Texas Wendish Heritage Museum: Staking a Claim on History
by Lorie A. Woodward
Originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of the Round Top Register –Ed.
Photos courtesy of Texas Wendish Heritage Society
In 1854, a group of 600 Wends left their home in southeastern Germany and staked a claim on a new life on 4,000 acres in a community they named Serbin, near present-day Giddings.
“It’s hard to imagine what would prompt people to leave everything they knew for an unknown life in an unknown place,” said Marian Wiederhold, Texas Wendish Heritage Museum director, whose great-great grandfather George Kasper was one of the original settlers. “Our museum exists to preserve the unique story of the Texas-Wends.”
The Wends, who lived near the Czech and Polish borders, were an ethnic minority denied economic opportunity and religious freedom. At the time, the German government wanted all Protestant religions to be grouped into a single tradition.
“The Wends were Lutheran and wanted to practice their faith according to their own understandings and precepts,” Wiederhold said. “Their religion was austere and conservative. In fact, until the early 1900s, Wendish brides wore black when they married to signify ‘the hardships of this life.’”
Upon arrival, the Wends set aside 95 acres in the center of their land holding as a site for St. Paul Lutheran Church and a parochial school. The museum is located on the same grounds.
“The immigrants adorned the inside of their church—the only Lutheran church among the area’s painted churches—with beautiful, simple decorations in blue, white and gold,” said Wiederhold, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Paul and plans to be buried there as well. “Unlike the Catholic parishes that had support from the dioceses as they constructed their home churches, St. Paul congregation bore the full responsibility for the church.”
St. Paul Lutheran School traces its origins to the decks of the Ben Nevis, the ship that transported the original immigrants to Texas.
“They started holding classes on the ship—and the school has been in continuous operation ever since,” Wiederhold said. The school educates students from kindergarten through eighth grade with the local congregation paying a portion of each student’s tuition.
In addition to education, the Wends valued their culture, particularly their language.
“Our forefathers also valued their language and came to preserve it as part of their culture,” said Wiederhold, noting the Volksblatt, the German newspaper based in Giddings during early settlement included articles in Wendish. “Ironically, the assimilation with German neighbors caused them to lose it more rapidly.”
Today, in the area around Bautzen, Germany, home to many of original Wendish immigrants, the street signs are in German and Wendish.
The Texas Wendish Heritage Society maintains a relationship with The Domovina, a museum in Bautzen that celebrates the history of the Texas-Wend immigrants. The Domovina provides additional genealogical resources to supplement church records, immigration records, the online Wendish Research Exchange and other resources available at the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum.
Visitors to the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum, whether they’re looking for family information or simply interested in the culture, can explore the exhibits in the St. Peter Building, which includes the library, the gift shop as well as permanent exhibits, and the St. Paul Building that began life as a two-room school house for the parochial school.
“Our exhibits include artifacts donated from many families in the area,” Wiederhold said. “Some highlights include a traditional black wedding dress, a dudelsack, which is a Wendish instrument similar to a bagpipe, Easter Eggs decorated using all four of the traditional methods as well as a school room complete from the turn of the 20th Century—and a whole lot more.”
A log cabin featuring furniture and utensils representative of life in the early settlement and a second cabin filled with early tools and farm equipment round out the museum complex.
As land around Serbin became scarce, the Wends established other Texas communities including Warda, Fedor, Manheim, Loebau, Lincoln, Winchester, La Grange, Thorndale, Walburg, Copperas Cove, The Grove, Vernon, Swiss Alp, Noack, and Aleman.
While their religious traditions were austere, the Wends enjoyed life and community.
“They were jovial people who loved music, friends, food and special traditions such as noodle making and elaborately decorating Easter Eggs,” Wiederhold said.
The traditions are on full, festive display during the annual Wendish Festival held the fourth Sunday in September.
“People come from all over to celebrate our shared heritage,” said Wiederhold, noting the Wendish Heritage Society that sponsors the festival has more than 4,000 members from 41 states and eight countries. “We’re proud of where we came from—and where we’re going together.”
Tracing the Museum’s History
In 1971, a group of five local women wanted to represent their Wendish heritage at the Texas Folklife Festival. They were denied because participants had to be affiliated with an established club or organization. Undeterred they formed the Texas Wendish Culture Club, which later became the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.
Oodles of Noodles
Volunteers gather weekly to make traditional egg noodles that are sold at the museum’s gift shop and at select retailers in Lee, Washington and Fayette counties. All proceeds from the noodles support the Wendish Heritage Society and the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum.
“Our forefathers came here looking for religious freedom, economic opportunity and social justice. The lives and freedoms we enjoy are built on their sacrifices and hardships. Hopefully remembering that history will help us treasure the liberties we have.” –Museum Director Marian Wiederhold
Texas Wendish Heritage Museum
1011 County Road 212
Giddings, TX 78942
Tuesday – Saturday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
(Free [donations accepted] on Wendish Fest Sunday.)
Group Tours (including the Museum and other area historic sites)
For groups of 10 or more. By appointment with advance notice.
Tour Only: $5/person
Tour and Traditional Wendish Lunch: $17.50/person
Don’t Miss! Annual Events:
Fourth Sunday in September