By Gary E. McKee
From November 2015 issue of Texas Polka News
If you were to drive by the beautiful, wooden dancehall between Carmine and Burton on the old La Grange-Burton highway (SH 237) on any Wednesday evening you would see a dozen or more cars parked under the massive live oaks. If curiosity compelled you to stop and stick your head in the door, you would see several tables with groups of four people playing cards. The card game would be called Pitch, a trick-taking game that dates back to the 1800s.
This is not just a group of people who like to play cards. They are members of the La Bahia Turn Verein (pronounced TOORN-fair-ine), carrying on a 136-year-old tradition of promoting community social life. Founded on July 5, 1879, LBTV presently has 40 members, and is a branch of a national and state Turn Verein.
What Is a Turn Verein?
The failed 1848 Revolution in the over 40 dukedoms that made up Germany compelled many of the dissenters (Germans, Slavics, Hungarians) to evacuate Europe and seek asylum in the United States. One of the causes of the revolution was the belief that people that spoke the same language should be of one country, not the numerous separate kingdoms that constituted Germany. The model for this was the French Revolution that united all French speakers under a democratic government.
The German refugees brought to Texas many of their traditions, particularly the Vereins (a voluntary club of like-minded people.) The three main Vereins focused on music, target shooting, and physical fitness. These types of activities needed a home, which led to the building of physical structures such as the LBTV hall and many other similar social centers.
The gymnastic clubs (Turn Vereins), founded in Berlin in 1811, were the most blatantly political. Founder Freidrich Jahn adapted the word Turnen signifying the medieval order of knights and its intensely physical tournaments. The first Turn Verein had 200 members who performed gymnastics to increase their physical and mental strength, communal spirit, and character. They also undertook long marches by torchlight, practiced fencing, and crossbow shooting with military precision. By 1848, there were over 300 Turn Vereins with 90,000 members.
Texas Turn Vereins
In Texas, one of the earliest destinations of German immigrants was the fertile lands between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers and a hundred miles inland, roughly a triangle between present day Brenham, La Grange, and Sealy.
The La Bahia TurnVerein was founded with the purpose of “the physical and spiritual development of the members and the promotion of social life.” (FYI: the community’s name comes from the La Bahia Trail, which was previously the El Camino Real de los Tejas. There was a La Bahia German School about 4 miles away. The Brenham organization wasnamed the Alamo Turn Verein, and others had community names, such as Mill Creek and Round Top.)
Amazingly, the bylaws and minutes of all the LBTV meetings since 1879 have been preserved. Originally, all transactions were written in “High German.” In 1943, the correspondence and minutes began being recorded in a German/English dialect, and in 1954, all the minutes were translated and recorded in English, signifying the decline of the population of German readers.
To join the LBTV, one had to be an 18-year-old male and have an unblemished reputation. A training period could be begun at the age of 15, if your father was a member. Then a two-thirds vote was necessary to be accepted. While physical exercise was a focal point, the hard-working farmers were generally too tired to go exercise and over the years all that was required was to do 12 chin-ups on the gymnastic bar to be a member. These bars are still in the hall.
Building and Rebuilding
Five years after organizing, the LBVT built a hall as a focal point for functions. Three years later, the hall burned, but within a month quarrymen were at work breaking rocks for the foundation on the new hall. The LBVT prospered, and on its 5th anniversary celebration they invited the Brenham fire department and a number of their “gallant fire ladies” who attended in full uniform.
Disaster struck again in 1901 as a suspicious fire destroyed the hall including, “music, library, fixtures, and furniture.” The hall had been insured for $850 by Hanover Insurance of Hanover, Germany. That same day the verein met, voted to post a $100 reward for the arsonists, and to begin building a new hall. (Not sure if the arsonist was caught. Subsequent issues of the paper are missing.)
The 1902 hall was larger as attendance and membership had increased dramatically. In 1910, the LBTV celebrated another anniversary with a program that offered “all kinds of clean and healthful amusements” followed by a baseball game and then a grand ball.
Pentecost Day was observed in 1923 during which a Fayetteville Band provided music. Over the years, the hall was enlarged, out buildings constructed, heating, plumbing, and electricity installed until it reached its present state of simplistic grandeur.
One of the cool upgrades was a bank of metal fans in the shape of airplanes that was installed in the early 1930s when the hall was electrified.
The Turn Verein has done an excellent job keeping this 114-year-old hall in fine shape. Various members have been instrumental in managing and guiding the hall over the years. At present, Roy and Carol Schmidt are coordinating ongoing efforts by the Turn Verein to keep everything painted, the immense roof from leaking, and the indoor plumbing functioning among myriad other tasks.
The list of bands that played the hall seems endless and contains the usual list of suspects, including the Bacas, Lee Roy Matocha, Kreneks, Hi Toppers, Blume’s Orchestra, the Original Triumphs, contemporary country bands, and the upcoming Fiddle Fest.
Buzzard's Roost view
Billy Koerth has been a LBTV member for over 50 years. As a trainee, it was his job to sweep the floor during intermissions at the dances. He remembers that there was a set of bleachers on the edge of the dance floor that was referred to as the Buzzard Roost. Dancers paid 50 cents admission and those who watched from the Roost paid a dime. All present members of the Verein agree that the hall was packed every time there was a dance.
Due to the great condition and beauty of the hall, it has become a favorite wedding reception and music event venue. The hall is booked with an event every weekend through March.
Let's Fiddle On!
This month, on Saturday, the 7th, the hall will be the scene of the Second Annual Festival of Texas Fiddling presented by Texas Folklife and Texas Dance Hall Preservation. The event kicks off Friday evening at 7 pm, with a party at nearby Airway Pavilion in Round Top. The Pettit Brothers from High Hill will provide the music for dancing.
Next day, workshops and showcases will provide a full spectrum of fiddling including Texas Old Time, Texas Polish, Creole, and Tejano/Mexican style. The evening will swing to a close with a dance by the national award-winning Western Swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown. See schedule and buy tickets.
Well, if you're still standing in the doorway on that Wednesday night at the LBTV hall, several heads will turn away from the card tables and welcome you in. Roy will point out where to help yourself to liquid refreshments and snacks, and ask if you would like to join in on a game of Pitch. I know it worked for me.