GERMANS HELPED BUILD CITY’S CULTURE
Immigrants in the 1800s had strong influence
Their names will sound familiar — Menger, Guenther, Joske and Steves. They were among the German immigrants who arrived in San Antonio in the 1800s, many after first landing in various spots in the Texas Hill Country.
Among them were merchants, tradesmen and industrialists, people who would establish brands (Pearl beer, Pioneer flour, Gebhardt canned food) known to generations. They were farmers, artisans and intellectuals who sought opportunities impossible in Germany. And they arrived in waves of organized colonization and immigration efforts.
Historian Nancy Draves offers her own ancestral roots as an example: two lines of unrelated Mengers who came separately. She’s a descendant of Johann Nicholaus Simon Menger, who owned a soap and candle factory and founded several German music organizations. She’s also a descendant of William Menger of the Menger Hotel, a brewer who had a variety of other business interests.
“Looking at my own family,” she said, “they certainly helped to enhance the city. The German population that moved here or that immigrated here starting in late 1830s and ’40s were young. They had young families and such a desire to work.”
As were most U.S. residents in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they came from farming stock; and in San Antonio, they toiled.
The King William Historic District started as an area where Native Americans from Mission San Antonio de Valero were awarded land, then it became a German neighborhood. King William Street, for example, was “Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse” until World War I.
Germans of means built houses there and in other areas of the city and established social organizations and businesses.
The cultural contributions came early. The Beethoven Maennerchor was established in 1867. The German-English School was founded in 1858 by the Casino Club, a social group that put on theatrical and musical performances.
The city’s first flour mill, which evolved into the Pioneer Flour Mill, was opened in the late 1850s by C.H. Guenther. During that same period, Dr. Ferdinand Herff became San Antonio’s leading surgeon, credited with performing the state’s first cataract surgery and its first successful appendectomy.
Julius Joske established a store in San Antonio in 1867 that would later become a grand department store known as “the largest store in the largest state.”
The Handbook of Texas says Edward Steves began his lumber business in San Antonio in 1866, his lumberyard serving “a trade area that extended to northern Mexico.”
Like other leading German citizens, Steves was a member of a Turnverein, a club that promoted physical fitness. There were several of them — the Bonham Exchange building downtown once housed a Turnverein, containing a bowling alley and ballroom.
Historical texts note that as late as 1880, the population of San Antonio was about a third German.
When rail made it to San Antonio, bringing lumber and brick, German influence began to be seen in the city’s architectural style and decorative arts, historian Maria Watson Pfeiffer said. It changed “the building dynamic in San Antonio,” she said.
German jewelers, gunsmiths, millers and musicians made contributions to San Antonio that can be seen today, she added.
If there was a single characteristic that made German immigrants influential in Texas, it was their adaptability, said Tori Beckman-Wilson, a history instructor at Palo Alto College. “They fit into the landscape and made themselves a part of it.”
Maryann Cruz and Richard Sierra perform traditional German folk dancing at Beethoven Maennerchor in San Antonio in this 2017 photo.
The Menger Hotel — this is circa 1860 — was founded by German immigrant William Menger.