The sleepy town of Fredericksburg in Texas was built on the new frontier of the Wild West. But it still preserves its deep-rooted German tradition, with heritage celebrations and a unique Texas-German dialect.
The town is part of what's known as the German Belt
Located on Main Street at the center of the town, the Fredericksburg Ice Cream Parlor is the only business still open at 6:00 pm. A family from Mexico City stands outside on the sidewalk, enjoying their ice cream in the middle of winter. They had driven to Fredericksburg for a one-day tour while vacationing in San Antonio.
Cameron, the 21-year old ice cream server, spent most of his life in Fredericksburg and is looking for a change. "It's a pretty heavy tourist town," he said. "I would want to come back here, but I'd need to leave for a little while."
It's an attitude not uncommon to Fredericksburg's younger generation, who view their hometown as a final resting place for old-timers and peach farmers. But Fritztown, as it's also known by the locals, does offer a slice of European charm nestled among an otherwise American-Southern way of life.
Texas is known for oil - not for its German roots
German settlers founded Fredericksburg in 1846 on what was literally the wild frontier, home to the Comanche Indians. Faced with worsening economic conditions and socio-political unrest in what was then the German Confederation, they arrived in America and became the first white people to settle the land. They were encouraged by Texas, which feared an invasion from Mexico.
One year later, Baron Otfried Hans von Meusebach, the commissioner general of the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, signed a treaty between the Comanche and the German Immigration Company. Von Meusebach - who later shortened his name to John O. Meusebach - designated a mutual share of the land and named the staunchly anti-slavery settlement of Fredericksburg after Prince Frederick of Prussia.
Promised the land of milk and honey, 120 German settlers arrived in the first group, building stone houses and planting corn as part of a colonization program. By 1850, Fredericksburg had a population of almost 2,000 people and claimed Texas-German as the town's official dialect, mixing English, German, and even some Spanish.
"Fredericksburg stayed a very Germanic community up until the 1940s, and you can ascertain why," said Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, who hails from five generations of Fredericksburg ranchers.
"I'm English, but I have more German in me than anything," he added, explaining that both his father and grandfather spoke fluent German and taught him the basics of the language at an early age.
But when the US joined the Second World War, the federal government implemented spies into Fredericksburg and forbid the German language from being spoken at school. By the 1960s, the German that had found its way into newspapers and on storefronts for the past century was fading from the vocabulary of the younger generation.
German settlers founded Fredericksburg in 1846 on what was literally the wild frontier
The 'new' Germans
In the past 15 to 20 years, however, Fredericksburg has welcomed dozens of what Whitworth calls the "new Germans."
"They feel very comfortable in the community," he said. Entrepreneurial by nature, many of the new Germans own bed and breakfasts and authentic Bavarian restaurants and bakeries. Fredericksburg is also home to businesses that span generations, such as Krauskopf Brothers, Inc., an irrigation company that is one of the oldest, continually family-run companies in the state.
But like any town that is situated close enough to a major capital city, Fredericksburg has experienced signs of expansion in both population and infrastructure, growing now to 11,000 people.
"Gentrification has seeped in, but much later than most communities," said Whitworth.
"I can still remember graduating high school and not seeing one new car in the parking lot. Now you go there and the kids are driving $50,000 cars and Hummers."
In his opinion, Fredericksburg has always been a frugal, clannish community. As late as the 1980s, Whitworth recalls that Ausländer - those without German heritage - were looked at strangely. Even Whitworth's Louisiana-born mother felt ostracized for living in Fredericksburg with no knowledge of the German language.
America's 'German Belt'
The Vereins Kirche has been turned into a museum
But Fredericksburg, which at one time claimed the largest percentage population of Germans, is not the only Texas town of German origin. It's one notch in a string of settlement towns known as the German Belt, stretching from Texas's Coastal Plain to the Hill Country, including towns like New Braunfels, Boerne, Comfort, Sisterdale, and Bergheim.
With a rich history and a wealth of tourist attractions, such as the Vereins Kirche (one of the city's first buildings), along with der Stadt Friedhof, the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm and several German heritage celebrations that date back to settlement days, like the Schuetzenfest (target shooting festival) and the Saengerfest (singing festival of German ancestral songs), Fredericksburg is a town founded on new frontiers but built around tradition.
"It's a society that has thrived," said Whitworth, "And it's always been a very proud and strong community."
Author: Melanie Sevcenko
Editor: Kate Bowen