Rock the Boat

Atheist or Agnostic?

Roy Perkins is a 55-year-old Comfort native and a descendant of Peter Ingenhuett, a town founder who built various businesses and homes in town, later dividing the property among his sons. Perkins, who retired after working more than 30 years for the Comptroller's office, dresses neatly and wears a large-faced watch. His heavy-lidded blue eyes veer in slightly different directions; his voice is exceedingly deliberate. He owns one of the original Ingenhuett houses, where his grandmother lived until she died, and he keeps it as it was in his grandmother's time, right down to the 1936 refrigerator and ancestral tea towels. The museum-perfect house looks uninhabited, but Perkins assures me he lives there -- though he keeps the blinds drawn so as not to invite tourists, he says. (This was later disputed by another person in town, who swore that he lives elsewhere, with his mother.) Behind the 135-year-old house is a small chapel, which Perkins recently restored, installing six pews and a stained-glass window.

Inside the main house, he pulls a 19th-century Lutheran Bible, written in German, from one of the shelves. "This was brought over from Germany in 1817," he said, opening the Bible to point out the family names inscribed there, "and one of the [other] things I have is a confirmation certificate dated the 19th of August, 1849, for my great great great grandmother, Antoni Kapp." Another book in his possession explains that Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, one of the founders of New Braunfels, wrote to church officials requesting that a minister be sent to the region. "So you can't say that the folks that settled the region were all atheists. ... This [cenotaph] was funded by modern freethinkers, and the connotation today, that freethinkers are agnostic, I don't believe is correct. They had a belief in a higher being. ... What the people are doing, that have contributed to this project, is distorting the true history."

Naturally, this is disputed by the supporters of the project, one of whom can be found right around the corner from Perkins' grandmother's house, in Ingenhuett's original store. It remains a general store to this day, owned and operated by Greg Krauter, another descendant. Krauter is Perkins' cousin, as well as a past chairman of the Comfort Heritage Foundation. He's been in Comfort all his life, save for the years 1969-1978 when he lived in Austin, majoring in philosophy at UT and later working for the Lower Colorado River Authority. He has longish hair and tinted eyeglasses; he wears a silver ring with a Navajo design on it, but no watch.

"I'm one of a few locals, amateur historians, who've been involved [in the cenotaph project] from the beginning," he said, sitting on a bench outside the store. "Mr. Scharf contacted us several months before the Treue der Union rededication with the idea. We thought it was a good idea. I've also considered myself a Freethinker. I'm descended from Freethinkers."

By calling himself a Freethinker, he says, "basically it means I prefer to use reason and an open mind to come to conclusions." The 19th-century settlers, he says, "weren't active churchgoers. I'm not saying they were atheists." Krauter suspects his cousin's opposition to the project may have stemmed from "some problems we've had in the past couple years. He found out I was involved, that may be part of the reason for his opposition. Of course that's just speculation. But there's got to be some other reason. They've completely ignored the facts. ... No one takes one person's entries on the Internet and draws these kinds of general conclusions." Though Perkins officially belongs to the Heritage Foundation, Krauter said he is not an active member, and may be jealous of that organization's success in restoring the Treue der Union monument and involving community members.

Perkins is president of the Comfort Historical Society, a smaller group that operates the Comfort museum. The museum is rarely open.

Rock Must Go

After receiving the anti-atheist petition, the Kendall County Commissioner's Court decided it would prefer to let the town resolve the issue on its own, according to County Judge James Gooden. So on Sept. 24, the Comfort Chamber of Commerce, after a crowded, three-hour comment session, voted to remove the existing rock and appointed a committee to determine what will replace it. According to Pam Duke, a member of the chamber and editor of the Comfort News, the chamber's action resulted from a general sentiment that the rock, which is almost twice as large as what Scharf originally proposed, did not suit the park. (Scharf, who says the rock looked a lot smaller when it was at the bottom of the quarry, had offered to trim it down to the anticipated size.) "To us it was not aesthetically pleasing," says Duke. "That was the main problem."

"We're not bigoted; we don't care if atheists come to this community," says Duke. The issue has been blown out of proportion in news reports, she says. "All the to-do in the press, most people think it's outrageous. We've always been live and let live." And, she adds, buy and let buy: Comfort is one of a cluster of Hill Country towns that have been cashing in on its history over the past decade. The town's newest settlers are a half-dozen antique shops, whose proprietors don't exactly appreciate the kind of publicity the cenotaph controversy has brought Comfort. ("No, uh-uh, I don't have anything to say about that," one of them told me. "That's just a few people with nothing better to do.") Meanwhile, the rock has remained in the park. Apparently it's a lot easier to vote to remove a 36-ton object than to actually get rid of it.

Karen Olsson is an associate editor with The Texas Observer, where this story first appeared.

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