Texas has a secret.
Tucked away in a small German town called New Braunfels, just a half-hour north of San Antonio, there is an enchanting world where children swing on apple-tree branches, take walks in the rain and play ring around the rosie.
This is the Hummel Museum, a former bank building now dedicated to the artwork of Sister Maria Innocentia (Berta) Hummel, a German nun whose drawings of children have captivated collectors for 60 years. Here, there are more than 300 original sketches by the late sister and a collection of more than 1,100 Hummel figurines inspired by those drawings.
The museum is, says special project director Sieglinde Schoen Smith, the only one of its kind in the world. Another museum, in Rosemont, Ill., contains figurines only, while in Sister Hummel's birthplace of Massing, Germany, there is a museum of her drawings done before she entered the convent. But New Braunfels is the only museum of both two- and three-dimensional Hummel art, says Ms. Smith.
It is a collection of enormous charm, and one exhibited with a fine eye to detail. On the first floor, 100 drawings are exhibited, each accompanied by text telling the story behind the art. Sister Hummel worked mostly in charcoal and crayon, using deft, broad strokes.
A museum guide points out the plain paper darkened over time that Sister Hummel used for her drawings. "A lot of her work was done on butcher paper," says John J. Fahsl. "Sometimes, both sides."
While drawings of cherubic children caught at play (and sometimes in mischief), comprise the bulk of the exhibit, Sister -- Hummel, a religion and art teacher at a convent in Siessen, Germany, also did religious renderings. "I'm sure she had in mind illustrating a children's Bible," says Mr. Fahsl, pointing out some of the religious pieces drawn by the sister, who died in 1946 at age 37.
In a small upstairs room, an hourlong film tells the story of Sister Hummel and details the making of Hummel figurines at the Goebel factory in Germany. None of the Hummel figurines can be molded in a single piece; some are formed from as many as 40 individual pieces before they are hand-painted.
The film is a perfect segue to the gallery area outside the room, where lighted display cabinets show off an extensive array of the Hummel figures. Nearly all the figurines, including three that are easily 2 feet tall, are from the collection of Elizabeth Pedder of Los Angeles.
"I thought they should be together," says the retired chief executive officer of Conservative Water Co., a public utility that provided water to the Watts area, noting that a California museum turned down the collection as "too contemporary," and she had no desire to sell them.
So how did such a museum come to be in a small Texas town
(population 27,300) that until now has had three claims to fame: its two rivers (the Comal and the Guadalupe), the Schlitterbahn water park and the pioneer-themed Sophienburg Museum.
Chalk it up to one enthusiastic woman (Ms. Smith) who describes herself as a "very small fish with a very large mouth" and a town that values its own German heritage and saw an opportunity to share with the world the artistry of a fellow German.
"It is tremendous what the people of New Braunfels have done," says Ms. Smith of the $200,000 in donations and pledges raised by the townspeople to start the museum. Indeed, she calls it "the miracle of New Braunfels."
The nucleus of the facility is two Hummel drawings owned by Ms. Smith, who as a toddler was the model for the charming sketches of a little girl in a field of bluebells and a tot staring in fascination at the candles on a Christmas tree.
In 1987, believing that the drawings deserved to be seen by the public, Ms. Smith, now living in Fort Worth, had copies made and tried to market them. This effort resulted in threats of a lawsuit from Ars Edition of Switzerland, Ms. Smith says. "Even though they were my pictures, I needed a license to produce Hummel art," Ms. Smith says, noting that the Ars Edition company, which represents Hummel's family, holds exclusive rights to produce any of Hummel's work.
Ms. Smith journeyed to Switzerland to speak with Jacques Nauer of Ars Edition -- and learned there were more than 300 other pieces of Sister Hummel's works kept in a vault. Most had never been seen publicly.
Ms. Smith says she she told him it was a crime to keep such beauty locked away; they should, she said, be in a museum where people could enjoy their beauty.
Mr. Nauer said a museum was being considered, either in New York or at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla.
"In New York, such a museum would be lost," says Ms. Smith. "And as much as I love Mickey Mouse, I couldn't see them under one roof and I told him so.
"And he snapped back at me, 'OK, if you think you know so much more than I do, why don't you find a place to display them?' "