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Streys talk firefighting, community, service

 
Streys talk firefighting, community, service
LA VERNIA HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION — Meet La Vernia High School’s 1955 King and Queen of the Mystic Sea — MaryLee Hartmann (now Brietzke) and Melvin Strey.

Downtown bustled with business along Chihuahua Street, and there were at least seven saloons and seven churches -- in the La Vernia that Melvin Strey knew, as he was growing up.

Melvin’s family immigrated to this area from Germany in the 1870s. They lived in New Berlin -- back then, it was spelled the German way, Neu Berlin, and pronounced Noy Berleen, Melvin said.

Highway 87 didn’t exist at the time. In addition to the saloons and churches, La Vernia had several grocery and mercantile stores. Koepp Chevrolet was established in 1923 on the corner of Chihuahua and Crews streets.

Melvin’s parents owned a grocery store and gas station back in the 1930s; it was located on Chihuahua Street, where the Christian Food Pantry is now. They later owned another grocery store from 1948--54, on the site of the present-day Dairy Queen.

The family moved to La Vernia in 1940. 1n 1947, Melvin’s parents bought 18 acres of prime La Vernia real estate, which included all the property from D.L. Vest to San Antonio Street and Chihuahua Street. Only three houses and the Brahan Masonic Lodge existed there then. Their house was located where the La Vernia Square Mini Mart now stands.

It’s hard to tell from the current agricultural scene in Wilson County, but cotton was once a big crop in the area. Melvin picked cotton on his brother’s farm, which transported to the Santa Clara cotton gin on Gin Road.

Melvin graduated from La Vernia High School in 1955. His classmates included Sonny Gerlich, Van Baldwin, Nick Santos, Helen Rodriguez (now Campos), Norbert Brietzke, MaryLee Hartmann (who married Norbert Brietzke), Silas Cantrell, Antonia Perez (now Santos), Patsy Hoermann (now Baldwin), Rolene Doege, Joyce Baker (now Real) and Jonell Cox (now Walpole).

Melvin’s first mode of transportation was a black 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle, which he had for 10 years. He gave it up for his bride, Joy Koepp, who didn’t like motorcycles. They were married in January 1959. Melvin got a 1951 green Chevy four-door to replace his motorcycle.

The two have three children -- Kurt, Kelly, and Kim -- and five grandchildren who range in age from 12 to 22.

Melvin is the last remaining original, active member of the New Berlin Volunteer Fire Department, according to his son, Kurt. The department serves 90 square miles of territory and responds to at least one call every day.

Melvin set up the Strey Insurance Agency, but never gave up serving with the fire department. It became something of a family tradition.

Kurt has served with the department since he was 16, and became fire chief at the ripe old age of 21. He has served as chief for 20 years and also serves as the emergency management coordinator for New Berlin.

It was through the fire department that Kurt met Barbara -- “Two bars and an a,” he said, spelling her name -- in 1999. She was a firefighter just like him, suit and all. Sparks flew and the two were married in 2001.

They have two daughters, Briley and Kinley.

Another “family tradition” Kurt continues is working at his dad’s insurance agency.

If the insurance business and fire department don’t keep these two men busy enough, the family also manages the New Berlin Community Center on F.M. 775 north of La Vernia, where 50 to 60 events take place every year. Concerts, weddings, graduation parties, anniversary parties, civic events, and fundraisers keep the calendar full.

The Strey family has seen -- and helped bring -- many changes to La Vernia through the years. And they continue to keep their family traditions going strong.

New Berlin school

As a child, Melvin’s wife, Joy, attended the New Berlin school. It served the community from 1883 to 1959. As it was consolidated, some of the students went to Marion and some went to La Vernia.

 
 
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