Higher education's roots reach deep into city's past
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on higher education in Fredericksburg that are being provided periodically for publication in the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post.)
By Terry Collier and Cathy Collier
They’ll be walking on the same paths and some of them will be sitting in the same classrooms, but most of the students returning to classes at Fredericksburg Middle School in a few days will be unaware that they are following in the footsteps of college students from long ago.
Getting a college education in Gillespie County is not a new idea.
A roomy, modern structure sitting on a large campus is not just an apt depiction of the Hill Country University Center, located at the eastern edge of town on U.S. Highway 290. It also describes the two-story structure on Travis Street that is now a part of the FMS campus.
In 1876, the newly-hewn limestone building, constructed with voluntary contributions, stood alone on what would be called “College Hill” in a growing community that had been carved from the Texas frontier just 30 years before.
Fredericksburg College, begun by the German Methodist Mission Conference of Texas and Louisiana, opened its doors Oct. 9 – 137 years ago – to receive students from both within the county and more distant locations.
The new college was just the latest indication of the German settlers’ strong commitment to education.
The year after pioneers arrived here in 1846, the first school was begun in the multi-purpose Vereins Kirche, which served as both a place of defense and a house of worship.
Johann Leyendecker, an experienced teacher from the German Duchy of Nassau, became the first instructor in 1847, and other learned men and women followed.
One of them, Heinrich Ochs, marveled that, in view of the “tremendous hardships Fredericksburg settlers had to endure, it seemed beyond comprehension that they would even think of establishing a school.”
That attitude, he noted, was “attributable to the German way of thinking, for they regard spiritual culture as a necessary principle of living.”
Was it any wonder then that by 1876 the German Methodist Church, following in the footsteps of the Methodists who founded the first college in the state (Rutersville College in 1840 at Rutersville, Texas, which in 1875 — following a merger with three other colleges — was named Southwestern University at Georgetown), would be promoting higher education?
Students from as far away as Llano, Mason, Houston and Galveston boarded on campus but most students were local young men who walked as much as 10 miles round trip to attend each day. They paid $2.50 in tuition. Enrollment peaked at 250 students but averaged around 150.
Each day at the new college opened with a prayer. The curriculum emphasized languages — especially German, Greek and English — and Friday assemblies were filled with music and recitations.
W.J.R. Thoenssen, formerly the principal of a German-English school in Houston, was in charge. He and his wife served as supervisors over the boarding students whose living quarters were located within the school building. A cook provided meals.
Early students like F.J. Maier reported that his courses included algebra, rhetoric and bookkeeping in addition to German, Latin and Greek. Other courses in mathematics, history and science were also offered. The term ran from the beginning of September to the end of June.
The late Ella Gold, a longtime Fredericksburg educator and historian, wrote in her 1945 master’s thesis on “The History of Education in Gillespie County” that “many of the students of Fredericksburg College became some of Gillespie County’s most prominent citizens. Others were successful in other parts of the state or nation.”
Among them were C.W. Feuge, who served as a superintendent of schools in Fredericksburg for 16 years, and Adolph Wehmeyer, an honor student who served as a bookkeeper for a wholesale dry goods firm in Quincy, Ill., and later for Citizen’s Bank of Fredericksburg.
F.W. Arhelger and F.J. Maier both became prominent Fredericksburg businessmen and Herman Keidel practiced dentistry in Kentucky. Henry Hirsch served as Gillespie County Judge; Perry Lewis was a lawyer in San Antonio, and M. D. Slater, who became an attorney in Llano, was later judge for the 85th District.
William Lewis went on to become an architect in Chicago and W. D. Wiemers became a Methodist minister.
The graduates were a remarkable legacy considering that the college lasted only eight years. In 1884, the building and surrounding 10 acres were sold to the Fredericksburg Independent School District.
Higher ed continues
But that wasn’t the end of higher education’s history here. It was just the beginning.
Twenty-five years later, in 1909, the Catholic Church established St. Anthony’s College for boys. In order to fund the effort, young men of other denominations were also admitted.
The three-year course of study was designed to offer commercial training that would equip graduates for the business world.
It was successful in this respect, according to sources quoted in Don H. Biggers’ “German Pioneers,” because “all its graduates are holding responsible positions here and elsewhere and are well-spoken of by their employers.”
By 1921, 50 people had finished the course of study.
The young men were joined in 1918 by young women when a Civil Service School for Stenographers and Typists opened in conjunction with St. Anthony’s. The women were offered a three-month course of study.
St. Anthony’s closed its doors when the new St. Mary’s High School building, which included commercial courses, opened in 1924.
But this was not to be the end of post-high school instruction in Fredericksburg.
The deep-seated hunger for learning that had been planted early in the community’s history would, in time, re-emerge during the final decades of the 20th Century to introduce, among other fields of study, a burgeoning medical presence for a large part of Central Texas.
Source material for this article comes from “Fredericksburg, In The Texas Hill Country,” by Julia Estill, “The History of Education in Gillespie County,” by Ella Amanda Gold, “German Pioneers,” by Don H. Biggers and the archives of the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post.