Monday, December 24, 2012
Kerrville's very first Christmas tree
For my family, a "Christmas tree" has often meant an artificial tree of some sort, since allergies run in our family. As a child our family Christmas tree was a shiny silver aluminum one. Seeing it in later years I was astonished how small it was in relation to my memory of its size.
When Ms. Carolyn and I started our family I would often go to the hillsides and search for an ashe juniper which could be shaped, approximately, into the traditional cone shape. This was often accomplished only by lashing several cedar branches together. These concoctions were always odd looking, but they served the purpose. When our children arrived these franken-trees had to go; allergies were again to blame.
We purchased an artificial tree when our children were small, and, for better or worse, it's still the tree we use. It has a unique construction: four or five rings of "pine" branches rest on a metal frame, like the hoops in a hoop skirt. The frame itself looks like a partially opened umbrella. There are no branches -- just this inverted funnel which somehow looks like an evergreen tree. Well, if you squint just right.
The very first Christmas tree in Kerrville came with German immigrants: Christian and Rosalie Dietert, who first came to Kerr County in 1856, the same year county was organized.
I found a nice story about the Dieterts in an old issue of Hunter's "Frontier Times Magazine" written by T. U. Taylor in 1941, and most of the following comes from that article.
In 1855 Christian Dietert built a mill on Cypress Creek, but only two months after completion, the little mill had to be abandoned: Cypress Creek ran dry, and the mill was discarded for lack of water power.
That same year he married Miss Rosalie Hess, who had only recently arrived from Jena, Germany. She was nineteen years old, five foot two, and weighed an even 100 pounds. She was tiny.
In 1856 Christian Dietert's parents, two brothers, and a sister joined him in Comfort. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christian Dietert and his new wife moved to Fredericksburg early the next year. Perhaps there was just "too much family" in the little town of Comfort.
While in Fredericksburg, Dietert helped construct the Van der Stucken mill, and toward the end of the year, Christian Dietert and his bride moved to Kerrville.
It was 1857, and the town of "Kerrsville" was still a rough frontier place. The article suggests there were only five one-roomed huts in the entire village.
The Dieterts bought a tract along the river in Kerrville -- a tract which stretched from today's Earl Garrett Street to A Street.
There he built a shingle mill, using horse power until he could construct a water wheel, "with which he later sawed lumber from the Cypress trees growing along the banks of the river." The mill stood about where One Schreiner Center is today.
Floods were a problem for early millwrights here; they would destroy mills often. Such was the case here for the Dieterts, so they moved several times, building mills in nearby communities.
Finally, in 1866, the Dieterts moved back to Kerrville, this time to stay. Although another mill he built washed away in a flood, in 1868 he came up with an "under water iron turbine," and a "old type of flour mill consisting of two large stones, the lower a flat stational stone with a somewhat conical shaped stone above it, which in revolving crushed and ground the grain into flour."
The mill was successful and ground wheat, corn, and also operated a sawmill.
Though Dietert would build more mills, and even freighted for the Confederate government during the Civil War, Kerrville remained his home.
From all accounts theirs was a very welcoming home. The family held community dances there, and are credited with introducing the waltz to our community.
Their home also had the very first Kerrville Christmas tree. It was decorated with paper chains, nuts covered with gold and silver paper, apples brought from San Antonio, and cookies cut into shapes of birds and animals and decorated with sugar. The candles were tallow dips.
As your holiday errands have you running back and forth over our Kerrville streets, if you pass by the intersection of Water and Spring Streets, opposite the front doors of the new Notre Dame Catholic Church, remember the Dieterts, their little frame home, and the lightly decorated tree around which they gathered to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who really isn't sure what he wants for Christmas this year. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 22, 2012.