that they enjoyed the roasting ears as much as the American folks. I am no sure about this.

As to drink, as a matter of course, this was mainly water and coffee, hardly any tea, and only at times a glass of beer. They made no home brew in those days, and to buy beer in the store was expensive and could not often be indulged in.

Now about water—some farmers had wells, but I think that some of these wells were no great boon to their owners, the water was so bad. Other wells, I think were good enough. Most families in my church in former times had no well at all, but cisterns that contained rain water, and almost all cisterns were above ground, exposed to the heat of the sun. Quite a number of families got the water from the branch or from a tank they had scraped in their neighborhood for their cattle and horses. And there were sometimes long dry and hot seasons when these people were happy to have any water at all. In some instances, they had to haul water for miles, and to spend half of their time on this business.

There was much sickness in former years, children dying from summer complaint [sic], adults from malaria hematuria. Since the beginning of the present century, such cases of sickness and death have decreased considerably, and, as a rule, the health of the community is now very good. Children are taken better care of than formerly; the parents are in better condition to care for their own.

As to [text illegible] of pictures I had seen on books or periodicals describing such matter, my people dressed simply, very plainly in most cases. Women wore sun bonnets and dresses made of cheap but durable material—there was no striving after compliance with fashions of the day. On the contrary, I imagine they would have profited if their daughters could have stayed in Houston or Austin for a year or two in order to tell their mothers what they had seen and that some things at home might be done better. This is the case now, and the contact of so many young people with people of the cities and other parts of the state has given our Wends in Lee County another viewpoint, and the fact that all families now ride in autos and go to see other towns and people has a great influence on them [p.8 missing in its entirety].

[p. 9] Oxen were much used in hauling heavy loads of wood or cotton and for the breaking of land which was to be cultivated. Most of the draft animals in my time, however, were horses and mules. Farm wagons were used not only on the farm, but also to take the family to town or to church or to wherever they wanted to go. There was no buggy or spring wagon during my first years. Later on, there were the so-called hacks, vehicles with heavy springs under the wagon bed and with two or three seats. They cost about a hundred and fifty dollars. And there were also buggies with a top. After some more years, when people had more money, they bought surreys, pretentious vehicles for those days. They may have cost about two hundred dollars. Most of the families, however, continued to do their traveling in farm wagons, some saying that they would never ride in a buggy or other wagon better than a common farm wagon.

To go to Giddings in that kind of vehicle would take four long hours going and again the same time coming home. Thus a whole day was spent in going to town. But "What of it?" they thought. They had plenty of time, others did the same, and people were not at all in a great hurry. The roads were rough for the most part, and in wet, rainy weather almost impassable. Thus the trip to town was sometimes wearing out not only the teams and the harness and the wagons, but also the men and women and children who had to make these trips. So it happened that some did not dare to go at all, staying at home and not going to town for several years, their only trips being on Sunday to attend the service.

How different now, with the auto making the trip to town within an hour, and in a fine car, easy riding, pleasant recreation. I think this improvement will have a great influence, one already showing in the way our country people, also our Wendish people, look at things and acquire knowledge which they did not dream of before. They must now come in contact with many other people and learn of them and improve their way of living and their manner of working their farms. Roads in Lee County, also those of Fedor, are still mostly bad, with sand or ruts and holes in places, bad enough to make for car trouble costing more money that it would cost to repair the roads.

I liked my time in Fedor, and I liked my people and my church, and I much regretted that I could not spend the last days with my beloved Fedor people. May God bless them forever.

One comment

George Nielsen

I had not seen the letter before and it reinforces my envy of Birkmann’s memory.

It also reminded me of a Engerrand story. During my year at U of T in 1958-59 my wife worked at Concordia and I had a part-time job at the State Archives—then housed at Camp Mabry while the new building was being constructed near the Capitol. During that time several of us went to the DMV for coffee, every day. Dorman Winfrey was the archivist, James Day was in the group and anyone who liked to talk Texas history. My friendship with these two remains even though they no longer live. (Chester Kielman was the archivist at the U of T archives and was not part of the coffee group, but he was part of the gang.)

It was one of those Texas winter days when the morning starts out warm and everybody dresses to fit the temperature. A bit after noon the wind shifts to the north and by late afternoon it is cold. Winfrey was doing his dissertation under H. Bailey Carroll and doing some work for him. Carroll was the editor of the SWHQ and head of a program for involving high school students in Texas History. Engerrand was in the building and was getting ready to walk home. He took off his shirt, wrapped his torso with newspaper, replaced his shirt, and took off. Sorry for the long introduction, but I think it shows Engerrand as a survivalist and a clever person.

Even though Engerrand may have been born in France, he was a Basque and this minority is still trying to gain independence from Spain. I wonder if that heritage might not have influenced him to study the Wends who were also a minority.


George Nielsen - 10/9/2015 16:49

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