German Influence in San Antonio

Cross-Cultural Curiosities

by Celia Hayes

So, whoever would have thought that there was historically such a strong German influence in South Texas, being that in the popular imagination, Germans, Southern good-ol-boy types and Hispanics could not be less alike? The mind boggles, upon first consideration, and then it starts to make sense. While Texas has never exactly been a cultural melting pot . . . but the three different ethnic groups have certainly melted a little around the edges and certain aspects of each have flowed into the other – in some cases, almost imperceptibly.

This has a long history in Texas, beginning when the German entrepreneur combine, the Mainzer Adelsverein, begin transporting German farmers, craftsmen, technical experts and intellectuals wholesale into what had theretofore been a strictly Anglo and Hispanic concern. By 1855, when journalist and future park designer Frederick Law Olmstead visited San Antonio as part of a long ramble through Texas, he observed that there were three very distinct cultures, living side by side: the Anglo-Southern, the Hispanic . . . and the German. Three languages, three different sets of customs, singular preferences in music, amusements, drink, dress and even styles in building.

The German element in San Antonio contributed much in early commerce and business life: The Casino Club, whose building is still a San Antonio landmark, was also the first social club and theater venue – organized by twenty German-Texans in the late 1850s. The historic King William district was the first upscale suburb – and named for King William of Prussia, because so many of the well-to-do merchants of San Antonio built their homes there. The Pioneer Flour Mill, the Menger Hotel, and the newspaper which became the San Antonio Express News were all established by German immigrants, also one of the first photographic studios, the first breweries . . . and the first bowling alley, which still exists in the historic Southtown complex which is home to the Beethoven Maennerchor. Which one can easily see, just by checking them out every First Friday in Southtown, and for events like Oktoberfest and the upcoming Christmas Market – is more than just a men’s glee club. The Maennerchor was and is still so much more than a singing society – like the Casino Club; it was a social and entertainment center.

The 19th century German element in Texas was very much in favor of cultural and social pursuits, and pursued each with determination, occasionally to the horror of the more straight-laced and hard-shell Anglo community. Beer gardens and bowling alleys were looked upon with prim disapproval in the 19th century, especially on Sundays, but the German Texans remained undeterred. The Maennerchor’s historic 9-pin bowling alley has the distinction of being the oldest existing in Texas, and the third-oldest in the United States. They would like very much to restore the alley and the low, single-story building housing it, which stands at the bottom of the shady garden which is their outdoor venue – and according to the people who told us about it at Oktoberfest – is ramshackle in the extreme. I couldn’t get any pictures of it . . . but next month is Wurstfest in New Braunfels. They might not have a bowling alley there, but they do have plenty of that Texas-German Gemütlichkeit and to spare!

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