In March of 1845, as the immigrants prepared for their journey inland, Prince Carl went on ahead to San Antonio to buy a piece of land called Las Fontanas, along the fabled Camino Real, for a temporary settlement on the road to the Fisher-Miller grant.
The Camino Real (King’s Highway) was the first highway across Texas, blazed by the Spanish in the 1690s from Mexico through San Antonio northeast to Nacogdoches. Las Fontanas (the Fountains) was known to those who had traveled the Camino Real as a wonderful oasis, with abundant clear water and lush vegetation. It also attracted numerous Indians and wild animals. The land belonged to the daughter of Juan Martin de Veramendi, who was the father-in-law of James Bowie and governor of Texas before the Revolution (he died in 1833). Prince Carl bought the 1,265-acre tract for $1,111.00.
The immigrant wagon train forded the Guadalupe River on March 21, 1845 (Good Friday), and set up camp on the high bluff overlooking Comal Creek. They built a three-sided stockade, and fired a cannon each morning and evening to ward off Indians. Civil engineer Nicolaus Zink quickly surveyed the land, laying out streets and giving a half-acre town lot and a ten-acre farm lot to every man over seventeen.
Prince Carl returned to Germany on May 15 to marry Lady Sophia, Princess of Salm-Salm. Although he would never return to Texas, he left behind an already-flourishing town, and the cornerstone of a never-completed fort called Sophienburg, after his fiancée. He also left in his fledgling community some exceptional young men who would become heroes of New Braunfels.
Pastor Louis Cachand Ervendberg, teacher Hermann Seele and botanist Ferdinand Jacob Lindenheimer had come to Texas from Germany separately before 1845, but all three joined Prince Carl’s Adelsverein, with very positive results. Pastor Ervendsburg served as the colonists’ first pastor and cared for dozens of orphans in his home when epidemics decimated the community. He also chose 22-year-old Hermann Seele to be the teacher for 15 children in 1845. Seele first taught his classes under an elm tree; a marker in the middle of West Coll Street now marks the exact spot. He went on to serve the town in many different capacities: mayor, alderman, justice of the peace, district clerk, postmaster, state legislator and historian. He was involved in the founding of the First Protestant Church, the New Braunfels Academy and the German-language newspaper, the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung. He is sometimes called “the soul of New Braunfels.”
Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer was a warrior-poet who became known as the “Father of Texas Botany.” Born to a wealthy family in Frankfort in 1801, Lindheimer was highly educated in a variety of subjects. When student unrest forced him to leave his teaching job in 1833, he came to America. Joining the Texas Revolution in 1836, he served in the Texian Army for a year following the battle of San Jacinto. In 1842, he began to study Texas plants, and in his travels made friends of many Indians, who admired his wisdom and scientific knowledge. He joined the Adelsverein in 1844, and for his services was given a piece of land in New Braunfels. Here he married and raised a family, carrying on his botanical work and founding (with help from Hermann Seele) the Neu Braunsfelser Zeitung in 1852.
Lindheimer considered it his job “not to please the masses, but to uplift them,” and for his pains once had his presses thrown into the Comal River by some indignant readers. He persevered, however, until he sold the newspaper in 1872.
John O. Meusebach took Prince Carl’s place as commissioner-general, and while he is better known for founding the next way-station at Fredericksburg, and for negotiating a lasting treaty with the Comanches, his remarkable leadership helped New Braunfels survive some dark days, as well. It was Meusebach who secured financing to keep the colony alive after Prince Carl returned to Germany, and Meusebach who held the community together when epidemics killed hundreds of settlers in1846.
New Braunfels was intended to serve merely as a way-station on the trek to the Fisher-Miller Grant farther inland, and hundreds of the early arrivals pushed on to Fredericksburg and beyond. Nevertheless, enough people stayed and put down roots in the new community that, according to the census, New Braunfels was the fourth-largest city in Texas by 1850. (Only Houston, Galveston and San Antonio were larger.) In 1849, the Scientific American reported that “there are already saw and grist mills in full operation” and “arrangements have been made for the establishment of cotton and woolen factories there within the present year.” “The surrounding country is rapidly filling up with industrious and respectable settlers, and the recent immigration from Germany is said to be of the best class. We know of no town in the interior of the state whose prospects are more promising.”
The German settlers were a very gregarious group, and took every opportunity to get together for social events. Clubs (called “Vereins”) sprang up all over Comal County for every conceivable purpose. There were “Gesangvereins’ (singing clubs), “Turnvereins” (athletic clubs), “Schuetzenvereins” (shooting clubs) and more. Women got together for “Stichstunde” (sewing hour) and other more domestic pursuits.
They were also very interested in educating their children, and New Braunfels boasted the first free public school system in Texas. The New Braunfels Academy provided a quality education for community children until 1871, when the state finally created its own educational system.
Truly the “Gateway to the Hill Country,” New Braunfels supplied wagons, farm implements, leather goods, furniture and clothing to the pioneers who flooded into the Hill Country during the 1850s.
Of course, war clouds threatened the peace and prosperity of all the Hill Country towns, and although New Braunfels fared better than some, times were hard during the Civil War decade. The town celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1870, but it was another eleven years before revival culminated with the completion of the first railroad in 1881. In 1890, businessman Harry Landa (who owned the Landa Flour Mill, and was involved in every industry in town) established the first electric light service to one hundred and fifty customers. Several bridges were built in the 1880s and 90s, and the beautiful Romanesque courthouse was built in 1898. That same year, Landa’s Park was opened to the public.
Joseph Landa was a local shopkeeper who, despite being forced to flee New Braunfels during the Civil War for his abolitionist beliefs, prospered enough to buy one of the most beautiful parcels of land in Comal County. When Joseph’s son, Harry, continued and expanded the success of his father’s businesses, he became one of the town’s leading citizens, and his mansion dominated the city’s main square (It was removed in 1962). In 1898, he opened up the family estate as a public park, and thousands of tourists came from San Antonio by train to enjoy the natural beauty. That was the beginning of New Braunfels’ reputation as a great tourist destination, a reputation that was further enhanced by the development of summer camps along the Comal River. Much of the downtown area was built up during the early 1900s; Louis and Otto Seekatz built a fabulous opera house on San Antonio Street, which became a center for social gatherings and dances, as well as theater productions. An ornate 63-room hotel was built on Seguin Street in 1929, reflecting the thriving economy, and the population rose to 6,242 by the onset of the Great Depression.
The boll weevil and the bad economy nearly destroyed New Braunfels’ textile industry during the 1930s, and then World War II arrived. Almost 1,500 Comal County citizens served in the armed forces; of these, 38 lost their lives in the war. One of the casualties of the Great Depression was the neighboring town of Gruene, founded by Henry D. Gruene in 1878. A thriving commercial and social center for cotton farmers before the boll weevil struck, Gruene became a ghost town for nearly forty years. It was annexed by New Braunfels during the 1950s.
The economic revival spurred by the war brought new prosperity to New Braunfels, and the city’s population rose to 12,000 by 1952. New roads and new cars brought new residents and new homes. New Braunfels was no longer a German town, and in 1957, the 105-year-old German-language newspaper merged with the English-language New Braunfels Herald to form the present “Herald-Zeitung,” published only in English. The construction of Interstate Highway 35 in 1962 encouraged further growth in the New Braunfels area. The old town of Gruene was purchased by developers around 1970, and restored as a historic village inside the city limits of New Braunfels.
In 1961, the city initiated an annual sausage festival that has grown into a ten-day “salute to sausage” and celebration of New Braunfels’ German heritage called “Wurstfest.” Thousands of visitors consume thousands of pounds of sausage each year, and there are live entertainers and other activities to make it a fascinating and memorable event.
The modern era of New Braunfels as a major tourist attraction began with the purchase of the 40-acre Landa Resort on the Comal River by Bob and Billye Henry in the early 1970s. They opened their Schlitterbahn (“slippery road”) Water Park with four water slides in 1979. It has grown into an amazing water wonderland, featuring three miles of innertube rides, 17 water slides, seven water playgrounds and the world’s first surfing machine. Many thousands of visitors flock from around the world to Schlitterbahn, which has become New Braunfels’ biggest attraction and largest employer each summer.
Today, New Braunfels is a bustling city of nearly 50,000 people, but it still retains the small-town charm from a century ago. Its attractions include shopping, water sports along the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers, the historic village of Gruene, nearby Natural Bridge Caverns, Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch and Canyon Lake as well as several fine city parks.
New Braunfels is justly proud of its heritage, and boasts several fine museums and historic sites. The Sophienburg, built on the site of Prince Carl’s original fort of the same name, is dedicated to preserving the history of New Braunfels and Comal County through dramatic exhibits of artifacts and scenes of pioneer life (including representations of the ships that brought the first settlers from Germany). The Sophienburg archives preserve the written history of the area through thousands of collections of personal and public documents. One of the Sophienburg’s prize exhibits is a miniature of Prince Carl’s castle in Germany, created by noted Fredericksburg sculptor Jonas Perkins.
A railroad museum and a fire museum are downtown, contained in the old railroad depot and fire station. The Buckhorn Barber Shop Museum contains the intriguing collections of Fred Wagenfuehr, who cut hair for a living but collected circus memorabilia, model ships, dolls from around the world, handmade jewelry and other unique items.
Conservation Plaza is a collection of fourteen historic buildings (1849-70) moved from downtown New Braunfels by the Conservation Society to form a small village on the north side of town, furnished with historic artifacts. Next door to Conservation Plaza is the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture. The whole downtown area of Gruene is a glimpse into the past, with shops, restaurants and lodgings in historic buildings by the Guadalupe River.
While Wurstfest (November 2-11 this year) may be the main event on New Braunfels’ social calendar, there are many other quality events throughout the year. The Comal County Fair will be held September 25-30, the Gruene Music and Wine Fest October 5-7, the Texas Clay Festival in Gruene October 25-27, Weihnachstmarkt (a Christmas Market at the new civic center that benefits Sophienburg Museum) November 16-18 and Wassailfest downtown December 6.
If you can’t make it during those special days, there will always be a world of shopping, sight-seeing and fine dining to greet you, along with plenty of great places to stay. Don’t be a stranger; you’ll enjoy your time in New Braunfels!