You see the name all over town. There’s Herff Park (the fairgrounds), a subdivision called Herff Ranch and you can tell just from the frequency of the name that this family was a Big Deal here in Boerne. We historians, who hang around the library and tend to act like these old Bergmanns, Toepperweins and Langbeins are people we saw only last week. We all know who the Herffs were. We know their file in the archives is gonna be one of the fat ones before we even look it up, but a lot of people don’t. You should! I’ll tell you how important Dr Ferdinand Herff is to the history of our little hometown. What if instead of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s portraits hanging up in elementary classrooms, we displayed pictures of local Founding Fathers. Old Doc Herff would be the big one, his face with the twinkling eyes and the Biblical-patriarch’s beard just as familiar to first-graders as Washington’s tight-lipped mug or Honest Abe’s benevolent grimace.
He was born Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff on November 29, 1820, in Darmstadt, Germany. The ‘von’ in his name indicates that he wasn’t exactly born in poverty out on the mean streets and he wasn’t. His parents were Baron and Baroness Christian von Herff and his was a family of some rank and prestige, an aristocratic family. It wasn’t only the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to be free who came to Texas to start a new life in the Great German Migration of the 1830s-50s.
Something that was akin to today’s Arab Spring was rippling through Germany in those days following the Napoleonic Wars. In that time of political and economic instability, when life for its people was hemmed in at every direction by an all-seeing, all-controlling government of duchys, princedoms, and young noblemen like Ferdinand von Herff who dreamed of and planned out a new society in a new world, based on socialistic principles.
But before Herff thought of leaving the Fatherland he was studying botany and medicine in his native country, and received his medical degree at the age of twenty-three. Herff was a brilliant physician in those primitive days of medicine, and his accomplishments in the field seem stunning to us now; he was a skilled and ground-breaking plastic surgeon, becoming an expert at a technique for creating artificial noses. He developed a new and safer technique for amputating limbs. He saved the lives of those under the death sentence of tuberculosis by draining their abscesses, and he learned to surgically extract cataracts, a procedure which had only been developed a few years previously.
But young Ferdinand was something of a visionary, a student of the writings of Ludwig Borne and that cadre of young poets and philosophers and dreamers who advocated a better life under a whole new system of government from the ones then in force in Europe. Herff, then a surgeon in the Hessen army, took a leave of absence and with a group of university students, formed a group called the ‘Die Vierziger’, the Group of Forty, whose goal was to establish a permanent socialistic settlement in the wide-open country of Texas, all the way across the world.
It was a time of emigration fever, and young Herff and his compatriots were eager to begin their experiment. In January, 1847, they received a grant for a tract of land at the junction of Elm Creek and the Llano River. Within weeks of signing their contract to settle the land with the Adelsverein, the German Society of Noblemen which was the immigration company overseeing the venture, Herff and thirty-three of the Group of Forty embarked on the journey to the New World.
We’ve talked here before about that tortuous ocean voyage from Europe to the shores of Indianola in Texas, but Dr. Herff’s trip was a little different. As wealthy and privileged young aristocrats, the Group of Forty didn’t face the same conditions as your average bears, but it was no picnic either. Be that as it may, they all arrived at their land grant smack dab in the middle of Indian country in 1847, and they called their new commune Bettina. Among his provisions from home, Dr. Herff had packed his surgical instruments and a supply of ether, which had just been introduced for use as an anesthesia a few years before.
A bare few weeks after these greenhorn philosophers and starry-eyed dreamers arrived in this raw country, a group of Comanches presented themselves at the camp. There was at this point no treaty between the Germans and the Indians, and the natives were understandably skittish about these newcomers. However, they had amongst them a Comanche brave who was blind and they had overcome, temporarily, their nervousness about the white guys in order to ask for help for their comrade. Dr. Herff took a look at the Comanche and diagnosed cataracts, a condition with which he was very familiar. He laid the patient down under the bright sunlight while ten of his fellows waved palm fans to keep off the flies, and performed a bilateral cataract extraction, which turned out to be a complete success and restored the Indian’s eyesight. This was the first known cataract surgery performed in Texas.
Imagine what was at stake, too, besides the patient’s eyesight. As a band of his skeptical and quite possibly hostile friends stood by while this unknown white man took a scalpel to the brave’s eyes – what if he had died? But he didn’t, and when he was well enough he immediately paid the doctor – with a squaw. The girl became the ward of one of the female colonists and later was married to Hermann Spiess, another colonist.
Word of Dr. Herff’s healing powers spread among the Indians and soon he was doing eye and other surgeries as well as removing arrowheads and bullets from them, and he became fluent in the Comanche and Apache languages.
However, Bettina, the Group of Forty’s Utopian experiment in socialist living, wasn’t doing quite so well. One of the problems was that the Group of Forty was heavy on philosophers, teachers, musicians, lawyers and aristocrats, and was short on farmers and laborers. Another was that in actual practice, sharing the labor and the profits didn’t work as well as it did on paper. Besides, a couple of the group ran off with most of the money, and after a year, the colony was broke, and disbanded. Most of the men returned to Germany.
As did Dr. Herff. While back in Darmstadt, he married his old sweetheart, Mathilde Kilngelhofer – ‘of a noble family in Giessen’ – in 1848. But although Bettina had gone belly-up, Dr. Herff hadn’t abandoned his Texas dream. He had come to love the wild new world and its rugged inhabitants who looked up to and trusted him, and his heart wasn’t in Germany anymore.
The following year he returned to Texas, with his bride, this time to the established community of New Braunfels. In 1850 they moved on again, to settle permanently in San Antonio. In San Antonio he continued to treat and develop friendships among Comanche, Kikapoo and Apache Indians, and achieved great fame when he treated a young Kikapoo brave for a form of epilepsy caused by a skull fracture from a tomahawk blow. Herff was able to use a technique to relieve pressure to the man’s brain – the first such operation done in the United States – and affect a total recovery from the seizures from which the brave had suffered.
Another of Dr. Herff’s miracles is close to my heart – he performed a tracheostomy on a little girl and thus resuscitated her, after her family believed she was stone dead. He was also becoming increasingly involved in local government and in various money-making ventures. Among these, he was a member of the original Board of Directors of the San Antonio National Bank; member of the SA Loan and Trust Company; part-owner of the La Coste Ice Company, the first manufacturer of artificial ice in the US. He also served as city alderman and City Health Officer, and aggressively campaigned for the construction of a hospital in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Dr. Herff’s other life was going on – his personal life, his life with his sweetheart-bride Mathilde. Together they had six sons and two daughters – several of his sons followed Herff into the medical profession, and medicine became a family business, down into the fifth and sixth generations.
One of the great ambitions of the German immigrants to Texas was to become landowners, and no less an ambition for a man of noble family like Ferdinand Herff. (Speaking of that noble birth thing: Herff dropped the aristocratic ‘von’ from his name around the time of the Bettina experiment.) What Dr. Herff yearned for was not just a family home but a spread of land, a homestead among the million acres of wilderness. He looked at lots of land and rejected most of it for one reason or another, until he got to know a guy named John James, a landowner, trader and surveyor in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio, who convinced Herff to come with him and take a look at the beautiful land available in the rolling, verdant Boerne Valley.
One day in 1850, they rented an old stagecoach and a pair of mules, hired a driver and a cook, and set out to explore among the hills and valleys of what would become Kendall County.
His grandson told how the road to Boerne in those days was ‘merely a winding unpaved trail’, as recorded in Dr. Herff’s journal. “We bumped our way over ruts and rocks until we had laboriously climbed to the top of the escarpment [later known as Eight Mile Hill]. Making the primitive highway even more impassable was the dearth of bridges; travelers simply took their chances in traversing the several fords. With the exception of this hazard,” Dr. Herff went on, “the route was more fraught with irritation than with danger, and the trip proved delightful.” This was Dr. Herff’s first sight of the land that would become his beloved home. “The caravan,” he wrote, “finally arrived at the rim of the Boerne Valley.”
“It was late afternoon,” his grandson wrote, “that eerily beautiful time when the landscape takes on a cloak of intense loveliness, when everything seems painfully real and alive-pastures padded by knee-deep stands of grass; sturdy, primeval trees hovering like great beasts of fable; Texas wild flowers closely crowding each other in a colorful, paradisiacal riot, their hues now changing, now fading into the hushed anonymity of twilight.” Dr. Herff was a man in love.
The next morning, he signed the papers which made the land his own, the first three hundred acres of the Herff ranch. At its largest, it encompassed most of the Boerne Valley and stretched to Sisterdale, it included the land where Camp Bullis and Camp Stanley are now. The Herff family later, much later, would donate some of that estate for the building of the ‘new’ high school, on Adler Road, and five acres to be used as the Kendall County Fairground.
For years after the purchase of that land and the construction of the ranch house, Dr. Herff’s stays on his country place were necessarily sporadic, as the trip between there and San Antonio was such a long and arduous one, but with the coming of the railroad he and his family were able to get away to their beloved ranch more often, and became part of the life of the little village in the Hill Country. The SA & AP Railroad even named one of their engines The Dr. Herff.
Not everyone in Boerne was always delighted with Dr. Herff, however, and some blamed him for changes to Boerne for the worse. “His detractors,” said his grandson, “blamed him for having converted their scenic mountain hamlet into a graveyard for tuberculars.” What happened was this: Dr. Herff, noticing that he had never seen a case of that Number One Killer of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis, in Boerne, theorized that “where the disease was not prone to develop was certainly the locality where its victims might be easily cured,” and, so thinking, sent some of his tuberculin patients in the early stages of the disease, to Boerne to recuperate in the mountain air.
Rumors swirled among desperate sufferers of the White Death – remember that at this time TB was the cause of one out of every four deaths in the United States – that miraculous cures were being effected in the little mountain village of Boerne, and with the advent of the railroad making the trip suddenly affordable, hoards of these poor people began spilling into Boerne. “With the reasonable fares and accessibility of the railroad,” his grandson wrote, “…nearly every passenger train brought in several hollow-eyed, hectically [sic] specters, most of whom were journeying to their deaths.”
Dr. Herff’s campaign to get a hospital built in San Antonio finally culminated in the construction of the city’s first hospital, Santa Rosa, in 1869. An endeavor in which he combined forces with the Incarnate Word Sisters, and where he would serve as chief surgeon for many years. He was also largely responsible for helping the Sisters establish St. Mary’s Sanitarium (for tuberculins) and the Holy Angel’s Academy Catholic school in Boerne, in 1890.
Altogether, along with the Indian dialects, Herff spoke ten different languages, keenly and with a gentle or vicious wit, as the case demanded. His grandson said he was “able to call an insolent opponent an S.O.B. in Bohemian or German, an officious meddlesome ass in Greek or Latin, and a perfidious humbug in Spanish or French; a stupid dunce in English or Italian, and another vile name in Apache or Comanche.” “His sense of humor never failed him,” the grandson said, and indeed this was apparent one time when the doctor’s sidespring buggy was stopped on the side of a dusty road and three “prairie highwaymen” demanded the driver’s money. “A man’s life wasn’t worth a plugged pfenning in those rough-and-rowdy 1850s, and the young physician knew it,” goes a newspaper report from a hundred years later, but Herff took a chance and reached down into his instrument kit to pull out a bizarre-looking gadget, which he aimed point-blank at the muggers. Herff put on a snarl and growled: “Get out or I’ll let you have it!” The highwaymen got out. Fast. Dr. Herff had scared em off with a pair of obstetric forceps.
The Great Dr. Ferdinand Herff lived on into a ripe old age, finally dying in 1912, a hundred years ago now, at the age of 92. He’d become something of a legend, a pioneer homesteader and medicine man, founder of a hospital, a big, fine family and a ranch ten thousand acres wide. A healer, a lifesaver and a miracle man. Husband, father and grandfather. A big, booming, twinkling, larger-than-life man, one of our real-life, hometown Founding Fathers.
By Marjorie Hagy