Each fall Wurstfest in New Braunfels and Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg celebrate German culture with festive costumes, blaring polka music, and plenty of sausage and beer. With creative exploring, you can find a quieter, family-oriented expression of German culture that endures in out-of-the-way corners of the Hill Country.
The Blanco Bowling Club, just east of the town’s courthouse square, is one of fewer than a dozen nine-pin bowling clubs in the German communities of Comal, Gillespie, Bexar and Guadalupe counties. Nine-pin bowling harks back to the game played by German immigrants in the mid-19th century and bears little resemblance to the 10-pin version played in most bowling alleys.
Nine-pin bowling is just one lasting cultural import that German immigrants brought with them when they settled in Central Texas towns and villages 175 years ago.
“Think of it as a team sport,” says Julie West, who has lived in Blanco all her life and bowls at the Blanco Bowling Club with friends and family. Her roots in the community are deep. “My grandma managed the cafe,” she says, “and my aunts all worked there.” West, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative, was a pinsetter at the bowling club when she was a teenager.
The pinsetters are one reason this game is so distinctive. “As a pinsetter you’re on your hands and knees, and you have to be athletic,” West explains. That athleticism helps each pinsetter replace the pins bowlers knock down. “You have to pay attention,” she says, “because the pins are flying around.”
Nine-pin team bowling requires each bowler in a team of six to bowl in succession. “Knocking down nine pins means nine points,” West says. “And the score is calculated cumulatively, not individually. A 12-ringer is when you leave the center pin.”
Traces of German culture in the Hill Country.
IMAGE: ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID VOGIN
Nine-pin bowling has remained popular over generations in Central Texas—for more than 150 years—because of the area’s deep German roots. West explains that the emphasis on family and the team makes the game uniquely German and attracts children to the game.
The locals know that youth involvement is essential to keeping cultural traditions alive. That’s why New Braunfels traditions, such as the annual Kindermasken parade, a costume ball for children usually held in May, have survived since 1856. New Braunfels and Fredericksburg are this year and next marking 175 years of keeping alive the German culture brought here by immigrants, with various celebrations planned for the coming months.
New Braunfels was founded in 1845 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who purchased land on the banks of the Comal River to establish a German colony. A year later a group of settlers from New Braunfels headed 60 miles northwest and established Fredericksburg. The earliest Texas settlement formed by Germans was Industry, founded in 1831, and a glance at a Texas atlas shows many other communities that can trace their origins to Germany: Weimar, Boerne, Schulenburg, Luckenbach and Muenster.
Ernie Loeffler was raised in New Braunfels and is now the president of the Fredericksburg Convention & Visitor Bureau. “The original Germans wanted to create a cultural enclave in Texas,” says Loeffler. “They wrote many letters home describing it as a land of milk and honey.”
Evelyn Weinheimer, an archivist at Fredericksburg’s Pioneer Museum, which documents the German roots of Gillespie County, says that as early as 1842, the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, also known as Adelsverein, advertised to attract settlers to establish enclaves across the Hill Country and the south-central plains. New Braunfels and Fredericksburg were the first two settlements of the Adelsverein.
“Land was the biggest draw,” says Weinheimer, whose ancestors arrived in that first wave. “Coming from those little German kingdoms, those settlers surely thought they would find a better way of life to raise their families.”
Those day-to-day concerns about family life determined the enduring aspects of culture. Among the visible reminders of German culture in Fredericksburg are the Sunday houses and their distinctive architecture.
“Coming to church on Sunday wasn’t going to happen in the days of wagons and old dirt roads,” Weinheimer says. Families loaded up the wagon on Saturday morning and made the trip into town, where they would barter at the general store and enjoy a social activity or family gathering on Saturday night. Sunday morning they went to one of the five churches in Fredericksburg.
Weinheimer says the typical weekend house was a one-bedroom frame building with a kitchen and living room and a sleeping loft. One of these “tiny houses,” the Fassel-Roeder House, awaits visitors on the grounds of the Pioneer Museum. William Roeder, a former Gillespie County commissioner, told Weinheimer stories of his family’s trips from the White Oak community, 22 miles west, to stay in the house.
Even though the 20 or so Sunday houses that remain in Fredericksburg are similar, Weinheimer says they do not follow an architectural style but reflect the pragmatism of German farmers and how they organized their lives.
Other enduring German influences, such as education, are more civic-minded. “You had this 3,000-year-old society that came and formed a community on the frontier,” says Judy Young of the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce. “But they were not your average frontiersmen.” The settlers laid out the New Braunfels street grid their first month on the ground, she says, and the town created a tax in 1847 to fund the community’s first public schools.
The German culture in Texas that’s still thriving today is more clearly expressed in nine-pin bowling than in jubilant beer festivals.
New Braunfels is home to the oldest bakery in Texas, Naegelin’s Bakery, which opened its doors in 1868. The Naegelin family sold the business, but new owners kept the name and the Old World recipes. Manager Frankie Alvarado explains, “It’s these traditions that have allowed us to stay in business this long.”
An intrepid traveler, Dan Oko has reported from every corner of Texas, enjoying stays in Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. Several years ago he was lucky enough to attend the original Oktoberfest in Munich and was genuinely surprised when the polka band started playing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, and the crowd joined in full-throated unison.