The Ancient Scourge

Original Print Date: February 2015

If you’ve never heard of a book called Historic Images of Boerne but you don’t actually own it, then I think you should put this magazine down and go buy yourself a copy immediately. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back. That book you just purchased is an invaluable, encyclopedic resource for all things old Boerne. I’m seriously on my second copy, the first one having fallen all to pieces due to frequent thumbing and the current number not looking all that chipper. It’s not everything you’ll ever need, and it’s not the whole story, but it’s this great jumping-off place that’ll make you want to dive into the vertical files at the library and only come up for air and the occasional bathroom break – or at least that’s the effect it had on me a long, long time ago.

Written by a wonderful man whom I personally knew named Garland Perry and first published in 1982 – the year I graduated from Boerne High School – Historic Images happens to contain two oddly intriguing sentences; a little scrap of a story that started it all for me: “Reinhard ignored his advice and went on out to the woods near the present Masonic Lodge on Blanco Road. Later his team came running into town pulling an empty wagon.” That’s it, that’s the one random, kind of offhand little morsel that grabbed my imagination and set off a lifelong fascination with real-life history. It was so mind-blowing to me that right there, along Blanco Street in the middle of town, a place I passed every day on my way to school, had once been a stand of thick woods on the outskirts of town, and that on a January morning more than a hundred years ago, a man rode into that cold, foggy thicket and never rode out.

After that – and I was 18 years old! – I developed this weird habit of lurking around cemeteries and trespassing on other people’s property on the trail of rock fences and weed-choked ruins and skeletons of long gone houses. I mean, before that sentence caught my fancy, history had just been a required course at school; one that was usually assigned to a coach and that consisted mostly of names of dead presidents and battles long won or lost, fought for reasons nobody could remember anymore. But Garland Perry and his two fluky sentences got me hooked, and I owe him a debt of gratitude not only for all the facts and the pictures and the stories he rescued from the past, but also for inspiring this love of Boerne and its history in me.

Having said all that, I do have this one bone to pick with my hero: his book barely mentions the long period in our town’s early history when Boerne was a world-famous health resort and spa town; when the visitors who came here from all over the world often outnumbered the permanent citizens and almost every home sheltered a lodger. I mean, he alludes to it kind of offhandedly here and there when talking about an old building, but come on, man, this is a big deal! That said though, I’m still permanently in Mr. Perry’s debt, and right now as I write this I’m pouring out a little of my iced tea for my homie.

Tuberculosis was an ancient scourge that cut a swath through every segment of every society in the world. It was a disease that had ravaged the Holy Lands in ancient times and killed pharaoh and slave alike. The Old Testament speaks of it – a consumptive illness that felled the Jewish people if they strayed from God. As phthisis, it first made an appearance in Greek literature five hundred years before Christ was born, and Hippocrates called it the most common cause of illness and death in his time. In Europe, an epidemic had begun in the 17th century that would rage for two hundred years, earning itself the epithet The Great White Plague, and in the United States nearly twenty percent of all deaths were due to the scourge of tuberculosis. Consumption. The White Death. “Captain Among these Men of Death”, they called it. Throughout history, tuberculosis has killed more people than the black death, leprosy, and HIV combined.

German scientist Robert Koch, who in 1882 first isolated the bacteria responsible for TB, wrote that, “If the importance of a disease for mankind is measured from the number of fatalities which are due to it, then tuberculosis must be considered much more important than those most feared infectious diseases, plague, cholera and the like. Statistics have shown that 1/7 of all humans die of tuberculosis.” Wow.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, about the time Boerne was first settled (1849- but you should already know that), consumption had been romanticized by poets and novelists who portrayed tuberculosis as an idyllic, dreamy kind of death; a “good death” in which long-suffering victims had time to put their earthly affairs in order and arrange poignant deathbed scenes. The mal de vivir was dreamily supposed to confer heightened sensitivity upon the sufferer, and came to represent spiritual purity and even worldly wealth. To the extent that rich young women would sometimes make themselves up to appear pale, sickly and wasted. Lord Byron once wrote, “I should like to die from consumption,” making it seem like a disease of artists and a lovely way to go. People died fanciful, maudlin deaths from tuberculosis in popular works of the time like Les Misérables, Verdi’s La traviata and Puccini’s La bohème. Even today, when we should all know better, audiences still thrill to Nicole Kidman kicking a misty, euphoric bucket in Moulin Rouge. Rot and nonsense. The truth is that TB is a nasty, painful death, with the victim coughing until their ribs break and the abscesses in their lungs bleed and breathing becomes nearly impossible.

In contrast to the whimsical image of TB as a spiritual, romantic death for artists and the wealthy, the disease raged alike among the poor in the cities, while both physicians and the middle class blamed the poor themselves for the spread of the White Plague. It was a mean killing disease and knew no social boundaries, nor age restrictions. Dr Ferdinand Herff, San Antonio doctor and Boerne landowner, saw its victims dying no sentimentalized “good” deaths, but only the sadness and utter heartbreaking waste of the thing.

Dr Herff, after much adventuring around in his German homeland and in the high Texas Hill Country, finally settled down with his family in San Antonio where he would eventually help found Santa Rosa Hospital. Like most German-Texans, Dr Herff cherished the dream of land ownership in addition to his home in the city. And in 1850, after searching for some months, he “finally arrived at the rim of the Boerne Valley,” where the sight of “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,” made him fall in love with the place. The next day he signed the papers for the first three hundred acres of a freehold that would one day encompass most of the Boerne valley. The town had only been established in 1849, barely a year before Herff discovered it, so the history of the Herff family here is nearly as old as Boerne itself. This would become their beloved retreat and second home, with members of the family still living here today.

One thing Herff the doctor noticed about this mountain village he loved, was that he’d never seen so much as one case here of the disease which was killing people elsewhere at a devastating rate. He’d been a surgeon with the Hessian army before coming to Texas and had developed his own techniques for treatment of the disease, which he had then applied in his work among the Texas Indians and with his patients in San Antonio. He, along with many physicians of his time, was a proponent of the open-air method of treatment of TB, which called for plenty of pure air, lots of rest and a plethora of good food, but especially the pure air. As a professor of medicine of the time stated, “[t]he more abundantly the former can be given the greater and faster will be the progress towards recovery”. And Herff’s adopted Boerne certainly had an inexhaustible supply of pure air. “The burg is principally noted for the unlimited quantity and excellent quality of its ozone, whatever that is,” reads a contemporary travel guide about Boerne. It didn’t take Herff long to attribute the absence of consumption in this burg to the high, dry mountain air. Sometime in the 1860s, he sent his first tubercular patients to town to try some of that famous ozone.

There were a few hotels in town by this time, although the village was still very small, but most visitors or passers-through would lodge in boarding houses or with families with a room to let. But neither of these options were always open to “lungers”, and for obvious reasons. It would be twenty years before scientist Koch discovered what caused TB and how it was spread. And even if the townspeople had known that the disease was wildly contagious, it would hardly have encouraged them to throw their doors open to the pale, hacking foreigners suddenly in their midst. It’s hard to say when and where the first consumptive found lodging in Boerne. It may have started when some householder decided that the money offered outweighed the danger of contracting the sickness and took the chance. Or maybe it was compassion that opened the first door. And after all, Dr. Herff may have lined up the lodging situation before he sent his first consumptive to town. At any rate, the sufferers who came to town for the cure found places enough to take them in, and enough good people to tend to them.

At first, Herff sent his most hopeless cases, the victims for whom nothing else worked, for whom nothing more could be done, maybe as their one final hope or perhaps simply for the opportunity to die in relative comfort, breathing in the thin, dry mountain air. He sent so many of these pale ghosts to Boerne that some began to call the town “Herff’s burying ground”. “His detractors,” said Herff’s grandson in later years, “blamed him for having converted their scenic mountain hamlet into a graveyard for tuberculars.” “A consumptive newly arrived in Boerne,” one man complained, “found too many invalids like himself, invalids who talked about themselves and their poor remnants of lungs, and coughed and groaned all night. The hotels and boarding houses smelled like drugstores, and the invalids drank to each other’s better health in cod liver oil until they smelled like ancient fishermen.” So there’s that image.

But then something happened. Herff’s “lungers”, those walking dead, began to heal in the higher altitude and drier air in the hills above the city. And other San Antonio doctors began to recommend Boerne’s air to their TB patients, and Boerne’s reputation spread, a little at first, until folks were arriving here and there from further afield, from Chicago and St Louis and New Orleans, from the damp and soggy coastal states. More homes took in more boarders, so that at one point they said almost every household had at least one consumptive lodger. Nobody, though, knew anything then about how TB was spread, and precautions against the spread of the disease weren’t always maintained so that some families had members who became infected and died. Servant girls, too, who were poor and, in those dirt poor days after the Civil War, often hungry, sometimes finished the uneaten food left on the lungers’ plates and they would sicken and sometimes died. It wasn’t a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination, but Boerne was fast becoming known as the Texas Alps, and more consumptives arrived all the time.

What changed the game was when the railroad came to town. Dr. Herff was also instrumental in getting the branch line of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass (SA & AP) Railroad to Boerne, donating a lot of land from his hill country ranch for right-of-way as well as tracts in San Antonio. And in March of 1887, the first train arrived in Boerne. Suddenly it was a whole lot easier to get to the Texas Alps, to that healing, life-giving mountain ozone. And suddenly it was time for Boerne to step up its game. The San Antonio Daily Express, in an article titled “First Train to Boerne over Northwestern Extension: A Pleasant Ride over a Beautiful Country; Day Spent in Romantic Hills around Boerne”, touted the numerous enjoyments to be had in Boerne, including opportunities to “drink the cold water of the iron and sulphur spring four miles distant,” or “expand the lungs with deep draughts of ozone, or “watch the slow and painful steps of the poor consumptive invalid who generally comes to West Texas when it is everlastingly too late for all the ozone in the world to do him any good.” Fun times indeed. The piece ends with a suggestion to the townspeople that they would soon take to heart: “Altogether, Boerne offers a desirable place for excursionists, and it can be made one of the most popular health resorts in the South, if her people will exert themselves a little and make her advantages known to the great outside world. Nature has been most lavish in her gifts to Boerne and Kendall County. The ozone is there, but her people must do the rest.”

So they did. A Dr. William Miller opened one of the first sanitaria (which I just discovered is the plural for sanitarium) in town. A stone building he called White Gables on the property along Main Street across from St Helena’s Episcopal Church, where today the new library and city campus stand. Over on Adler Road, the Frederick Adler family added a four-room wing onto their home and ran it as Adler House, a boarding home. It would become a tuberculosis sanitarium called Winona Home after the railroad began to bring more of “the invalid[s] with flushed cheek and hectic cough.” The house still stands today, roughly across the street from Curington Elementary, looking slightly different without that extra wing. But the largest of the tuberculosis hospitals by far was the one built in 1896 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, with the very substantial help of, once again, Dr. Herff, as an extension of Santa Rosa hospital which did not accept TB cases. The Sisters bought the White Gables hospital from Dr Miller and rebuilt it, added kitchens, a chapel and a laundry, and re-christened it St. Mary’s Sanitorium. (For some reason the terms sanitarium and sanitorium were used pretty much interchangeably.) At first the hospital had beds for about thirty patients, while an additional one hundred and fifty were farmed out to so-called “open-air sanitaria”. More rooms were added as the hospital was rebuilt, and between 1896 and 1897, 731 patients were treated at St. Mary’s. The permanent population of Boerne was about seven hundred people at the time, so St. Mary’s literally doubled Boerne’s population.

There were other resorts as well, that catered to a different kind of visitor and didn’t welcome lungers to join in on the fun. Judge John Reinhard bought a 640 acre property on the road to Sisterdale in 1882 and opened his Walnut Grove resort in 1885. At first, the Reinhard family boarded guests in their home, but soon the resort went upscale, adding cottages, tennis courts, a limestone house around the springs and a broad, tree-lined esplanade along which guests could walk to their familystyle dinner in the main house. “There is a mineral spring within one mile of Boerne, iron and magnesia,” stated early Boerne citizen John O’Grady in a piece he did for the 1867 Texas Almanac, “said, by Dr. [Herff] and other scientific men, to be invaluable, particularly for consumptives.”

Unfortunately for the consumptives, after Reinhard got ahold of the place, they could no longer try the water cure there. About that esplanade though: I went to a BBQ out on Walnut Grove Road back twenty years or so when I was struck by the eeriest sense of deja vu, another gift from Garland Perry and his Historic Images. I suddenly found myself standing between two straight rows of mature trees, with a bit of crumbling concrete border at my feet, and then this half-forgotten picture emerged from wherever it had been hiding in my memory: the image of the wide, paved avenue they called Broadway at the old Walnut Grove resort, that I remembered seeing in Mr. Perry’s book as a teenager. It doesn’t get too much closer to time travel than that.

There were Phillip Manor House on North Main and Becker House, proprietor Mary Becker, first white child born in Boerne, on Rosewood near where Ebensberger-Fisher stands today; there were the Boerne Hotel/Kendall Inn and the St James Hotel on the corner of Main across the street from the Dienger building, and rooms to let in just about every house in town for those of more humble means. And folks could come to Boerne and not rent a room too, once the railroad made a trip to Boerne – a thing that could be done over a weekend – a campground sprang up on the Cibolo on River Road. They called the spillway below the River Road dam the Boerne Lake, and it was a very popular picnic spot with the campground next to it. Thousands of people made the trip to Boerne in its resort era, to walk the streets and breathe in the air, to take the waters and to take the cure, to bathe in the sulphur springs and bask in the high, dry, mountain ozone. Boerne was a tourist town way, way before the pretty red benches and the River South art thing, and the whole Dickens on Main thing, and the over-priced boutiques and all the rest; people came from all over the world to the Texas Alps, just to be and breathe in Boerne.

After the first World War ended, a whole new wave of sanitaria came into being to treat not only lungers suffering from TB, but to minister to returning soldiers whose lungs had been poisoned by mustard and nerve gasses. A Dr. WE Wright bought the old Kuhlmann house on the hill where Care Choice nursing home stands today, and turned the big private home into a hospital surrounded by smaller cottages, housing four men a piece. In 1919, Dr. Wright contracted with the VA to treat WWI vets recovering from TB and poison gas. His first of one hundred and fifty patients was one Dr. Dewitt Hogue, who would heal from his lung ailment and, along with his wife Cora, live the rest of his life in Boerne and be laid to rest in the cemetery here. The Lex Sanitarium also began operation in 1919, when Emilie Lex opened her home on Johns Road a mile from town, where she took Dr. Nooe’s patients, eventually converting two rooms into operating rooms for him. Henry Graham, who had his finger in just about every pie in town, built a huge frame home on the Guadalupe near Bergheim, opening it in 1920 as the Rainbow Rest Home, also catering to returning soldiers with lung troubles. That home would eventually become the ranch headquarters for the enormous Elmax Ranch.

The tuberculosis epidemic had slowed way down by the early 1920s, and with the dawn of the Dirty Thirties, nobody had the money anymore to see and be seen at all the old fashionable resorts anymore. The tourism industry in Boerne, which had once involved just about everyone in town, from merchants and politicians and businessmen to servant girls and livery boys and the women who did the laundry for the hotels, just kind of withered up and blew away one day. The Adlers tore down their addition and used the wood to build a house for a family daughter. The Becker House Hotel, opened in 1896 and grown to include fifteen rooms, favorite vacation destination for several Texas governors and other notables, finally closed its doors in 1920. And also begun in 1896, the great St. Mary’s Sanitorium on Main Street was down to sixty or so patients by 1923, and then, finally, there were none. The beautiful building with its long, wide screen porches both upstairs and down and the gracious gables looking out onto Main Street, was used for a time as a retirement home for the Incarnate Word nuns for a while, but in 1930 the whole thing was bulldozed. Ashes to ashes. Sometime in the late 70s, an old photo of the Sanitorium that once doubled the population of Boerne appeared in the Boerne Star over the caption, “Does anybody know this place?” And it was an appeal for help, not a ‘Remember When’ kinda thing. We had just forgotten. Not fifty years later and nobody remembered anymore.

Boerne had been a “health and recreation resort ringed by wooded hillsides, spreading its winding streets past old stone houses.” The railroad had delivered thousands to town. “[N]early every passenger train,” said Herff’s grandson years later, “brought in several hollow-eyed, hectically coughing specters, many of whom were journeying to their deaths.” But many weren’t. Many took in the ozone and were healed, and stayed in the pure mountain air and prospered, and when the end finally came were laid to rest under that precious ozone. Boerne, in common with most little towns all over the South, would face an era of dirt-poor hard times, the boll weevil would come and the Depression and drought and war. Maybe those lean, gritty years had the effect of grinding down the memory of when this town was something different, something more, something special; when Boerne was the gem of the Texas Alps, when the air was pure and healing and good, and this was the best place to be.

 

While there are a quite a few of them, I am always intrigued by the more scandalous and dramatic stories. One that comes to mind is “The Ancient Scourge” which gives a remarkable insight into the area’s historic influx of TB patients seeking treatment at some of our past, and various, health resorts from the mid-1800s until the early 20th century.  “Murder in the Castle”, written about the fascinating background of the Graham family is another favorite!  Did you even know that Boerne at one time had a castle?!? Another gem that comes to mind as it is a bit relevant to the current goings-on around us is “Generally Speaking”. Marjorie writes about the many (locally) famous residents’, their businesses, and the very interesting “Did you know?” accounts of providing goods to this area of long-ago. – Michelle Hans


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