The Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann had a secret that he kept from his parishioners at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Fedor.
No, it wasn’t anything scandalous.
Birkmann was born in rural Illinois on June 4, 1854. His father was a Lutheran pastor, and Birkmann followed him into the ministry. After graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri in 1876, he was assigned to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Fedor, Texas.
The climate in Texas was so different from that to which Birkmann was accustomed that he was advised by Rev. Geyer of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Serbin to not come until September. The Rev. Theodore Brohm, who had been present when the congregation was established six years earlier, told him that the congregation was (in modern terms) “in the sticks.”
The trip to Fedor was mostly by rail. Birkmann remembered passing through Muskogee, Oklahoma on the way, though he didn’t mention the city for their unwillingness to smoke marijuana or for being a place where even squares can have a ball. The coffee he was served there, though, was particularly bad– so much so that he remembered it when he wrote about the trip fifty-five years later in 1931.
Fedor was definitely “in the sticks” as Birkmann had been told. A ride to Serbin that takes a little less than thirty minutes by automobile today required several hours of riding. Nonetheless, Birkmann felt at home, and he soon noticed the unusual insects in the area that were quite different from those he knew as a child in Illinois.
He began to collect and study them– first butterflies, and then beetles and wasps. This was his secret– he was concerned that his congregation would think him strange for collecting insects, and so he didn’t publicize his hobby.
His parishioners might have been unaware, but the entomological world soon was not. Birkmann carried on a lively correspondence with a number of important entomologists and even sold parts of his collection to them. Eventually, the word did get out, and the Missouri Synod invited him to send a portion of his collection for display at the World’s Fair in 1904.
Ten years before his death, Birkmann attended the 1934 meeting of the Texas Society of Entomologists (the sixth time the group had met) and in 1936 he was made an honorary member. A number of wasps first identified by Birkmann in Lee County are named after him. The June 1950 edition of the Texas Journal of Science contained a short article about Birkmann’s life.
Birkmann writes about collecting insects:
The article in the Texas Journal of Science can be found here, although you’ll have to search for “Birkmann” because it contains much more than just that article:
(The photograph of Trinity Fedor is from my first trip there on August 18, 2005. I do remember, perhaps appropriately, that there was an enormous wasp nest in the tree to the right of the church in the photo.)