Coffee in the Gourd, ed. J. Frank Dobie , at sacred-texts.com
To one born and reared among the hills of Gillespie County, the unusual features of Fredericksburg, its county seat, and the peculiarities of its native population are taken as a matter of course until the exclamations of an observing visitor call attention to the fact that a really unique condition exists in the mountain community. To the observant stranger within the gates, the bright splashes of local color, evident to him at every turn, and the community life, totally unlike that to which he has been accustomed, are of rare interest.
Approached from any direction, the town appears like a dream village suspended among the hills. Truly the German pioneers, who selected the site in May, 1846, chose wisely when they laid out Fredericksburg between the branches of a swift-flowing stream tributary to the Pedernales River, and surrounded by flattopped mesas which yielded a good quality of limestone for houses and fences. The stately live oaks still to be found along the streets of Fredericksburg testify to the majesty of the virgin forest trees in the fertile valley where the little village sprang up as if by magic.
Only a few reminders of old colony days remain, however, to attract the casual observer. The old rock mill, built on the banks of Baron's Creek, and turned by its turbulent waters, has gone to decay and the stream itself is almost dry. Twenty-five years ago the march of progress swept down Main Street and tore from its foundations the majestic old church which, in early days, served as town-hall, fortress, school, and sanctuary. The queer octagonshaped structure blocked traffic and was unsightly, besides! Thus have many of the original buildings been torn away to give place to more modern structures far less picturesque, leaving Fredericksburg still a unique village, however, in which the old and the new are quaintly blended.
Among the most interesting buildings still to be seen, a picturesque reminder of earlier days, is the Nimitz Hotel on lower Main Street, standing at the crossroads, a most convenient place for travelers to stop for a substantial meal served in the same old dining-room where Generals Lee and Longstreet, and, perhaps, Sidney Porter refreshed themselves in days gone by. If you desire, you may drive your car into the back yard where the old stage coach used to stand behind the substantial wall of stone twelve feet high. For the asking, you may have a "cabin" opening out upon the "upper deck" of the old ship-shaped hostelry. The queer four-poster bed, once the property of General Lee, is yours for the night, should you care to sleep in it. In the parlor, below stairs, you will find paintings of the infant Fredericksburg, of the old mill at Barton Springs, Travis County, and a representation of the tragic death of Isolde. Through the broad windows, the delicate odor of lilacs mingled with the aroma of Banshee roses from the old-fashioned garden will steal in to make you forget you are in the world of today.
A drive over the town will show you the quaint log-and-stone huts of unique architecture and careful workmanship basking stolidly in the sun on the by-streets, and the little brown Catholic church with its old-world belfry, where you expect to find a monk in his cowl telling his beads. Beside it stands protectingly the handsome stone edifice built in recent years.
But queerest of all to you will be the "Sunday houses." Nowhere else in the world do they exist. They may be found almost anywhere in Fredericksburg: on Main Street nestling comfortably against the village smithy; in the fashionable suburbs beside a modern bungalow.
The custom of building Sunday houses originated with the farmer of Gillespie County, who, being of an independent nature, chose to buy a town lot and build, under his own vine and oak tree, a box-like structure of lumber, sometimes with only one room on the ground floor and a second surmounting it, with stairs leading up on the outside.
To this "city home" the farmer comes on Sunday morning when his family is religiously inclined; or on "Second Christmas," "Easter Monday," or "Pentecost Monday" when the young folks want to attend the public balls that begin promptly at 2 p. m. in the various halls. When shopping is to be done, or a sick member of the family needs medical attention, in comes the farmer to his Sunday house, where he is independent and safe from disturbance.
Of necessity, then, these temporary homes are furnished, one room often serving as kitchen, pantry, dining room, bedroom, and living room. But, at any rate, the relative or good friend in town is not thrown into a panic by the unexpected descent of a family of more or less dimensions to eat dinner and remain over night. And the thrifty farmer goes home with money in his pocket, for he has not been forced to partake of boarding-house fare. Besides, he has the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he is under obligations to no man.
Later, when the farmer is a-weary of labor in the fields, and has a plump little bank account all his own, he and his faithful wife, who has helped him accumulate this wealth by practicing thrift and economy, leave the old home to their son, and come to town to spend a peaceful old age in the Sunday house to which, perhaps, a room or two and a little front porch have been added.
For the convenience of out-of-town members owning no Sunday houses, several Protestant churches in Fredericksburg have built houses in the church yards, where the members gather at noon to eat the lunches prepared at country homes the day previous. These combination kitchens and dining-rooms are provided with oil-cloth covered tables, home-made benches, and a cook-stove where food may be warmed and coffee boiled. Young and old remain for Sunday school, which is held at two in the afternoon.
A beautiful custom in Fredericksburg is the ringing of "Abendglocken" (evening bells) at sunset every Saturday. When the last chime has floated cloudward from the seven spires of the hamlet, a holy quiet seems to settle over, the town; and when the twilight melts into darkness, and the stars come forth from the deepening blue, the weary laborer feels that after all "God's in his heaven; all's right with the world."
In general, the American-Germans are a gregarious people: they love the society of their fellows; and they can have a wonderful time where just two or three are gathered together. Occasionally you find a hermit thrush who "warbles his native woodnotes wild" to the accompaniment of a hand-made organ with pipes of newspapers far out in the hills; but he is the exception. (Such a character really existed in Gillespie County several years ago. He lived in a cave and really did have this peculiar "pipe organ" upon which he played.)
The women in town set apart certain days when their particular friends are bid to a "Kaffee-Kraenzchen" (coffee-circle), or Kaffee-Klatsch as it is sometimes called, an afternoon affair at which guests sit about and chat, busying themselves meanwhile with a bit of crochet or sewing; for bridge is to them unknown.
After an hour or so, the hostess announces that coffee is served, whereupon the guests betake themselves to the dining-room, where a wholesome meal is spread: "Schmierkaese" with thick yellow cream; wild plum jelly and watermelon jam; homemade bread and sweet, fresh butter; and occasionally, in season, a small plate of thinly-sliced, home-cured raw sausage. Then there is always a whole family of cakes: "Mandel-brot" (almond-bread), "Pfeffernuesse" (pepper nuts), "Zimmitsterne" (cinnamon stars), "Lebkuchen" (ginger-bread) and "Kaffee-kuchen" (coffee cake). And all the while savory brown coffee flows freely. It seems, in fact, that the cookie jar in Fredericksburg homes is never empty, for an afternoon guest in the parlor will invariably be offered a plate of small cakes, and, in the old days, "em Glaeszchen Wein" (a small glass of wine).
"Kaffee-Kraenzchen" pale into insignificance, however, when compared with weddings, confirmation fests, and birthday celebrations. On these high days and holidays, all the relatives (and they are legion!) are bid to the feast, which, in the language of Irving Russel, is "a 'ticlar sarcumstance." The fatted porker has been slaughtered, and, besides the immense roast, there are quantities of sausages, great and small, of the beef-pork, venisonpork, liver, and blood varieties. Several turkeys and perhaps a goose have been sacrificed. Besides these meats, the long hospitable board groans with eatables of all kinds: homemade noodles, Irish and sweet potato salads, rice with a "topping" of cinnamon and sugar, bean salad, and occasionally a salad of fruit prepared by a member of the younger generation. The herring salad is never missing from the feast of this kind. It is made by mixing boiled smoked herring, diced, with beets, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, apples, Irish potatoes, and vinegar, all properly seasoned. Everyone drinks coffee. But the cake is saved for "four o'clock coffee," when the table is reset, with fifteen or twenty cakes accompanied by a wonderful variety of cookies. The invariable first course, however, consists of sliced sausage, bread, butter, and several kinds of "home-grown" cheese: "Schmierkaese" (cream cheese), "Koch Kaese" (cooked cheese), and "Hand Kaese" (ball cheese). Occasionally, too, there are cream cheese pies made of cheese, cream, butter, eggs, and raisins. Oh, there is always food in abundance.
The hill folk of Gillespie County have more "fests" than people of other sections, it seems. Besides Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, there are "Second Christmas" (the 26th), "Second Easter" (Monday), and "Second Pentecost" (Monday), "when young and old come forth to play." The first of these holidays is for sacred observances; the second for festivities. Then there are merry-makings everywhere; and nothing can dampen the holiday spirit of the crowd.
These customs were, no doubt, brought by the original settlers from the Fatherland, as were also the customs of St. Nicholas' visits, the Christmas tree in the home, and the coming of the Easter Rabbit.
St. Nicholas first visits the homes in Fredericksburg on the night of December 6th and occasionally thereafter until Christmas Eve, surreptitiously leaving candy and fruit in little stockings hung from the bedposts and often peering through the casement to see whether or not the children of the household are obedient to their parents.
But the day of all days for children as well as for grown-ups is the 24th of December, for it is then that at least one Santa Claus comes to the homes. He enters about the time the candles on the cedar tree are lighted and the home circle is gathered in the "best room." Every child is then asked to pray. This is the little petition the children lisp: "Ich bin klein, mein Herz ist rein; soll niemand drin wohnen als Jesus allein" (I am small; my heart is pure; no one shall abide there save Jesus alone).
Santa, being satisfied, then leaves an apple or an orange with each child and repairs to the neighboring house,--if the children have all responded with the prayer. But woe to the unruly youngster, usually a sophisticated boy, who refuses to pray! He is soundly rapped with the huge stick Santa carries concealed under his mantle. Sometimes two or three of these Santa Clauses visit the same house in a single evening; and the program is usually repeated each time. On Christmas night all the churches have enormous trees for the children. Each child repeats a few verses in a lively monotone, and after the program receives a bag of candy, fruits, and nuts, and often a small present.
The next holiday the children look forward to is Easter. By this time blue-bonnets and "Osterblumen" (Easter blossoms: "butter-and-eggs") are out, and Saturday afternoon, the wee tots, accompanied by an older sister or friend, go forth with baskets to gather wild flowers for the Easter nest to be made in the garden later in the evening.
That night great bonfires burn on the hills east and west of town: the Easter Rabbit Family are gathered around the boiling cauldron, busy with brush and dye, preparing rainbow-hued eggs to delight the human children on Easter morning. That night, when the little folks are abed, the Rabbit Family distribute the eggs, leaving in each nest at least eight brightly colored eggs.
The Kindermaskenball (children's masquerade ball), too, is a great event. Then practically all the children in town gather at one of the public halls for a frolic. Nymphs, fairies, butterflies, brownies, gnomes, witches, peasant maids, flower girls, and clowns skip about merrily until 10 o'clock when they are either whisked off home by their elders, or (in case the elders, themselves, want to enjoy an hour or two of dancing) put to bed in the dressing room, which is provided with a bed or two and numerous quilts for pallets.
Besides these holidays and merrymakings that delight the children especially, are the various "fests" for grown-ups. Chief among these are the shooting fests and the "Saengerfests" (singer fests). The country people take special delight in the former, for the festivities are held in some sylvan grove far from the city's dust and heat. The band, composed of country boys and men who blow lustily (and often discordantly!) on the wind instruments so dear to their hearts, entertains the multitude at intervals all day long. Between times, the crowd surges down to the rifle range, where boys and men try their skill at shooting the bull's eye. There is a bounteous feast spread at noonday, of course, and the usual cake and coffee at four o'clock. The festivities wind up with a dance at night.
The Saengerfests are great events, too. Nearly every community in Gillespie County has its choral club composed of men who sing the old German melodies taught to them by their fathers. Every spring or autumn there is a big gathering of all the singing clubs for a song festival. Then the "hills re-echo the mighty sound." In the old days the fest smacked somewhat of a Dionysian festival; but now there is only music and song.
Until a few years ago the "Little Theater" flourished in Fredericksburg, the prime motive for organizing the Casino Club in 1874 being to give amateur theatricals once or twice a season. The plays were good wholesome ones, too, most of them in the German language; and many of the players had considerable talent. No one but Casino members was allowed entrance. The performances were held in the old ship-like hotel salon, which, after the performance was cleared of chairs and swept for (lancing.
The Casino "Sylvester," or New Year's Eve ball, was one of the crowning events of the winter season. This, too, was held at the Nimitz Hotel. Then all the girls came out in new evening dresses, and the men wore their best Sunday suits. The leader of the grand march, one of Fredericksburg's "von's," invariably wore conventional evening dress; but he was the only gentleman present who was thus attired.
At midnight when the church bells "rang out the old, rang in the new," the lights in the ballroom were extinguished and everywhere excited voices could be heard wishing everybody a happy new year, while above the din, resounding smacks came distinctly to the ear -for the Casino was all one big family, you know! When the greetings were over, the entire company marched into the dining-room for a midnight supper. Needless to say, the merrymaking continued until the clarion call of the cocks "awakened the slumbering morn."
Several theatrical clubs give live performances followed by dances in Fredericksburg today; but the older people sigh for the halcyon days of the Casino-the times of real "Deutsche GemuetIichkeit" which, they feel, will never return.
Truly, if Peter Hildesmueller and his neighbor, Hugo Hefflebauer, were to return to the village in the valley they left seventy years ago, they would find that time had wrought many changes. The days of skat and pinochle are over; "Beer-suppe," "Hasenpfeffer" and "Wienerschnitzel" are delicacies of the past; the young people no longer talk proudly of "Der alte Kaiser Wilhelm" and "unser Vaterland" in the pure German language of their forefathers. No doubt the visitors would shake their puzzled heads in disappointment, puffing thoughtfully meanwhile on their longstemmed Meerschaum pipes, and pass back through the neglected vineyards to the recesses of the Bear Mountain caves, there to await for another seventy years the return of "Die guten alten Zeiten" (the good old times).
Following them into their retreat would go the defiant shriek of the sturdy little locomotive which, since 1913, has been ushering progress from the big outside world into Fredericksburg. As the clouds of gray smoke filled the valley and settled lightly over field and town, the colors, once so bright in the local scheme of things, would blur, and fade away at length, leaving only a prosaic gray town among the hills where once stood the unique little "Dorf" of Fredericksburg.