Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kerrville's oldest man-made structure is falling apart

Stone wall, part of the mill race, on the site of the original
Christian Dietert mill in downtown Kerrville.
Click on any image to enlarge
J. E. Grinstead, posing
on the wall pictured above
around 1900
The oldest man-made structure in Kerrville is slowly falling apart.
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.
The oldest man-made structure in Kerrville, 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.
Clearing the channel,
the hard way
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 view of the other
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.
Sanborn Fire Map showing
the mill and two channels
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.
Another view
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.
The Kerrville Roller Mills
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!)
The ruins today
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.
The ruins today
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 Kerrville Daily Times September 23, 2017.

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