Peter Berg, Hermit of the Hills
The story of Peter Berg and his sweetheart ranks right up there with Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra and Brad and Jenn on the list of the most timeless and tragic love stories ever told.
Peter Berg came to Gillespie County from Prussia in 1857. At 20 years old, he was an accomplished coppersmith and stonemason.
Berg did some of the earliest rock work in Gillespie County. Some of it still stands.
He may have built the rock basement of the Dr. Albert Keidel House at 252 East Main St. in Fredericksburg.
When he came to Texas, Berg left his sweetheart behind with a promise to send for her as soon as he saved enough money. She pledged her love to him and looked forward to the day they would be together again.
But the course of love never runs smooth. It often runs more like an old lawn mower than a Swiss watch. Love can lift you up or crush you like a runaway beer wagon.
One day a teamster brought bad news from Indianola. Peter Berg’s sweetheart was in Texas, but she wasn’t coming to Fredericksburg. When she heard about the hardships on the Texas frontier, she jilted Berg and married another man.
Peter Berg’s life changed in an instant. He withdrew from the world to shield his broken heart from the pain of close relationships. He became a hermit.
He built a two-story rock house in a ravine seven miles northeast of Fredericksburg near Cave Creek on what came to be called the William Kiehne Ranch.
Whatever Berg needed, he made with his own hands. He made a chair and a bed. He made his own tools and sewed his own clothes. He built a stone tower and a Dutch windmill to pump water and grind cornmeal.
Berg loved music. He built a pipe organ from an old box and spare parts. The pipes were rolled up newspapers pasted together. Hunters passing through Cave Creek could sometimes hear him playing his organ and singing German songs.
He studied nature and the habits of wild animals. He sat in his rock tower at night and studied the movement of the stars. People who knew him say he could predict the weather.
He had no clock or calendar. For Peter Berg, the day of the week was an approximation. He measured time in passing seasons, not in hours and minutes.
Berg made wine from mustang grapes, colored with the bark from a Blackjack tree. He made some of the finest whiskey in the Hill Country and the oak barrels to store it in.
When he needed money, he hauled his whiskey to Fredericksburg. He set up shop on the shady side of the Vereins Kirche on Sunday afternoons. He sold whiskey for 30 to 50 cents a gallon.
Berg had a reputation as a mechanical genius. After someone stole a keg of whiskey from his cellar, he rigged an alarm system. If the door to the cellar opened while he was sleeping, a weight suspended over his bed would fall and wake him up.
His desire to make better whiskey almost sent him to jail. He wrote to a distillery describing his process and asking for suggestions to improve his product. The distillery notified the government. Revenuers raided his still, but the government refused to prosecute.
As Berg got older, he found it harder to take care of himself. He had bad knees. He couldn’t see or hear very well. A number of people in Fredericksburg offered financial help, but Berg turned them down. He was a proud man. He didn’t want charity.
Then in his last years, he accepted a pension of $8 a month. He saved half of it.
After he died, friends found quite a bit of money stashed in an old trunk and hidden behind a loose stone in the wall.
One morning, some hunters called to him, but Peter Berg didn’t answer. The hunters went inside and found Berg lying on his bed. The Hermit of the Hills had taken his own life.