A Brief History of Boerne

It has come to my attention that many people who nowadays call Boerne home are woefully uninformed about the history of this wonderful little town.

    As far as they are concerned, Boerne, Texas sprang into being around the year 1992, dreamed up by the same mind that conceived the Wild West village at Fiesta Texas, in collaboration with whoever thought Dickens on Main was a good idea. Their confusion and befuddlement further augmented by the bizarrely random statue of Wild Bill Hickok, who never visited and almost certainly never even heard of Boerne, perched incongruously on a park bench in front of our own Main Plaza.  It’s enough to addle anybody, and certainly shocks and horrifies this history writer. Even more mortifying to the soul of this old history nerd, though, is the amount of balderdash purporting to be the real history of Boerne! Have you seen this stuff?! Half-truths, confused fairy tales and old urban legends, wrapped in exaggeration and cloaked in a mantle of silliness! Bosh and folderol! Unadulterated pish-posh! It occurs to me that newcomers to Our Fair Village have done their homework, as per the cost of living around here (ridiculous) and where the school district ranks and all of that stuff, but they’ve left themselves completely uninformed about the equally (if not more) important topic of how this place came to be in the first place. This is a shocking state of affairs that shall not be allowed to continue- not on my watch. Never fear, latecomer to our soil. This history writer will not allow you to blunder into the mistaken assumption that Ludwig Von Borne actually lived here in the town named after him, nor will you ever again commit the social faux pas of pronouncing the “Berges” of Berges Fest with a soft G (and if you’ve lived here all your life and do that, shame on you). In this issue of Explore, I present to you a trimmed-down version of the whole history of our town. I give you, then, a Short History of Boerne.

    To begin, we take a look at the lush and verdant Cibolo Valley; this lovely, rolling hill country, rich in forest, river and game. Before Ludwig Von Borne was even a twinkle in the eye of Herr Von Borne, who wasn’t a real person because Ludwig started out life as Lob Baruch. Ok, so before old Herr Baruch ever smiled upon the lovely young Frauline Whoever-She-Was, for generation upon generation, and maybe for millennia, the site upon which Boerne would someday be founded was known and loved and occasionally inhabited by scores of aboriginal Americans, mainly Lipan Apache, Comanche and Kiowa Indians. Evidence suggests that these hunting and gathering people had lived around here, at least seasonally, for some ten thousand years or more, before the place was ever “discovered” by Europeans.

    Back in Europe, in the end days of the Holy Roman Empire, Germany was in a real pickle.  It seemed like every other block was an independent city-state, or a duchy or princedom or some such thing. All of them had their own separate armies, sovereigns and currencies, and they all owed money out the wazoo for having waged the seemingly never-ending Napoleonic Wars. All of the monarchs of all of the little independent kingdoms were looking to pay off those debts, not by cutting back on the size of the gold buckles for their shoes or strudel in the castle, but by squeezing their hapless subjects for every last dime they could wring out of them, and the hapless subjects were sick of it.

It wasn’t long after, that the American and French Revolutions proved that oppressed people could break away from their oppressors. Folks began to think about what it might be like if they broke away from Germany and tried life on their own terms somewhere else, somewhere far away. A few folks managed to do just that, and leave their lives of servitude to the ruling monarch. They’d gone up to Texas, where they wrote letters to their friends back home, describing the millions and millions of acres there just for the asking. They described lives free from the intrusive authority; a place where a man could have his own place, prove his own worth, and raise his own family and his own crops with nothing holding him back but the limits he put on himself. These letters were passed from hand to hand and read secretly by candlelight. Neighbors whispered of the things the letters promised, of leaving behind life in the Old World to stake everything on the chance of a new, free life in a new country. And secretly they made their plans and booked their voyages. Villages in Germany began to empty out.

    It wasn’t only the peasants and the artisan class who were getting into this whole Texas thing, either.  The noblemen – the second and third sons of the upper crust, men of birth and means – could see for themselves the discontent fomenting their country. They had all kinds of ideas about how a new country in an all new world could be run, and how Germany could expand her borders and plant a new colony in this place called Texas. In the spring of 1842, twenty one of these young men, dreamers bitten by this Texas enchantment, met up to establish an emigration company, which they called the Verein Zum Schutze deutscher Einwanderer, in Texas. That is, the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, more commonly called the Adelsverein. Their purpose was to establish a German colony in Texas by way of mass emigration, but the organization was plagued by trouble from the beginning.  Mismanagement and financial woes, expired contracts, broken promises and men who were thinkers and dreamers, as opposed to planners and businessmen. All of these things doomed the Society of Noblemen from the beginning. They began shipping German immigrants to Texas, but agreements and contracts had broken down or were never finalized on Texas’ end. The new arrivals were left without food or shelter once they arrived at their landing place, Indianola, on the Texas coast. Maybe even more critical, war between the US and Mexico had broken out by the time the German ex-pats arrived. So the wagons, horses, and oxen they had arranged to carry them inland to the Hill Country were confiscated by the Army, leaving all those people stranded in the over-crowded, unprepared, filthy port town, where they began to die by the dozens before they could find their own way northward. In the five years they stayed afloat, The Adelsverein managed to found two towns which are going concerns, even now: Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. The third, Bettina, lasted barely a year, but that would lead to something bigger for us, we citizens of Boerne.

There were men in Germany who were thinkers and dreamers, intellectuals who conversed in Latin, liberals and abolitionists who were educated, intelligent, and even brilliant. They discussed, in Latin – which at the time, was a sign of their higher learning – philosophy, literature, music, ideas, the nature of man, and of creating the perfect society and what form that society would take. These Lateiners (Latin ones) speculated that it might take the form of socialism, or a communistic society, one in which all the work and all of the possessions and material would be shared equally. In 1847, a group of forty people, called the Darmstadt Die Vierziger, or Society of Forty, gathered for the intention of establishing just such a socialist colony in Texas.  In fact, five of these communities were eventually established here in Texas. Latin, socialistic, and experimental settlements founded by highly learned, educated men in the Hill Country.

Among the leaders of the new colony called Bettina was one Ferdinand von Herff, a distinguished doctor and student of politics who was a co-founder of the Socialistic Colony and Society, which originally planned to establish socialist communes in Wisconsin. Instead, von Herff and his two co-founders arranged with the Adelsverein to plant their colony on Adelsverein land in Texas. They named the village Bettina after a social activist and friend, and chose a location on the Llano River, northwest of Boerne.  It was in Bettina, under an oak tree on the banks of the river, that Dr. von Herff successfully performed surgery to remove a cataract from the eye of a local Indian chief – an almost unheard-of undertaking at the time. The people of the Bettina colony managed, in its year of existence, to erect a few buildings and bring in one crop of corn before the whole thing went bust, and they all went back to Germany. The problem seems to have been that the Darmstadt Forty was long on philosophers, lawyers and dreamers, but short on laborers, farmers and mechanics. It turns out that some of them may have had their fingers crossed when they were saying all that stuff about sharing everything equally.

Today, no physical trace of Bettina can be found on the banks of the Llano and I know, because I looked. But even so, I liked standing there looking out over the river and thinking of all those people taking such a giant leap of faith, just heaving their regular lives out of the way and taking this enormous chance. Coming all the way across the world in order to try what they thought would work, but which everyone else surely told them would never work. Well, anyway, Bettina as a commune in Texas doesn’t exist, but just because that experiment didn’t work, didn’t mean those dreams were dead or that the dreamers threw up their hands and gave up on everything. I don’t know what all of those dudes did after Bettina, but at least five of them weren’t finished with Texas yet, and they went on home to Germany to think about it some more. They went back to the old drawing board to see if they could improve their plan at all.

    Evidently, they felt they could improve, and that another Latin colony in Texas was feasible. In 1849, eight men who had been with the Darmstadt Forty in the establishment of the socialist settlement, Bettina, arrived back in Texas. This time they chose a campsite on the north side of the Cibolo Creek in what would, years later, become Kendall County. These men were Rudolph Carstanjen, Christian Flach, Wilhelm Friedrich, J. Kuchler, Fritz Kramer, Leopold Schultz, Adam Vogt and Phillip Zoeller.

It is said that when they saw the morning sun shining on the crystal-clear water of the Cibolo Creek, they decided that this would be the site of their new town. They still believed in the perfect society, in the brotherhood of man, in the utopian ideal of basic human rights to everyone. They also believed strongly in the freedom to think and believe as one chose, and as Freethinkers, they originally banned churches within their community. This was a new socialist community, a new Latin settlement, where enlightened, educated men would discuss philosophy, ideas, and the classics. And so they named their new town Tusculum, after Cicero’s summer home. In 1852, John James and Gustav Theissen laid out the plans for a new town a mile west of the village of Tusculum, with a main street and a plaza. People began to really show up to the new town, and soon they changed the name to Boerne, in honor of a Jewish German author and political activist, and Tusculum was swallowed up and forgotten.

    The little town of Boerne grew slowly – there were still only ten houses in 1859, ten years after the Boerne Eight first settled at Tusculum. The principal house in town was located at the corner of what’s now Main Street and Rosewood, a cabin built by John Schertz and his wife, the former Miss Secunda Ruede. It was said that, “the town of Boerne was built around the Schertz home,” the largest home in town. The folks called it “the mansion” and retreated to it during times of Indian trouble, all the townspeople sheltering together inside the cabin. The mansion was where the first white child born in Boerne was delivered, one Miss Mary Becker, who grew up to run the Becker House Hotel on the same site. Next door was the old cabin which she lovingly preserved for years until it pretty much fell down by itself during WWI.

George W Kendall, journalist and founder of the New Orleans Picayune and war correspondent of the Mexican American War, bought a ranch near Boerne in 1853 and moved his flock of merino sheep here. Everyone went wild for sheep, and when the State of Texas formed a new county from parts of Bexar in 1862 (Kerr and Comal Counties), they named it after George Kendall, and Boerne became the county seat. In 1867, Kendall was also instrumental in building St Peter’s Catholic Church, the stricture against building a church in town long since forgotten. It was in 1867, on Priest Father Fleury’s watch, that townsmen quarried the limestone for the church from Kendall’s Post Oak Ranch, and towed it to town to build the little church building, which still stands in the shadow of the great big new sanctuary. If you Google Boerne right now, the first thing that probably comes up is the Supreme Court ruling on Boerne vs. St Peter’s – that’s another bit of history right there.

And Dr. Ferdinand von Herff, of Bettina? He didn’t melt back into Germany after that whole venture went bust, you know. Oh no, he only went back long enough to marry his old sweetheart, Mathilde Klingelhoeffer, and to put in a little more time with the Hesse army, and was back in the States by 1849.  He dropped the ‘von’ from his name, became a US citizen, and settled in San Antonio, where he helped the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word establish Santa Rosa Hospital, San Antonio’s first. He did, however, retain ties to his beloved Latin settlements, and bought quite a bit of land near Boerne, that today has become the campus of Boerne High School, the Cibolo Nature Center, City Park, the Kendall County Fairgrounds, the campus of Champion High School, and more. It really was quite a bit of land.

In the early 1860s, when Tuberculosis was busy being the leading cause of death in the United States, Dr. Herff treated patients whether they had money or not, true to his socialist leanings, and began referring his lung patients to the fresh mountain air of Boerne. They would either get better or die easier of breath, and the reputation of Boerne as a health resort exploded. People from all over the country flocked to town to breathe the pure mountain air. Everybody in town opened their doors to boarders, there were hotels on every corner, and sanitariums popped up all over the place. Then the railroad came to town in 1887.

This, my friends and fellow Boerne-ites, is just a taste, a mere fraction of the great and colorful, endlessly fascinating, amazing history of this little village in the Hill Country that you’ve chosen as your home. If you’d like, you may procure several copies of this issue and hand it out to those unfortunate souls who may not know how interesting and unique of a place this is. So they may better understand our history and what makes us who we are.  They still won’t know what Wild Bill Hickok has to do with anything, but they’ll have Boerne figured out.


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