History

A Brief History of the German FREE School and the German-Texan Heritage Society

Did you know that German Free School building is the third oldest building in Austin?

The German Free School — History

Located in the heart of the Red River Cultural District you will find one of Austin’s best kept secrets, a historical building and terraced gardens. The German Free School was built in 1857 and today is Austin’s 3rd oldest building with its unique rammed-earth construction, transformed education in Austin.

On a January morning in 1858, all eyes are glued on Julius Schütze. The young teacher’s lesson will be in both German and English. A few students have paid a modest tuition, but thanks to a state-funded reimbursement many “soldiers’ children, orphans, and the children of widows…” are here for free. These boys and girls represent many faiths – and ethnicities. This is the first day of class for the German Free School of Austin, one of the schools that would lay the groundwork for Texas’s first public education system. As they arrived in the 1850s, German immigrants had been startled to find that, unlike the fine schools in their homeland, Texas schools were privately funded, tuition-based, and often church-run. So around the state, German-Texans built schools that were open to all children — and not associated with any one religion.

Here, in 1858, the German Free School of Austin opened its doors in a small, two-classroom building – two decades before the first city-funded school. Its opening was a community affair: the von Rosenberg family donated land and volunteers constructed the building. Soon, officials described the school as “flourishing.” After the Civil War, the German-led push for free public education met resistance – some legislators worried about educating African-American children. But Austin’s German Free School served as a model for urban public schools throughout the state — one of German-Texans’ most lasting legacies.

Kelly Stevens, a famous deaf Austin artist, purchased the building in 1948 and lived in it until his death in 1991. The building was then deeded to the German Texas Heritage Society.

Today, it is the headquarters for the German-Texan Heritage Society, a nonprofit organization that preserves German culture in Texas through festivals, language classes, genealogical searches, and other services. The German Free School is a City of Austin Landmark and Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.

A Brief History of the German-Texan Heritage Society

The German-Texan Heritage Society was founded in 1978 by a group of participants in the Society for German-American Studies’ annual symposium.

At that time it was evident that GermanTexans needed an organization to help preserve the rich cultural heritage of the German families that immigrated to Texas since the early 1830s. In the early years of GTHS, the Society’s headquarters were unofficially based at the Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) University German Department.

One of the first tasks the founding members took on was publishing The Journal three times a year, offering information on German-Texan history, genealogy, cultural events, book reviews and more. This was followed by the publication of several books on German-Texan topics. A core group of members worked to build the organization through fundraising, new member recruitment, and
organizing an annual meeting.

An important goal of the organization was to establish a library to facilitate genealogical studies, research on German Texans, and German language publications, but the group did not find a suitable location until 1991. This was the year in which Austin artist Dr. Kelly Stevens bequeathed the historic German Free School (1857) to GTHS along with a fund for the purpose of management and maintenance of the property. The Trenckmann Library was established in the building and the German Free School Guild was formed to do much of the work associated with managing our historic property, which has historic plaques from both the City of Austin and Texas Historical Commission.

Shortly thereafter, the first executive director was hired with full responsibility for all programs, publications, accounts and community outreach. In 1996, the Society engaged in strategic planning for the future expansion of the property, and subsequently purchased the adjacent lot for a future German-Texan Cultural Center. It is currently used as festival grounds with a volunteer-built bandstand.

The German language classes for adults and children are very popular and have expanded to several locations statewide. Our speaker series and monthly German film night offer wonderful opportunities for learning and cultural enrichment. Public tours of the German Free School are offered every Thursday afternoon or by appointment. Almost 30,000 visitors have passed through the gates. A substantial increase in visitors to this Austin landmark is expected in the next few years with the planned development of the surrounding neighborhood.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of programs and activities offered by the Society has continued to grow, serving both Society members and the community at large. There are four major annual events that draw hundreds of visitors – Maifest, Oktoberfest, and the Christmas Market at the state headquarters and an Annual Meeting, held in a different town or city each year.

Genealogy seminars are held throughout the year in various parts of the state, providing research tools to those interested in learning about their heritage. In 2010, the German-Texan Heritage Society was named Preserve America Stewards in recognition for its preservation of the German Free School and furthering its mission of preserving the German culture in Texas.

Check out the Texas Historical Commission for a wealth of information on Texas History.

To watch a video about German-Texan History click here.

For even more History click here.