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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Kerr County's African-American heritage deep and proud

Click on image to enlarge
A very rare photograph of Kerrville's Cabbage Hill School
Photo from the Ralph and Irene Harmon collection,
Logan Library Special Collections, Schreiner University
Kerr county, in its long history, has rarely been exemplary in its treatment and respect of its black citizens.  With very few exceptions, especially in the early days of the county, inequality was the only story here.  
Yet despite these drawbacks, generations of African-American families have called this river valley home, and have thrived here.
The first black people who arrived here came as slaves, and the first slave family was the Blanks, who arrived around 1856.
The 1860 census tallied 49 slaves in Kerr county, about half of whom were owned by one family near present-day Center Point.   Almost all of the rest were owned around Kerrville and Center Point; very very few were in the far eastern part of the county, near Comfort.  Comfort was founded by German immigrants who, for the most part, were strongly against slavery.
Of those 49 counted in the 1860 census, 40 percent were aged 10 and younger, meaning they were still children when freedom finally came to Texas in June, 1865.
Some families chose to stay here in Kerr county.  Bob Bennett's history of the county counts members of the Blanks, Hamilton, Bridges, Benson, Fifer, Coleman, Hurst, Hardy, Edmonds, Askey, Thornton, Campell, Ware, and Butler families as those who stayed.  Many of those families are still here.
The education of black children in our county was neglected for far too long.  The black children living in Kerrville finally got a school around the turn of the last century, the Cabbage Hill school.  One of the people most interested in educating was Anna Doyle, for whom the Doyle School was named.
Ms. Doyle and her husband, Henry, came to Kerrville because he was ill with tuberculosis.  In those days many came to Kerrville seeking health.
She was a teacher, and he was a pastor, and they both were well-educated; Henry had a doctorate and Annie was a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute.
Soon after their arrival here, "she collected money and purchased three lots...and persuaded the members of the school board to donate an old school building for the purpose of establishing a school.  She was the only teacher at the school, and served as principal for more than 25 years," according to the Kerrville Mountain Sun.
After Henry Doyle died in 1913, Annie stayed on and continued to teach.  She was paid $85 per month to be the sole teacher at the school, which was considerably less than other teachers in the Kerrville school district made at the time.
She passed away in 1937, and in 1940 a married couple, B. T. and Itasco Wilson arrived in Kerrville to teach at the "Kerrville Colored School."  One of the first things the Wilsons did was change the name to the Doyle School, in honor of Annie Doyle.
There are still many people in Kerrville who attended the Doyle School when it was under the leadership of B. T. and Itasco Wilson.  When I attended the funeral of Mrs. Wilson last year, it was wonderful listening to their former students talk about the school, and of the influence of the Wilsons and the other teachers there.
The Kerrville Independent School District honored B. T. Wilson by naming a district campus in his honor, the B. T. Wilson 6th Grade campus.
I recently enjoyed a great conversation with Clifton Fifer, a retired Kerrville educator, about the Doyle School and his memories of growing up in Kerrville.  Fifer was born in the early 1950s, and was a student at Doyle before integration of all students; when integration took place, he was transferred from Doyle and graduated from Tivy High School, followed by college.
According to Fifer, there were four especially great things about growing up in Kerrville's black community: the people, the churches, the school, and the businesses in the neighborhood.
The people were "a friendly parental community," Fifer said.  Everyone knew each other, and visited frequently as people walked in the neighborhood, leaning over fences to talk.  Fifer remembers his childhood as one of safety and love from his neighbors.
The churches, too, played a role: both Mt. Olive Baptist and Barnett Chapel Methodist were actively involved in the community, especially with the young people of the neighborhood.
And, of course, the Doyle School was so important, too.  Besides the Wilsons, Fifer fondly remembered teachers such as Mr. Theodore Martin, Mrs. Walker (who later became Mrs. Griffin), Mrs. Nellie Crayton, and Lou Ella Cheeks (who had a doctorate).
Fifer remembered times when B.T. Wilson, who was the principal at the Doyle School, would come by Fifer's own classroom when Fifer was a teacher.  "He'd ask what I was teaching my students, and I'd go into a long presentation of the lessons I was giving.  When I finished, he'd simply say 'You've got to teach them how to learn!'"
And then there were the social places in the community -- the six or so "jute" joints which provided entertainment there, all in two-block area.  The included the Famous Door, the Cabin, the Dream, Ella Phelps' place, the Green Door (which catered to kids), and the Pleasure Garden.
The Green Door served no alcohol, and attracted not only the neighborhood youth, but also families. The Pleasure Garden was famous for its barbecue.
Big acts came to these venues, including Gatemouth Brown, Big Momma Thornton, and the Ink Spots.  Because some of these artists played at venues where Fifer's parents forbade him to go, sometimes Fifer and his friends would climb the chinaberry trees which were outside the surrounding fence, just to see the shows.  "I only did it once -- that was off-limits to all kids."
Listening to Clifton Fifer tell the story of his childhood here made me wish he'd write a book.
In conclusion, the story of black history in our community is the story of people overcoming the injustices they faced, while building a strong community.  Many of the earliest black families still have descendents living in the area, and, like those who've gone before, each has made a special contribution to this place we call home.

This story originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 21, 2015.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Only Five One-Room Cabins in Kerrville

The first houses in Kerrville were fairly primitive.
Kerrville got its real start in 1856, when Kerr County was formed.  Joshua Brown offered land for the county seat at the very first commissioners court meeting, and his offer was accepted.  Though Brown and several others lived on land that would become Kerrville, Brown didn't actually own the land he offered to the county until a few weeks later.  He purchased the land from the heirs of B. F. Cage -- heirs who thought Mr. Cage was deceased, though he was actually alive at the time, living in nearby Blanco.  (Oops.)
Joshua Brown, who founded Kerrville, built a cabin in roughly what is now the 600 block of Water Street today.  Mostly it was built from lumber salvaged from the old shingle camp Brown had started years before, in 1846. Brown's cabin was in a prime spot, high on the bluff overlooking the river.  I have a photo which Brown's descendents believe was a portion of the cabin, and it's pretty rustic.  It appears to be constructed of cedar poles and rough-hewn logs.
The cabin is long gone, of course, but the trees which surrounded his cabin are still there, in the open area between our print shop and the library, next to the A. C. Schreiner home.
Daniel Arnold bought the first town lot in Kerrsville (as Kerrville was then spelled), lot No. 99, in 1856. Lott 99 was behind the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, toward Sidney Baker Street.  Three years later he was still not living on his own lot, but in a ‘little shack propped up with long poles to keep it from falling down’ where the present-day Kerr County Courthouse stands.
At the beginning of Kerrville, very few people lived here.
When Rosalie and Christian Dietert arrived in 1857, there were only five one-room huts in the entire town.   The Dieterts built a place on Spring Street, which is near the intersection of today's Washington and Water Streets, overlooking the river.  Dietert was a millwright, and he built a mill on his property along the river.
His first mill here was powered by horses, and was designed to make shingles.  He later built a mill powered by the river, which he used to saw lumber.
Here's how Rosalie Dietert described Kerrville as it was 1857, in a 1931 interview with her great-granddaughter, who was writing a report for school.
What was in Kerrville when you came here, the granddaughter asked.  "Nothing, my child, but a cluster of five small log huts, of one or two rooms, a wilderness of trees, and grass as high as a man, with Indians skulking through."
When this interview took place, Mrs. Dietert was 93 years old.
"Your grandfather built the sixth house," Mrs. Dietert said. "It had three rooms and was built of cypress timbers cut on the saw mill he set up at the place where the ice plant now stands."
Cooking, too, was difficult.
Rosalie Dietert started housekeeping with a skillet and a small dutch oven, "which was a small round iron pot with three legs and a dented-in lid to hold live coals." She also had a brass kettle holding about one gallon, for cooking utensils.
"Meat there was always plenty, venison, wild turkey, fish, occasionally bear, and later beef. In the beginning there were practically no vegetables. They made a salad of wild parsley and tea from a variety of the small prairie sage, and greens from the 'lamb's quarters' or 'land squatters.'"
However, "in about 1870 some cook stoves were brought west as far as San Antonio, one of which [Rosalie Dietert] became the proud possessor. No more out-door cooking in all sorts of weather -- a stove and a real oven to bake bread and cakes! Her recipes were gotten out, and all sorts of good things were made for holidays and birthdays. The favorites were stollen (loaf cake), pfeffer-nusse (spice cookies), and schnecken (a sweet dough rolled out flat and covered with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, currants and pecan meats. This was all rolled up, cut into slices, and baked.)"
The recipe became very popular in early Kerrville, and many early local families enjoyed making schnecken, though, among many early families it went by a different name: "Dietert Cookies."
Years ago, when I first wrote of "Dietert Cookies," the creative Chef Karen at Kerrville's Dietert Center made up a batch and shared them with me.  I can assure you, Gentle Reader, "Dietert Cookies" are delicious.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who likes many types of cookies, but especially homemade cookies.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 21, 2015.

Monday, February 16, 2015

1860 Kerr County, by the numbers

Enumeration of the Slave inhabitants of Kerr County, summer of 1860.
Click on image to enlarge
In the summer of 1860, just four years after Kerr County was created, Theodore Weidenfeld collected information on our county for the federal census.
The document he created is now online, and was found by a friend with whom I frequently correspond: John MacCrossan, who lives in Derry, Ireland.
The 1860 census of Kerr County is a very interesting document, and has more than a few surprises in its handwritten tables. The document tells a lot about life here in the earliest days of our county.
For one thing, Comfort was in Kerr County in those days, before Kendall County was created. In fact, in 1860 the voters of Kerr County voted to move the county seat from Kerrsville to Comfort. The census document gives a few clues why this happened.
First, the facts:
The census enumerates the citizens of Comfort, the citizens of Kerrville, and those who lived outside those two communities; the rest of the county is divided into two precincts. The area around Comfort was Precinct 2; the area around Kerrville (and farther upriver) was Precinct 1.
The total population given for Kerr County in 1860 was 634, including 49 slaves.
Comfort had a population of 91: 52 men, 39 women. Of the men, 37 were of voting age.
Kerrville had a population of 68: 38 men, 30 women. Of the men, 15 were of voting age.
There were more people near Comfort than near Kerrville, too: Comfort, and the land around it, was settled first, largely by German immigrants from New Braunfels, who began moving into the area in the early 1850s.
Kerrville really didn't have a beginning until 1856, though a small group of settlers lived here. It wasn't until 1856 that Joshua D. Brown offered site for a town at the very first Kerr County commissioners court. Though Brown and others had lived in the area since the late 1840s, it wasn't until 1856 that Brown obtained title to the land on which the oldest part of Kerrville now rests. Brown purchased the land from the heirs of B. F. Cage, who assumed the veteran had died -- although it turns out Mr. Cage was quite alive at the time, living in nearby Blanco.
The summer of 1860 was a time of turmoil in Kerr County -- this was when the storm clouds of the American Civil War were building in the east.
The census makes clear that conflict was present even here in the newly formed Kerr County. It's true there were 49 slaves in Kerr County, but they were not evenly distributed over the county.
One slaveholder, Dr. Charles de Ganahl, owned 24 of the 49. Dr. Ganahl had just over 4,000 acres near present-day Center Point. In the 1860 census, Ganahl's land was in Precinct 1.
In fact, almost all of the slaves in Kerr County in 1860 were in Precinct 1. There were 9 slaves held in Precinct 2, the area around Comfort; there were 40 in Precinct 1, the area around Kerrville.
In the town Comfort, there was only one slave: a 10-year-old girl, who was owned by a woman. Kerrville counted 2 slaves: a 28-year-old male, and a 10-year-old male. The rest were held on farms and small ranches, but mostly in the area around Kerrville.
19 of the 49 slaves here were 10 years of age or younger. None of the slaves are named in the document; they are only counted.
Precincts 1 and 2 were also divided by language; most of the families in Precinct 2 spoke German in their homes; in Precinct 1, English.
This division of language mirrors the division of slave ownership, too. When the county voted on the question of secession of Texas from the United States, Kerr County narrowly voted to secede, 76 to 57. However, there is some evidence to suggest Kerr County would have voted not to secede had the votes of Precinct 2 (near Comfort, in the German-speaking portion of the county) been counted fully.
Yet another division was the selection of the county seat. In 1860 voters selected Comfort over Kerrville, though even in this election there was some chicanery, as many of the votes from Kerrville were thrown out.
Until next week, all the best.

To see the 1860 Census of Kerr County, click HERE
To see the 1860 Census of Kerr County slaves, click HERE

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 14, 2015.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A newly found image of Kerrville -- 1920s

Click on image to enlarge
Kerrville, mid 1920s, taken from south of the river, looking east
This photo was on a postcard I have in my collection -- titled "Thompson Sanatorium."  That's the sanatorium in the foreground, with Kerrville in the background.  

In the photo you can see
  • Tivy High School
  • The St Charles Hotel
  • Several churches: (from left to right: the Union Church, Zion Lutheran, First Presbyterian, First Baptist, Notre Dame, St Peter's Episcopal)
  • The third Kerr County courthouse
  • Schreiner Company
  • the Kerrville Roller Mill and the ice plant
  • Pampell's
  • the Favorite Saloon building
  • Parson's Hall (which was where our parking lot is today, between Herring Printing Company and Grape Juice)
I was gathering materials for the upcoming show curated by the Friends of the Kerr County Historical Commission: "The Story of Us: the Impact of Tuberculosis in the Growth of Kerr County," which opens March 7, 2015 at the Schreiner Mansion Historic Site and Education Center, 226 Earl Garrett Street, Kerrville

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A solitary rider


The first settler to view the land where Kerrville would eventually be built was a solitary shingle maker on horseback, who first scouted the area in the mid-1840s.
I have tried to imagine that ride and the rider.
Joshua D. Brown, a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, explored the upper reaches of the Guadalupe River and decided shingle making could be profitable there. Born in Kentucky in 1816, he arrived in Texas at the age of 14, coming to DeWitt's colony at Gonzales, where James Kerr was an official. Brown was 20 when he fought at San Jacinto.
In 1844, he moved up the Guadalupe River to a site called Curry's Creek, in what is now Kendall County. Shingle making was going strong at Curry's Creek, and soon many of the nearby cypress trees were felled. Following a rumor that giant cypress trees were farther upriver, Brown explored the area now known as Kerrville in 1846. He was 30.
What did he see here?
From my collection of historic Kerr County photographs, I know our river valley has changed in the past 100 years. The earliest photos in my collection show a place with far fewer trees than we have today; I don't see a lot of juniper trees in the photos, and the giant trees we have in our yards and along our older streets were not yet planted. There still were trees along the river (Brown and his shingle makers didn't cut them all), but the area that would soon hold the grid of streets of which we're familiar is oddly barren of trees.
Photos of our area taken earlier than 1900 are scarce because cameras were scarce. So there's no way to see what Joshua Brown saw when he first visited on horseback. It was a valley absent of the landmarks with which we're so familiar. There were no limestone buildings, no traffic lights, no courthouse, no stores, no churches, no bridges. It was a face lacking the creases of expression. The web of tales we attach to this place had yet to be written. The lives had yet to be lived.
It would be tempting to take a romantic view of this place as you imagine what Joshua Brown saw when he came here. Its pristine beauty, from our present-day point of view, must have been breathtaking.
But to Brown all of the land he'd traveled was pristine. It was all untouched, unspoiled.
Traveling in 1846 in any direction from Curry's Creek, it would have been harder to find developed, populated land than to find what today we might consider a Hill Country Garden of Eden. It was all Eden, in every direction.
Why then did Joshua Brown pick this place? Partly for the cypress trees. Brown's solitary expedition was economically motivated. The availability of water might have been another factor. The nearness of German settlements might have played a role. The apparent absence of Native American activity also might have influenced the choice.
History records Brown's response to the area. He was excited by what he found.
He returned to Goliad and recruited a band of 10 men to join him in establishing a shingle-making camp here.
They weren't prepared for life here. In their excitement, they neglected to prepare for one of the constant factors of the Hill Country frontier. In the history I've read, the quote says "the Indians proved troublesome," and Brown and his companions were forced to leave the valley within a few months.
But the idea of the place stuck with Brown, and he returned two years later in 1848. This time he was better prepared and chose as the site of his camp a bluff which was more easily defended, where the 800 block of Water Street is today. And this time, the community took hold.
Only eight years after this shaky beginning, Kerr County was created. It was named for a friend of Joshua Brown, James Kerr, a leader in the early affairs of Texas.  Joshua Brown offered a townsite to the very first Kerr County commissioners court, a town to be named "Kerrsville."
We may not be the first tribe to live here, beside the Guadalupe River, but since Joshua Brown first passed this way on horseback, this place, nestled in the curving arm of a green river, has been a great place to call home.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who was born just a few blocks from the site of Joshua Brown's second shingle camp.

This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times January 31, 2015.

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