Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   



Czech Churches

Schulenburg’s culture features food, fun and fine art.

An unexpected adventure is the cherry on top of any vacation, making your trip even more memorable.

My husband and I headed for Schulenburg, a German-Czech town halfway between San Antonio and Houston. By journey’s end, we’d have a special memory to share about our trip.

Downtown, we meet up with our guide Dianna Zimmerman, a Schulenburg native who lived most of her adult years in Austin. In 2000, she retired and moved with her husband into her grandparents’ 1895 home in Schulenburg.

“I love small-town life,” she says. “Every Thursday, couples meet at the Knights of Columbus Hall and enjoy a catered supper. It’s a great way to get to know people.”

For the first time, James and I will see several of the area’s famous “painted churches” built by early Czech and German settlers. We’re headed east to Dubina on FM 615 when Zimmerman asks us to pull off the road to admire a shady, one-lane, iron truss bridge spanning the meager East Navidad River.

“It’s called Piano Bridge,” Zimmerman says as we stroll across. “When wagons crossed over it, the boards bounced up and down like piano keys. The bridge was originally built in 1885 using piano wire for suspension. The wire was replaced when the bridge was refurbished in 2012.”

Back in the car, we round a bend and spy a steepled bell tower above the treetops. From the outside, Dubina’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church looks like a typical church, with a pitched roof and arched windows. Then we step into a sanctuary like none other.

Silvery stars strung across vaulted sky-blue ceilings gleam overhead. Stenciled figures of green ivies, colorful flowers, geometric patterns and cloaked angels adorn architectural curves and lines. Magnificent wooden altars cradle painted statues of revered saints.

James touches a white marble column. Wait a minute — a light knock confirms that the column’s made of wood, painted to resemble marble and likely carved from the community’s namesake oaks. In Czech, dubina means “oak grove.” In November 1856, Czech-Moravian immigrants huddled beneath one and survived a sleet storm. They named their town Dubina, and it became the state’s first Czech settlement.

“Our ancestors wanted their churches to look like those in their homelands of Poland, Belgium and Italy,” explains Zimmerman, whose maiden name is Stavinhoa. “This church was completed in 1912. In the 1950s, the inside was modernized and painted over. Then in the ’80s, a professional artist helped volunteers restore the church’s original paintings.”

Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church (top) is one of the area’s “painted churches.” The church has an ornately painted and stenciled interior.

The “Piano Bridge” spans a river near Dubina.

Downtown Schulenburg retains a historical feel.

Five miles northwest on FM 1383, we pull up to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville. Doors into the steepled white church open to reveal rosy pink walls and vaulted ceilings, stenciled with folk art motifs and illuminated by the sunlight pouring through the stained-glass windows. Solemn statues and gold trim embellish the three cream-colored altars.

“Primarily Czech and some German immigrants built the first church here in 1890,” Zimmerman says as we step inside. “A storm destroyed it in 1909. Eight years later, fire burned down the second church. This one was completed in 1919.”

West of U.S. Highway 77, High Hill’s red-bricked St. Mary Catholic Church stands as the “queen” of painted churches. The Gothic Revival-style church was designed by Texas architect Leo M. J. Dielmann and completed in 1909. Faux marble columns support vaulted ceilings accented with gold paint and a 1920s chandelier. Faux bricks encase the sanctuary’s many stained-glass windows.

“The artists painted images on canvases on the floor, then glued them to the ceilings and walls,” Zimmerman tells us.

On our morning tour, we also visit the historical United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Praha (one of the oldest painted churches), the Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in Moravia and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in St. John.

Midday finds us at the Oakridge Smokehouse Restaurant, which has cooked up American and German favorites since the 1960s. Next door, I discover pecan nirvana at the Potter Country Store. Samples send me to shelves of packaged nuts, mostly grown at nearby family-owned orchards.

Our next stop lands us at the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum. Glass-encased exhibits take us back in time to when brothers Victor and Joseph “Joe” Stanzel manufactured flying toys that ranged from balsa wood airplane kits to remote-controlled fighter planes. Altogether, the men designed 75 different products from 1929 to 1994.

Overnight, we’re bunking at the Double R Ranch, my uncle Dudley R. Dobie’s place west of Schulenburg. On a back porch, we watch the sun slip below silhouetted trees. As the sky darkens, white-tailed deer step from the brush into a grassy clearing. Beneath the stars, we search for wolf spiders in the grass with a flashlight that transforms their eyes into sparkling diamonds.

Oakridge Smokehouse Restaurant offers a variety of treats.

Morning takes us to Wolters Park, a city complex that includes a pavilion, swimming pool and playgrounds. We peek at an 1835 log cabin moved to the park in 1941 and peer inside the empty Turner Hall, a German gymnastic center built in 1886, no longer in use.

A small observatory from the 1940s nearly met the same fate. Today the Schaefer Observatory — standing on wooden beams at the Blinn College Schulenburg campus — hosts star parties several times a year. We climb up a metal staircase to stand inside the domed structure, which houses three telescopes.

“H.P. Schaefer, who owned a hardware store in town, wanted to see the moon’s surface, so he and his sons built this observatory in their backyard,” says Loraine Orellana, Blinn’s distance and community education coordinator. “You could see it from the highway. People used to knock on their door and ask if they could see the observatory.”

Two more museums wrap up our afternoon agenda. We head downtown, where several buildings date back to the 1880s. One red-bricked exterior houses the Texas Polka Music Museum, a large room filled with posters, photos and articles that pay tribute to polka musicians and band members of German, Czech and Polish descent. The lilting, two-step dance music features mainly brass horns and accordions.

“When I was growing up, we’d listen to the Joe Patek Orchestra on the radio every Sunday,” says museum director Helen Ohnheiser, who’s in her 70s. She shows us a notebook filled with polka song requests handwritten on penny postcards and mailed to radio stations in the 1930s. In a back corner, a vintage broadcast console and dual turntable pays tribute to the many DJs who hosted polka radio shows. They still do.

Two doors down, we step inside the Schulenburg Historical Museum, which once housed a mercantile store. Photographs, memorabilia, antiques and exhibits preserve the town’s rich heritage. In 1873, Louis Schulenburg and other farmers sold their land to bring a railroad through the area. The town incorporated in May 1875.

An adjoining back room replicates early life in Schulenburg. A mannequin in period dress tends aluminum pots on a white porcelain stove. Heavy antique irons sit side by side on a wooden ironing board. Nearby, a treadle sewing machine recalls bygone days before modern conveniences, as do the worn saddle, rusted tools and farming implements. Wooden frames hung on a wall contain 178 different pieces of barbed wire.

“We have one of the largest collections of barbed wire in Texas,” Zimmerman says.

Schaefer Observatory hosts star parties.

Thanks to a hot tip from our guide and my uncle, we head to nearby Flatonia, where we join hundreds of other onlookers who’ve congregated along the railroad tracks.

“It just arrived 30 miles away in Luling,” someone reports. Patiently, we stand around for another half-hour.

A whistle blows in the distance; the crowd draws closer to the tracks. With smartphones in hand, we collectively film as Big Boy No. 4014 — belching black smoke with each chug chug chug — slowly rolls to a stop. The world’s largest steam locomotive, built in 1941 for the Union Pacific Railroad, is touring the country in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion. Its route includes a brief stop in Flatonia and passes through Schulenburg.

Lucky us. Our visit just happened to coincide with Big Boy’s historic tour through Texas. That’s one surprise we’ll never forget when we look back on our fun adventures in Schulenburg.

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