March 29, 2022
As I was returned home after encountering the nesting pair of bald eagles last week, I came across the city of Altus. While I have ignored this area while zooming down the interstate, this time I approached the town driving the winding roads coming up from the south. I have always enjoyed looking at old architecture, and even filled a short tenure as an architectural historian in Utah. I wound thorough the historic (but small) downtown and then started the climb up the hill toward the wineries. As I reached the crest of the hill, I saw a large stone church and cemetery that dominated the summit.
When I looked online, I found Altus is the site of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church (St. Mary’s Catholic Church), which is on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Mary’s was built in 1902 and is known for its beautiful paintings, ornate gold leaf walls, and Roman Basilica-style architecture. Father Placidus Oechsle began his tenure as St. Mary’s pastor at the turn of the century, and the stone church was built at that time from sandstone dug from the hillside on which the building sits. Father Placidus and immigrant painter Fridolin Fuchs extravagantly decorated the church. Donations from parish members enabled the acquisition of the four large bells that grace the bell tower and the purchase of a first-class organ to fill the interior with music. Placidus’s 38-year tenure was the longest of any priest at St. Mary’s.
Altus is the epicenter of the Altus American Viticultural Area (AVA) within Arkansas Wine Country. Although founded as a coal mining community, the wine industry has driven the Altus economy since the first vineyards were planted in 1872. Altus took off in 1875 when the railroad was extended to that point. Altus station was the highest elevation point on the track between Little Rock and Fort Smith, so the station was originally known as “Summit”. The town’s early development was driven by the railroad’s effort to encourage German immigrants to settle lands adjacent to the railroad. In 1903, the railroad mainline was shifted to a more favorable alignment along the Arkansas River, and the track through Altus was removed in the 1930’s. Altus is now home to four wineries
THOUGHTS: The largest flow of German immigration to America occurred between 1820 and World War I, during which time nearly six million Germans immigrated to the US. From 1840 to 1880 Germans were the largest group of immigrants. As the railroads expanded west the tide of German immigrants took refuge on the land opened by the rails. That included my ancestors (Illinois and Kansas) and those who settled in Altus. Historians credit these German emigrants with invention of the American weekend, as they change the Puritan pious Sunday to the revelry we now appreciate. Each successive wave of immigrants each added a touch to the celebrations and festivals we celebrate. Rather than melting pot, America is a stew where new waves of immigrants add to the broth. That is who we are, and always have been. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.