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Early German immigrants faced tough times at Christmas

Photo Caption:The front of New Wied around 1890, children unknown.

Photo Caption:The front of New Wied around 1890, children unknown.

By Myra Lee Adams Goff —

The year is 1849, just five years after the first emigrants arrived on the Texas coast. Hermann Seele has been invited to spend December 26th with Pastor L.C. Ervendberg, his wife Luise, their five children, and the 19 orphans left parentless by the devastating immigration conditions beginning in 1846.

The story behind the orphans is a tragic episode. In December of 1846, the first of an additional 5,247 emigrants arrived at Indianola. The Adelsverein had run out of money This factor and excessive rain led to no food and no transportation to the interior. Cholera broke out and the emigrants could not leave. At this time the sad trek to NB began and hundreds died along the way. The sick brought disease to the new colony. In 1846 alone, Pastor Ervendberg, pastor for the Adelsverein, added 348 deaths to his record and 60 children were parentless.

Ervendberg and his wife put up a large tent on their church property to protect the orphans, and friends and relatives claimed all but 19. These, in turn, were taken in by the Ervendbergs. They established Neu Wied outside the city limits, the first orphanage in Texas.

Now let’s return to Hermann Seele and end this story on a happy note. Seele left his home which he called Elisenruhe, located on the banks of the Guadalupe River (Seele Street). On his horse Bill, he galloped north on Seguin St. and down to the Comal Creek. Leaving the muddy street, horse and rider slid down the bank and climbed up on the other side. Now passing Merriwether’s mill, and riding through the river bottom, possibly where the golf course is, he crossed the original Comal about where Schlitterbahn is and on to Austin Street. He rode through the elm forest of Comaltown. Many of those 150-year old elms are still standing.

Suddenly around Rock Street, he noticed a number of crude rock-covered graves. They were some of the first emigrants in Comaltown who never reached their destination. Now on Gruene Road, his attention was diverted toward the Guadalupe River and he saw the rooftops of houses in Hortontown across the river.

Continuing on the prairie, Seele came upon Neu Wied, a charming farm building on a small hill. He was greeted by the boys who raced down the hill to open the gate. The girls greeted him from the porch.

They entered a spacious hall-like entryway that ran the entire length of the house. In the center were two long tables with benches. The schoolroom wing, where Ervendberg taught the children, was on the north. Here tables were covered with white tablecloths and presents for each child. The Christmas tree was a young cedar with a small garden around it and carved rocks to resemble honeycomb. Figurines of shepherds and the Christchild decorated the base.

Also, in the room were volumes from the Smithsonian Institution, maps, silk cocoons strung on strings, insect collections, and stuffed birds.

Handmade presents were abundant. The girls had sewed suits for the boys and knitted stockings. They had crocheted gifts for each other. The boys braided whips for each other and there were new quilts in the boys’ rooms.

A colorful old gentleman named Buegel, visiting with the Ervendbergs, told of his adventures during the Texas Revolution to the gathering sitting around a circle in front of a crackling fire. It was 11:00 in the evening before his enchanting tale was done. Outside a fresh norther whipped up the wind.

The next morning Seele was awakened by the sound of the coffee mill and the clear voice of one of the girls singing a song by Johannes Falk:

O du fröhliche
O du selige,
Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit

O, thou joyful,
O, thou wonderful,
Grace-revealing Christmastide

Seele’s day at Neu Wied was over and he made his way back home.

Fast forward to today. Gone are the days of mostly handmade gifts and decorations as Amazon continues to boom, but here in New Braunfels we still share the traditions of our German heritage brought over by the immigrants. One of those traditions is the celebration of Saint Nikolaus Eve on December 5th. St Nikolaus day is observed on December 6, and it is the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra. It is a favorite holiday with German children and, with those in New Braunfels as well. St. Nikolaus is not the jolly, old, bearded Santa that we know. He is a little gruffer, taking more interest in the children’s behavior and learning their prayers. Here, on the night of December 5, hang their stockings before going to sleep. Next morning, they find stockings filled with nuts, candy, and small gifts from St Nikolaus.

St. Nikolaus visits the Sophienburg Museum on December 5, to find out if the children have been good. There is still time to call the Sophienburg to RSVP for your family now. If we should miss you, the Sophienburg wishes you Merry Christmas!

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Around the Sophienburg by Myra Lee Goff.