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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Bettina Experiment


by Clay Coppedge

The last German colonists brought to Texas by the Adelsverin, a group of German counts and dukes intent on promoting immigration to and settlement of the state, were a brainy and idealistic group of young men known collectively as Die Viergzer, or the Forty, who formed a short-lived commune named Bettina on the banks of the Llano River.

Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who had already founded the colony of New Braunfels as part of the Fisher-Miller land grant, returned to Germany in 1846 to fire up further interest in his Texas enterprise with a series of lectures targeting German professionals and intellectuals. His message was that Germany was well on its way to becoming a country where their services would no longer be needed. Texas, he said, was the place they ought to be. He described the state "a land of milk and honey, of perennial flowers, of crystal streams, rich and fruitful beyond measures, where roamed myriads of deer and buffalo while the primeval forests abounded in wild fowl of every kind."

The Adelsverin, in exchange for settlement of the most remote part of the Fisher-Miller land grant, offered to arrange for an ample number of oxen and mules to be picked up once the group got to Texas, along with all the machinery needed to build a mill. The group also received $12,000 to see them through the first year. After that they would be on their own.

The three-dozen-plus Germans who signed up to ship out to Texas in 1847 included doctors, lawyers — seven of them — architects and scientists along with a butcher, blacksmith, artillery officer, shipbuilder, brewer, botanist, theologian, a maker of musical instruments and an agriculturist. The cook, a woman named Julie Herf, was one of the few among them who spoke English.

The Germans laid out their community near the confluence of Elm Creek and the Llano River. Louis Reinhardt, 13, was the youngest member of the group. Half a century later, he still retained pleasant memories of the site.

"The Llano then was a beautiful stream, as clear as crystal, and known in our party as the Silvery Llano," he recalled in 1898. "One could see the bottom of the deepest places. The whole country was covered with mesquite grass as high as the knee, and abounded in buffalo and deer."

In addition to the livestock and machinery, the group took along several barrels of whiskey and a number of their favorite dogs. Reinhardt noted that the 31 or so members who made it to Texas completed the final leg of the journey, from the Texas coast to the Hill Country, in high spirits.

"We camped on the prairie and sang, drank, and enjoyed ourselves the whole way as only the German student knows how to do," he said. He described Bettina as a communistic society "with no regular scheme of government, so far as I know."

The experiment lasted about a year, or as long as it took them to spend the $12,000. A year after they started the grand social experiment in communal living, reality intruded.

"Since everybody was to work if he pleased and when he pleased, the result was that less and less work was done as time progressed," Reinhardt said. "Most of the professional men wanted to do the directing and ordering, while the mechanics and laborers were to carry out their plans. Of course, the latter failed to see the justice of this ruling, so no one did anything."

Gustav Schleicher, an engineer and a member of the Forty, commented that "the bigger the men, the more they talked, the less they worked and the more they ate."

For his part, Schleicher was no slacker. He left Bettina to help found railroads, build toll bridges and serve terms as a State Representative and Senator. He was one of several of the Forty who left Bettina for more secure futures.

A doctor, Ferdinand Ludwig Herff (no relation to Julia Herf, the cook, who later married Forty co-founder Herman Spiess) moved to San Antonio in 1850. He performed the first successful cataract operation in Texas (on a Comanche chief) and was among the first surgeons in the United States to perform a hysterectomy. Though he was King Ranch founder Richard King's personal physician, he mostly worked for free on indigent patients out of a belief that healing others is its own reward. He died in 1912 at the age of 91.

All that's left of the Bettina commune today is a historical marker across the Llano River from Castell, a German settlement that did survive, and the legacy of several members who founded large and prominent Hill Country families.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 17, 21 column



Related Articles:

Bettina by Michael Barr
Castell, Texas



Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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