Our Culture, What There Is of It

This last weekend, I actually went out of my house/neighborhood and did something different. Something interesting and out in the real world, or something that resembled the real world, out there, beyond the keyboard and computer screen. I had a table for my books at a cultural event, the Folkfest in New Braunfels. Historically, New Braunfels was one of the German Verein-founded towns in the Texas Hill Country, one of those that I have written about in my historical series; the main reason that I was invited to the bash under the oak trees at the Heritage Society’s campus on the northern edge of town. The Adelsverein Trilogy touches on the circumstances and reason why more than eight thousand German immigrants ended up on the wild and unsettled Texas frontier in the 1840s. A consortium of German noblemen and princes hoped to make a tidy profit – and to do a good deed for their struggling countrymen – by taking up an entrepreneur grant in the independent Republic of Texas. They were honest in their hope to make the venture advantageous economically for them, which distinguishes them from many other ostensibly charitable enterprises of late. That the Adelsverein went broke within two years had more to do with the princely gentlemen overselling their program to eager potential immigrants and badly underestimating the costs in transporting them to Texas. That it resulted in a godly number of able, educated, independent-minded and patriotic new citizens turned out to be a bonus. It also resulted in Kendal, Gillespie and Comal counties being almost completely German-speaking for better than a hundred years, which explained the prevalence of dirndls and lederhosen worn with cowboy boots at the Folkfest.

The Heritage Society has moved a number of buildings of historical note onto the property; a dog-trot cabin, carpenter’s shop, a windmill, one-room schoolhouse. blacksmith shop and others. For the Folkfest, these buildings are inhabited by docents and volunteers, augmented by historical reenactors in tents and pavilions, eager to exhibit their skills and gear. The flintlock and black powder shooters shot their long rifles regularly during the two days, as did the cannon crew with their antique artillery piece. There was live music under the trees – a Celtic band, a children’s choir singing German folksongs, a clogging dance troupe, an array of country-western singers – and a children’s costume parade on Saturday, carrying on the tradition of a May Day parade established by the teacher of the first school in New Braunfels in the 1850s. A pair of charro performers demonstrated rope tricks and fancy riding skills in a temporary rink, the owner of a genuine 1913 Ford Model-T gave rides around the circuit of the grounds, and the owners of an authentic cowboy chuckwagon demonstrated making biscuits and cooking over a fire with iron Dutch ovens. In other years at Folkfest I have seen lace-makers showing off their skills, and carpenters demonstrating how to use templates and hand-tools to shape chair spindles and legs. Last year, the hayride was in a wagon pulled by a pair of horses, this year merely a trailer lined with hay-bales pulled by a tractor. But there was a good crowd, over this last weekend; families and couples having fun, listening to the music while sitting at the tables by the beer garden, under the great oak tree in the center of the grounds. There wasn’t a single mask in sight, and no social distancing that I could see. It all reminded me that not everything is awful and catastrophic – and that many of us are holding on tight to our history and our traditions.
More pictures here. Comment as you wish.

35 thoughts on “Our Culture, What There Is of It”

  1. Oh, do – I will have to check, but if you come in historical costume, you can get in for free. I did that one year – wore a riding habit and top hat.

  2. Our historical society and other organizations sponsor and participate in an annual event at (arguably) the oldest structure in our county (1820s-30s). There’s a nice modern meeting hall on the grounds where we can set up booths to sell our books and sign people up.

    Anyway, for years the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camps (there are many) were strong supporters of the event, just as many of them individually are strong supporters of local history in general.

    Starting in the 1990s or so it became obvious to some of us that dozens of them and their butternut and homespun–and Confederate flags in abundance–out front were not really attracting the young, or minorities, who might otherwise feel welcome. Now there are fewer of them (it was largely a Boomer phenom) and they aren’t front and center.

    We were on hiatus for the last year, but plan to have one now at the end of this month.
    We’ll see what Covid hath wrought.

  3. There was a small camp of Confederates, round in back – but there was also a Buffalo Soldier reenactor … so I think that we have all come to be OK with the ACW. It did split the Hill Country quite horribly, as there were those who were Unionists to the point of dying for it, and those who reluctantly joined with the local militia, mostly to defend the frontier …
    It was … complicated.

  4. Only when traveling in Texas and stopping to read the history markers–and (significant part here) reading a few of Sgt Mom’s short discourses on Germans in Texas–did I gain awareness of that piece of history.

    Glad you were able to get out and grab a bit of sanity.

  5. I read The Adelsverein Trilogy with great interest because it is part of my children’s heritage. My husband’s family was German, in fact his father’s name was Adolph, a family name handed down from some of the first settler’s. I remember when I first met him meeting the family and their German accents. One of our favorite stops for many years was a bakery where the owners sounded as if they just got off the boat.
    Well, we have been married for 64 years in May, and of course those accents are gone, but I remember them fondly. Jung Rd in San Antonio still has the house Grandma H was born in, at least it did the last time I looked. She was a Jung. The paternal lines are in Comal and Guadalupe counties. You sure stirred up some memories.

  6. A lot of my wargaming friends also reenacted, but even if I hadn’t been in grad school that hobby is way too expensive and time-consuming for me. (Among European reenactors, Germans loom large; I know a German academic whose group reenacted the 3rd Missouri Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US, a unit of mostly 1848ers. Says he wants to show people that Germans weren’t always the bad guys.)

    IIRC your Texas contingent was earlier than ’48 and there wasn’t much connection with the
    almost-revolutions in Europe that year and the next.

  7. Sgt Mom –

    If you see the mini series 1883 on Paramount+?

    It’s about a wagon train that was assembled at Fort Worth to travel to Oregon. Sam Elliot is the wagon master and most of the patrons were German immigrants.

    What I do know of Texas history, a lot thanks to you, and what I did look up I was struck by the effort the writer made for historical authenticity.

    One by putting a lot of Germans in Texas. Two having a set within Fort Worth called Hells half acre which indeed existed.

    Three Having that notorious sheriff Bob Cortland who actually existed although they put him a few years are.

    How accurate do you think these Germans were? One of them said for example they were not allowed to learn how to swim in Germany which makes no sense to me.

    None of them knew about firearms which didn’t make sense.

  8. Sort of reminds me of some of the history of the Germans from Russia who moved to Nebraska.
    They have (or at least had) a museum about them in Lincoln, NE.

  9. Hi, Bill – I haven’t watched 1883. Initially I wonder why they set the series in that date, and had a wagon train going from Texas north, when there was a network of railroads by then, and the Indian wars were almost over but for one … (more here from my own website)
    That the German characters would know about firearms? Huh – just about all the German principalities and states had draft laws. Even fresh off the boat, male German immigrants would have been well-aware. And not allowed to learn to swim? Very curious. Physical fitness was a big thing – with the Turner Clubs.
    A lot of people didn’t know how to swim back then – I think it was more a cultural thing, rather than forbidden by law. A far greater number of deaths on the Oregon-California trail were by drowning than practically anything else.

  10. In the past we have gone to the Texas Independence Day celebration at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site. They have (or had) similar re-enactments of 1836 era encampments that were fascinating. Also there’s a recreation of Anson Jones’s farm with re-enactors doing farming stuff (churning butter, tending animals).

    I grew up in Austin and when I was a girl there was still a German language service at our church (Lutheran, of course) on Good Friday.

  11. Sgt Mom, I enjoy reading your contributions here for their content, thank you. With the greatest respect, if I may suggest that you consider the form as well as content, reading would be even more pleasant with appropriate use of separate paragraphs.

  12. @Sgt Mom – I think the writer (Taylor Sheridan) picked 1883 as a prequel to his hit series Yellowstone.

    I am ambivalent on Yellowstone – immensely entertaining but half soap opera. Sam Elliot, who knows westerns, hates it.

    But they did bring out a lot of the dangers of a Wagon Train, things that I never thought of before. Such as where to push it if it is bogged.

    But you do bring up some good points – after 1876 the Plains Wars were pretty much over.

  13. A wagon train to Oregon in 1883 would have been an anachronism. Economically it would make no sense. If you didn’t have money, you’d hardly be able to afford land once you got there. By then Oregon had been long settled. The immigrant trains before the Civil War were necessary not so much for transportation, the voyage around the Horn or via Panama was probably cheaper than the considerable cost of an outfit and supplies for someone that planned to stay longer than it took to get rich in the gold fields. Many things like farm equipment was either not available or exorbitantly expensive once you arrived. All of that changed with the railroads.

    There were the south to north cattle drives that crossed the rail lines that were still mostly east-west so didn’t offer an alternative. But Hell’s Half Acre was directly adjacent to the stock yards where the cattle that had been driven to Kansas were loaded on trains for the trip east.

    Really just another case of the “Hollywood West” that exists in some other universe where people are killed by guns that wouldn’t be invented for 20 years, Apaches were a danger in Wyoming and horses could gallop full out for miles and miles.

  14. I met in TX a woman with a German surname- an uncommon one- that I recognized from my NE hometown, from a family that had moved to town when I was in high school. I asked her if she were related to XX whom I had known in NE. No, not related, she said.

    Turns out they were related. Why she didn’t want to acknowledge her cousin is her business.

    I did some research on the family: Hill Country German. Turns out they had settled in a town that was known as a place where Hill Country Germans of the atheist persuasion lived. I had known XX in Liberal Religious Youth, which was then the Unitarian-Universalist youth group. That is some cultural continuity.

    Speaking of Hill Country Germans and Tejanos, the accordiions in Tejano music came from the Hill Country Germans. Yes, that’s cultural appropriation, and that’s a good thing.

  15. What MCS said – a south-to-north wagon train in the early 1880s didn’t make all that much sense – at all. The railroads changed everything about the west, once the various lines and connections had been made. There were cattle trailed from Texas north to stock new ranches (mostly established by investors) in the late 1870s and early 1880s – but that would have been ‘long-trail cattle drive drama’ not wagon train drama with heaps of hopeful emigrants braving the trail for thousands of miles of journey through hostile and unsettled lands. By 1883, a party would have been able to hop from settled point to settled point … and again, why? Wagons, stock and supplies cost a lot – much less than train tickets. (An amusing point – the wages paid to cowboys trailing stock from Texas to the Kansas railheads in the early days included a ticket on the train/steamboat back home…)
    Yeah, I suspect that 1883 is another case of the improbable Hollywood West.

  16. I’ve read that Tejano and related genres get the brass from German musical roots. I’m not a musician or a musicologist, but that sounds plausible to my ear.

    I’m going to plug the late Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man as a good fictional presentation of the American West, mythical, actual, and everything in between. The West that young Jack encounters is very different from the ones he matures and grows old in, and tells about in very old age–in the ways reflected by comments already.

    Don’t let the movie version put you off.

  17. I heard on the radio that the Spanish Colonial authorities were complaining to the missionaries that they were recruiting too many musicians and choristers by the middle of the 1500’s. Western music took hold there in a big way very early. I would think it would be very hard to figure out where any part of it came from, so little music survives in written form from the pre-Baroque because that’s about when the Italian notation took hold and outside of the church it just wasn’t written down much at all before that.

  18. MCS – there’s a ton of colonial Hispanic music, highlighted on my local Texas public radio classical station – excellent stuff, and sometimes they even broadcast concerts staged in the local mission churches.
    Cousin E – yes, correct: Tejano music does draw on various middle-European and German influences – especially with the brass and the button accordion. It resulted in a very interesting musical genre…

  19. Yellowstone is a soap like dallas 1883 is just a tableau to set the story they want to tell, kind of like chinatown where the mulholland flood was telescoped a quarter century later

    Now dallas didnt have any one like beth dutton except possibly lois chiles in season 5

  20. }}} A lot of people didn’t know how to swim back then – I think it was more a cultural thing, rather than forbidden by law.

    Was not bathing often still a cultural thing back then? I know at one point in Europe the idea of bathing meant unhealthy, for some weird catenation of ideas, sort of like “if lice don’t want me, there must be something wrong with me”. Very weird. I gather that applied at some point — perhaps only in the Middle Ages, but I admit I have zero feel for when it fell by the wayside, either in the Americas (if it ever applied) or in Europe.

    This brings forth the somewhat gross concept of a sootikin. :-P

  21. }}} Yeah, I suspect that 1883 is another case of the improbable Hollywood West.


    Are you saying that Hollywood cares little for historical accuracy?

    Nawwww, say it ain’t so, Jo!


  22. }}} Don’t let the movie version put you off.

    Awww, come on. The movie version is AWESOME.

    It’s Dustin Hoffman in his prime.

    No, you shouldn’t take it seriously, but it’s pretty clear it’s not supposed to be taken seriously. Anyone who thinks it is an accurate view of real events is either very young and naive or very very foolish… which ought to be almost the same data set but all too often is not.

  23. Needless to say, the most popular German writer was Karl May, Who primarily wrote westerns. The cowboy was the modern personification of a Ritter.

  24. (An amusing point – the wages paid to cowboys trailing stock from Texas to the Kansas railheads in the early days included a ticket on the train/steamboat back home…)
    Yeah, I suspect that 1883 is another case of the improbable Hollywood West.

    As an aside Sgt Mom, I took 2 great Road Trips last year – 12,000 miles total. Dubbed them the “Coronovirus Challenge”.

    Among interesting things I saw was a sign off I-70 in Kansas where apparently Texas Cattlemen would let the cattle graze for a month here on the grassland before sending them to market.

    I thought before 1883 was pretty accurate historically but you made some good points.

  25. A further point about the German/Czech/Austrian influence on Tejano music, as shown by the accordion and by polkas and such, is that this influence crossed the border into Mexico, where it is known as Norteña (northern) music. Mexicans appropriating Tejano music, which was an appropriation from the Germans/Czechs/Austrians/Poles.
    Wiki on Norteña (northern) music:

    Norteño or Norteña (Spanish pronunciation: [noɾˈteɲo], northern), also música norteña, is a genre of Regional Mexican music. The music is most often based on duple and triple metre and its lyrics often deal with socially relevant topics, although there are also many norteño love songs. The accordion and the bajo sexto are traditional norteño’s most characteristic instruments. Norteña music developed in the late 19th century, as a mixture between local Mexican music and Austrian-Czech-origin folk music.

    The genre is popular in both Mexico and the United States, especially among the Mexican and Mexican-American community, and it has become popular in other Spanish-speaking countries as far as Colombia and Chile. Though originating from rural areas, norteño is popular in both rural and urban areas.

    European immigrants from Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States also brought dance traditions such as the varsovienne. The focus on the accordion in the music of their home countries was integrated into Mexican music, and the instrument is essential in the genre today. It was called norteño because it was most popular in the northern regions of Mexico.

    Offhand, I’d say that for every Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic etc.immigrant to Mexico in the 19th century, there were 10 or more to Texas. That is, the musical influence mostly crossed the border from Texas into Mexico.
    narcocorrido/ gangster music is one offshoot.

    Another crosscultural result is kolaches made with hot dogs and jalapenos.


  26. Weeeeelllll… There is something to it. American Indians and Japanese both commented on the poor hygiene of their European counterparts. Tenochtitlan had a larger population and better sanitation than all contemporary European cities. The English complained mightily about the Norse proclivity for bathing and grooming, which led to them “stealing” English women via their rude customs of weekly bathing and keeping their hair and beards neatly combed.

    I’m going to acknowledge that there is likely a good bit of exaggeration and chauvinism going on, but where there’s smoke, there’s generally fire. The Japanese decried both the Portuguese and the English for their poor hygiene, but while they were indeed encountering them both at the end of long sea voyages, the fact remains that the criticisms and commentary both continued well after the Europeans had been ashore for some time. I’ve also seen complaints about the public sanitation of European trading compounds, compared to what the Japanese were used to.

    It’s also somewhat weaponized; the reason that the Americas were so easily conquered and then colonized by the Europeans had a lot to do with the diseases and vectors they brought with them. The locals were not used to anything zoonotic; they did not live cheek-by-jowl with pigs and domestic birds the way the Europeans did, and as such, they were entirely unprepared for things like the flu and the common cold, which along with smallpox, did more to vacate the continent than anything the Conquistadors or colonists did. People really underestimate how vulnerable a population can be, when they don’t have the well-exercised immune systems that come from bad sanitation and domestic animals. De Soto probably single-handedly did more to depopulate the Southeastern US than anyone else, and all he had to do in order to make that happen was haul along some pigs on his expeditions…

    So… Yeah. There is all of that. I don’t think there was as much of the “poor hygiene” thing as some would have it, but… There was enough to make a major difference. If I remember rightly, Mexico City did not regain the population levels of Tenochtitlan until well into the 20th Century.

  27. The Romans of course were great bathers.

    Among the Foreign Devils’ most risible customs, in Chinese eyes, was how they blew their noses into rags and carefully preserved the result.

    “Plagues and Peoples” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel” are still pretty standard accounts of the role of disease in human history.

    Speaking of Mexico City, even as early as the late 1600s there were native-born barbers
    complaining about the Chinese immigrants undercutting their prices and stealing their trade.
    Globalization at work.

  28. I know at one point in Europe the idea of bathing meant unhealthy, for some weird concatenation of ideas, sort of like “if lice don’t want me, there must be something wrong with me”.

    I just finished “The Last King of America, by Andrew Roberts. It is his biography of George III and he includes a drawing of his “bathing machine” that allowed him to get into the water and be hidden from others. They were apparently rather common at the time and were still used until after WWI. I think there is one in the movie, “The Ghost and Mrs Muir,” which is set about WWI.

  29. I think the bathing machines are more about the quality of English beaches. Many require that you traverse a considerable distance of slippery cobbles to get from high tide to actual water deep enough to bathe. I don’t think George III spent very much time alone ever, including on the chamber pot and in bed, possibly where LBJ got the idea of conducting business on the toilet. Of course, his Chamberlains were not the public either.

  30. Off the bathing topic but back to hilll country culture:
    Probably forty years ago or so, we went to a 3-day set of lectures, exhibits, music, and how to build – all on accordions. I remember one of the Hispanic talks implied that the origins of the instrument wasn’t important. Of course, the Czechs who were quite proud of Czech musicians who arrived with Maximillian’s army found this kind of universal oversoul blurred chronology. Still, the speaker had a point.

    That was the assumption of a great 2003 German movie, Schultze Gets the Blues. Clips:on Youtube: (there are more)
    We watched it with my daughter’s in-laws – we spoke no German, they spoke some English but a German movie with English subtitles seemed the best way to communicate – and I think we all enjoyed it. Dipping into Mexican, German, Czech, Cajun, zydeco it demonstrates the variety of cultures in Texas, but also is a lovely portrait of an eccentric, working class German hero.
    By the way, West has an accordion orchestra or did – I suspect many of its musicians are getting old.

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