The Great Pyramide
A German Christmas tradition brightens the holidays in Texas.
In the tumultuous years between 1830 and 1860, about 20,000 Germans immigrated to Texas. They left their homeland because of its poor economic conditions, and they were drawn to Texas by the availability of large tracts of cheap land. By simply paying the title fees, immigrants could acquire more land than was ruled over by some German princes. The first wave of immigrants settled in the lower valleys of the Brazos and Colorado rivers, in what is now Austin, Fayette, and Colorado counties; others founded the towns of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg and spread out across the Hill Country. By 1860, German-speaking Texans predominated in these two regions.
They brought with them their language, their customs, and their love of music. Most German communities in Texas established a Stadtkapelle, or town band; many had a Gesangverein, a choral singing society. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, in a little community in Fayette County called Waldeck, the Stadtkapelle was the Schuhmann Band.
The band was started by three brothers, Carl, Gotthelf, and Christian Schuhmann, who had emigrated from the Saxon village of Oberscheibe, in the Erzgebirge Mountains, with their wives and children in 1853. By the 1880’s, the band included Carl’s son Emil, Gotthelf’s sons Gustav and Paul, and Christian’s son Adolf. The family performed at weddings and dances in Waldeck and the surrounding communities, and they played at the dedication of the state capitol, in Austin.
The Schuhmann brothers’ village in Germany was a mining town, the home of the famous Vater Abraham iron mine, which opened in 1677. But mining provided uncertain employment in the Erzgebirge region, and the miners traditionally supplemented their income by carving wooden toys, such as nutcrackers, soldiers, and animals. One of the most ornate forms of Erzgebirger carving was the Pyramide, a sort of multistory carousel, in which a series of disks decorated with carved figures was attached to a central axle and rotated as the heat from candles turned a propeller on the top of the axle. These pyramids were made in all sizes, from tabletop ornaments to large structures erected in town squares during Christmas.
Sometime in the 1870’s Emil sat down to make a pyramid. Emil was born in Waldeck in 1856 and had never been to Germany. No one knows what he used as a model; perhaps his parents had brought a small pyramid with them from Saxony, or perhaps he had used a picture of one in a town square that his family had.
His pyramid is about three feet high and two and a half feet wide, with a domed building surmounted by a cupola, perhaps inspired by a town hall. The building is supported by a papier mâché mountain. Three rotating circular platforms laden with carved figures are powered by the heat from thirteen oil lamps attached to the building and the mountain. The lower platform, which rotates inside the mountain itself, carries eight miniature miners, some pushing carts full of ore and some carrying axes over their shoulders. The middle platform features blue-coated soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets at shoulder arms who march through the building’s first floor. Uniformed bandsmen and a bandmaster occupy the top platform, on the building’s second floor. Carved pine and palm trees and fanciful wooden figures fill a fenced yard in front of the building: a soldier guards the gate; a shepherd with a crook herds a flock of sheep; a hunter aims his gun at a deer; three dogs and a leopard roam; and a squirrel looks down from a tree. The mountain is made from a German-language Galveston newspaper on which the date 1872 is visible from the inside.
Emil devoted his life to music. He never married, and he disliked farming, hiring a black worker named Lufkin Shelby to till his land while he composed music and taught piano, organ, and concertina. He owned two organs and several concertinas, one of which family legend says he wished to be buried with. Emil displayed his pyramid only once a year, during the Christmas holidays. He would set it up in his living room, light the lamps, and sit beside it playing Christmas carols on his concertina, to the delight of his nieces and nephews and all the other children in Waldeck.
When Emil died, in 1937, he left Shelby fifty acres of land, and one of Emil’s nephews, Robert Wenzel, inherited the pyramid. He kept it in the crate that Emil had built for it at his home in Seguin for more than thirty years. After Wenzel’s death, in 1969, his widow, Anna, wrote Ima Hogg, the noted philanthropist and art collector, telling her about the pyramid. Hogg was assembling a collection of Texas folk art for an exhibit at Winedale, the historic property near Round Top that she had given to the University of Texas at Austin in 1967. Hogg immediately went to Seguin, saw the pyramid, and acquired it. It has been on exhibit at Winedale ever since. Historian Cecilia Steinfeldt, known as the first lady of Texas art, described it as “one of the finest pieces of folk art ever made in the Lone Star State.”
Winedale Historical Complex, 3738 FM 2714, Round Top (979-278-3530). Open Mon–Fri 8–5.