A Guide to the Sylvester Primer Family Papers, 1866-1959
Wisconsin native Sylvester Primer (1842-1912) moved to New York with his parents in 1850 and enlisted in the 108th New York Infantry at the start of the Civil War. After being severely wounded at the battle of Antietam, Primer was discharged from the army in 1862. However, once healed, he reenlisted with the 15th New York Cavalry and served with both General Custer and General Sheridan from 1863 to 1865. Following the Civil War, Primer studied at Leroy (N.Y.) Academy until 1868 and the Phillips Exeter Academy until 1871. He received his A. B. from Harvard in 1874, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and immediately traveled to Europe where he attended the universities of Leipzig, Göttingen, and Strasburg in Germany and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1880, he earned a PhD from the University of Strasburg, specializing in philology.
Primer returned to the United States in 1880 and taught at Brown University (1880-1881), the College of Charleston (1881-1890), and the College of Colorado (1890-1891). While at Charleston, he married Lula Martha Muckenfuss in 1895; they had one son, Benjamin (1900-1975). In 1891, Primer moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked as an Adjunct Professor of Teutonic Languages at the University of Texas. He eventually became an Associate Professor and then chairman of the School of Romance language. Eventually, he became the chair of a separate German department at UT. Primer died in 1912.
Lula Martha Muckenfuss Primer, the daughter of a Charleston dentist and public official, lived in Austin until her death in 1951. Following her husband’s passing in 1912, Lula survived by taking in boarders and working in the interlibrary loan office at UT until her retirement in 1941. Additionally, she was an active member of the University Methodist Church, the University Ladies Club, the Austin’s Women’s Club, and the Travis County Council of Women.
Benjamin M. Primer, Sr., the son of Sylvester and Lula Primer, attended medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and completed graduate work in public health at Harvard. In the 1920s and 1930s, he worked as a city public health officer for a number of towns and cities in Texas, including San Saba, Amarillo, and Austin, where he worked from 1938 until his retirement in 1970. Additionally, he served as the secretary of the American Public Health Association. Primer was married to Lottie Williams, a nurse trained in New Orleans; they had two children: Benjamin M., Jr. and Charles Austin.
“Primer, Sylvester,” Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Correspondence, diaries, financial records, literary productions, account books, diplomas, photographs, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia comprise the Sylvester Primer Family Papers, and relate to the Primer family’s personal and business affairs during the 19th and 20th centuries. A large portion of the collection contains the papers of Sylvester Primer and relates to his service in the Civil War, his education, and his career as a language professor. They include his writings about the Civil War, his unpublished academic papers in manuscript form, materials from his time at the University of Texas, and love letters from his wife Lula Muckenfuss during their courtship. These love letters (1894-1897) document their long-distance courtship, Lula’s father’s rejection of Primer as a suitable husband, and Lula’s own doubts.
The papers of Lula Muckenfuss Primer primarily contain her correspondence, including love letters from her husband (1893-1895), general family correspondence (1887-1953), and letters from her son, Ben, Sr., and her grandson, Ben, Jr. Her son’s letters document his time in medical school at Galveston, his public health training at Harvard, and his service in the army during World War II. A highly educated woman, Lula’s memoirs written during the 1940s constitute a wealth of information on the life of an educated widow in Texas during the early 1900s. Additionally, her papers consist of literary productions, financial documents, and educational records.
Correspondence, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, photographs, education records, and military service records compose Benjamin M. Primer, Sr.’s, papers and relate to his personal life, military service, and career. Items of interest include letters from his parents (1910-1911), his resume, memorabilia from his career in public health, family photographs, and his obituary. Finally, the papers of Lottie Williams Primer, Benjamin, Sr.’s wife, consist of correspondence, family memorabilia, financial records, her will, genealogies, and the baby books of her sons, Ben, Jr., and Charles Austin.
The collection is open for research use.
Sylvester Primer Family Papers, 1866-1959, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
Basic processing and cataloging of this collection was supported with funds from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for the Briscoe Center’s “History Revealed: Bringing Collections to Light project,” 2009-2011.
Detailed Description of the Papers