HISTORY OF FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS
By John Ronan Broderick
GERMANIC ORIGINS AND INFLUENCES
When one thinks of Texas towns and cities settled by 19th century German immigrants, among those that spring to mind unbidden are New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Brenham, and Schulenberg. With a population of 84,612, New Braunfels is by far the behemoth of these German communities. It was also the very first. Fredericksburg, the subject of this article, was the second.
On April 20th, 1842, preparatory to the settlement of German communities in Texas, some German noblemen had organized a group known as the Mainzer Adelverein, aka the “Noblemen’s Society,” aka the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Society’s purpose was to encourage mass emigration, both as a means of providing new opportunities to economically hard- pressed commoners and of establishing foreign markets for German industry. Thousands of these German and Prussian immigrants settled in Texas, hundreds of them in the Texas Hill Country, e.g., Comal and Gillespie Counties. This emigration was comprised in part by the liberal intelligentsia fleeing the economic, social, and political conditions in the Fatherland that precipitated the German Revolution of 1848, and in part by the proletariat.
Among the cultural, societal, and educational changes the Germans brought with them to America were: the concept of the entire weekend as days off from work, as opposed to the standard six-day work week typically observed by Americans; the tradition of the Christmas tree; the introduction of hot dogs (frankfurters) and hamburgers as food alternatives; and the origination of kindergarten into the school system (notice the retention of the German
spelling for this term). The German philosophers of this era whose ideas the immigrants brought with them were, among others: Schelling, Hegel, Kant, Marx, and Schopenhauer. Never doubt that there were many intellectuals among the German dirt farmers who settled in Fredericksburg and the rest of the Texas Hill Country.
EARLY DAYS IN FREDERICKSBURG
Baron Otfried Hans von Meusebach, upon his arrival in America, renounced his royal nobleman’s title and took the Americanized name of John O. Meusebach, a fitting gesture for the leader of the first group of German immigrants to establish the city of Fredericksburg, Texas, in a new country where everyone is created equal. He was the new Commissioner-General of the aforementioned Mainzer Adelsverein and as such had much influence among his fellow immigrants who looked to him for leadership in this new venture. Their trust was neither unwarranted nor unrewarded, for he possessed a background in botany and had been educated and trained as an attorney, a profession that would serve him and his fellow immigrants well in the near future.
In 1845 Meusebach set out from New Braunfels, which was 73 miles southeast of the site he eventually selected for the second settlement in the Fisher-Miller Land Grant. The valley he chose was surrounded by seven hills and was situated four miles north of the Pedernales River, between two creeks, later named Barons and Town Creeks, the former in his honor. He named the new town Fredericksburg, in honor of Prince Frederick of Prussia, the highest-ranking member of the Mainzer Adelsverein and nephew of King Frederick William III of Prussia. Old-time German residents often referred to Fredericksburg as Fritztown, a nickname still used in some businesses.
For the new settlement Meusebach purchased 10,000 acres of land on credit, and in December 1845, ordered construction of a road to connect Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. In 21st century parlance he would have been known as a “mover and a shaker.” On April 23rd, 1846, the first wagon train of settlers departed New Braunfels, arriving at the Fredericksburg site on May 8th, 1846, historically looked upon as the date of the city’s founding.
Each settler received a lot in the town proper, upon which to build a “Sunday House,” as well as 10 acres of farmland outside of town. The colonists prepared for the arrival of more of their fellow Germans who arrived throughout the summer. They planted corn as their first crop and constructed storehouses out of logs to protect their trade goods and provisions, as well as a stockade and a blockhouse.
In 1847, the unique, octagonal-shaped Vereins Kirche, aka “Society Church,” was the first public structure erected in Fredericksburg. It encompassed all religions under one roof. It also served as the local school and meeting hall. Most of the original colonists of Fredericksburg were members of the Evangelical Protestant Church, though there were also Lutherans, Methodists, and Catholics in the mix.
Drawing on his negotiating skills he’d honed as a lawyer, an unarmed Meusebach, accompanied by six other colonists, bravely met with several tribes of the indigenous Penateka Comanche Indians to broker a treaty between them and the German Immigration Company. In exchange for the colonists being allowed to farm land along the Llano River, the Comanches would be allowed to come into town to trade at any time. Meusebach sweetened the deal by assuring the Indians that in times of hunger, the town would trade the Comanches grain in exchange for wild game, honey, and bear fat. He also paid the Indians $3,000 in food, gifts, and other commodities for signing the treaty. The 1847 Meusebach-Comanche Treaty was agreed upon by both parties and was one of the few such treaties never broken by white men with Native Americans. It also brought peace to the region, a not unappreciated side benefit to the settlers who were undoubtedly unnerved by the local presence of their fierce, war-like neighbors.
In 1848 Gillespie County was formed from parts of Bexar and Travis Counties, and Fredericksburg was named its county seat. That same year the first road connecting Fredericksburg with Austin was constructed, and Fort Martin Scott was created by the U.S. government as part of a string of cavalry outposts in the Hill Country to protect the newly arrived settlers and travelers from marauding Indians.
The 1850 U.S. Census reported that the fort housed 100 men, four officers’ wives, and seven children. Thanks to Meusebach’s 1847 treaty with the Comanche tribes in the region, the soldiers’ presence was found to be unnecessary and the fort was closed without ceremony in 1853. It was however utilized by the Texas Rangers as a camp both before and after the Army was stationed there. It is now a restored historic site and home to the world-class Texas Rangers Heritage Center.
The years 1846 through 1850 saw great growth in the region. The 1850 U.S. Census reported the population of Fredericksburg as 754, accounting for more than half of Gillespie County’s 1,235 residents. With Meusebach’s blessing, the Mormons established their nearby settlement of Zodiac, which became an important resource for the Germans’ learning curve in terms of frontier farming techniques.
Germans have been stereotyped as being a stubborn people, and the early Fredericksburg Germans were evidence of that character trait by virtue of their initial hard- headed refusal to adopt English as their new language. The city is known as the home of “Texas German,” a dialect spoken by the first generation of colonists and one that persists to the present day among a small segment of the population.
During this same time frame the first privately owned store was opened, as was the Nimitz family’s hotel in 1852, which soon became the most famous hotel in Central Texas. A
steamboat-shaped façade was added in 1870. This same Nimitz family were the progenitors of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Sr., renowned commander of the Pacific theater during World War II. Along with Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz distinguished himself as one of only three of that war’s theater commanders. Thanks to Admiral Nimitz’s largesse, his family’s old hotel now serves as the National Museum of the Pacific War, drawing in excess of 150,000 visitors per year. It is considered the world’s premier museum about World War II’s Pacific Theater.
MILESTONES IN THE LAST HALF OF THE 19TH CENTURY
The first public and Catholic schools in Fredericksburg were established in 1856. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, it was no surprise that the majority of the liberal-minded, anti- slavery citizenry of Fredericksburg remained staunchly pro- Union, though a tiny segment of the population was loyal to the Confederacy. Gillespie County voted 400 to 17 against Secession from the Union. The first newspaper published in Gillespie County was the German language Fredericksburg Wochenblatt in 1877. The first electric lights were introduced in 1896.
As the insular town grew it began to open up to outsiders. Fredericksburg became, and still is, the principal manufacturing center of the county. It was home to metal and iron works, a cement plant, granite and limestone quarries. It was during this period, too, that many of the extant historic buildings, both commercial and residential, public and religious, were constructed, a great number of them today listed on the National Register of Historic Places or as Texas Historic Landmarks. Unsurprisingly, many of these buildings were constructed from the limestone indigenous to the area.
LBJ AND HIS NEXUS TO FREDERICKSBURG
Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, had a special connection to Fredericksburg and Gillespie County all his life. Born in his family’s home near Stonewall, just down the road from Fredericksburg, he was a frequent visitor to this county seat throughout his childhood and adolescence. And when he retired after the presidency and moved back to Stonewall, he and his wife Lady Bird regularly attended services at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg.
Like many other Texas Hill Country cities of German heritage that had experienced a certain amount of backlash during World Wars I and II, simply because of their German ancestry, Fredericksburg had remained somewhat isolated from the commercialization of its culture for the first half of the 20th century. In one visit LBJ changed all that. For when he, Admiral Nimitz, and First Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer paid a visit to this city of less than 4,800, between 7,000 and 10,000 people turned out to see and hear them. From that point forward, Fredericksburg prospered from tourism, changing it, seemingly overnight, from its status as an insular society to one catering to tourists.
FROM INSULAR TO RELEVANT
The boon from tourism helped propel Fredericksburg’s growth as a weekend retreat for big city dwellers from Austin and San Antonio, also making it a desirable destination for retirees looking for a simpler way of life. Thus, the real estate business there got a boost as prices rose as a result of the old law of supply and demand. Moreover, as the descendants of the original German colonists disburse, the city is gradually blending with the customs of newcomers and being supplanted by tourist-oriented perceptions of German heritage and the Texas cowboy culture.
Tiny Luckenbach, Texas (population: 3), only ten miles from Fredericksburg, came into its own as part of this Texas cowboy culture as a result of Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1973 landmark album, Viva Terlingua, being recorded in the Luckenbach Dancehall. This was followed in 1977 by Willie and Waylon’s (are last names really necessary?) hit song, “Luckenbach, Texas,” and naïve, uninformed visitors had to find lodgings in nearby Fredericksburg as a result of their pilgrimage to Luckenbach. Fredericksburg was in the right place at the right time to feed and bed down the weary, dusty pilgrims.
Based on projections of the latest US Census estimates, the current population of Fredericksburg is 11,690. According to World Population Review, the city has a population density of 1,351 people per square mile; an average household income of $79,595; a poverty rate of 12.62%; median rental cost of $943 per month; median house value of $273,500; rate of home ownership is 59.7%; median age of 46.1; overall marriage rate of 54.9%; and 85.6 males for every 100 females. Those holding a Bachelor’s degree are 1,957, or 23.9%; those with a Graduate degree are 888, 10.85%.
According to the most recent ACS (American Community Survey) the racial composition of Fredericksburg was:
PRESERVATION OF HISTORIC BUILDINGS
Perhaps no city in Texas has done such a marvelous job of restoring and preserving the homes and public and commercial structures that represent its heritage. And this is due in a large measure to the efforts of the Gillespie County Historical Society, which was formed in 1934. Its first major accomplishment was the reconstruction, in the centrally located Marktplatz (or Town Square), of the Vereins Kirche, which had been demolished in 1896. It was rebuilt in 1936 in the original Carolingian architectural style, utilizing the cornerstone from the original structure.
This replica became the first home of the Pioneer Museum, which today encompasses three acres and eleven buildings, nine of which are actual historic structures. The first of these, acquired by the Historical Society in 1955, was the Kammlah House and Store, which included a smokehouse and barn. Occupied by these founding Kammlah settlers for generations, from 1847 until 1955, the purchase of the entire homestead was the initial step in creating what is now the Pioneer Museum complex.
To attempt to list the dozens of historic structures of Fredericksburg, their histories, dates of construction, original owners, classification as residential, commercial, public, or religious, would be impossible within the narrow scope of this article. The true architectural history buff of this era and region is therefore directed to the book, A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County, by Kenneth Hafertepe. Another superb reference for descriptions of these structures can be found on the website Wikipedia under the heading, “Architecture of Fredericksburg, Texas,” which was the source of much of the information on this topic for this article.
Not wishing to leave the reader of this piece totally bereft of information on this all-important subject, I shall give a brief overview of some of those structures I found most interesting, among them what were labeled “Sunday Houses.” These were homes that the early settlers erected on their in-town lots for overnight use when they left their farms to come to town for church attendance or to purchase supplies. Once the younger generations took on responsibilities for working the farms, their parents would often simply retire to the Sunday House permanently. Typically constructed of limestone coated with whitewash, these small (usually) two-story houses were of simple design, with sleeping quarters upstairs normally reached by means of an outside staircase. Many of these mid-19th century dwellings have been restored and are now utilized as 21st century Bed and Breakfast inns.
The Bank of Fredericksburg, located in the 100 block of Main Street in the downtown historic district, was constructed circa 1889 in the architectural style known as Richardsonian Romanesque. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Texas and now houses a real estate company.
The Pioneer Memorial Library (formerly the 1882 Gillespie County Courthouse) was designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1967, and four years later was added to the National Register of Historic Places in Texas, one of the few such structures to have both honors bestowed upon it.
There were 694 veterans living in Fredericksburg, of which 633 were male and 61 were female. The breakdown by war that they served in is as follows:
Vietnam 275 Korea 97 First Gulf War 66 Second Gulf War 63 World War II 59
The Schandua Building, at 205 E. Main Street, was built in 1897 of hand-hewn limestone. The Schandua family resided on the second floor and used the street level for their hardware store, which was in operation until 1972. The Masonic Lodge used to hold their meetings on the second floor. In 1979 the building was designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark.
Constructed in 1888 of native limestone, the White Elephant Saloon is famous for its elephant relief parapet and rich iron cresting. It was originally part of a chain of gentleman’s resorts, then operated as a saloon until 1920, when the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution (Prohibition) went into effect. Now known as Talk of the Town, it is a jewelry store and art gallery in its 21st century reincarnation.
Holy Ghost Lutheran Church, formerly known as Evangelical Protestant Church of the Holy Ghost (Heilige Geist), separated from the Vereins Kirche in 1886, laid the cornerstone for the new church in 1888, and finished construction in 1893. It was designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1981.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church began in a log cabin in 1848. The first permanent location, still in use, was known as Marienkirche and was completed in 1863, constructed of native limestone. The honor of ringing its tower bell at its dedication was given to a Native American. The new St. Mary’s, built in 1908 beside the old one, also of native limestone and also having a tower, was of Gothic architectural style. In 1919 Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel was constructed to serve the Spanish- speaking residents of the area. The famous twin towers of the two church buildings “have long been beacons of faith, hope, and love in Fredericksburg and throughout the Texas Hill Country.” St. Mary’s was added to the National Register of Historic Places in Texas in 1983.
NATURAL PHENOMENA AND LBJ’S LEGACY OF AREA PARKS
Enchanted Rock, in the State Natural Area of the same name, is located 17 miles north of Fredericksburg and is the largest pink granite monadnock in the United States. Rising 1,825 feet above sea level, it is a popular hiking and rock-climbing area. In 1936 it was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark and was named a National Natural Landmark in 1971 by the National Park Service.
Cross Mountain, at an elevation of 1,915 feet, is a tad higher than Enchanted Rock and is less than two miles from Fredericksburg. It was discovered by Anglos in 1847 and was thought to have been used by Native Americans to alert one another about intrusions into their territory. As part of Dr. John C. Durst’s 10-acre allotment, he happened upon a timber cross on the mountain, which indicated to him that Spanish Catholic missionaries had once used the site. Durst christened the place “Kreuzberg,” or Cross Mountain. In 1946 St. Mary’s Catholic Church erected a permanent concrete and metal cross. The site was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 1976.
The Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is less than 20 miles from Fredericksburg. According to Wikipedia, “The park protects the birthplace, home, ranch, and final resting place of Lyndon B. Johnson.” It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is designated as both a U.S. National
Historic Landmark and a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. During LBJ’s time in office as President it was known as the “Texas White House” because he spent an inordinate amount of time there. In 1965 the state of Texas created the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site along the Pedernales River, in Stonewall, about 17 miles from Fredericksburg, on donated land, to honor the man as a “national and world leader.” It is little more than one square mile in area.
AREA WINERIES, WATERING HOLES, RESTAURANTS, AND HOTELS
One could very easily make the case for the primary industry in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area these days being that of the manufacture of wine, for there are no less than fifteen vintners doing a thriving business in this fertile area known as the “Tuscany of Texas.” Several are located in downtown Fredericksburg proper, but the majority are to be found along scenic Highway 290 in Gillespie County and the adjacent Blanco County to its east. Tours of these wineries are to be had for the mere asking.
In a similar vein, there is what’s known as Pedal Tour Texas, presumably designed for those who prefer to pedal about town on what’s known as a bike bar. Also known as “Das Bier Wagon” Pub and Bar Crawl Tour, this 16-seat, pedal-powered bar not only takes its peddler-riders to a half-dozen saloons, pubs, and beer gardens in downtown Fredericksburg on a two-hour-long excursion, but it has its own bartender aboard to facilitate imbibing while en route from one bar to the next. Among the watering holes typically visited are: Hondo’s; Crossroads Saloon; Fredericksburg Brewing Company; Silver Creek Beer Garden; and Auslander (“foreigner”) Restaurant.
Trip Advisor lists 30 restaurants in Fredericksburg that cater to every conceivable taste bud and budget. Whether your preference runs to German, Italian, Mexican, New Orleans, Caribbean, burgers or sausages (remember, both introduced by German immigrants to America!), steaks, seafood, barbeque, or some variation thereof, Fredericksburg can accommodate you. A few venues even feature music to liven things up a bit. There is something for everyone in “Fritztown.”
Nor is there a shortage of hotels, inns, and that good old standby, the bed and breakfast, to give rest to weary bones that have prowled the streets shopping in the many independently owned specialty stores that abound in the downtown area. That same quality of rest is available to those whose interest lies in touring the countless historical homes, churches, museums, and commercial and public buildings, for this city is a mecca to the architectural history buff. Of the 30 or so hotels in the area, national chains such as Marriott, Hampton, La Quinta, and Best Western are all represented. But if you are a more adventuresome sort, some of the local hostelries, such as the Vineyard Trail Cottages, Hoffman Haus, Blacksmith Quarters on Barons Creek, and Contigo Ranch, are highly rated.
In any tour of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is a place one does not want to miss. Indeed, especially for architectural and military history buffs and wine aficionados, it should be “Nummer Eins” or, as we say down in South Texas, “numero uno,” on your list of cities to visit. As Wayne Newton would say, “Danke Schoen.”