A limestone hunk in Comfort, Texas -- a would-be monument to area immigrants -- has a decidedly uncomfortable history.
German Freethinkers might have helped settle Comfort in 1852, but a few faith-based conservatives in the Hill Country town would like to forget the contributions made by those pioneers because of their religious beliefs. A limestone monument in the local park goes unfinished and stands more as a reminder of divisiveness in the community than of a shared heritage.
It all started about three years ago when Ed Scharf of Helotes discovered the story of the German Freethinkers in Central Texas. Over the next couple of years he applied for a state historical marker commemorating the immigrants and proposed a monument with the support of the local chamber of commerce and historical committee.
The controversy started in the summer of 1998, when opponents to the limestone monolith called it a "monument to atheism." A subsequent petition convinced the chamber to withdraw support for the tribute and delayed the completion of the state historical marker.
"It is just a couple of people in the community making a big hubbub about nothing," says a local businesswoman who asked not to be identified. She felt that most people who signed the petition to stop the monument to the Freethinkers didn't know what they were signing and then wished they hadn't signed.
Pam Duke, editor of the weekly Comfort News, says she thinks they should have dug a hole and buried the limestone block a long time ago. "If they buried it then it would be out of sight of those who don't want to see it and will still be there if the owner wants to come back and claim it."
About seven feet tall and four feet square with a ragged top, the reddish-brown monolith stands beside TX 27, west of the historic business district, in Comfort Park. On one side someone had leaned a wooden cutout of a little boy relieving himself. On the other side is a cutout of Bugs Bunny leaning against the rock. On the back of Bugs is written, "The Lord decides when it rains."
The rock slab is about 50 feet from a bust of Ernst Hermann Algelt, the founder of the town. Also in the park are basketball and tennis courts. One side of the block-square park is taken up by a covered pavilion used for civic functions. In the center of the tree-shaded park is a gazebo and picnic tables.
Duke says no one is really sure who owns the hunk of limestone. Scharf, who was not available for comment, collected money for the monument through the Comfort Historical Foundation. "They gave back his money and backed out of the project," she says.
The original design for the monument was about a quarter the size of the rock in the park and was supposed to have an eagle on top, Duke says. The limestone is of such poor quality that she thinks in 10 years it's going to be a pile of stones. Four major fissures have already shown up in the rough surface and dark red impurities lace through it like racing stripes.
"I think it's going to melt," Duke says, "Rain, combined with exhaust fumes from the highway; and if we ever get a freeze, it will fall to pieces."
Duke applauds Scharf for the work he did in completing the application for the historical sign. "Most everybody agrees with having a plaque for the Freethinkers," she says. Even though the newspaper offered to pay part of the foundry fee, evidently Scharf paid for it out of his own pocket.
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) approves the application for the historical marker, but was never involved in the controversy, says Cynthia Beeman, manager of the marker department for THC. The marker is at the foundry and should be ready in a month or two. There were requests to change some of the wording in the original draft, but the iron tablet was always planned for a post in the park. "It was never going to be on the limestone block," she says.
The German Freethinkers in Texas probably never numbered more than a few hundred individuals, but from 1845 to 1861 they were the majority in Comfort and nearby Sisterdale. They were mostly highly educated liberals who escaped the failed Revolution of 1848 in Germany.
These pioneers came to the Texas to practice their ideals of freedom and democracy, which the government of Germany suppressed. Although they espoused an early form of socialism and communism, the unbridled pursuit of education was their main goal.
Despite the claims of opponents to the monument, most of the early Freethinkers in Texas were not true agnostics or atheists. Rather, they considered the notion of a Deity irrelevant. Comfort did not have a church for the first 40 years of its existence. Most traditional religious services, like weddings and funerals, were conducted by a German lodge. Maintaining the Freethinker tradition of limited government, Comfort is still an unincorporated town.
It is rather ironic that across the highway from the city park and the unfinished monolith is the only monument to the Union in the South. The Treue der Union monument near the high school was erected in 1865 to memorialize 34 German men and boys who were killed by Confederate soldiers when they tried to escape to Mexico. Many of those killed were Freethinkers from Comfort who objected to slavery and secession.
Perhaps the uncompleted monument and the surrounding controversy that has demonstrated the intolerance of a few individuals in the community is tribute enough to the brave pioneers who risked their lives to settle the Texas frontier.
Coming up this weekend ...
Gillespie County Fair at the fairgrounds south of Fredericksburg includes livestock shows, arts and crafts, food, and parimutuel horse racing, Aug. 25-27. 830/997-6523.
The Accordion Kings Camp and Dance at Round Rock's Old Settlers Park brings out the squeezeboxes and more, Aug. 26-27. 512/441-9255.
Coming up ...
Yellow Rose Brewing Co. of San Antonio has ceased operation according to the San Antonio Express-News. Brewers of popular brands like Wildcatter's Stout, Cactus Queen Ale, and Bubba Dog Ale, the microbrewery was simply worked to death. The last few bottles may still be on grocery shelves, so get it while you can.