Thursday, August 1, 2013

Charles Schreiner's Earliest Days in Business

Charles Schreiner
On Christmas Eve, 1869, in a small 16 foot by 18 foot frame building in what is now downtown Kerrville, a great chapter of the history of Kerrville and the Texas Hill Country began.
Kerrville itself was not much to look at then, in those early years after the Civil War.  There were only a few houses, mostly shacks.  Kerr County, which was organized in 1856, thirteen years before our tale begins, was still served by a log courthouse facing Jefferson Street. The "Public Square," today's courthouse square was then occupied by a log shack, its walls held up by poles so it wouldn't tumble down.  The shack was the home of a man whose occupation was listed as "bear hunter," and no public buildings stood there.
A year later, in 1857, Kerrville was described by Rosalie Hess Dietert as "a village of 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."  The Dieterts built the town's sixth house, which "had three rooms and was built of cypress timbers cut on the saw mill" Rosalie's husband Christian Dietert set up, near today's One Schreiner Center.  That three-room house was the nicest house in the community.
In the decade since then, Kerrville had not grown much.  There were several reasons, including the Civil War, which took most able-bodied men from the county, leaving the community vulnerable to raids by local bands of Native Americans.  Another reason: there was simply no money in the country.  Life here was hard and prospects did not seem good.  There were not families lining up to move to our part of the world.  In fact, there were few that had even heard about Kerr County.
None of the old rock buildings we'd recognize in the downtown area had yet been built by 1869: not the Favorite Saloon, on Water Street; not the Guthrie, Masonic, or Weston buildings on Earl Garrett; and certainly not the fine rock home of Captain Charles Schreiner on Earl Garrett street, nor any of the large rock buildings we call the Schreiner Building today.
If we could be transported back in time, and stand at the intersection of today's Water and Earl Garrett streets, there are likely none among us who would know where we were.  Aside from the hills and the laughing Guadalupe River below the bluff at the end of Earl Garrett Street, there would be nothing recognizable in any direction, and even the hills and river would look different than they do today.
But the feeling of unfamiliarity would begin to change on Christmas Eve 1869.
Where Charles Schreiner's home now stands was that little 16 foot by 18 foot frame building, made of white-washed cypress planks, and bordered with a picket fence.  It faced a mud street, then called "Mountain Street," and it served a tiny, rugged community as a general store.
J. Evetts Haley, in his book "Charles Schreiner, General Merchandise," published in 1969 by the Charles Schreiner Company, describes the little building as having double front doors, two front windows, another door, and a stovepipe "which elled out the side of the building."  In back there was a lean-to shed, used as a "storehouse and as sleeping quarters for the clerks.  But at first there were no clerks."
At the back of the shed was a cellar, used to store "barrels of coal oil, beer, whiskey and molasses."
There was a long counter running the length of the building which "described an L at the back to cut off a small space that served as an office, and to shelter, at its base, barrels of sugar, coffee, rice, lard, and dried fruit."
Haley continues: "On the back wall was a stock of groceries, while the long counter to the side cut off the dry goods that lay in assorted bolts of calico, jeans and hickory on rough shelves along the wall.  On the opposite side, harness and saddles hung on hooks at the front, and wooden ware -- buckets, kegs, and tubs -- hung on the wall behind the stove."
The merchant of this store also stocked "an assortment of patent medicines -- Jane's Tonic, Pain-Killer, Ayer's Pills, Hostetter's Bitters, Vermifuge and other concoctions."  Most customers usually got well in spite of these remedies.
Whiskey was a big seller, and was stocked in three or four grades, some selling for as low as fifty and seventy-five cents a quart; others as high as a dollar.  I'm not completely sure all "grades" of whiskey were not drawn from the same barrel.
This little store, in that tiny cypress building, was known as Faltin & Schreiner, and it opened on Christmas Eve, 1869.
Charles Schreiner, as we remember him, was a man of wealth and influence, with a keen business mind and a generous spirit for his community.
But he was not wealthy or influential in 1869.
He came to Kerr County in 1857, when he was 19, and built a cabin on Turtle Creek, ranching there with his brother-in-law Caspar Real.  He applied for citizenship here in 1860.  For a short while he and Real supplied Camp Verde with goods.
Schreiner Company in the 1950s
Then the Civil War began, which divided the citizens of Kerr County like no other event since.  Charles Schreiner enlisted and served as a private in the Confederate Army.  (One of his brothers, a Unionist, died at the Battle of the Nueces, and his bones are interred in Comfort beneath the Treue der Union monument.)
When the war finally ended and Schreiner marched home, he returned to Turtle Creek, south of Kerrville, but his eye was on the little village forming here, and he determined to play a part in its growth.
For instance, he was elected District Clerk in 1865, some 4 years before opening his Kerrville store, showing he was already held in high esteem in our community before his commercial success. In fact, in 1868, a year before he opened his store here, he was elected treasurer of Kerr County, a post he held for thirty consecutive years.
(It was during this time, as District Clerk, Schreiner began dropping the "s" from Kerrsville. His editing stuck, thankfully.)
And so, on Christmas Eve, 1869, Charles Schreiner, a young 31-year-old veteran, with little experience as a merchant, opened his general store on a muddy street in a town so small none of us would recognize it.
He had obtained the backing of an "old-world" merchant from Comfort, August Faltin, who supplied the capital for the enterprise, and, I'm sure, plenty of advice on how to get started.
That first day of business did not portend a successful enterprise; only two sales were recorded, and both on credit, totaling $3.50.
George Hollimon Sr. bought 7 1/2 pounds of coffee for $2; John D. Wharton, 2 quarts of whiskey, for $1.50.
The only other entry that day: Charles Schreiner withdrew $1 cash.  On what he spent that dollar, no one knows.  He didn't withdraw any more cash from the drawer for more than two months, taking $2.65 for a trip to Fredericksburg.  Given his later success, I wonder if he didn't put those funds to work in some way.
By the end of his first week in business, he had forty-one customers; many of those early customers were from families that traded at the store for generations.
His growing family continued to live out on the ranch at Turtle Creek for about a year after he opened the store.  On Christmas, 1871, two years after the store opened, Charles Schreiner bought presents for his family at his own store, buying two fifty-cent hats, a french harp, a belt, 11 yards of "Swiss," a clock, and two prize boxes; in total he spent $9.47, almost half of which went for the clock.
Here's why Christmas Eve 1869 was such an important date in our community's history: at that little plain store a great enterprise began, which would grow to include not only the store, but also banking, ranching, land holdings, and supplying the world with wool and mohair.  The success of the little store provided the capital which brought the railroad to Kerrville in 1887.  The railroad brought new citizens, visitors, and trade to Kerrville; most of the old stone buildings in downtown Kerrville were built after the railroad arrived -- and were needed only because the railroad arrived.
The town became the market center for all of the surrounding communities -- a place where people came to buy, and where farmers and ranchers came to sell their products.  Christmas Eve 1869 led to the railroad's arrival in October 1887; the railroad led to the community's growth and prosperity.
And the growth of the community benefited Captain Charles Schreiner in many ways.  As his wealth and power grew, he didn't forget Kerrville, and his generous contributions to his community are well known, from a road fund still in use by Kerr County today, to the university which bears his name.
But it all began in a little 16 by 18 foot cypress plank store on Christmas Eve, 1869.  That first sale, of 7 1/2 pounds of coffee, began a series of transactions which fundamentally changed Kerrville and the rest of the Texas Hill Country.
And all this from a young immigrant, recently granted citizenship, who had little business experience.  It's not a bad Christmas story, and it really turned out good for our community.
This article originally appeared in the Comanche Trace Lifestyle Magazine in December, 2012.
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