AUSTIN (KXAN) - The 1600 block of Austin's San Jacinto Street is home to two of the city's historic buildings. One contains Scholz Beer Garden , said by some to be Austin's longest continuously operating business. It was founded in 1866 by August Scholz, a German immigrant, and it included a nine-pin bowling alley.
Next door is Saengerründe Halle , home to a singing club founded in 1879 by a group of young male Germans. The club bought the entire property in 1908 and constructed its headquarters beside Scholz's.
"The German community in Texas is an amazing thing," said Saengerründe member Bill Langner. "At the time of the Civil War, Germans constituted over 40 percent of the population in Central Texas. They lived in small villages, a lot of farmers."
Many of them were Unionists who opposed slavery and they had to lay low in Confederate Texas during the Civil War.
And during World Wars I and II, German culture in Texas again came under fire.
"One of our members, I know," said Saengerründe's Paul Mettke, "worked for the University of Texas and during World War II, he got laid off from the university because he was from Germany.
"My father-in-law also worked in the shipyard in Orange, Texas. He got laid off also because of his Germanic background.
"So yes, the Germans were not too popular and that's one reason why I don't speak German. I was born in 1939 and grew up during World War II, and it wasn't very popular to be speaking German during that period of time."
Mettke is not alone in his lack of German fluency.
"There are some guys in there who can barely read German or English, for that matter," laughed Saengerründe President-elect Brian Michalk. "But, you know, that's fine. As long as they can carry a tune, we're happy with them."
At Saengerründe though, singing is always done hand-in-hand with pitchers of cold beer passed from singer to singer, a centuries-old German tradition. So the club also suffered during the early 20th century when prohibition came to town.
"The club nearly died during that period," said member Mettke, "because that was one of the things, I think, that people came here for. Scholz Garden couldn't sell beer then either. The whole thing nearly died but somehow it did survive.'
Part of the reason for that survival was the building the club owned. Saengerründe was originally just one of several German cultural groups in the mid to late 1800s. It was the only one though that had its own structure and the rest wound up vanishing over time.
But the club also had something else going for it, something that like the building, survives to this day.
"We have something," said member Ted Zoch, "that we Germans refer to as Gemutlichkeit, which is having a good time, at peace with yourself and your neighbor, having fun and just enjoying life."
"It's a feeling of well-being in the company of other like-minded people," chimed in Langner. "And that's what our club really offers. It's like a small community of like-minded people that get together to sing and dance and bowl and share good times."
Fellow club member Mettke agreed: "It's just a warm, friendly feeling among colleagues and comrades who work together and have sort of the same interests.
"It's a family club; I've been bringing my children here since both of them were born."
Another club member, John Hilsberg, was a child himself when he first showed up at the Scholz's and Saengerründe.
"It's kind of in my blood, I guess," he said. "I've been around here all my life. I grew up playing out here in the garden many years ago when these elm trees that are here right now, that have lived their life expectancy almost, they were about six or seven feet high at that time and were all staked up, you know, because they were new trees.
"And the garden was gravel at that time instead of being paved like it is now. And there were windows along the side of the bowling alley over there because we had no air conditioning and that was all open where you could look in from the garden into the bowling alley."
But if families enjoyed the amenities there, only the men enjoyed making the decisions about it.
"The club was founded initially as a men's club," said Zoch, "and the ladies came along as an auxiliary, added on, sort of. Now it was a family group, but it was always by the father of the family. So that's kind of ingrained."
And that's how it stayed until a recent past president decided it was time for change. Dr. Ray Martens, who also served for two decades as president of Concordia University in Austin, urged his fellow members to extend voting rights to active female members, those who participate in the club's singing program.
The vote, he recalls, was about 60 to 40 per cent opposed.
"We had enough members," said Martens, "who were traditional enough to say, 'We've never done it that way and we're not going to do it that way now.'"
The president was disappointed.
"It just seemed to me to be a throwback to a time which just wasn't
pertinent anymore," he said.
The disagreement, however, did not divide the group. Song, beer and dance kept it together. And some say change will eventually come.
"Within 15 years or so," said Michalk, the incoming president, "that has a high chance of passing."
"I believe it will come up again and again," agreed member Langner, "and I expect sometime in the future that it will be part of our club and that we will maybe have a lady president."
Meanwhile, the happy times remain.
"We have a Maifest ," said Mettke, "which we're getting ready to have next Saturday. We also have an Oktoberfest. We have a New Year's Eve Ball and various other dances throughout the year. We have a picnic in the latter part of the summer. There are all kinds of get-togethers that we have."
And at each and every one of them, people drink beer, sing songs and dance.
"When you're singing in the shower," Michalk said, "you sing something that makes you feel good, right? A lot of the songs we sing have a connection to what makes us feel good. It's why we want to live life.
"We sing about drinking beer, but that's not all we sing about. We sing about love; we sing about the beautiful weather, the trees, the cows, the dogs, all of that stuff.
"The songs that we sing," added Mettke, "mostly have to do with nature and friends getting together and enjoying themselves over a beer or two, and that's what we try to do here, too."
The search for new blood
Still, membership is down and the average member age is up. Everyone knows Saengerründe needs new blood, new young blood. And so the club is spending money fixing floors, painting doors and remodeling the bowling alley, now converted to a modern 10-pin system.
A new marketing person is on the payroll, a marketing person who is, ironically, a woman.
"Of course, we want to be younger in our demographic," said Michalk. "That's very interesting to us, but the club is not going to go away just because we have old people. There will always be somebody there to come in and fill the void
"I mean we have a place to take care of. This is our home and for the last guy to die off and nobody to be there to take his place, it's just not, it's not going to happen."
And there is now precedent for the kinds of change that could attract new members.
"Until about three years ago," said Martens, "when we couldn't find a secretary who could write the minutes and read the minutes in German, all the minutes from our meetings were written and read and approved in German. That's done with now and it seems to me that that kind of erosion will continue."
Meanwhile, Maifest is just around the corner and the beer kegs are full.
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