Friederika Klein and her children
During the past thirty years the Klein area has been rapidly transformed from a quiet rural area farmed by descendants of 19th century German immigrants into a bustling suburb of the nation’s fourth largest city. Though the land has undergone tremendous change, memories and remains of the early people and their communities can still be found. The community of Klein still vigorously preserves much of its German heritage.
The Klein community received its name from one of the early German immigrants, Adam Klein. Adam was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1826. He was a cloth weaver by profession, and as a young man became involved in the movement for popular reform of the government which swept over Germany in the 1840’s By 1848, however, the reform movement had been frustrated. Not wishing to serve in the army of the autocratic German government, Adam Klein went to Switzerland for a time and then decided to immigrate to America. He persuaded the girl he loved, Friederika Klenk, to marry him and help him begin a new life in America. Adam and Friederika landed in New Orleans on January 11, 1852. They went to Hermann, Missouri, where Friederika’s half-brother Matthias had settled.
This was the time of the 1849 gold rush to California, and Adam Klein thought he would go west to make his fortune. He left his young bride in Hermann, and he left on the long wagon train for the gold fields of California. In California, Adam staked out a successful claim at Sutter’s creek, where the gold which began the ’49 rush had first been found. After collecting a large amount of the valuable dust, Adam decided to sell out and come settle in Texas. On his way to Texas from California, some of the gold he had in his saddle bags was stolen, but Adam Klein was able to save some of the gold he had in a money belt.
In 1854 Adam and Friederika sailed from New Orleans to Galveston and then up Buffalo Bayou to Houston. They planned to join other German families in Washington County. While waiting in Houston during the winter rainy season, however, the Kleins became acquainted with some Germans in Houston. Several good offers for land were made. Adam could have bought land at the foot of Main Street, where the old Rice Hotel now stands, for 25 cents an acre, but the Kleins decided to buy 640 acres in northwest Harris County for 33 1/2 cents an acre. Adam built a large house and operated a cotton gin and later a gristmill.
Other German immigrants were also moving into the lands surrounding Big Cypress Creek. In 1848 Herman Strack had brought his family from Feudingen, Prussia to farm the rich Texas soil. Herman was the eldest of five sons, all of whom eventually settled in northwest Harris County. Descendants of the early Stracks still are important vegetable growers for Harris County. In the period before the Civil War, other families such as the Brautigams, Roths, Kaisers, Theisses, Wunderlichs, Hasslers, Krahns, Lemms, Haudes, and Klebs farmed, ranched, and began to establish a strong German community.
The American Civil War touched the lives of many of these new settlers. For a time Adam Klein returned to his cloth-weaving profession and wove cloth for the Southern soldiers. He also hauled cotton down to Matamoras to be sold through Mexico. Some of the boys fought in Louisiana. Some fought at Vicksburg and walked back to Texas after the Southern defeat there. Some men worked in a gunpowder mill near Spring Creek. The mill exploded in 1864, killing Peter Wunderlich, Adolf Hillegeist, and William Bloecher. Herman Strack, a blacksmith in Prussia before becoming a Texas farmer, was commissioned to make spurs and bridles for the southern army.
When peace returned after the Civil War, the German-Texans of northwest Harris County again focused on their land and families. Early immigrants were joined by others seeking freedom from the wars and turmoil of Bismarckian Germany. The Benfers, Doerres, Brills, Ehrhardts, Hildebrandts, and many others settled on tracts of land in the area.
The Christian faith of the early German immigrants helped sustain them throughout the many hardships of pioneer life. For many years the settlers around Big Cypress Creek attended Salem Lutheran Church about fifteen miles northwest of Rose Hill. The church was organized in 1852 and is the oldest Lutheran congregation in Texas. In 1874, Adam Klein, Jacob Theiss, Jost Wunderlich, Henry Kaiser, Henry Benfer, Henry Bernshausen, William Lemm and John Brill formed Trinity Lutheran Church as a place of worship for the German families in their area. The church became an important part of the spiritual and social life of the growing community. The church’s school continued to educate the children of the immigrants in spiritual and moral truths as well as in their German heritage and in patriotic appreciation for their new homeland. Lessons were taught in both English and German for many years, and the school continues to have a strong German program today.
As the community grew, Adam Klein thought a post office was needed. When he wrote to Washington, D.C. and asked that a post office be established in the area, the government consented in 1884 and named the post office after Adam Klein. It was in this way that the Klein community acquired its name. The post office’s first mail carrier, Mr. Richey, delivered the mail on a donkey.
Farming and raising cattle were the main occupations of these early settlers. Most people in the area went to Houston about once a month to sell their crops and buy needed goods at Houston’s Market Square. It was an eight hour trip, one way, so business in Houston usually took two days, with the family camping out over-night along the way. “Drummers” from the Houston markets would come out to meet the farmers to persuade them to take their cotton or produce to a particular buyer. “Drumming” up business was important, since you were more likely to buy your groceries where you sold your produce.
Until the stock law came in 1933, cattle were grazed on the open range. There was a lot of open land back in the woods as well as open prairie for the cattle to roam on. In the earlier days cattle were not sold butchered, but cattle buyers would drive the cattle to the railroads. When cattle had to be rounded up, it usually took a day or two. Trained dogs always helped in that chore. Besides cattle, there were also a lot of sheep raised in the earlier days.
The freedom and beauty of the land provided its own forms of entertainment to the German settlers. Ducks and geese were plentiful; occasionally a swan would be seen. There was squirrel hunting, with dogs trained to tree the squirrels. Rabbits were also plentiful. The boys sold the furs of possum and coons to earn their spending money. Fishing trips to the rivers often became family outings. Everything was open. You could hunt and ride horseback on any body’s property. Ernest Strack, born in 1901 and a descendant of Herman Strack, reflected back, “I lived in such a free society. Generations now will never know what a great blessing it was. It was real nice. I love to think back to those days ’cause there was everything open, and we were really free. There were few laws governing you. Now you can’t hardly put a hook in the water without a license. You can’t hunt without a license.” As civilization moves in tighter, you need more rules and regulations to keep order.
The quiet, rural life enjoyed by the original German settlers to the Klein area is rapidly vanishing. With the opening of Houston’s Intercontinental Airport north of Houston in 1966, and the transfer of many oil-related businesses to the Houston area, real estate developers began to look at the land of northwest Harris County and the Klein area as rich in potential for suburban growth. By 1977, the Wall Street Journal declared the area the fastest growing residential community in the United States. A new wave of immigrants had come to Klein!
In the midst of this rapid suburban development and expansion, The Klein Independent School District has sought to preserve the elements of the region’s German heritage. The Klein I.S.D. was formed in 1938 from an earlier Rural High School. Today it provides a balanced instructional program for over 46,000 students. With four high schools, nine intermediate schools and twenty eight elementary schools, Klein I.S. D. recognizes the importance to the community of the original German settlers by naming its schools afer the various German families who first came to the area. In 1988 the Klein, Texas Historical Foundation was established by the Board of Trustees of the Klein Independent School District as a non-profit Texas corporation. Operation of the Klein museum, including the Wunderlich Farm at Doerre Intermediate, is an important part of the Klein, Texas Historical Foundation’s activities. Each spring the Historical Foundation also sponsor a “Deutschfest” with German food, music, singing, dancing, and “Germutlichkeit” to recognize the community’s early history and heritage.
Though descendants of the German families in the Klein area are now often scientists, lawyers, engineers, or pop singers as well as farmers and ranchers, they still cherish a strong sense of community and family. Reunions of the various families have become frequent occurrences and several families have made contacts and visited with relatives in Germany.
Adam Klein would probably be surprised to see the Klein area today. The post office bearing his name was disbanded long ago, but a branch of the Spring Post Office, the 77379 zip code, has “Klein, Texas” as its address. Much of the past is still with us.