Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Truth about Captain Charles Schreiner

Capt. Charles Schreiner
I had a nice surprise this recently.
Aaron Riley brought by a copy of his master’s thesis, “Captain Charles Schreiner: More than General Merchandise,” completed in 2007.
Frankly, I receive a lot of books from people. Most of them are outside my area of interest – I'm interested in the history of our community – but a few are right on the mark.
This thesis about Captain Schreiner was exceptionally interesting and I read the entire book the day I received it.
Although Schreiner’s name is familiar to most people in our community, largely because of the university which bears his name, few really know his story. And with the recent closing of the department store (which he founded on Christmas Eve, 1869) along with last decade’s departure of the Charles Schreiner Bank, the very public businesses that carried his name are now gone.
I believe the central argument Mr. Riley’s thesis was Captain Schreiner’s wealth and influence had less to do with the Charles Schreiner Company than is generally believed.
Charles Schreiner Company around 1890
at the corner of Water and Mountain Streets
(Mountain Street is now called Earl Garrett)
Sure, the store was the foundation of the business empire Captain Schreiner built. It was the tree which sheltered the growth of the Captain’s other enterprises. But many of those other enterprises dwarfed the economic return of the store. The store was strong, but some other businesses owned by Schreiner were actually much stronger.
What were some of these other enterprises?
The first involved cattle. Schreiner and partners drove cattle north to markets in Kansas, a fact that is probably well known in our area. What might surprise you is this: they probably made more money providing a service to other ranchers: a partnership of which Schreiner was a member contracted with other ranches to drive their cattle north. This was an extremely lucrative business for the partnership, and, for the most part, avoided most of the risks carried by the ranchers. The cattle received were already raised, healthy, and fattened up for market; Schreiner and his partners received a healthy fee for getting the cattle from point A to point B. Thus the ranchers had already run the risks associated with raising the cattle, and had paid the expenses for the raising of the cattle. There were risks, of course, in driving the cattle north, but those risks existed whether the cattle were driven by Schreiner and his partners or by the ranchers themselves.
Schreiner himself did not go on the trail drives, but stayed in the Kerrville area and ran the business end of things from here.
And then there were sheep and goats, livestock that was an anathema to most cattle ranchers, but which Schreiner championed in several important ways.
First, through his bank, he influenced ranchers to diversify into sheep and goats. Basically some of the loans to ranchers for livestock stipulated that some of the capital was to be spent on sheep and goats. I’m sure this was not always well received, but there was cleverness in Schreiner’s policy. Sheep provided an opportunity for profit twice a year, when the wool was clipped, plus the additional opportunity for sale as meat; goats offered similar advantages to cattle.
These fiber products also helped Schreiner build a market for what was possibly his most clever enterprise: wool and mohair warehousing. While he cannot be credited with creating this concept, one could certainly argue he perfected it. In fact, there was a time when Kerrville – little Kerrville, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, far from any large cities – was credited with more mohair commission sales than any other market in the world. Schreiner had, in other words, not only created a market for these fibers, but had cornered that market.
Let’s just say his efforts were profitable.
Of course the other thing people talk about is the amount of land Schreiner owned, which, at its height, was over a half-million acres. What they fail to realize is this land was not held merely for the value of the real estate: it was held to create wealth through his other enterprises. The land was productive and rarely acquired for mere speculation.
Charles Schreiner was quite remarkable, actually, and it saddens me how the memory of this very enterprising man, like the memory of the mighty Ozymandias, has become diluted over time to something almost vapor-like. Soon little will be left of his efforts here, and that’s a shame.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who welcomes items about the history of Kerr County at the print shop on Water Street.  You can get email updates once a day when new articles are posted by clicking here. Thanks for your interest, Joe

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather, Frederick Francis Nyc, came to Kerrville and got a job at the bank. He spoke 7 languages, and had been a diplomat before he became an American citizen. Mom is still alive, and will be 103 in December.
    Mary Weaver Mann


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