Sophie's Comfort History Walk
By Barbara Pankratz
October was German American Heritage Month and to help observe it, I read my second grade class a novel called Sophie's War by Janice Shefelman. It is a story set in Comfort during the first tumultuous days of the Civil War. Anna Sophia Franziska Guenther (Sophie) is a fictional character in the story which was written as a diary. Sophie's father is an artist and a political cartoonist for the newspaper. He is a Unionist in a Confederate state who finds himself in the midst of the Battle of the Nueces. The story gives an accurate description of life in Comfort during that time, using many real places, people and events from our community's proud history.
November 11th, Veterans' Day, seemed to be a fitting day to embark on our history trek. Please join us as we wander through Sophie's Comfort.
We began our walk quietly and thoughtfully at the Treue der Union Monument. Here we placed a small, patriotic wreath to honor and remember those who have served and are still serving our country and protecting our freedom. We understand that freedom isn't free, and that many have paid a high price to keep our country safe.
After reading each name on the monument, we headed west on High Street in front of the 1893 schoolhouse and bell tower. Turning toward Cypress Creek on Second Street we paused for a moment at Second and Main to gaze toward Ernst and Emma Altgelt's home and the Perseverance Mill. In our imaginations, we could just see it through the trees. Ernst and Emma's smokehouse is where the Guenther family stayed after the Vigilance Committee burned their home, and where Papa hid and recovered from the injuries he received at the Battle of the Nueces.
At Broadway, as we strolled along Cypress Creek I told them about the Indian camp that was once on the other side. In her memoirs, Emma Altgelt says the Indians were quite friendly. At the crossing, we found Old Man Owl in the gnarled roots of the monstrous cypress tree there. It was here that Sophie had her first kiss from Eduard and where she sat to read his letter from Bagdad, Mexico. If we had continued up the road we would have seen the dried up corn field which lay in front of Sophie's home, and the homestead on the hill.
Backtracking up Broadway to Highway 27, which of course wasn't there in 1862, we sat on the steps of Herr Faltin's 1890's "house on the square". Looking at his large and beautiful home, my class surmised that his business ventures must have indeed been prosperous.
Across the street, in the Comfort Park, we ate lunch with Emma's dashing cavalier, Ernst. Herr Altgelt was the man who founded our fair city. The life-size bronze bust was sculpted by Native Texan Waldine Tauch and placed in the park in 1970.
Heading east on Main Street, our class posed under an enormous pecan tree near the location of Comfort's first schoolhouse - the one Sophie attended. It was a humble log cabin with dirt floors and benches along the walls. Makes me appreciate my classroom with running water and air conditioning!
A little farther up Main brought us to Faltin's Store, where Sophie went to pick up the mail and buy coffee beans whenever they were fortunate enough to have any. After their house was burned, Herr Faltin went across the yard to his home to get coffee beans from his personal stash to give to the Guenthers. The imposing limestone building which now graces the corner of Seventh and Main was designed by famed Texas architect Alfred Giles. Alfred Giles was the great, great, great grandfather of one of my students, Cadyn Feller and is also my great, great uncle.
Eastward on Main to Eighth, my little intellectuals were eager to get to the location of the Schimmelpfennig Eiche - the massive oak tree where, from his perch in a saddle on a limb, Herr Schimmelpfennig played his fiddle for dances along Cypress Creek.
But before we arrived at our destination, we had a pleasant and surprising diversion. The Comfort Museum just happened to be open and Mr. Perkins opened the doors to my Volksmarchers. Inside we studied an oil painting of the Battle of the Nueces and saw the desk were Emma Altgelt wrote her memoirs. What a bonus!
After a quick look at where the Schimmelpfennig Oak no longer stands, oak wilt having done its devilry, we began our schoolward journey down High Street. We stopped to read the plaque on the Freidenker monument. We noted that the Ingenhuett home on Eighth Street, the Ingenhuett Store, the Ingenhuett Saloon, the Comfort Commons and the red brick Post Office building on High Street were all designed by Alfred Giles.
At the end of the story, Sophie and her family were living in a one room cabin behind a home at Sixth and High. We looked at the fachwerk Bachelor Bude and wondered if that might have been the inspiration for the cabin in the story. Or perhaps it was the little house on the other corner. I guess we will just have to ask Mrs. Shefelman . . .
It was the end of the story and the end of our history trek of Sophie's Comfort. The weather was perfect and I thoroughly enjoyed sharing Comfort's German Heritage with my students and their parents and grandparents. I want to thank Zach Sweeney, Wilma Teague, Laura Sanchez, Brian Scheele, Tom Petrowski and DAnn Maltsberger for volunteering as parent chaparones. Special thanks to Roy Perkins for letting us have an impromptu visit to the museum. And many thanks to Anne Stewart and Margaret Morries for answering my many questions and sharing information with me before the walk.
It was a weary band of learners who returned to our classroom, but they couldn't stop talking about all they had seen and learned. Andrew Petrowski asked me if I was trying to turn them all into history lovers. The answer is a resounding YES!
If you would like to continue the story and share our adventures, Sophie's War is available at the Comfort Public Library.