{Texas Hill Country Series} German Immigrants and European Folklore

{Texas Hill Country Series} German Immigrants and the Brothers Grimm | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com

This is the first in a new RWG series on the Texas Hill Country‘s culture, landscape, and history–a long-time passion of mine. I feel a little vulnerable at admitting this to you all, like telling the world of a secret crush. But I’m crazy for this stuff.

So crazy, in fact, that it’s the dog days of summer and I’m knee-deep in a historical literature review focused on German immigration to the Lone Star State.

Nope, I’m not in a “beach read” mood.

Instead I’m trying to assemble thoughts (and a bibliography) for a longstanding research project. “Longstanding” as in “I’ve been working on this off-and-on for eleven years and really should do something with it, even if it’s just a blog series.”

And so we begin with a slice of what I’m thinking about these days.

One of the books I turned up recently at the San Antonio Public Library is a second edition of Glen E. Lich’s The German Texans {Amazon Affiliate Link*}. I’m only about halfway through, but two sections jumped out at me because they hint at something about which I’d been wondering: where does the “myth” of the Texas frontier intersect with European folklife and folkways.

Along those lines, I’m especially intrigued with personal connections between German immigrants to Central Texas and the legendary Brothers Grimm.

Writing in 1981, Lich links John Meusebach (the founder of Fredericksburg) during his Berlin years to Bettina von Arnim, a legendary German author, composer, and muse. (Note that von Arnim was a true creative polymath and a friend of Goethe, too.)

Through [von Arnim] and others, Meusebach became acquainted with some of Germany’s greatest writers and intellectuals. This ‘Berlin Circle’ [Lich’s term] included… the Humboldt brothers (one a minister of state and founder of the new Berlin University, the other a scientist and explorer), [and] the Grimm Brothers (philologists who helped establish the modern story of folklore with their collections of German fairy tales)…

If you’re not from Central Texas, then you might not know that German immigrants to the Texas Hill Country were a progressive-minded crowd, especially for mid-century Prussians. In fact, members of the famous Forty later named a Hill Country commune (yes, a socialist commune–in Texas) called Bettina, a tribute to von Arnim. (She, despite her socialist tendencies, was also a friend to the far less progressive King of Prussia. This kept her out of trouble, I reckon.)

Continuing on with the fairy tale thing, Lich later shares a passage written by Emma Murck Algelt who immigrated in 1854 as a young woman:

[Altgelt], who presided with great dignity and charm over the fashionable life of San Antonio’s King William district, fell in love with Texas the very first time she heard of it. “It sounded like a fairy tale to me. The beautiful blue of the skies, the clear atmosphere so peculiar to this country, the sun and its powerful rays charmed me. I roamed about and looked at the new countryside, the strange grasses, shrubs, and flowers. How I admired the many varieties of cacti and palms!” [Emphasis mine]

It’ll be interesting to see if this theme keeps popping up, as my summer reading progresses.

***

Personally, I first started thinking about Grimm brothers and their fairy tales in relation to Texas frontier life while researching the Plehwe (“PLAY-vee”) complex, which I first wrote about eleven years ago for a local paper. Since that story, I’ve continued to poke around in the Plehwe family’s tale, which gets curiouser and curiouser as I go along.

Here’s a great old photo of the Plehwe property, from the University of North Texas’s Portal to Texas History:

Undated Photo of Plehwe Property in Bexar County
Image Credit: Texas Historical Commission. [Plehwe Complex], photograph, Date Unknown; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth677304/: accessed July 2, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Commission.
The property isn’t far from my house in suburban San Antonio, and I know kids in my neighborhood who call the place “the fairy tale houses” or “the witch’s houses.” Frankly, I’m fascinated by how readily children connect the houses specifically to “Hansel and Gretel,” which makes sense if you think about old-fashioned images like this one,  by illustrator Arthur Rackham:

hansel-and-gretel-rackham
Image Credit: Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mrs. Edgar Lucas, translator. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909. Via Wikipedia.

That instant recognition of the old world vernacular style intrigues me, especially as the property itself is in danger of being overtaken by sprawl.

Old World versus New World versus Digital Suburbia–with a current of folklore.

So cool. (If you’re a history nerd, like me.)

Coincidentally, in a recent interview with historian (and my friend) Marlene Richardson, who co-authored The Settlement of Leon Springs: From Prussia to Persia {Amazon Affiliate Link*}. In our chat, Marlene brought up her own (well-supported) suspicions that there was a real relationship between John Meusebach and the Grimms.

Moreover, as Marlene and her co-author, the late Jeanne Dixon, noted in their book, Meusebach for a time likely lived for a time on property in present-day Camp Bullis in North San Antonio. It’s likely that Meusebach had a personal relationship with the aforementioned Plehwes, too. I’m certain of it, in fact, based upon my research.

But that is a story for another day.

Stay tuned.

Pamela Price is a Central Texas writer, blogger, and author. She holds two degrees in history from The University of Texas at Austin.

Explore More:
• Looking for a great place to learn about Central Texas Germans? A trip to the Sophienburg Museum & Archives is in order. (It’s one of the best small museums I’ve ever visited, frankly.)
• Want a great digital space to explore Texas history? I love The Portal to Texas History, mentioned above. (Thanks to that site, I found an old newspaper ad for a direct ancestor’s mid-nineteenth century dry goods store on Matagorda Island.)

*DISCLOSURE: The Amazon affiliate link is included for your convenience, should you wish to look up the individual ISBN at your library or track down the book for purchase at another retailer. I do receive a few pennies if you make a purchase via Amazon, and this money in turn goes to support my research.

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2 comments

  1. 1) did you know Bettina’s daughter Gisela married Wilhelm Grimm’s son Herman? And Herman was one of three men appointed to see after Goethe’s legacy as his last heir passed on. And Herman was considered very spiritually aligned but not up to or willing to take on the intellectual task of looking after all of the details of that task, at least that is what Rudolf Steiner writes.
    2) Entirely tangential, but I kept thinking about this excerpt when I was reading your blog post. This is Steiner:
    But among the Americans something else very peculiar comes about. The European, especially if he is a thinker, very inward-looking, does not live truly when he moves to America. Even if he is not a thinker, but tries to think in America, there is something false about his new life. As soon as the European settles in America, he no longer thinks as deeply. So the following occurs: If you are reading a European book, the proof of the argument or the lack of proof always depends on the evidence. As one reads through an entire book, through four hundred pages, even if it is a novel, only evidence is important. However, most often in the end, by the four hundredth page, nothing is proved. The Americans do not think this way. If you read an American book, everything is presented as a claim. This is a backward approach, depending not on reasoning but on instinct. An animal does not prove anything. The lion does not prove that he wants to eat another animal, he just eats it. The European, if he wants to do something, first he wants a proof. Everything has to be proved. Today this is the big difference between the Europeans and the Americans: Europeans prove, Americans claim.” — “Color and the Human Races”.
    *I am not an anthroposophist, and much of Steiner’s writing is difficult and even abrasive, out of context.
    Mostly this was just a funny small world moment I’d share.

    • Bettina is utterly fascinating as a subject. I could get lost in reading about her.

      I very much enjoyed reading what you shared of Steiner. Thanks! As an aside, I’ve been reading Olmsted’s trip through Texas–the version of the book with the intro by Larry McMurtry–and it’s fascinating to watch how he pits slave-based agriculture against the Germans of Central Texas, most of whom were abolitionists or at least anti-secession. He’s very much got an agenda, and was writing just a few years before the Civil War began. He likes to draw those hard, fast comparisons between the groups, like Steiner does in your quotation.

      I love it that my readers are so well read! ❤ ❤ ❤

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