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Monday, March 23, 2015

Gone too soon

Many of us were reminded this week how fragile life can be. Life is suspended by a thin cord, easily broken.
Thursday’s edition of this newspaper carried two obituaries, side by side, of two of our neighbors who left us much too soon.
One was a young woman who I’d only met once, but during that meeting she was kind and helpful.  Rachel Fillingame past away this week at the age of 21, of a rare autoimmune disease. I met her at my friends’ vehicle repair shop, LeMeilleur’s RV, Truck and Equipment Repair, where she was employed.  During that one meeting, she quick to be helpful.
Through Facebook I learned she was ill, and I followed the progress of her disease through my friends’ almost daily posts.  The thing that really stood out was her bravery: she was ready to go to the reward she knew awaited her in heaven.  Her faith helped her as she approached her final hour here.
The other who left us too soon was a young man I’d known since he was a youngster: James Eastland, who passed away at 34 this week.  He leaves behind a loving wife and two beautiful daughters.  He, his wife, and several generations of the Eastland family work at Camp Mystic, a summer camp for girls on the south fork of the Guadalupe River, just past Hunt.
James was well known in our community, from his student days here, as an athlete at Tivy, his involvement in community affairs, and his leadership in the camping industry.  The news of his sudden passing shocked many, and when the email came through, I did not believe it.  I’d seen him a few weeks before, and we visited, as always.  I had no idea it would be our last visit.
James, like young Rachel, was a person of faith.  He knew in his heart that he had a home in heaven.
On many occasions I have used this space to praise someone for their contributions to life here in the Texas hill country.  I try to do this while the person is still with us and able to know how much they’re appreciated.  It’s an attempt to say thank you.  But, I admit, it’s often directed at a person who is of a certain age, someone whose hair is silver, and whose accomplishments span decades.
And I’ve often used this space to praise folks who’ve recently passed away, to remember them, and to tell those they’ve left behind how much they were appreciated.
The events of this week suggest it’s never too early to start -- that one shouldn’t wait until someone else’s autumn years to say thank you for their efforts to make this place a better place to live.  I hope the lesson I’ve learned this week is to be thankful, and to express thanks in a better way.
I hope you, too, will consider this lesson.  There are people around us who make an extra effort, who are effective, who work harder.  They try to do the right thing.  They make the difficult look easy.
I hope you’ll join me in thanking them.  It costs nothing to say ‘good job.’   It’s easy to say you’ve noticed the someone’s attention to detail, someone who is finishing a big project, or someone who has a big dream.
To the two young adults we recently lost, Rachel and James: thank you for your hard work.  You made a difference to our community.  You will be missed.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who likes long walks with Ms. Carolyn. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 21, 2015.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Home for 100 years

The Meeker Place, Kerrville
This property has been held by one family since 1915
It isn't often one family owns a piece of property for a century. Rural land sometimes stays in one family for that long, but it's rarer still for town property to stay in one family for 100 years.
This weekend one Kerrville family is celebrating 100 years of ownership of a town property: Since 1915, the Meeker family have owned a home and some land on Meeker Road, just off of Memorial Boulevard, between Schreiner University and the Veterans Administration Hospital.
Curt and Mattie Meeker had one child, Ernest Burton "E.B." Meeker, who was born in 1893 in Illinois. Later, Curt became ill with what they called the "palsey" in those days. His doctor advised moving to a high and dry climate; if he did so, the doctor said, he might live another two or three years.
The family moved to Kerrville, and after a few years, they bought a 150-acre property on what is now Meeker Road in March, 1915. Living here was good for Curt's health. Instead of living just two or three more years, he actually lived another 50 years here.
The Meeker family settled in, and became a part of the community. E. B. Meeker attended the Marshall Academy in San Antonio, playing football there, and later married a hill country girl, Hallie Francis Richardson. They raised their family here, on Meeker Road.
E. B. and his sons Burton and Franklin ran a feed store on Water Street in the 1940s.
In the 1950s, the house on Meeker Road was purchased by Franklin and his wife, Jerrie. The house had been the home, at one time or another, of Frankin's parents or his grandparents.
It is now owned by Franklin and Jerrie Meeker's children.
I frequently correspond with one of those children: Steven. He and I share an interest in local history, but especially about the work of a local pioneer photographer, Starr Bryden.
Bryden and the Meekers had a long friendship, and recently a trunk filled with Bryden's negatives was found. These rare, historic negatives are being carefully scanned and the images restored.
Congratulations to the Meekers on the century-long ownership of the Meeker place, here in Kerrville.
* * *
The Friends of the Kerr County Historical Commission have put together a display called "The Story of Us: the Impact of Tuberculosis on the Growth of Kerr County," which will be exhibited at the Schreiner Mansion Historic Site and Education Center (226 Earl Garrett Street), from March 7th through October 31st.
You might not know it, but many families today can trace back their arrival in Kerrville and Kerr County to a family member who was ill with tuberculosis. In those days our climate was considered beneficial to the treatment of the disease, and, in some cases, the patient got better and lived a long life here.
Patients began arriving here in the early 1870s, and the first local sanatorium for treatment of the disease opened not long afterwards.
The exhibit includes photographs, memorabilia, medical materials, ephemera, and patient crafts from the several area hospitals and sanatoriums which served tubercular patients.
Several talks are planned about the subject. The next one will be given by Dr. Dan Bacon, who will speak about the V. A. Hospital. His talk will be on April 11th, and all are welcome.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native whose family has owned several local properties for more than fifty years. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times on Pi Day, 03-14-15.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Not North vs. South in Kerr County

I've enjoyed the radio series about the American Civil War on Texas Public Radio, which are sponsored by Schreiner University. "This week in the Civil War" has been a feature on the station since March 2011, and many (if not all) of the spots have been written by Dr. John Huddleston.
With the approaching sesquicentennial of the beginning of the end of that war, when Lee surrendered on Palm Sunday 1865 at Appomattox, I suppose the series will end, which is a shame. The series offered a brief glimpse of national historical events, and I've enjoyed them.
What was happening here during the Civil War?
In Kerr County, the Civil War was not North versus South; it was Kerrville versus Comfort.
And while it was not town against town, it was a conflict between two very different cultures.
If we had the opportunity to ask the Kerr County residents of 1860 what they thought about the approaching war, and if they trusted us enough to tell us the truth, I would imagine a majority would say there were problems a lot closer to home.
Kerrville at that time only had a population of 68; Comfort, 91. (Comfort, in those days, was in Kerr County.) The whole county only had 634 people. The Civil War would pull men away from both communities, and both needed as many able-bodied men as possible.
There was a lot of work to be done building a community, of course. Power tools did not exist, except for the occasional water-powered mill. Simply building shelter took a tremendous amount of work. Everything was done by hand. Every manufactured good had to be hauled over rocky trails and rutted roads. Every necessity of life required hard labor.
Service in the war would pull men away from that labor.
But there was more to worry about: at that time, Kerr County was on the extreme edge of the frontier. Hostile native tribes were a constant threat. Frontier defense would suffer if men left to fight a distant war, a war in which many believed they had no part.
That sentiment was probably true in both parts of Kerr County in 1860, in both Kerrville, which was settled mainly by immigrants from the United States, and in Comfort, which was settled mainly by immigrants from Germany.
The division between the two communities was more than just a division between languages, cultures, traditions, and even religions. There was also a division between the two communities about the issue of slavery.
Most (but not all) of the German settlers were opposed to slavery. Most (but not all) of the American settlers were in support of slavery.
And while the War Between the States was about more than that one issue, slavery was a fault line between the little towns of Comfort and Kerrville.
After secession there were several attempts in the largely German communities to organize armed companies for frontier defense. Those in the companies might be able to serve in that capacity without ever having to fight in the distant war, and this appealed to many of the German immigrants. Many of them did not want to fight against the federal government.
This was seen as an anti-Confederate ploy by some of the more ardent supporters of secession, who complained to the authorities. Many of the frontier defense companies were disbanded.
On April 28, 1862, a new commandant for South Texas was named: General Hamilton Bee. Bee almost immediately declared martial law, and later declared Gillespie, Kerr, and Kendall counties in "open rebellion."
He also ordered a detachment of "partisan rangers," led by Captain James Duff, back to our area, to "take such prompt and vigorous measures as in his judgment were necessary."
By July, Duff had established himself at Camp Davis, near the Pedernales River north of Kerrville. His troops were ordered to arrest anyone considered disloyal. Every citizen was expected to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy within three days at Camp Davis.
Considering the roughness of the terrain, the lack of good roads, and the limited communication with parts of the county, such a demand with such a deadline was almost impossible to satisfy. Given the choice between dropping everything to travel to the camp and take the oath, or staying in place on their distant farms and ranches, many chose to stay put.
Arrests were made, men were hung, farms destroyed, goods stolen and women and children left homeless. And things were about to get a lot worse, if you can believe it.
Those with Union sympathies suffered greatly here during the Civil War, mostly at the hands of neighbors. While there were crimes committed on both sides, the brunt of the hostilities was focuses on the German immigrants and their communities.
It's hard today to imagine the murderous divisions between communities within our county, or between our community and nearby communities, but a mere 150 years ago those divisions were not only real, they were dangerous.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is thankful to live in today's Texas Hill Country.

This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 7, 2015.

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.

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