How did German Texans live?

Ken Hafertefe explains in a gorgeous new book about their ‘material culture.’


German Texans came here with some common cultural traits, but they evolved in time.

Adapting to circumstances, German Texans changed their material customs variously.

An absolutely gorgeous new book, “The Material Culture of German Texans,” by former Austinite Ken Hafertepe, will be an enormous resource for collectors, designers, tourists and just plain history buffs.

One problem, though. Potential readers might not know precisely what is meant by “material culture.”

“It’s a very broad concept,” explains Hafertepe, who teaches museum studies at Baylor University. “At its broadest, it is every thing that has been shaped by human hands. It is based on the assumption that things can be historical evidence as well as words.”

Hafertepe applies his assiduous methods — and eye-popping photography — to houses, furniture, decor, public buildings, social centers, houses of worship and final resting places, many of them in Central Texas.

Anyone who has visited Fredericksburg, New Braunfels or other Texas towns settled by Germans will recognize certain elements of that culture, especially the half-timbered — or “fachwerk” — buildings that look like something out of an Old World fairy tale.

Yet Hafertepe is careful to remind readers that German Texans came from many different regions, carried with them different customs, then adapted them in countless ways once they settled here. That said, he finds some constants in the ways that Germans did or did not adapt to the land.

“Germans are very hardworking and frugal,” he says. “But they also enjoyed each other’s company. Many Germans who emigrated were craftsmen: stonemasons, carpenters, cabinetmakers and blacksmiths. Their earliest houses were usually of log, but as soon as they could afford it, they built houses using the German ‘fachwerk’ method — a strong wooden frame infilled with bricks or stone or even adobe — or with solid rock walls.”

Climate, terrain and available building materials altered the imported German practices.

“They happily adapted the idea of a shady front porch in response to the Texas heat, which gave their houses a different look from those in the fatherland,” Hafertepe says. “But most houses had three rooms — a stube, a kuche and a kammer — which translates into a sitting room, a kitchen and a bedroom. Central passages or hallways were very rare in German Texan houses — apparently they felt that in a small house they were a waste of space.”

Few things were wasted. At the same time, once survival on the frontier was secured, Germany’s creative legacy was not forgotten.

“Even as they outgrew their first log house, they would still use it as a workshop or for some other purpose,” Hafertepe says. “And they built many beautiful churches and buildings for sociability, for exercise, theater, music and dancing.”

Besides New Braunfels and other well-known examples, Hafertepe delves into the major German presence in cities such as Galveston, San Antonio, Austin and elsewhere. Among the surviving Austin centers for entertainment, education and social life are Scholz Garten, Saengerrunde Hall, German Free School, now home to the German Texas Heritage Society, and the Turn Verein, these days known as the Scottish Rite Temple. All are located between the Capitol and the University of Texas campus in a neighborhood once known as “North Austin.”

“Germans in Fredericksburg and New Braunfels lived among themselves, usually speaking German and doing things their own way,” he says. “Log houses and fachwerk houses were used much longer there, and more of them were preserved in the long run. In the larger cities, Germans were interacting with English speakers and Spanish speakers and seeing all sorts of new building styles and new household goods.”

So it was easier, Hafertepe suggests, for them to borrow ideas from other Texans or even to become taste leaders in their communities, like Edward and Johanna Steves in San Antonio. In their neighborhood, King William, economic success led to larger houses, which were often based on new fashions from the eastern U.S.

Some readers will be surprised at what an enormous role German settlers played in Austin, especially in the late 19th century. When did we start losing touch with that heritage?

“Germans loved American democracy and American freedom, especially the freedom to worship as they pleased or not to worship at all,” Hafertepe says. “But they still loved the German language and German culture. A terrible shock came with World War I, where Germany was the enemy. Germans in Texas felt they were under suspicion and felt compelled to display their German-ness less obviously.”

That included abandoning their old language in public. A similar wave of anti-German sentiment during World War II drove the culture deeper underground.

One of the most memorable chapters in the book concerns graveyards and grave markers.

“German Texan graveyards are remarkable cultural landscapes,” Hafertepe says. “They show the evolution from handmade limestone markers and wrought-iron markers, which are very Germanic. Then markers made in professional shops began to appear; often these were made by Germans. Finally the local shops were overwhelmed by stones made on the East Coast.”

Not surprisingly, Germans also wanted their graveyards to be orderly and tidy.

“They would border individual or small group graves with a curb of wood, stone or even concrete,” Hafertepe says. “And Germans loved cast-iron fences when they became available around 1900. They were cheaper than wood, looked nice and were more durable.”

How did the author go about documenting the historic structures while making the images appealing enough for this kind of book?

“I started by looking through every book and article I could find, and combing the Historic American Building Survey records at the Library of Congress website,” he says. “But there was also a huge amount of ‘windshield survey’ work, just driving around. And often I found owners of old buildings who were proud to show them off. My camera is my way of taking notes, so I am shooting pictures all the time, even though only a tiny percentage would make it into the book.”

Hafertepe shoots overall exterior views, but also room views and details such as doors and mantelpieces. Many exteriors he has shot many times, hoping for just the right light to show off the building.

Hafertepe has long researched this and related topics. For instance, among his previous books are “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County” and “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier.” Among other Austin buildings, Cook is responsible for the Governor’s Mansion, the Neill-Cochran House in the West Campus neighborhood and Woodlawn, also known as the Pease Mansion, in Old Enfield.

The research comes with a personal connection.

“My father’s family was German, from lower Saxony,” he says. “The first American Hafertepes came to St. Louis in the 1860s, and to Texas in the 1910s. I heard next to nothing about my German heritage growing up. I come from a long line of plumbers, so I am the black sheep of the family, but at least I am writing about buildings, even if I’m not fixing them.”

Remnants of German culture can be found all over Texas, from El Paso to East Texas, from the High Plains to the Gulf Coastal Plains. Museums such as Bayou Bend in Houston and the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture in New Braunfels are doing a great job of collecting and interpreting German Texan material culture, Hafertepe says.

The Winedale Historical Center near Round Top has fallen on hard times in recent years,” he adds. “But a new ‘Friends’ group seems to be stirring interest in maintaining and interpreting the buildings and collections. Other buildings in Round Top have been drastically and insensitively remodeled, which is heartbreaking. I would have thought that Texans had more respect for their heritage. But my hope is that this book will help people to identify things that are worthy of appreciation and careful preservation.”

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