The Wends at Thorndale and Noack
by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor
The Wendish road to Thorndale first led to Hochkirch, or Noack, as it is called today. The distance separating the two communities is about 9 miles. On September 21, 1871, 7 years before Thorndale even existed, Peter Zieschang purchased 440 acres of land on Brushy Creek in southern Williamson County.
Zieschang was no stranger to world travel, and like George Boback [see October 2002 Newsletter] he had first migrated to Australia. In the 1850s Zieschang, with his wife and niece, had settled in Victoria in a Wendish and German community named Hochkirch, in honor of the town in Saxony. But a decade later, ill health led Zieschang to return to Germany with his family that by then included two Australian-born sons. The Old World, however, no longer suited him, so he again departed from Germany, except this time he decided on Texas. In November 1870 he, along with about 35 other Wends, landed at New Orleans. After touching base at Serbin he settled briefly at Fiskville, near present-day Pflugerville, and then bought the land on Brushy Creek and started the settlement he called Hochkirch. Wild cattle abounded along Brushy Creek as well as on the grasslands to the north, so in addition to limited farming, he worked with cattle. In keeping with Texas tradition, he traveled to Georgetown, the county seat, and registered his PZ brand.
Distance from a Lutheran congregation precluded frequent church attendance, but Zieschang retained his ties to the Wendish community in Serbin, and from time to time he and his family traveled there for church services and for the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
Thorndale came into existence in 1878 as a station stop on the International and Great Northern Railroad. Rockdale had been the end of track since 1874, and for 2 years there was no construction while railroad personnel secured funding and lands for the right of way. Once construction resumed westward toward Austin, any location about 12 miles down the track would become a new station. Thorndale’s location was more a matter of speed of travel with horse-drawn wagons than a particular geographical feature. The initial site for Thorndale was in Williamson County, 3 miles west of its present location, but in 1880 Lewis Carothers moved his store eastward across the county line. No specific reason was given for the change to Milam County, but a possible reason was the absence of adequate water. The new location was a bit closer to Brushy Creek, but a good water supply was a perennial problem for Thorndale. Four years later, in 1884, the population was 130.
The next step in Wendish expansion that led from Hochkirch to Thorndale was made by two Polnick brothers [see October 2003 Newsletter]. The patriarch, August Polnick had been part of the 1853 migration and he provided shelter for the Kilian family when the Ben Nevis immigrants moved inland. Eventually the family settled near Fedor and that is where, in 1876, August died. His eldest son, Andreas, who had been an infant on the voyage to Texas, purchased land in Williamson County in 1880 north and east of Hochkirch in the direction of Thorndale. The next year the second son, C. August, who was born in Texas, purchased some of the land from Andreas and also acquired property in Thorndale. Previously, C. August had owned a store in Fedor and served as the postmaster. He sold his store to Fedor Soder, after whom the community was named, in 1882 and opened a new store in Thorndale.
Neither of the Polnicks was among the eight founding fathers of the Thorndale congregation although C. August lived in Thorndale until 1903. By 1910, C. August had moved to Coryell County and Andreas was in Bosque County. The Polnick name, however, still is visible, along with the date of 1912, on the façade of one of the buildings on Thorndale’s Main Street.
While the railroad made Thorndale possible, it was the barbed wire fence that enabled Thorndale to grow. Barbed wire had been invented in 1874 in Illinois, and Texans began using it in 1877. The land around Thorndale, especially to the north and west, was largely prairie and barbed wire enabled the farmers to protect the fields from the cattle. With the railroad, barbed wire, and fertile prairie soil, commercial agriculture was possible, and Thorndale boomed. Cotton brought prosperity and, by 1923, Thorndale was home to five gins and a cotton seed oil mill.
Beginning in the mid-1880s other Wendish families making the move to Thorndale included such surnames as Michalk, Moerbe, Urban, Simank, Kieschnick, Felfe, Heinze, Wuensche, Biar, and Miertschin. Wends settled both in town and around the countryside. Most of the land purchases were made to the north and west of town. Because many of the settlers were from Fedor and Trinity was the nearest church, the resident pastor, Gotthilf Birkmann, assumed religious responsibility for them and occasionally traveled the 35 miles by horse and buggy to Thorndale and Hochkirch to preach and administer the sacraments. From 1885 to 1891, Birkmann’s visits became scheduled and he made his trips quarterly and on special occasions.
While Thorndale boomed, Hochkirch grew at a slower rate. Hochkirch was 2 miles south of the railroad, so it remained a small community. Some Wends, such as the Poldracks and the Noacks, had joined with local Germans and formed a Lutheran cluster at Hochkirch. Birkmann treated Thorndale and Hochkirch as a single parish and alternated the services between the two communities. In 1890, both became organized congregations and both built churches the next year. Carl Michalk donated 10 acres of land for the Thorndale church, and the members collected $229.58 to construct a 24 ft. x 36 ft. building. In Hochkirch, Peter Zieschang donated the land for the church. The mission board called Pastor E. P. Gesterling to serve both congregations as well as Lutherans in Taylor and Austin. Two years later, in 1893 after Pastor Gesterling accepted a call to a different parish, Thorndale and Hochkirch became self-sustaining and called a new pastor. The second pastor, A. W. Kramer, served both congregations until 1896 when the parish divided and Hochkirch got its own resident pastor, C. A. Waech. The congregation, Christ Lutheran, currently served by Pastor James P. Kretzmann, maintains a membership of 150.
The membership of St. Paul’s Lutheran in Thorndale grew to 208 in 1899, more than the little church building could hold, so in 1900 the congregation built a new 40 ft. x 60 ft. building and used the smaller building as a school. The new church included a steeple and a new bell weighing 1,000 pounds. The boom time for Thorndale took place at the turn of the century when the fertile prairie land was still inexpensive, and many more families from Lee County moved north. Pastor Birkmann wrote: “We poor Post Oak congregations couldn’t measure up to anything like it. It was feared by some in places like Fedor, Lincoln, Manheim that their congregations would be weakened to a precarious degree, or even pass quite out of existence.” By 1911 the membership reached 654. In 1912, Thorndale gave up some of its Wends when some members moved to Bishop, but in the following years it grew in membership to exceed 800.
The photo at right identifies the church as the German church, and that is what it was. Although a few members of the congregation, such as Jacob Moerbe, had been part of the 1854 migration and some of the second generation knew some Wendish, German had become the language at church and at home. Also, those pastors who served the congregation preached in German and Germans were members of the congregation. The one non-Wendish founder of the congregation was Johann Winter, an Austrian. The Wendish heritage remained nevertheless, largely because of the predominance of members of Wendish descent. In the congregation, for example, Gerhard Biar, the Vorsaenger (cantor) instructed my father, the organist, on hymn tunes and ways the Wends liked to sing, even though the hymns were in German. And in the homes certain terms such as piwo (beer) and practices associated with weddings lingered, even if the origins were not always identified as Wendish.
By 1940, the second church building had become inadequate and in need of repairs, and only procrastination saved it. That summer a tornado resolved the question and blew the building from its foundation. The timing for building a new church could not have been more opportune because World War II began the next year and brought with it a scarcity of materials. So, just as the tornado had ended the German church building, so the war sealed the fate of the German language. English already had been added to special religious events, and as early as 1903 Pastor J. H. Tegeler traveled by train from Austin to deliver a series of sermons in English on Wednesday nights. English also became the language of instruction in the school, even though some German was taught and German was used in the study of the Catechism and the Bible. With the war, the congregation became predominately English with German as the secondary language. The current pastor is James K. Mann and the membership is around 800.
Thorndale was my home town from second through eighth grades. Three memories may be applicable. The first illustrates Thorndale’s ties with Noack. On certain occasions such as mission festivals my father went to Noack to play the pipe organ and Mr. Biar led the singing. At that time Noack’s pipe organ was operated with hand bellows and I went along to pump the handle to make it work. A second memory was the gusto with which the Thorndale congregation sang the chorales. The people enjoyed music and they liked tradition. And I remember the tornado in 1940. More than one person looked back and saw God’s hand in that tornado.
- Photo courtesy of Bill Biar