The four cousins sit around a broad table. In front of each Nelle family member rise neat stacks of papers, photographs and file folders. What fills those crisp folders could supply countless newspaper columns about Central Texas history.
The four — Jean Nelle, 65, Betty Nelle Longwood, 70, Noel Roebuck, 79 and Katherine "Tiny" Hoker, 83 — are descended from at least two profoundly rooted Austin families.
Their frontier-toughened great-grandparents were Dora Lohman Nelle — whose family pioneered the Lake Travis area in the 1860s and whose maiden name is sometimes spelled with two "n’s" — and George Henry Nelle — who settled the area just northeast of Manor and whose relations are buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery, right behind the Good Luck Grill.
The cousins grew up in a cluster of houses in the Hancock neighborhood, one block north of the Commodore Perry Estate. The land between East 44th Street and Park Boulevard, Caswell Avenue and Red River Streets belonged to their grandfather Herbert C. Nelle, son of Dora and her husband, who went by his middle name, Henry.
Indomitable pioneers, Dora and Henry almost didn’t marry on June 3, 1867. Then they might not have parented 11 children — one died at age 4 — and spawned so many Central Texas descendants.
"The story goes that (Henry) went to Mr. Lohman and asked to marry his daughter Emma," reads a typescript report from one of their grandchildren. "Mr. Lohman said: ‘She’s too young, just 14. But you can have Dora. She’s 16.’"
Some background: Dora’s father was John Henry Lohman, who fought with Napoleon on his march to Moscow, was wounded, then joined the Prussians to defeat the French emperor.
"I guess he got a better deal," Jean Nelle jokes.
Lohman arrived in Galveston with his wife and four young children in 1842. By 1845, he started Austin’s first dairy farm where the State Capitol complex now sits. In 1861, he headed out to farm the area near Hudson Bend.
The Nelle side of the family was no stranger to either war or frontier crises. Henry Nelle, born in Hesse, Germany in the 1830s, immigrated by himself to the Austin Colony at age 15, served in Hood’s Brigade on the Confederate side during the Civil War and was taken prisoner by federal troops.
"In the stockade, they fed the prisoners by throwing food — horses, mules, innards, waste — over the fence," Jean Nelle says. "He told the other prisoners: I’m not doing this. He escaped, was shot at, went back to his brigade, and served as a gunner till the end of the war."
Henry Nelle, who did not own slaves, helped haul logs by oxen from Port Lavaca to build the railroad between Houston and Austin. His German Lutheran hamlet near Manor was called Nelleville in his honor. Later it was renamed Rose Hill.
"Henry Nelle spoke German, but had a very good command of English," Hoker says. "He only wrote German to his sister back in Europe."
Dora served as a rural midwife.
"My grandma had a sharp voice," one grandchild remembered. "Not knowing her too well, we didn’t know whether to be afraid of her or not. … She would get on a horse or mule, throw a gun over the saddle horn and away she would go no matter whether day or night. She was left-handed and could shoot straight as an arrow and was not afraid of anyone that might come for her."
One time, a buffalo herd stampeded their homestead, recalled her daughter during a 1961 newspaper interview on the occasion her 90th birthday.
"Mother saw the dust coming first," said Mrs. Ed Meier, Dora and Henry’s daughter called Lena. "She gathered all the children inside the little one-room log house with lean-to that was our home."
The newspaper story continues: "If Dora Nelle was frightened while the great herd thundered by, just inches from the walls of her home, she didn’t let the children know it."
The Nelles trained horses, traded mules and such. Herbert Nelle, the cousins’ grandfather, moved into Austin in 1921. His descendants earned college degrees and held down professional jobs (which helps to explain their polished organizational skills).
What lured his grandchildren back out to Rose Hill was that cemetery. The surviving family refurbished the grounds, repointed the stones and researched family stories for an historical marker.
"Daddy would say: Don’t go out there," Jean says. "You’ll get stuck in the mud."
Indeed, the soil consists of gooey Blackland Prairie gumbo. Probably a good thing, then, that Austin didn’t move the airport to that spot, as was planned in the 1980s.
Back then, the cemetery was threatened, which disturbed Georgia Nelle, who married into the family, lived and taught in the Rose Hill community. She was interviewed at age 84 in March 1988.
"When the first settlers came there, this land was a wilderness," she said. "They broke the ground with oxen. I would like to see this place taken care of forever, but I know it is one of those things."
In a striking 1888 family photo, the young Herbert Nelle, the cousins’ grandfather, can be seen standing with a kind of bewildered look, second from the right. It was taken on the occasion of the State Capitol dedication almost exactly 125 years ago.
The family sits or stands in front of a theatrical backdrop. Poking up below their feet is hay or grass. Dressed in their Sunday best, the Nelles — Henry wearing a pocket watch, Dora holding the toddler Minnie Wilomena — look as if they had already risen up from the one-room log cabin in the muddy plains, harrassed by Indians and buffalo.