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Welkumme to Windthorst!

Written by Lana Robinson.

Windthorst, winner of the German Club of Texas’ 2003 “German Town of Texas” award, is a wholesome Archer County hamlet. Farming and oil fuel the local economy, but dairying is Windthorst’s bread and butter. Some 75 dairy farms in the area have given the town bragging rights as the “Dairy Capital of North Texas.” A prominent sign featuring a black-and-white Holstein cow greets travelers on US 281.

The town, which lies 25 miles south of Wichita Falls on the Archer-Clay county line, owes its existence to a one-two punch of harsh weather more than a century ago. The bitter winter of 1885 killed thousands of cattle in northwest Texas, where domestic livestock had prospered on the region’s abundant grasslands for more than a decade. Then a grueling drought on the heels of the blizzard further reduced herds. The bad stretch of weather bankrupted a number of cattle operations, including the Circle Ranch.

In 1891, attorney F.T. Ledergerber of St. Louis, along with other devout German Catholics, purchased some 75,000 acres of land carved out of the defunct ranch. Within five years, a fledgling community—named Windthorst in honor of the Prussian political leader and Catholic statesman Ludwig Windthorst (1812-1891)—boasted a post office, church, rectory, school, and 75 immigrant families. St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built on a hill that rises about a thousand feet above town, anchored the settlement. The church burned twice, in 1894 and 1924, and was rebuilt both times on the same site. Parishioners also included Germans from Russia, most of whom had migrated to Archer County from the Northern Plains states and through the port of Galveston. Windthorst’s population grew in the 20th Century, peaking at 1,000 in 1977. About half that many live here now.

Although Windthorst’s population has declined, St. Mary’s membership today approaches 1,000. The burg has remained true to its Catholic roots. After more than a century, St. Mary’s, with a clock steeple and 22 inspiring stained-glass windows, is still the town’s only organized church. Next to the red brick sanctuary, a rustic grotto, fashioned to look like a natural opening in the hillside, enshrines a statue of the Virgin Mary. Dedicated in 1950 to honor the safe return of all 64 of the community’s young men who fought in World War II, “Our Lady of Highway 281” now serves as a memorial to all veterans.

After a stroll around the church and grotto, visitors enjoy browsing through Joe Zotz’s nostalgic Windthorst General Store, at the intersection of US 281 and FM 174. Founded by the Weinzapfel family in 1892 (the present building dates to 1921), the store gives you the feeling that most of the last century passed it by. Out front, atop a metal awning, its sign combines with early Coca-Cola logos and other retro elements for charming curb appeal. Inside, you’ll find a deli, groceries, clothing, curiosities, and a variety of household and farm essentials, including rubber boots, fly swatters, hoe handles, buckets, and cotton work gloves (in University of Texas burnt orange or Texas A&M maroon).

“Whatever we can sell, we put in here—hardware, electrical, vet supplies, clothing, and groceries,” says Russell Zotz, friendly co-owner of the store with his father, Joe. “We try to stick with the general-store atmosphere.”

Joe and Russell bought the store from Joe’s uncles, Albert and Henry Ostermann, in January 1993. The Ostermann brothers had owned and operated it since the 1950s. The 2,800-square-foot establishment has retained its original hardwood floors, wood-and-glass display cases, and old-timey counter with rolls of brown paper and string once used for wrapping merchandise. On the east wall, an old-fashioned, hand-operated Otis lift (which predates the elevator and runs by counterweights) is still operational.

“We don’t use it much, but they did in the old days,” says Russell. “They used to keep barrels of vinegar and molasses down in the basement. My great-uncle said Mr. Weinzapfel once split a carload of flour with somebody, and they kept it in bags down there. The lift was a necessity.”

Locally-made German sausage is the most popular deli item at the Windthorst General Store. “The sausage is made by Windthorst Fine Meats,” says Russell. “Here at the store, we cook it up and serve it with mustard, cheese, and jalapeños on a coney bun or wrapped in a tortilla. We also sell it raw, in two-pound packages, in our grocery section.”

In fact, Windthorst is famous for its tasty German sausage. The community has hosted two sausage suppers annually for many years. One, celebrated each first Sunday in December, is a fund-raiser for the Windthorst Knights of Columbus. Proceeds from the second sausage event, held the first Sunday in March, help support the local fire department.

While at the general store, you might run into Windthorst’s milk-fed, award-winning athletes, who stop in regularly for snacks. The high school’s Trojans were football state champs in 1996 and 2003, the high school girls’ volleyball team has won the state championship nine of the past 13 years, and the girls’ softball team won their second straight Class A state championship in June. “We’ve got quite an athletic bunch here,” says Joe proudly.

When leaving the store, check out the framed print by Clifton artist George Boutwell, which hangs left of the door. The watercolorist (a former Texas Highways art director, and named “official Texas state artist for 2006”) created the painting of the Windthorst General Store, with vintage vehicles out front, for his December entry in a 1994 calendar.

If your travels take you through Windthorst, milk the local history for all it’s worth. Step back in time in the quaint environs of the Windthorst General Store. Ascend St. Mary’s hill, where the faithful are found each Sunday, and pay your respects to the nation’s veterans at the “Our Lady of Highway 281” memorial. It’s a worthwhile stop.

The Windthorst General Store is on the northeast corner of the US 281/FM 174 intersection in Windthorst. Hours: Mon-Sat 7-7, Sun 8-7. Call 940/423-6205.

For information about the two annual Sausage Festivals and other local events, write to the Windthorst Economic Development Corp., Box 128, Windthorst 76389; 940/423-6100.

For more information about St. Mary’s Catholic Church (at 100 St. Mary’s St.) and thegrotto/veterans memorial affectionately known as “Our Lady of Highway 281,” write to Box 230, Windthorst 76389; 940/423-6687.

Prints of George Boutwell’s print Windthorst, Texas are available from the artist. Write to 3083 Hwy. 6, Clifton 76634; 800/243-4316; www.gboutwell.com.

From the October 2005 issue.

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