New Kerr County History Book Available!

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Kerr History 101: By wagon, cart, on horseback, or by foot

Freight wagons crossing a stream.
Click on any images to enlarge.

In the earliest days of our community, all freight came here by wagon, pulled by oxen, mules, donkeys, or horses. From the photographs in my collection, I can see there were many different types of wagons hauling freight. Some were attached together in trains, with two wagons or even three joined together. 

Every bolt of cloth, every piece of glass, every sheet of paper was carried here over dusty roads, either by hand, or in a saddlebag, or on a wagon pulled by animals -- until 1887, when the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway brought the railroad to Kerrville.

Consider the problem of filling merchants' shelves if your only way to transport goods to a store involved a wagon and mules or oxen. The trip would have been terribly hot in the summer, and frighteningly cold in the winter. And there were dangers along the way, from natural hazards to roving bands of armed men intent on diverting goods to their own use.

“It was a real accomplishment for a freighter to haul a load of several thousand pounds on two or three wagons trailing one behind the other for a distance of a hundred miles or more,” writes Bob Bennett in his excellent history of our county. “During rainy seasons it was a real problem to keep Junction, Rocksprings and other towns supplied with the necessities of life. These inland communities often ran short of flour and other staple food items because the freight caravan was marooned somewhere on a muddy road en route from Kerrville.”

Freight wagons at the Earl Garrett/ 
Water Street intersection.
Kerrville, because it was connected to markets by a railroad in 1887, became the supplier of most of the outlying towns nearby, a role it continues to play even now that the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad is long gone. When the interstate highway came through town in the 1970s it helped our community retain this niche.

Before the railroad came to Kerrville, freighters hauled goods to Kerrville from San Antonio and even from “old Indianola” on the Texas coast.

Again, from Bennett: “In the early days the wagons were pulled by ox teams, often several yokes to the wagon. Later mules and horses supplanted the plodding oxen. Teams of horses and mules ranged from two to twelve. That was before the day of highways and it required expert teamsters to handle a team over the rough and steep hill roads.

“L. F. Pope was a colorful teamster of the pre-railroad era. He started in the days of freighting from San Antonio and continued westward when the railway terminus reached Kerrville. Old timers said Pope could hitch a team of several horses by the time others less versed in the vocation could hitch two horses. 

“Bells were often used on the lead horses in the teams and the wheel horse – the one that knew his business – helped to hold back the heavy load on steep downgrades. The team, or the gentle animals in the team, were hobbled out to graze on the countryside at night.”

Many familiar names were involved in the early days of freighting goods to our community.

“J. D. Leavell began freighting in the 1870s for August Faltin from San Antonio to Comfort, and on to Kerrville for Capt. Charles Schreiner. When the rail line reached Kerrville, he switched his operations westward.

Wool wagons in the 700 block of
Water Street
“Robert C. Saner began freighting with ox teams, going sometimes to old Indianola on the coast. He continued freighting with ox teams in the later years of his business, frequently making the long haul to San Angelo.

“Other early freighters were Wade Richardson, Lee Williamson, Wiley Wyatt, Bill and Alfred Stone, Jim, Walter, and Sanford Dickey, Tom Hearn, Matt Tomberlin, Creed Taylor, Jr., Landy and Bill Howell, Louis Leinweber, John Kountz, John F. Nichols, Theo Hyde, Mark Caddell, Simon Ayala, Jim and George Holloman, John Billings, John Crane, and E. J. Rose.

“The old-time freighter braved all kinds of weather and other obstacles, but he overcame them all. He was a picturesque character who served his day and generation well.”

I cannot even imagine the hardships they endured, but it was through their efforts Kerrville and towns west were able to grow and thrive.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who started a new gig at city hall this week. This column originally appeared in the Kerr County Lead May 16, 2024.

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Sunday, May 12, 2024

Kerr History 101: How Kerrville really got its name

Our part of Texas before Kerr County was created.
Click on any image to enlarge.

There is a persistent story about how Kerrville got its name – but is it true?

"Joshua Brown, the founder of Kerrville, convinced the very first Kerr County commissioners court to make the county seat; Brown wanted the town to be called ‘Kerrsville’ after his friend Major James Kerr.” 

James Kerr
Parts of that are accurate: Joshua Brown did convince the very first Kerr County commissioners, at their very first meeting, to place the county seat on 640 acres of land he'd only recently purchased from the heirs of Benjamin F. Cage, for $2 per acre.

Yet the other part, about how Brown wanted the town to be named for his friend – that part might be lore.

Joshua Brown arrived here in the late 1840s, leading a group of ten men to build a shingle makers' camp beside the Guadalupe. Their plan was to cut down cypress trees, slice the trunks into disk-shaped slabs, then carefully spit those disks into rough shingles which could be further shaped by hand. The finished shingles were then hauled to market, most likely in San Antonio. It was hard work for little pay.

Neither Brown or those with him owned the land where they camped. The ground beneath them had been awarded by the State of Texas to Benjamin F. Cage. The grant read “the grant is made in consideration of Benjamin F. Cage having fought in the Battle of San Jacinto the 21st of April 1836.”

Joshua Brown bought the land which became Kerrville in 1856 from the stepsons of Cage's mother -- Cage was thought to be dead at the time of the sale, though there is some evidence he was quite alive and well and living near Blanco. And Brown bought the land at about the exact same time Kerr County was being organized. 

So – how did Kerrville get its name? Turns out there is a paper trail.

Potter, Joshua and
Sarah Brown
The creation of Kerr County in early 1856 by the Sixth Texas Legislature presented an opportunity for Joshua Brown. If he could have the county seat located on land he owned, it would allow him to sell parcels and lots to new townsfolk.

Here's how it happened:

On November 12, 1855, "Sundry citizens from the 70th district of Bexar County" petitioned the state to create a new county.

"We, the undersigned citizens residing on the Guadalupe River and its tributaries in the counties of Comal, Bexar, Gillespie, laboring under great embarrassment, owing to the remoteness from their respective county seats, and having a sufficient population to justify it, we respectfully petition for the formation of a new county so that the Guadalupe River may be central in passing through it, to include such limits and territory as your honorable body's wisdom may seem proper and reasonable."

Below were affixed over 85 names, including Joshua Brown's. I recognize quite a few of the names, like J. M. Starkey, who was an early millwright, or Fritz Tegener, who was a leader of the Unionists during the Civil War, and who barely escaped the Battle of the Nueces. There are some Burneys, some Ridleys, a Stieler, and even the first head of Kerr County government, ‘Chief Justice’ Jonathan Scott. Descendants of many of the original petitioners still live in our county.

Nowhere in the petition does it request the county be named for James Kerr.

As the bill progressed through the legislature, a provision was made that the county seat be selected by the inhabitants. The final bill called for the county to be named for James Kerr, "the first settler on the Guadalupe." James Kerr had settled on the Guadalupe near the Gulf of Mexico in the 1820s.

However, the bill also specified the county seat "shall be called ‘Kerrsville’ unless the site selected shall already have a name."

Kerr County, around 1869
The actual site of the county seat was not selected by the original county commissioners court; it was selected by a vote of the people, who chose the center of county surveys Nos. 116, 117, 118, and 119 by a whopping 26 votes. The commissioners accepted Joshua Brown's offer of a donated four-acre county square, a parcel for a school, a parcel for a church, and a parcel suitable for a public jail. Brown, at the time the commissioners accepted the site, had owned the land for only four days.

Likewise, the county commissioners did not choose the name, despite Joshua Brown's friendship with James Kerr; the Texas legislature named the community. Whether Joshua Brown had influence over the naming of the county or county seat I cannot determine, though it is possible, during the legislative process, Joshua Brown made the request to his state representative.

Some sources say Joshua Brown and James Kerr were related, through the marriage of one of Brown’s aunts. Other sources suggest Brown and Kerr knew each other from their time living in Gonzales, Texas. Both sources seem plausible.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is thankful for the recent rains. This column originally appeared in the Kerr County Lead May 9, 2024.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is free, but not cheap to send. To show your support, forward it to someone who’d like it, or buy one of my books.  Thanks so much. (And thanks to all of you who bought books this week!)

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Sunday, May 5, 2024

Kerr County History 101: what's the oldest settler-made structure in Kerrville?

Searching for the oldest settler-made structure in Kerrville.
Click on any image to enlarge.

Consider the old buildings in downtown Kerrville. Since Kerr County was created in 1856, what is the oldest man-made structure in downtown Kerrville?

The answer might surprise you.

It rests at the bottom of a bluff littered with debris from other, newer structures, and is hidden within a wild tangle of branches, vines, and weeds. Trash is piled in drifts at the site: food wrappers, clothes, broken glass; it's filthy.

Christian Dietert
The oldest man-made structure in Kerrville, since 1856, in my opinion, is what's left of the Christian Dietert mill, found on the bluff along the river below the 800 block of Water Street.

Most who pass by would not recognize it. It looks like a pile of stones, though parts still look very similar to their appearance at least a century ago.

To see the old mill, you have two options. You can visit One Schreiner Center, and walk out on the remains of the old ice plant and look down. Or, if you have extra energy, you can go to the pavilion at the end of Earl Garrett Street, and take the stairs down. The ruins of the old mill are just past the foot bridge that crosses the Guadalupe River below the dam in Louise Hays Park.

The remaining mill structure is older than the oldest commercial building in town, the Favorite Saloon building, at 709 Water Street. That building was built in 1874, three years before the railroad arrived in Kerrville, meaning every bit of material used in its construction was either sourced locally, or hauled here in a wagon.

The original mill on the site was built by Christian Dietert with help from Balthasar Lich around 1857. Of course that original structure was altered and improved over the years, and destroyed more than once by flood waters, and it's possible there is not an original stone left on the site from the original construction. It's my belief at least some of the old original mill remains, even if it's only the cuts in the limestone where water discharged from the water wheel.

I found a nice story about the Dieterts in an old issue of Hunter's "Frontier Times Magazine" written by T. U. Taylor in 1941.

Christian Dietert was a millwright born in Tesen, Germany, in 1827. In 1854 he voyaged to Texas with his brother William on a 4-masted sailing vessel; the trip took five months, and the pair arrived in New Braunfels in July.

The very next month Christian joined a company of 13 men who journeyed to the confluence of the Guadalupe River and Cypress Creek to survey a tract of land and help lay out the town of Comfort.

In 1855 Christian Dietert built a mill on Cypress Creek, but only two months after completion, the little mill had to be abandoned: Cypress Creek ran dry, and the mill was discarded for lack of water power.

That same year he married Miss Rosalie Hess, who had only recently arrived from Jena, Germany. She was nineteen years old, five foot two, and weighed an even 100 pounds. She was tiny.

In 1856 Christian Dietert's parents, two brothers, and a sister joined him in Comfort. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christian Dietert and his new wife moved to Fredericksburg early the next year. Perhaps there was just "too much family" in the little town of Comfort.

While in Fredericksburg, Dietert helped construct the Van der Stucken mill, and toward the end of the year, Christian Dietert and his bride moved to Kerrville.

It was 1857, and the town of "Kerrsville" was still a rough frontier place. The article suggests there were only five one-roomed huts in the entire village.

The Dieterts bought a tract along the river in Kerville -- a tract which stretched from today's Earl Garrett Street to A Street. (What a nice little stretch of the river!)

There he built a shingle mill, using horse power until he could construct a water wheel, "with which he later sawed lumber from the Cypress trees growing along the banks of the river." The mill stood about where One Schreiner Center is today.

A flood a year or so later washed the first Kerrville mill away. Lacking funds to build anew, the couple moved back to Fredericksburg, where Dietert helped build a grist and saw mill on Live Oak Creek for a Mr. C. H. Guenther.

After only a few months of operation a flood washed away the mill and even the waterwheel.

So back to Kerrville the Dieterts came, building a new mill on the site of the old. No flood destroyed this new Dietert mill, though. It burned down instead.

Offered work building a mill in Comfort, and seeking a school for his children, the Dieterts moved again. During this same time he built a mill for his brother William, who lived in Boerne.

Finally, in 1866, the Dieterts moved back to Kerrville, this time to stay. Although another mill he built washed away in a flood, in 1868 he came up with an "under water iron turbine," and a "old type of flour mill consisting of two large stones, the lower a flat stational stone with a somewhat conical shaped stone above it, which in revolving crushed and ground the grain into flour."

The mill was successful and ground wheat, corn, and also operated a sawmill.

Though Dietert would build more mills, and even freighted for the Confederate government during the Civil War, Kerrville remained his home, even after he sold his mill to Captain Charles Schreiner.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has clambered over the ruins of Christian Dietert's mill since he was a boy. It was easier back then. This column originally appeared in the Kerr County Lead May 2, 2024.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is free, but not cheap to send. To show your support, forward it to someone who’d like it, or buy one of my books.  Thanks so much. (And thanks to all of you who bought books this week!)

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Sunday, April 28, 2024

Kerr History 101: German Immigrants in Early Kerr County

Rosalie Hess Dietert, and a sampler she made.
Click on any image to enlarge.

Almost all of us here descend from immigrants; even with Native American ancestors, if you go back in time far enough, the theory suggests they immigrated to the New World, too.

Years ago, a kind person shared several large boxes of historic items with me – and among the heirlooms was a simple piece of cloth, embroidered with letters, numbers, and two first names. It is an embroidery sampler, made by a young woman in Germany who would come to Texas in the 1850s. Her name was Rosalie Hess, and she was born in Jena, Germany, on January 17, 1833, and immigrated to Texas in 1854. She married Christian Dietert in 1855. 

One of the earliest families to settle in Kerrville was the Dietert family, and it was one of their descendants who shared the items with me, for placement in the museum. 

When Rosalie and Christian Dietert arrived in Kerrville in 1857, there were only five one-room huts in the entire town. The Dieterts built a home on Spring Street, which is near the intersection of today's Washington and Water Streets, opposite the front doors to the sanctuary of Notre Dame Catholic Church, overlooking the river. Dietert was a millwright, and he built a mill on his property along the river. Ruins of that mill still exist along the river below One Schreiner Center.

His first mill here was powered by horses, and was designed to make shingles. He later built a mill powered by the river, which he used to saw lumber. 

Here's how Rosalie Dietert described Kerrville as it was 1857, in a 1931 interview with her great-granddaughter, who was writing a report for her history class in school.

“What was in Kerrville when you came here?” the granddaughter asked. "Nothing, my child, but a cluster of five small log huts, of one or two rooms, a wilderness of trees, and grass as high as a man, with Indians skulking through." 

When this 1931 interview took place, Rosalie Dietert was 93 years old. 

"Your grandfather built the sixth house," Mrs. Dietert said. "It had three rooms and was built of cypress timbers cut on the saw mill he set up at the place where the ice plant now stands."

Cooking, too, was difficult.

Rosalie Dietert started housekeeping with a skillet and a small Dutch oven, "which was a small round iron pot with three legs and a dented-in lid to hold live coals." She also had a brass kettle holding about one gallon, for cooking utensils.

"Meat there was always plenty, venison, wild turkey, fish, occasionally bear, and later beef. In the beginning there were practically no vegetables. They made a salad of wild parsley and tea from a variety of the small prairie sage, and greens from the 'lamb's quarters' or 'land squatters.'"

However, "in about 1870 some cook stoves were brought west as far as San Antonio, one of which [Rosalie Dietert] became the proud possessor. No more out-door cooking in all sorts of weather -- a stove and a real oven to bake bread and cakes! Her recipes were gotten out, and all sorts of good things were made for holidays and birthdays. The favorites were stollen (loaf cake), pfeffer-nusse (spice cookies), and schnecken (a sweet dough rolled out flat and covered with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, currants and pecan meats. This was all rolled up, cut into slices, and baked.)"

The recipe became very popular in early Kerrville, and many early local families enjoyed making schnecken, though many early families called them a different name: "Dietert Cookies."

"Whatever made you leave your home, brave the sea and throw your lot in an unknown land?" asked her great-granddaughter.

"With me it was the spirit of adventure," Dietert replied, "All of the papers were full of the new world and of Texas. With the men it was for the most part a question of political freedom."

Her trip to Texas in the mid-1850s was not easy. "After a hard and perilous journey of eight weeks they landed at Galveston, from where they were transported to Indianola, long since destroyed by a tropical storm, in a two-masted sailboat. From there they made a journey to New Braunfels in wagon transports. This was even more tiring than the ocean voyage, as the land was for the most part covered with water from six to 12 inches in depth. It was the popular belief that the southeastern part of Texas was a swamp, but was later found to be caused by a period of much rainfall. There were no roads, or dry camping places, and danger of Indian raids was ever present. The guides and teamsters brought them safely to the settlement of New Braunfels in July, 1854, five months after leaving their homeland."

Among the things Rosalie Hess Dietert brought with her was a small cloth on which she’d embroidered letters, numbers, and two names, and embroidery ‘sampler.’ It measures 14 by 12 inches. The cloth has yellowed over time, and the threads used were coral and white, which have probably faded.

In white thread, at the top left of the cloth, is the name “Rosalie.” On the bottom right, and in coral thread, beneath a horn of leaves, is the name “Emil.” I have no idea who Emil was, but he was important enough to be included in the sampler – and kept by a young immigrant, carried with her as she crossed the sea to a new land.

Seeing this keepsake helped me imagine a young German woman who came to Texas in the “spirit of adventure.”

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who collects Kerr County and Kerrville historical items, especially photographs. If you have something to share with him, it would make him happy. This column originally appeared in the Kerr County Lead April 25, 2024.

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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Kerr County History 101: How to make cypress shingles

Making cypress shingles: using a maul and froe to split
shingles from a block of cypress.
Click on any image to enlarge.

In 1940, when he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Forrest Salter wrote a story about the shingle makers who founded Kerr County. The story was for an English class, "Life and Literature of the Southwest," taught by J. Frank Dobie.

The Salter family published the Kerrville Mountain Sun for three generations, and Forrest Salter placed an ad in his family's newspaper seeking "information on shingle making and the names of any pioneer resident of this section who has seen shingles made in the camps along the Guadalupe River. Please send name or information to The Mountain Sun office."

The resulting story is fascinating and provides details about shingle making I've never seen anywhere else.

One of the individuals Salter interviewed was A. P. "Potter" Brown, the youngest son of Joshua and Sarah Brown. Joshua Brown was the founder of Kerrville, and gave the land for the first county seat in 1856. He came to Kerr County in the late 1840s to harvest the cypress trees along the river and make shingles from them.

Potter Brown described how shingles were made:

"One of the first things the men had to have was a good shingle knife, which was hand-made of iron. The blade was about one quarter inch thick and about twelve inches long. You see, the width of the shingle depended upon the length of the shingle knife. At one end was a loop or ring in the iron, and in this was put a round handle, smoothed down so the palm of the hand would not blister. The handle was about six to nine inches long, and about an inch through, just big enough for a man to get a good 'hand holt' as he used it. The knife was held in the left hand while a wooden mallet, used to hammer the knife down on the block of wood, was wielded with the right.

"Groups of two men would use a big cross-cut saw, or sometimes a good sharp axe, to cut the cypress trees, and then when the logs had been trimmed, they would be cut into convenient sized chunks and hauled or dragged to the camp. The trees were so big that sometimes men could work a whole season on the timber in their neighborhood, and feel free, because the Indians did not come around so often when a settlement had been established.

"Some of the men had shingle horses, a contraption made of a few poles and slabs. It had a mouth where the shingle slab fitted, and when the slab had been placed in the mouth, the 'draw knife' was pulled across the length, giving the shingle the sloping sides which made it possible for them to overlap on a roof. These 'draw knives' were kept razor-sharp, and unlucky was the inquisitive visitor whose hand happened to touch one of their sharp blades. Mud, leaves, or sometimes sawdust was used to stop the blood when such a hand was badly cut.

"The camp was usually under a brush arbor, where the limbs from the Spanish oak, the sycamore, or some other brushy-topped tree was used as protection from the sun. The shingles were put in bundles and tied together with rawhide most of the time, as nails for crating were too precious for use.

"You know, son," Potter Brown concluded, "some of these old abandoned farm houses in the Turtle Creek section still have these hand-made shingles on their roofs."

Forrest Salter interviewed others, too, in addition to Potter Brown. His story includes quotes from Mollie Goss, Mrs. L. C. Watkins, Mr. and Mrs. Dan Rees, Mrs. Fritz Schmidt, and Sarah Surber. Each contributed interesting facts to Salter's story.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who thinks shingle making would be a lot of hard work. This column originally appeared in the Kerr County Lead April 18, 2024.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is free, but not cheap to send. To show your support, forward it to someone who’d like it, or buy one of my books.  Thanks so much. (And thanks to all of you who bought books this week!)

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