Housed in a former church school house, the museum preserves historical items common on the Texas frontier in the mid-1880s as well as clothing, books, art, and other articles unique to the Wendish culture. It is rather ironic that the Wends came to Texas to preserve their language, religion, and culture from German oppression only to have their society forced to assimilate by the necessities of building a new homeland.
The Wends -- they call themselves Sorbs -- descend from the Slavic tribes that once occupied much of Central Europe. By the 1800s, their numbers had dwindled by conquest and assimilation until only a small area along the River Spree was inhabited by true Wends.
Political changes in the Prussian Empire in the 19th century led to a mass exodus by Germans, Czechs, and other Slavic peoples. It was a mutually beneficial situation for Texas, which was looking for settlers (and taxpayers), and refugees looking for cheap land. The main body of Wendish immigrants arrived in Galveston in 1854, hoping to form a new "Wendenland."
Led by the Rev. Johann Kilian, the Wends purchased 4,254 acres of land for $1 an acre in southern Lee County (then part of Bastrop County). Serbin was established as the colony's capital and 95 acres were set aside for the Lutheran church and school.
The Texas Wends were one of five colonies coming to the U.S. Other groups went to Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Another group went to Australia. Sub-colonies in Texas were formed in Austin, Houston, Warda, Swiss Alp, Giddings, Walburg, the Rio Grande Valley, and other spots around Texas.
The hardships of agrarian life in an unfamiliar climate and geography compelled the Wends to rely on their Anglo-, German-, and African-American neighbors for help. In the scattered small colonies the Wendish language and culture soon died out. Only in Serbin did it survive, where Wendish services continued at St. Paul's Lutheran Church until 1921. With most of the commerce taking place at the mills and railroads in La Grange and Giddings, the population of Serbin never exceeded much more than 100.
Built in 1871, St. Paul's Lutheran Church is one of the oldest churches in America in continual use since its construction. The rather plain exterior of the church, with rough, whitewashed stone walls and an ordinary belfry, belies the beauty of the interior. The two-story stained glass windows bathe the pews in warm sunlight while the two-foot-thick walls keep the sanctuary cool.
The church sanctuary is surrounded by a balcony where the men sat, segregated from the women on the first floor. The building's interior columns are feather-painted and the wall paintings are stenciled. This is one of the "painted" churches not included on the tours out of Schulenburg (409/743-4514).
One of the unusual features of St. Paul's Lutheran Church is the pipe organ in the back of the church on the balcony. Built in 1904, it was one of five organs constructed by Ed Pfeifer in Austin. The Serbin organ was struck by lightning in 1932 and completely restored in 1972.
When the Wends came to Texas in 1854, they brought a large church bell. The bell was replaced in 1915 and the original now resides in front of Birkman Chapel at Concordia College in Austin.
The Texas Wendish Heritage Museum is housed in a complex of buildings donated to the Historical Society in 1979. Exhibits include relics from the old country and early Texas. One building is the old school house with sliding doors to separate the two large classrooms.
The museum, gift shop, log cabins, and library are open daily, 1-5pm, except Monday. Admission is $1 for adults and free for children. Group tours with a Wendish meal are available.
Serbin is southwest of Giddings. To get there from US290, take FM2104 south to FM2239 east. For more information, call 409/366-2441. For information on Lee County, call the Giddings Chamber of Commerce, 409/542-3455.
Coming up this weekend...
Thanksgiving on the Frontier turns back the hands of time at the Johnson Settlement in Johnson City just in time for the Great Turkey Escape festival, Nov. 15. 830/868-7128.
November Fest at Sunset Canyon Pottery east of Dripping Springs on US290 celebrates the 75 volunteers who helped raise the straw bale walls in 1996 with an artist reception, demonstrations, and special activities for the kids, Nov. 14-16. 894-0938.
Journey of a Texas Artist is an exhibit of art by Ira Kennedy at the Gallery of the Hills in Buchanan Dam, Nov. 10-Dec. 12. 512/793-2341.
Holiday River of Lights in New Braunfels features lights and animated scenes along the Guadalupe River in Cypress Bend Park, Nov. 14-Jan. 4. 830/625-2385 or http://www.nbcham.org.
The First Bald Eagle of the season was spotted at Lake Buchanan on Nov. 5. The birds winter in Texas from November to February. For cruise information, call 800/4-RIVER-4.
Thanksgiving With the Indians at the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation outside of Livingston offers traditional and not-so-traditional foods and entertainment, Nov. 27. 800/444-3507.