Along State Highway 36 heading toward Gatesville and close to the Bell-Coryell county line is a small cemetery. A hand-wrought iron gate simply says, “St. Paul Cemetary.”
The cemetery is the last vestige in Bell County of a remarkable 19th-century community of Wends, beleaguered refugees looking to make a new home far away from persecution. They found peace in Bell County.
On June 16 St. Paul Lutheran Church in The Grove will dedicate a Texas Historical Commission Official State Historical Marker for the cemetery, the original site of the church and its first cemetery. The ceremony will be at the church, 220 The Grove Road, Gatesville, close to the county line.
The Rev. John Heckmann, the church’s pastor since 2003, will preside. Coordinating the event is the church’s history committee, Mary Alsup, Orville Michalk and Darlene Riske.
The cemetery, located three miles west of Temple on State Highway 36 near the intersection of Owl Creek Road, was designated as an official Historic Texas Cemetery in 2016.
Often confused as being German or Czech, the Wends were a separate Eastern European ethnic group.
“The Wendish possessed their own language, history and culture. They were a distinct Slavic ethnic group whose nearest Slavic neighbors were the Poles and the Czechs,” said the Rev. Wilbert Sohns, retired Lutheran pastor who compiled the historical documentation for the Texas Historical Commission.
“The Wends were a persecuted minority in Germanic Saxony and Prussia. Physically segregated, they were forbidden to own land. They were a determined people, who emigrated to Serbin (near Giddings in Lee County) in search of religious freedom and economic opportunities,” he added.
The Wends were descendants of the tribes of Veneti and the Polab Slavs of the Middle Ages. Eventually, they were surrounded and isolated by Germanic tribes. Their language resembled that of the Czechs, Poles and Russians; their dress was more Slavic than German. They were, simply put, Wends, and they preferred to stay that way.
By the 1840s, the Wends, who were Protestant Christians, faced discrimination and total suppression of their culture. They were denied capital for investment; Germans forced them into labor and restricted them from many professions. Finally in 1848, Pastor Jan Kilian (1811–1884) led 580 Wends along an arduous, dangerous voyage to Texas — only to be met at the Galveston docks by a yellow fever epidemic.
Arrival in Texas
Determined to survive, the Wends from December to January walked 85 miles inland.
They found land in what is now Lee County near Giddings and named their new community Serbin. These immigrants at first eked out meager living as farmers, but through hard work, determination and family unity, they succeeded.
Some fanned out to other parts of Texas, including Bell County.
“Bell County land was inexpensive at that time, and it gave the Wends the opportunity to begin their life of assimilation in America, where there was religious freedom as well as economic opportunity and where there was no political and social pressure such as experienced in Germany,” Sohns said.
In 1870, farmers William Winkler (1839-1920) and brother, Charles (1844-1931), moved from Serbin and purchased a large undeveloped tract of west Bell County land stretching from the Leon River Bridge (formerly the Winkler Pecan Plant) to The Grove in Coryell County. A third brother, Ernest, joined them at first but soon returned to Serbin. Besides Winkler, other original family surnames included Symank, Patschke, Dutschmann, Mueller, Richter, Klare and Wendling.
The Winkler brothers, together with other farming families who soon joined them, were originally Wendish immigrants. As of 2017, much of that original tract is still owned and operated by the Wendish descendants of the two Winkler brothers. Descendants of many original Wendish families still own and operate farms and ranches in the area.
At first, the Bell County Wendish settlers would regularly travel 120 miles for church services. For a short time, some families attended Leon-Moody Methodist Church, which the Winkler brothers also helped form. Worship services were held in William Winkler’s home as early as 1878.
William Winkler donated the land for the church and cemetery in 1885. The first burial was Anna Wendling in January 1886. William Winkler’s mother, matriarch Maria Hoebel Winkler, was the second in 1887.
The church also established a day school in a stone building, the remnants of which are still visible.
In 1907, the congregation built a new sanctuary in The Grove, just across the county line in Coryell. The lumber from the church at the first site was used in building the parsonage at The Grove site, Sohns said.
Even though the church and school relocated, the original cemetery continued to be used for another 13 years until 1920.
It is classified as an inactive cemetery, but church members continue to care for it. Today, fourth and fifth generations of Winklers own and live on the land adjacent to and surrounding the two-acre site.
The church has records of 50 burials, 37 of them known and marked. The congregation recently installed a granite monument listing 13 names of unmarked burials.
The Wends thrived here. By 1900, The Grove was one of the largest towns in Coryell County. It also had five churches (counting the Wendish St. Paul Lutheran Church), according to Sohns. By 1936, about 200 Wends lived at The Grove and surrounding area.
The "St. Paul Cemetary" in Bell County stands as a testament to promises made to all immigrants by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Sohns said.
In an ironic twist, maybe the Wends succeeded too well.
“In the 20th century, assimilation accomplished what political pressure could not: The Wends widely intermarried and dispersed, and today their language (and culture) is nearly extinct,” Sohns said.