The Witte-Schmid Haus Museum

Information for Tour Leaders and Visitors

Welcome to the Witte-Schmid Haus! It is an unusual structure representing both Old World building traditions and the realities of pioneer life here on the Texas prairies.

The front facade, for example, is said to resemble the facade of the manor house on Ernst Witte's large estate, Kleefeld (clover field) that is now a suburb of Hannover, Germany.

Dr. Witte (doctor of law) had been elected to the Reichstag, the upper house of parliament, but he became discouraged with politics and with his estate after the railroad line from Hannover to Braunschweig cut through his lands, leaving some tenants on one side and some on the other. He sold the estate 10 the city of Hannover in September1855, and sailed for America to join his sons. Three months later, he signed the deed to 1,422 acres of land that he called Schoenau (beautiful view). He was 63 years old.

Construction began soon afterwards, but was drawn out, so the 1860 construction date is approximate. It began with a stone cellar and a large stone foundation on this deep sandy soil. All of the outside walls are of stone to a height of 11 feet above the floor, which marked it as a truly elegant mansion compared to the usual log houses, huts, and small frame dwellings of other immigrants. The stone was probably quarried from Ghost Cave, about three miles southeast of the haus. All 18 of the windows on the first floor are arched in stone, and then squared off on top to provide for rectangular windows.

All of the interior walls are of fachwerk construction, consisting of wooden beams joined by mortise-and-tenon joints secured by wooden pegs. This "framework" is filled in with adobe bricks for the most part, and then plastered on both sides of the wall. The use of adobe for the walls and chimneys is perhaps an adaptation to Texas or West Texas building methods. In Germany, the original fachwerk houses and barns used daub-and-­wattle (mud on woven sticks) for the infill, which was then plastered. In more recent centuries, the infill was usually kiln-fired bricks or stone.

The second story of the Witte-Schmid Haus is of the same fachwerk construction with adobe brick infill. Bevel siding or lap siding boards protect the second story outside walls from the elements. Important architectural details of the original roof were the two dach gaube or eyebrow dormer windows that have added back just recently. 

Room-by-Room Detail 

Entering the from hall, note the almost-balanced layout. Originally, each door on the right was matched with another door on the left. However, one door on the left is missing, and we found during replastering that it was there originally but was later plastered over. It might be useful today to provide a second door into the large meeting room at the back of the room. The room layout is not quite balanced, because rooms on the left side are 18 feet wide, while those on the right side are 13 feet wide. The hall is 12 feet wide.

Note under the chair rail on each side of the hall a small section of the original plaster left there for visitors to see the original plasterwork and how it delaminated through the years.

Entering the bedroom on the left, note that we did not add the plastering to the outside walls, so that visitors could see the stone construction. The stonework looks rough because it was originally not designed to be seen. It was designed to be plastered. The stones around the windows are of better quality and are cut to provide a rectangular opening. More common rubble fills the area between windows. There are many small stones inserted to help support the masonry until the mortar cures. Mortars of the 1860 era were much weaker than current mortars especially during construction before curing.

When removing the old plaster that was badly deteriorated and almost dangerous to visitors, we discovered that this one room had walls partially infilled with stone as well as adobe bricks. No one knows the reason for this, but we can guess that perhaps they ran out of stone or had no one to work the stone or perhaps construction was interrupted by the Civil War, and when the men came home, they switched to an easier method.

All three flues for stoves were built of adobe bricks in the house portion, but had stone construction where they went through and above the roof. The stone foundation for one of the flues is still intact in the cellar, where it acts also as a buttress for the stone wall.

The ceiling of this first bedroom is original, and the floor is the recycled boards from this room and the front hall. The floor and the floating joists underneath were badly eaten by termites and had to be removed. The boards seen here are of pecan and/or hickory and were ripped and trimmed to remove the badly deteriorated portions.

Note the hand-carved window stops that lock the windows in the raised position, and can also lock the window in the down position when the wooden finger is rotated up to another notch in the window trim.

The floor of the next room, the saal or parlor (now the meeting room) is original as far as we know. The boards are of quarter-sawn pine and each board is full length of the almost 24-foot-Iong room. This floor was leveled by working only from the sides where a couple of boards were removed for access and then re-laid. The ceiling is of thin boards 8" to 12" in width. All of the interior windowsills on this floor were badly deteriorated, and so were replaced with native red cedar.

The quilt hanging on the back wall was hand embroidered and hand quilted by Emily Bauer Zoch, who donated it to the Witte-Schmid Haus museum in 1988. On the other wall is the Vater Unser or Lord's Prayer that was designed and crocheted by Viola Scheffer in 1989.

Crossing over to the back room in the other comer, its original use is not known, whether dining room or bedroom, but in the 1920s and 1930s, this room held the cream separator. The original chimney has been removed, but its foundation can be seen in the cellar directly below. This room never had a proper ceiling until the present one was added in 2003. We have no idea of the age of the floor. The pie safe is one of the best pieces in the house. It is very heavy and appears to have been made by local craftsmen. It came from the Dockal family (locally pronounced as Dutch-kall).

In the kitchen, we saved most of the original thick plank floor by filling the deep gouges with glue and sawdust. The boards nearest the window have been replaced with old boards salvaged from another building.

The sink is mounted in a blue cabinet that has been in the house for years closing off the door to the office/restroom. The two cabinet doors are heavy and well made, and appear to have been recycled from an earlier piece.

The office was created by downsizing the bathroom, removing the claw-foot bathtub, and moving the toilet and sink from the outside wall to an inside comer next to another chimney flue, now completely plastered over. The restroom is now ADA ­acceptable.

By constructing only this one interior wall for the restroom, we could hide all the electrical conduits and air-conditioning pipes within the wall. The secretary in the comer is one of the pieces that was documented as being in the house when the historic American Buildings Survey was completed in 1977.

Proceeding to the back of the house, the single wall that closes off the back entrance has been in place for at least 100 years and probably longer. It is necessary in order to heat the house properly. The floor is also of pecan/hickory recycled from the salvageable boards that were removed from the front rooms and hall. This back hall still has no ceiling, revealing the red cedar joists. The rear door was rebuilt in the late 1900s, but the transom is original.

Wein Keller

The cellar is much as it always has been, with the addition of more posts to level out the floor upstairs. The stone arch was repaired about the end of the 1900s. The most unusual aspect is the insulation in the ceiling: It is a mixture of straw and mud, and secured by narrow wood strips nailed to the joists. Since this is the only insulation in the house, it is not known whether the insulation was designed to protect the room above or the cellar below. While its use as a wine cellar or root cellar is obvious, it was actually used in its early life for butchering and hanging of meat on overhead sticks-. The smokehouse was the red building outside.

Upstairs Bedrooms

Going up the stairs to the second floor, this door was added in the past to close off the cold air drafts from the back door and to keep the downstairs heat downstairs. It also served to close off the upstairs bedrooms. When Ernst and Lisette Witte built this house, their 10 children were mostly grown, and two of the sons, Victor and Bernhardt, lived a few miles from here. However, we understand that Ernst would often take in immigrant families that had just arrived from Germany, and sometimes these visitors would stay for a month or two. Bum marks on the floor of the front bedroom attest to the fact that a stove was set up there. Whether it was for cooking or heating, we don't know.

The central hall never had a-ceiling. We don't want to add one now, because it is useful to view one of the unusual features of the house, the two diagonal chimney stacks. The purpose is to bring the flue out at the peak of the gable, for best ventilation and support, and for the least water intrusion during rains. Note that the chimneys are of black adobe brick. The part that went through the roof was of stone.

The floor is of native red cedar, and the walls then were of plaster over the fachwerk timber framing and adobe bricks. The room on the south side shows this construction in greater detail. Some of the original plaster is still in place, and some of the adobe bricks have been mortared-in by workers in the last few years.

The truss framing that supports the floor and the ceiling above the meeting room below is typical construction from northern Germany at that time. Nail holes indicate that the original wall was of 1" x 6" boards.

Across the hall is Tante Millie's room, which has its original paint over original 1" x 6" tongue-and-groove boards. Naming it Tante Millie's room is in gratitude to a generous bequest from the Moore family.

Another large donation came from the estate of Heinsohn, a man who remembered his teacher, Tante (Aunt) Millie.

The front bedroom has been modified to add the "window seats" which actually were added to enclose the air ducts that take air-conditioning air from one side of the house to the other. All of the floor joists for the upstairs run East and West, which makes it easy to put air ducts under the floor to carry air from the front of the house to the back. However, this above-floor air duct is necessary to move air from one side of the house to the other, over the floor joists.

Each of the four comers of the house upstairs has a storage room with limited ceiling height. Note the unique hardware on this storage room door. It is described as an "eye-and-hook", not the usual hook-and-eye. The hook attached to the doorjamb appears to be the pintle portion of a small hinge for cabinets. Note the ornate twist on the eye portion on the door.     .

We understand that all of the nails and hardware for this house were purchased in Houston. Freighting from there by ox-wagon was a month-long trip. Fording the rivers sometimes required waiting for the water to go down after a rain. All of the timbers for framing, as well as the rafters and floor joists were sawed at a sawmill. Most of this wood is of pecan, hickory, or other hard wood that is somewhat resistant to termite attack, as can be seen on timbers near the front door.

However, termites totally consumed one floor joist adjacent to this chimney, and they ate their way across the south room and this east room. That is the reason the floors in these two rooms had to be replaced. The soft adobe bricks of the chimneystack are perfect for termite use.

Family History

The house had been in the Witte-Schmid family continuously until 1986 when it was given to the Texas German Society by Mrs. Annie Schmid and son Sanford. It had been lived in until 1977.

The land is part of the William Burnett League. William Burnett, accompanied by his wife and five children, arrived in Stephen F. Austin's Second Colony in 1830. In 1831 the Mexican government granted him title to one league of land, or 4428 acres. Two years later he sold the eastern half of the league along the West Fork of Mill Creek to John York. In 1840 York sold 1422 acres to Captain Joel Spencer, who later resold it to Hiram Mansur. Dr. Ernst Witte bought the 1,422 acres in January 1856 for $5,500 from Mansur.

The house was probably started in 1857. The farm was one of the most valuable in northwest Austin County. Dr. Witte's livestock included 160 head of cattle, of which 40 were milk cows. The 1860 census lists Dr. Witte and wife Lisette and one daughter, 17-year-old Johanna Witte living here, and possibly two older sons. Dr. Witte died in 1869 and is buried in the family cemetery just down the hill. His wife Lisette died in 1883 and is buried in the Shelby Cemetery because rains made the road to the family cemetery impassable. Their granddaughter Emilie Witte and her husband John Schmid bought the house and 245 acres from Lisette's estate in 1884 for $3,500.

The most recent major renovation of the house in 2004 brought back the shingled appearance that the house had for its first 100 years. The original shingles, probably of cypress, tended to exaggerate the original jerkin head roof line (accomplished by adding wedge-shaped rafter ends.) Some of this curved roofline still exists, but most of it was lost when the metal roof was applied in 1961.

The eyebrow window dormers, or dach gaube, were removed at the same time to simplify laying the metal. The replacement dach gaube were recreated in 2004 from old photos and physical evidence on the rafters. The new "Enviroshake" polymer-based shakes were installed during the 2004 renovation. The original 1860 house had no front porch. The entrance door appeared much like the solid wood door at the rear of the house. A wooden front porch was added about 1900 by John Schmid, and this was remodeled in 1967, making the steps and platforms of concrete. The two solid-wood front doors were replaced with double half-glass doors to let in more light about 1920.

The renovation work of the Witte-Schmid Haus is ongoing in an attempt to retain the character of the house at the turn of the century or no later than 1920. The Museum Commission of the Texas German Society sees its responsibility as both preserving the historical character and the practical aspect of sheltering the structure from the ravages of time. Historical accuracy and permanence are both of prime importance.