No one in this neck of the Texas Hill Country denies the contributions of the German immigrants who settled here in Comfort. They were affluent intellectuals who built the first schools in these parts and spoke mostly in Latin. As "Freethinkers," they valued individual liberty so much that they sided with the Union during the Civil War and rejected the authority of any government or church to tell them what to think.
But somehow, plans for a monument to honor these 19th-century settlers have kicked off a 20th-century stir over religious values and historical accuracy. Many of the town's 1,500 residents worry that carving the Freethinkers' ideals into stone could have the effect of creating a "monument to atheism."
Greg Krauter, a seventh-generation Freethinker and lifelong Comfort resident, says the objections stem from plain old ignorance. "Our local history is dying out, and we need something to remind people of the way things were," he says, sitting behind the counter of the Ingenhuett General Store, which he owns with his father, James. "Most people who move in don't share the same history as the locals do, and most don't know anything about the Freethinkers."
Indeed, this old town perched on the banks of the Guadalupe River some 50 miles west of San Antonio is much different from the one started by decidedly secular Freethinkers back in the 1850s. After all, nearly 50 years passed before Comfort built its first church. Today, with four churches and dozens of antique shops, the town is not sure how to honor its freethinking founders.
"This is a Trojan Horse, and we should have looked this gift horse in the mouth long ago," says Frank Manitzas, a local lawyer who organized a petition to halt the monument. He says atheists from Austin and San Antonio have contributed to the fund and twisted the Freethinkers' beliefs to suit their own. "The Freethinkers did not accept the concept of organized religion, but they absolutely did accept a Supreme Being. They were not atheists."
Needless to say, the German Freethinkers themselves - part of a European reform movement that dates back to the 1700s - would probably be horrified to be defined as either atheist or religious, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that most residents queried on an unseasonably cool October afternoon are themselves neutral about the monument. More residents seem concerned about its size than about its message: At 32 tons and 13 feet high, it's a pale cousin of Stonehenge.
"It's a big rock," chuckles Jim Lord, owner of the Comfort Common, an antique shop and bed-and-breakfast inn. But while he agrees with the need for some sort of recognition for the Freethinkers' idealism and tolerance, he says he understands "the concept of not wanting Comfort to be associated with negative connotations."
Freethinkers are well-acquainted with controversy. During the Civil War, most of the German settlers here sided with the Union and opposed slavery. This loyalty is noted in a white limestone national historic marker called the "Treue der Union" monument, carved with the names of 68 settlers killed by Confederate Texans while attempting to join the Union Army. This ethos continued well into the 20th century: Comfort integrated its schools 12 years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling made it federal law.
Edwin Scharf, a descendant of German Freethinkers who lives outside San Antonio, felt the town needed a fuller explanation of the Freethinkers' ideals than was contained in the Treue der Union monument. He has largely footed the bill.
Mr. Scharf can't understand why there should be a fuss about honoring such a progressive heritage. But he agrees that some supporters of the project may be partly to blame. One enthusiastic atheist from Austin, for instance, publicized the monument on his Web site and predicted that a "Freethought-Atheist Volksmarch will converge on the Comfort city park" during the marker's dedication. Scharf has since cut himself off from this Austinite and returned his $25 check.
"The atheists' irrational exuberance kicked off the paranoia of the other side," says Scharf. "I feel caught between two fringes who need to take stock of what they're saying."
Town leaders say the project will go forward in some form, but it is shelved until the town can make up its mind about what the marker will say. Meanwhile, a truck will move the hunk of limestone out of sight and out of town.
Outside media have overplayed the issue, says Pam Duke, owner of the weekly Comfort News. "The joke around here is that we're just waiting for '60 Minutes' to show up."