Andrew Urban, Builder and Craftsman

Andrew (Andreas) Urban, A Wendish Craftsman

Introduction by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor
One aspect of Wendish life that is generally ignored in Wendish studies is the daily activity of making a living. While most Wends took up farming, there were also some who became craftsmen. One of the craftsmen was Andrew Urban. A descendant of his, Patricia Swayze Larsen, has examined his life and his contribution to the community. Patricia spent her early childhood in Thorndale but then, as a student and later spouse of Brig. Gen. Philip N. Larsen, she lived in San Antonio and the Washington, D. C. area. She is an ardent family historian and is well versed in her Wendish heritage.

If you have an ancestor who impressed you with his—or her—approach to daily life, please write about that person and share your information with us.


Urban Family Portrait at their home in Thorndale, Texas 1902

Andrew Urban and Lena Lehmann Family Home – Thorndale, Texas 1902. Otto, Tillie, and Hattie in front with parents. Standing in rear are Henry, Ilda, Johnny, and Helen. Picture made after the death of a son in 1902 and before the birth of Walter in 1906.

Andrew Urban’s work in this world was completed seven years before I was born; but my great-grandfather is known to me through family stories, news clippings, old photos and through the things he built – homes, churches, church furnishings, and furniture. Andrew’s parents were Michael Urban and Johanne Christiane Schneider Wuensche, who came to Texas on the ship Ben Nevis that dropped anchor at Galveston in 1854. The couple lived in the Rabbs Creek area of Bastrop County where their children were born. Andrew’s older brother, John, arrived May 10, 1860, and Andrew was born the next year on June 15, 1861. The bombardment of Ft. Sumter had taken place two months earlier, and the next year, 1862, Texas joined the Confederacy. Michael Urban enlisted shortly after Andrew’s first birthday, but he was discharged because he had been appointed mail carrier before the day of enrollment. Andrew’s sister, Marie, was born May 31, 1863. Michael died before 1867, the year his widow Christiane was assessed for taxes on their 55 acres. In 1868, Christiane Urban married a widower from Fedor, Carl August Dube, and the Urban children and the equally young Dube children were raised together in Fedor where Andrew would grow to adulthood.

On April 26, 1883, Andrew Urban and Miss Maria Magdalena (Lena) Lehman were married at Fedor’s Evangelical Lutheran Church by Pastor G. Birkmann. Their first son, John Andrew, was baptized at Fedor before the family moved to Thorndale, Texas with allied families from Lee County. Their second son, Henry, would be born in the house that Andrew built in 1885. A century later – and 41 years after Lena’s death – that house would burn to the ground. Four generations of Andrew’s family had known that home, but Lena was the last of the family to live there. Their youngest child, Walter Arnold Urban born in 1906, was the only son to produce male heirs to carry on the Urban name.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Thorndale built in 1900.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Thorndale built in 1900.

Andrew had built the first and second St. Paul Lutheran churches in Thorndale. The first church became the school building when Andrew and his sons erected the second church building in 1900. His sons helped in the building of all the church pews for St. Paul and for a number of other churches. As a Wendish craftsman, Andrew was invited by Immanuel Lutheran Church in Copperas Cove and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Aleman to create their church furnishings. After a tornado struck Thorndale in 1940, requiring the building of a third church, pews and some of the church furnishings were donated to smaller churches, but the altar, built by Andrew with its inspiring painting of the Ascension, remains. For St. Paul Thorndale’s 125th Anniversary in 2015, the planning committee sought out for display the first baptismal font built by Andrew.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Thorndale following reconstruction in 1940.

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Thorndale following reconstruction in 1940.

Records of his projects are no longer available through the family and depend on individual church records. Many records were lost to the fire that consumed the planing mill and its equipment in 1916. The struggle to rebuild was helped by monetary donations from his neighbors. One record of which I am aware was that of repayments made to the donors. According to notes written by my father, this repayment list, found on Andrew’s desk after he died, showed he had posted the last payment owed to his benefactors the day before he died.

When Andrew died May 7, 1927, the Thorndale Champion noted in his obituary that he built “houses and churches all over this section.” The Thorndale business community closed for two hours so they could attend his funeral. Though he was connected with other enterprises, the planing mill that became A.J. Urban and Sons would be the site for those building endeavors. An early photo shows sons Henry and Otto with Andrew in the shop. He was one of the town’s developers and participated in partnerships including a cotton gin, lumber company, gristmill, funeral home, and water company that provided water for the town.

A. J. Urban and Sons Planing Mill Shop, Thorndale, Texas, ca. 1916. (L to R) Henry Urban, Otto Urban and Andrew J. Urban.

A. J. Urban and Sons Planing Mill Shop, Thorndale, Texas, ca. 1916. (L to R) Henry Urban, Otto Urban and Andrew J. Urban.

When my great-grandmother, Lena, died in 1946, the contents of her home were divided among the children or were sold. Andrew built a cedar chest for each of his daughters when they married. The cedar chest that he made for his wife, Lena, is in my care. It was perhaps the first and the prototype for the three others. I also have a bookcase with glass panes in the doors, but treasure most the rocker Andrew built for himself and in which he was sitting when he died of a heart attack.

Andrew designed and constructed the only ironing board my mother used for 65 years. My mother said it had a patent. The rocker Andrew made for Lena was innovative in that it had springs added to the rocking motion. I still remember Lena, then approaching 80 years of age, reading her German Bible in her rocker by the window until the radio soap operas lulled her to sleep.

Sketches and blueprints of his early work would have shown us the origins of his style, which was Gothic with pointed arches, spires, and decorative trim. He built with wood and then painted the wood white and gold. The reredos – or screen – above the altars included an icon. For the churches at Thorndale and Aleman, the reredos highlight Jesus painted on canvas; the icon at the Copperas Cove church is a statue of Jesus. Andrew’s most elaborate design was reserved for his home church in Thorndale, and the intricacy of his design is clearly illustrated by comparing the baptismal fonts of the three churches.

Cedar Chest made for wife Lena.

Cedar Chest made for wife Lena.

Within the confines of practical endeavor, crafting church furnishings must have been a source of joy to Andrew’s creative soul. He would have felt a personal connection to the pews in which his family sat, hearing a sermon from the pulpit his hands had made. Seeing his grandchildren baptized at the font and kneeling for Communion at the rails before the altar imbued his creation with more than skill and material. We share his emotion when we set aside a special Day to cast our eyes on the Altar and free our minds to soar toward heaven with the risen Christ at the Ascension.

Rocker Andrew built for himself

Rocker Andrew built for himself

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3 Responses

  1. Diana Schneider Freeman says:

    Interesting. Any Urban descendants still living?

  2. Phyllis says:

    There Urbans in Dilley Texas. Sons of Milton Urban, Michael and Larry.

    • Director says:

      We hope to see you at Wendish fest. Our Heritage Booth provides name tag ribbons so that attendees may wear their ancestral names and connect with other attendees and relations.
      Thank you!