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Texas Wends: Serbin and Giddings

Wednesday 16 September 2015 at 08:12 am.

This article written by George Carmack appeared in the San Antonio Express News, San Antonio, Texas on 25 July 1981.

Note: The league of land was bought for $1/acre not 50 cents/acre.


Texas has no town like Serbin.

Actually Serbin is 4,428 acres - the original "league" of land bought for 50 cents an acre by the pioneers who settled it.

There are several houses and a store up the road.

But when you say "Serbin," you mean a historic church, a parsonage, a school, a museum and an open-sided, tin-roofed building for picnics - plus a church-grounds graveyard where the people of Serbin have been buried since 1855.

But Serbin goes far beyond this appealing community in Lee County near Giddings.

The people who founded Serbin so many years ago were Wends.

To this day wherever a descendant of those pioneer Wends lives, his or her heart goes back to Serbin.

One proof of this is the St. Paul Lutheran Church at Serbin. The Texas Almanac says there are 70 people living in the town. Yet St. Paul Lutheran church has more than 500 members.

"We are growing by about 25 members a year, chiefly Wendish descendants coming back to this general area," Pastor Paul Hartfield says.

What pleasure Bonnie and I had in Serbin and in Giddings, where you can find a Wend descendant in almost any block.

We got the inspiring story of the Wends from such people as the Rev. John J. Socha who wears two hats in an unusual combination. He is the minister of the Trinity Lutheran Church at Dime Box and manager of the booming Giddings Chamber of Commerce.

We should say three hats because of his deep interest in the Wendish heritage. He is editor of the lively newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.

Then we went to the historic church at Serbln where Hartfield told us its story.

Though the church is much older, the present building was completed in 1871. Beautiful gold, blue, and white pipe organ was installed in 1904. Of course it was pumped by hand. When electricity came, the church decided it had better also keep the hand-pump bellows.

"Just two weeks ago the power failed just as services were about to begin," Hartfield said. "No trouble - the ushers took turns pumping."

Then we talked with a softspoken man who is probably the only printer still alive in the United States who can hand set Wendish type - if he had the type. He is Albert Miertschln, now on the La Grange Journal.

It has been a long time since I have met anyone with whom I felt the sentimental bond of newspaper friendship as quickly as with this still working 71 year old printer.

Bonnie and I had an unforgettable half hour at the home of friendly, jolly Mrs. August (Laura) Zoch, where she and the equally friendly Mrs. William L. (Lillian) Pratho demonstrated how they made Wendish noodles.

No food served each year at the Texas Folklife Festival is more popular than Wendish noodles. The Wends had their first exhibit at HemisFair and no group is more popular at the Folklife Festival.

Amid all its history there is a touch of modern day Texas at Serbin. On a back comer or the church property is an oil well.

Though income is shared by two other owners - drilling is on 80 acre blocks - income has been enough for the church to build a new school building.

Some Wend families - whose ancestors suffered unbelievable hardships on their trip to America in 1854 - have now found a pot of gold at the end of the Texas rainbow, for oil has also been found on their land.

Oil has revolutionized Giddings. Downtown parking is not easy. And traffic on Giddings main streets is a reminder of Houston. Much of the traffic is big oil field diesel trucks.

Socha's Chamber of Commerce office is a mixture of an employment agency, a PR office for the more than 100 firms active in the area, a housing bureau and an advice agency on civic programs.

"The Giddings Field is the heart of the Austin Chalk boom," Socha said. "More than 2,500 wells have been drilled in the past five years. There are now about 1,000 working wells, producing from 10-15,000 barrels a day and plenty of gas."

"People from every state in the union are here. Giddings had 2,783 people in 1970. There must be 12,000 people here now."

But this is a story of the Wends and not of the Austin Chalk. Socha has a number of mementoes of earliest days and told us much of the story.

"Though the Wends long lived in Germany, they are not German," Socha said. "They are a Slavic people with their own language."

"There are about 80,000 still living in East Germany down near the Czech and Polish borders. They have kept their Slavic - Wendish Identity.

"The Wends call themselves 'Serbs' or 'Sorbs' - hence the name of Serbin here."

For Bonnie's pictures, Socha and others were in costume. Socha was wearing a perky Wendish style hat with "Ja Sym Serb" on it - "I am a Serb." There are also "Ja Sym Serb" T-shirts.

"The Wends came to America because the Germans were trying to 'Germanize' them - change their language, customs and religion.

There are only two Wend colonies anywhere in the world outside Germany. The first group to leave went to Australia. The group that came to America considered going to Australia or Brazil but decided on Texas after seeing some of the Texas land promotion material so widely distributed at that time in Germany.

As the only Wend colony in the United States, Texas Wends are unique.

"The story of the Wends is in no small part the story of a remarkable man, the Rev. Jan Kilian," Socha told us.

Making the migration more unusual was that the Wendish church congregation - the same one in Serbin now - was formed before the group left Germany in 1854.

Jan Kilian was called as its pastor then, was its pastor on the terrible voyage across the ocean and pastor of the church in Serbin until his death almost 30 years later. For the first 15 years he was also the school teacher, a school still in existence.

Texas has had few men of more character and fortitude. His daughter was the first person to die at Serbin and hers was the first grave in this historic cemetery.

Socha has a number of mementoes of Killian and the early days of the Wends in Texas. Among those he showed us was his most prized, a small, faded black book, heavily stitched at the back to hold it together.

It is "Domjazy Waltar" - "Family Altar" - published in the Wendish area back in Germany in 1867. Many of the prayers in it were written by Kilian when he was a young pastor.

"It was Kilian's own personal copy of this book, often used by him," Socha said. "I believe it is the only copy of the book now in the United States. It was given to me by Mrs Luecke, a granddaughter of Kilian.

On the back wall inside the St Paul Lutheran Church at Serbin is a picture of the Ben Nevis, the sailing ship that brought the Wends from Liverpool to Texas.

Pastor Hartfield also took us to the museum where there is a great wooden chest - the key still with it - that came over on the Ben Nevis. At the museum also is a copy of the ship's passenger list with a notation of those who died.

'There were 588 who left Germany." Hartfield said. "Only a little more than 500 reached here."

In a pamphlet by Ron Lammert of San Antonio, publisher of the Leon Valley Northwest Leader, there is a moving story of the voyage.

The pamphlet is "Sto su Serbja?" (Wendish accents omitted) - Who are the Wends?" Lammert says in part about the voyage.

"They soon encountered the first tragedy as the dread cholera epidemic struck. Fifteen died before the ship reached Ireland.

"At Queenstown, Ireland, the ship was quarantined for three weeks. Twenty-three more succumbed to cholera during this time.

"Another 18 died at sea during the Atlantic crossing."

One baby was born and died on the ship.

The yellow fever - almost as dreaded as cholera - struck when the Ben Nevis reached Galveston. Many were stricken when the Ben Nevis reached Galveston. Many were stricken but there was only one death.

A total of 73 persons died during the entire trip.

Lammert also tells much about Pastor Kilian's scholarship. He was known to preach the same sermon in Wendish, German , and English on a single Sunday morning.

Lammert and his father had a marvelous visit in the Wendish homeland in East Germany two years ago. His father, Ted Lammert of Katy, is president of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.

How much we enjoyed seeing the church with Pastor Hartfield.

The first Wendish church at Serbin was a log cabin. This was followed by a small frame church. In 1867, the cornerstone was laid for a new, majestic cut-stone church which was completed in 1871. Men of the church cut the stone and built it.

This is the church that stands today - looking inside and out much as it did when it was dedicated 110 years ago.

There are many unusual things about the church that make it so appealing.

The balcony inside the church runs continually around all four sides. Bonnie and I thought the church pews in the balcony were beautiful. Members built them out of native pine and a shield is carved on the end of each bench.

"In early years, the men sat on the benches in the balcony," Hartfield said. "The women sat on the first floor on benches ordered from St. Louis."

The pulpit may be the highest in Texas.

"It is 20 feet above the floor," Hartfield said. "We think it was the highest Lutheran pulpit in the nation for a long time but we understand a pulpit in Milwaukee now is higher."

The church interior is in soft blues and grays. Most memorable are the square wooden pillars supporting the balcony and then the ceiling.

The pillars are "feather painted" - delicate black designs on gray-blue. These painting are original - unretouched - and the 110 years have not faded their beauty.

Another unusual thing is a hollow ball halfway up the slender church spire. Pastor Kilian wrote a story of Serbin and put it in this ball.

Jan Kilian was pastor from 1854 until his death in 1884. His son, Herman, had joined him in the pastorate in 1883. Herman remained pastor until his death in 1920. As long as the Kilian's were pastors, Wendish sermons were preached regularly.

It was a moving moment when Hartfield took us by the Jan Kilian gravestone.

The story of printer Albert Miertschin is the story of small town weekly newspapers over the three score years.

In his early years, Miertschin had set type in Wendish. He possibly is the only printer left in the country who has done so and could do so again.

He began on the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, a German language newspaper founded in 1899 by John A. Proske. At first Proske had Wendish pages in his paper.

Miertschin told a moving story. After Wendish pages were no longer published, when an old timer died often his family would ask that the obituary be published in Wendish.

Miertschin often set those obituaries. Proske also had him set up and leave standing some pretty little Wendish poems.

"We had a font of hand set, 9-point type with six or seven of the letters carrying the necessary Wendish accents," Miertschin said.

"I had a pretty little box divided into sections with these characters in it. I inserted these Wendish letters from it."

In time, Miertschin and a partner owned the Deutsches Volksblatt and also started the Giddings Star in English.

"We still had that font of Wendish type. We sold the papers in 1954. After a while I returned to Giddings and worked in the print shop. I know that Wendish type was in the print shop until the 1960s. it disappeared and what happened to it I do not know.

Bonnie and I were told that the font of Wendish type was at a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis.

"That could be, but I fear it has just been lost," Miertschin said.

To anyone brought up in the tradition of the linotype, Miertschin's story is touching.

"My lucky day came in 1926," he said. "Mr. Proske bought a Linotype. He would have nothing to do with. He called it a brain breaker. He told me that only I would run it. "

Almost unaided, Miertschin learned to operate it - hot lead squirts and all.

Miertschin's love of the Linotype turned out to be a lifetime romance. The computer is making the Linotype almost as obsolete as the horse and buggy. But Miertschin still operates one on the La Grange Journal.

Bonnie and I left Miertschin's neat little home in a quiet mood - a sort or sweet sadness for the newspaper days of yesteryear.

But soon all of this was forgotten - in the wonderful kitchen of Mrs. Zoch as she and Mrs. Pratho rolled out those Wendish noodles amid such lively talk and laughter.

In sunshine and in storm - what wonderful people the Wends are!

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