All of you readers who, like myself, have ever fancied yourself in the role of amateur sleuth, will have already recognized the one big hurdle to getting on in that line of work- namely, the scarcity of murders in one’s close proximity which combine the necessary ingredients of being fabulously complicated- preferably hanging upon a crucial sixty seconds or so in your suspect’s alibi as well as a railroad timetable- and having completely baffled the local gendarme.
My own favorite detective, Miss Jane Marple, had the good fortune, at least as far as her avocation was concerned, of practically stumbling over corpses everywhere she went for the last forty years or so of her life. Over the course of her career, pretty much the entire citizenry of St Mary Mead was either bumped off themselves or at the very least encountered a carcass on their hearthrugs, or witnessed someone being strangled in a passing train, so much so that one wonders why the village constabulary never cast a suspicious eye on the old dame herself. Why, even went she went on vacation to the beach, courtesy of the kindness of her nephew Raymond, twelve or thirteen people immediately dropped dead in her vicinity, and when she ventured as far as the Caribbean you could just about name the villain of the piece by the end simply because he (or she) was the only one left alive besides Jane Marple.
But friends, I’ve solved the problem for all of you potential snoop sisters and brothers, and the best part is that nobody has to get the old deep-six…actually, my method does involve quite a few dead people, but most of ‘em have been in that condition a good long while and most of them weren’t murdered but just died of things like La Grippe and cholera and other obscure, horrifying diseases. I feel like I’d better clear this up before it gets any weirder- I’m talking about history, and I can actually feel you guys sighing in disappointment right now. I thought she was gonna say something interesting. But the hunt, the gathering of clues, the step-by-step unravelling of a tantalizing mystery, seriously, all that stuff can be found in history! Ok, hang on, I don’t mean the kind of high school history where the course was dumped on a resentful badminton coach after all the other teachers called “Not it!” and where you’re always reading Unit 3 about the Pilgrims and all of the answers on the pop quiz are “Miles Standish”. What I mean talking about is the unsolved mystery kind of history, discovering an obscure old puzzle where you end up tracking down leads and interrogating John Eddie Vogt and poring over back issues of the Boerne Star and where you might just succeed, finally, in sussing out the solution, the rest of the story, in that moment when all your sleuthing pays off and you end up standing beside a worn headstone in a tiny family plot and you feel this unanticipated, crazy swell of satisfaction.
It started for me when I was a teenager and worked at the Hilltop nursing home, which was a 60s-era brick ranch-style place (it’s still there, if you want to check my description for yourself), with a crumbling old mansion standing right behind it (the mansion isn’t there anymore though), and the remains of what had obviously been, in its time, the fancy garden of the mansion. They, whoever owned it at the time, were using it for storage, or more accurately for a place to stash the kind of crap you don’t know what to do with, that you know perfectly well you ought to throw away but you feel vaguely guilty about actually taking the step so you cram it into, say, an abandoned mansion, where you never have to look at it again, hopefully, until you die and then it becomes your children’s problem. So there were old wheelchairs in there and old iron hopital bedsteads, inherently creepy items emitting shades of plague wards and dim, sepia-toned ghosts of the Civil War, and if my memory isn’t making this up altogether, there was an old artificial leg stashed in there too, reclining rakishly against the sagging staircase and adding to the general aura of people having limbs amputated in a field hospital in Antietam. This whole macabre menagerie got me very curious all of a sudden as to what this was all about. I knew absolutely nada about the history of Boerne, about the history of anything, really (except the Pilgrims) and as far as I’d been concerned the whole world had sprung into being around 1968 when I was four years old and first began to notice stuff, plus I was a teenager back then so I was of course turbulently, violently self-absorbed- but all of a sudden I wanted to know. And now to our story of the month, a subject that I think simply everyone must be into:
Ghost towns. Not abandoned mansions, but abandoned towns, places that fell off the map, people who blew away like the fluffy little seeds of a dandelion on a windy Spring day. The idea of a ghost town is so alluring- some forgotten place where once there were houses and churches and schools, lives, people laughing, someone chasing their dog down the street. A collection of people, who all once lived and died in this one place to which whatever fate or chance had delivered them, to live with one another with all their separate hopes and thoughts and everything that made them mad, elated them, sustained their lives, all centered in that one living place, where now there’s nothing left to show the world it ever happened at all. A cemetery or a tiny family plot, fragments of a limestone foundation, the relic of a crumbling chimney that was once the center of some family’s home. We all think we know all the little towns that make up Kendall County- Boerne and Comfort, the two big ones,Welfare, Waring and Bergheim, Sisterdale and Kendalia, and I may have missed a couple, I’m thinking off the top of my head. But other little settlements sprung up and thrived for a while, people did their living and dying and babies were born and children grew up, in places carved out of the landscape that they called their own for a while. One of those places was Brownsboro, Texas.
A year ago I told you a story about the Insall family, late of Lavaca County, who repaired to these environs rather hastily in 1864 after Father Insall shot a guy in the back, and I don’t mean a soldier on the other side in the Civil War, but a fella with whom Mr Insall had a beef and subsequently waylaid, at night. Local authorities were showing a distinct inclination to hang Mr Insall from the neck til he was dead, a procedure he passionately wished to avoid if possible. In furtherance of this plan of Senor Insall’s to keep himself on the right side of the noose, he, with his wife and kids, lit out of Lavaca County in the middle of the night and didn’t quit moving until they got to the wilds of Kendall County. Here they holed up in what Mrs Insall later claimed to be the oldest house in the county, and that was located near what is today Hwy 473, on a big bend in the Guadalupe River five miles from Comfort. The area where the Insall family eventually established their seat, Insall Bottoms, is landmarked these days by that wonderful old railroad trestle bridge that spans the Guadalupe and River Bend Road. Well anyway, old Mrs Insall, toward the very end of her long life, sat down with a newspaperman in 1923 and told him the story of her family- or at least as much as she would tell- and she talked about where her children went to school, way out there in the middle of nowhere, in the 1860s and 70s. She said they attended school, “only four miles away from the house” and had been taught by a man named Merritt, whom she considered “a mighty good teacher give [sic] the children all the book learning they really needed and was good and kind to them at the time.” Her kids had ridden their horse to school, “an old gray horse,” she explained, the oldest kid on the front of the horse “and so on, petering on down to Dick- Dick always was the baby- just above the tail. They couldn’t ride very fast ‘count of Dick slipping off in the back.” But- what school was it?
Turns out, the Insall kids got their learning in the old one-room schoolhouse in Brownsboro, Texas, where the children of the river bend community were taught their three Rs for a long, long time, from 1848 to 1944, and teacher ‘Merritt’ was most likely a guy named Charles Marriott from Maryland. In fact, the Insalls themselves were citizens- however unofficially- of Brownsboro (which was variously spelled Brownsboro or Brownsborough and sometimes even Brownsburg), even though the little village was never incorporated. It was just where they lived. And worshipped, too- In 1870, a couple of Brownsboro residents, Thomas and Sarah Manning, donated an acre of their land to Methodist Church for the purpose of building a church and a cemetery. Before that, circuit preachers would stop by Brownsboro every month to hold meeting in one of the neighbor’s houses or out under the shade of the cypress trees.
IF there were any cypress trees left, which brings us around to how Brownsboro came to be in the first place. For this special edition, my very first interactive article, I need all of you to close your eyes and picture that old movie trope where sheets of a calendar are being torn off to indicate the passage of time, because we’re going back to 1836. That’s the year Joshua D Brown arrived in Green DeWitt’s colony at Gonzales, Texas, from Madison County, Kentucky, via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, through New Orleans, over the Gulf of Mexico and up the Sabine River. His parents and younger siblings had forged the way down a few years before, leaving Joshua and his brother James behind, maybe to wrap up loose ends in Kentucky since they were the oldest sons, but for whatever reason, the boys were to follow shortly.
And they did. James Brown, as we all know, went on to enormous fame and success as a funk and R&B artist, earning himself the moniker ‘The Godfather of Soul’, but it’s possible that I may be thinking about a different guy. At any rate, this is where this particular James Brown gets off the bus and we travel on without him.
His brother Joshua, who was about twenty years old or so, arrived in 1836, just in time to fight in the pivotal Battle of San Jacinto, and lived near his father and family in DeWitt’s colony. Now Joshua Brown coming to Texas wasn’t the biggest news story of 1836 in Texas, as all this other stuff was going on that kinda stole his thunder. The war for independence from Mexico was raging, and between things like the fall of the Alamo and the aforementioned Battle of San Jacinto, what with Texas becoming an independent Republic- it was altogether a pretty eventful year around here. Well if you paid any attention at all to the badminton coach in high school, you know that Mexico lost the war and with it all these millions and millions of acres of territory, but surprisingly they didn’t mind it too much, they were philosophical about things and wished the new country godspeed and said things like, if you guys ever need anything, our door is always open. Or wait…no no, I’m sorry, it was the opposite of that. In fact, there were a LOT of bad feelings, and raids, skirmishes, invasions, massacres, and all kinds of trouble, kept going on for several years after San Jacinto, for quite a few years, since Mexico absolutely wanted their land back and Texas was just as determined to hang onto it. And Joshua Brown, being a young, able-bodied man and all that, was one of the first to show up when President Sam Houston put out the call for volunteers to deal with Mexico and that’s how, in 1842, he found himself slugging it out in the Battle of Salado Creek. Which is where he fell in love with- or maybe got dollar signs in his eyes about- all the cypress trees growing along the San Antonio River there. An army buddy of Joshua’s evidently noticed his fixation on the trees and, according to Brown descendant and historian Shirley Pieratt, dismissed the inferior Salado Creek cypresses out of hand: “Them trees ain’t nothin’,” the guy snorted. “If you want large timber, you got to go to the War-Loop (Guadalupe).” (There was a recent discussion on a certain Boerne social media page about frequently mispronounced words in our local patois, with the general consensus being that people who say ‘Berges Fest’ with a soft g in the Berges part should immediately cease and desist or face fines and/or jail time. Its Bear-guess, but we’ll settle for Bur-guess. I shall now submit ‘War-Loop’ for the consideration of the panel.)
But back to the cypress trees- why would a guy be so fascinated by a bunch of cypress trees? They are quite lovely, especially growing beside a river, especially from below as one gazes up at their towering majesty from a reclining position in a tube floating down the Guadalupe River, but then again, Joshua Brown from Kentucky was no stranger to beautiful, majestic trees. I don’t think our Josh was gazing raptly upon their sublimity, contemplating his place in God’s creation while snippets of poetry flitted through his spirit. Nah, JB was thinking money. Cypress trees could be made into cypress shingles, and cypress shingles could be sold for big bucks in San Antonio. Joshua’s face breaks into a slow grin reminiscent of the Grinch who stole Christmas and he suddenly gives a triumphant shout, EUREKA!
Shingle-making was one of the first jobs newcomers turned to when they arrived in the hill country. Their very first priority was to get a crop into the ground, muy fast, because they needed to start making a living. But the crop then had to grow, which took some time, and everybody had to have some scratch in the meantime, so people quite often looked to a little shingle cutting to turn a quick buck. Cypress shingles were likely the very first export of Boerne, and a mainstay of this whole region for a long time, as they had the advantage of lasting simply forever as roofing material, and fetched a cool six bucks a wagonload in the big city.
The men who chose the shingle life in a permanent way as opposed to the hobbyist or the between-work kind of guys, were of a singular nature- one description refers to shingle-makers as “antisocial hermits”- and made their home in caves carved out along the riverbank, or in various other kinds of rough-and-tumble shelters at the shingle camp. Julius Dresel, one of the learned settlers of the Latin colony Sisterdale, jotted down a few notes on the shingle men living in his neighborhood: “Several young men were camping out between the rocky wall and the river, some above and some below Behr’s crossing [around where Hwy 474 crosses the Guadalupe nowadays], in order to be close to the cypresses, which they cut into shingles…Cutting shingles soon became the favorite occupation of the unemployed German gentlemen of San Antonio. They could live an entirely independent life, occupying themselves by hunting and reading in jolly company. At times, from half to a whole dozen unattached young men lived in the caves formed by the overhanging rocks in the bottoms…Here they formed an interesting gypsy group in the cool thicket under the giant trees…hunt[ing] deer, turkey, panther and bear, on horseback and on foot. Usually they worked quite hard because money was chronically absent, and one thousand shingles brought in six dollars. But often they had jolly drinking matches, especially when an understanding friend came riding down from town with stuff of rare quality.”
Another guy landed in Texas with his brother on Christmas day of 1853, not to settle here permanently but to report on his travels and observations to the New York Times. The man was destined to become famous for designing New York’s Central Park, but that was still off in the future for Frederick Law Olmsted as he set out on a two-thousand mile saddle trip across the state. He and brother John traveled from the swamps to the coast, from Austin and Houston and San Antonio and through the hill country, even passing by, “…on the Cibolo, at the road-crossing…a town called Borne [which] had been laid out, and a few houses built.” Out of all the places they saw and everyone they met all across the state, they were most taken with the German towns like New Braunfels and Sisterdale, whose settlers Olmsted called “free-thinking, cultivated, brave men.” In fact, they admired the “inexpressible” beauty and the fine companionship so much that they seriously considered settling in the hill country, near one of the German colonies.
Olmsted reported on the shingle makers he encountered in the “German mountains”: “Next day our road took us over a rugged ridge to the valley of the Guadalupe. From the summit was a wide and magnificent view of misty hills and wooded streams. We were crossing a little creek beyond, when two horsemen, in red shirts and slouched hats, came over the hill upon us at a hand [sic] gallop. They no sooner saw us, than they reined up with a shout, and gave our companion a hearty grasp of the hand…Up and down the Guadalupe, within long walking range, are a dozen or twenty more, single men, living in huts or caves, earning a tough livelihood chiefly by splitting shingles. They are of the same stamp, but of less social disposition, disheartened, or tired of circumstances, a sort of political hermits, who have retired into the woods, and live with one companion, or in complete solitude.”
So our hero Joshua Brown set out to explore the Guadalupe westward, searching the riverbanks and the lush river valley for those sweet cypress trees. And he finds them all right, over and over again, in profusion all up and down those German mountains. And all along the course of the river, into present-day Kerr County, Brown established shingle-making camps, and all those loners, those political hermits, those unattached young men, showed up to work. Some of them brought their families, too, or one of the lone young men would disappear for a spell and then show back up with his bride in tow. The pair of red-shirted, slouch-hatted horsemen Frederick and John Olmsted met on the trail near Sisterdale were “two of these singular settlers,” one of whom led the Olmsted bros back to his home, a lean-to out back of the almost-finished new log house. There they were “presented to the lady, who received us with cordial politeness, holding up, in commendation of the climate, a bouncing baby, seven days old, weighing, she said, three times as much as babies back home,” and treated to a luncheon of bread and broth.
Hang on, stop reading for a sec right here- yeah you, the one who just kept right on reading. Just think of it, that “magnificent view of misty hills and wooded streams.” They had just crossed one such stream when they met the two horsemen; it was a Spring afternoon, perhaps the mountain laurel was in bloom, that time when every deep breath makes you drunk with the smell, and the two New Yorkers sat down to a simple meal with the shingle maker and his wife and their fat newborn baby, under the clear blue sky in the German mountains. Isn’t that wonderful? Sometimes I read things like that, a little vignette, and I’ll fold it up and stash it away in some drawer in the attic of my brain, so I can hang on to it.
Back to Joshua Brown’s shingle camps: he set up his first shingle camp in 1844, at the junction of Curry Creek (aka Curry’s, Currey, and etc) and the Guadalupe, just northwest from where the Guadalupe River State Park is these days. Joshua commuted back and forth between his home base in Gonzales, where his wife and kids stayed, and the Curry Creek camp, with his half-brother in tow, kid named John Caleb Brown, whom Josh had adopted when their father died. John Caleb was twenty-two years younger than Joshua and he would go on to distinguish himself in his own right when he grew up, and maybe I’ll get around to writing about him some of these days. But for now he’s just doing the reclusive bachelor thing in the shingle cutter camp. After a little while, though, the cypress trees in the neighborhood of Curry Creek started to grow scarce since Joshua, John Caleb and co. were busy cutting them down all the time, so it was time for the Browns to head west again. This time they pitched upon a lush, beautiful place in a huge U-shaped bend of the Guadalupe, near the site of an old ford, five miles east of Comfort, although Comfort wasn’t there yet, wasn’t even a twinkle in Ernst Hermann Altgelt’s eye and wouldn’t be for another ten, twelve years. We’re not sure exactly when Brownsboro was established, but a lot of things point to the shingle men arriving there about 1844. This new shingle camp would come to be known as Brownsboro, in honor of its founder Joshua D Brown.
At first it was just those solitary young men living there, including John Caleb Brown and sometimes ol’ Joshua. But as the years went on and the lonely young men married and brought their wives back to the big river bend, as folks began to build more permanent homes and put down roots, the little shingle camp started looking more and more like a little town. A school was built, (in 1848) and some of the shingle cutters bought themselves a piece of land and tried their hand at farming. A Kerrville man, one John James Starkey, in his 1939 memoirs, characterized Brownsboro as “a neighborhood, settled chiefly by relatives of Joshua Brown, on the Guadalupe River…a few miles below Comfort.” Now I don’t know how many of the families were kin to the Browns, but at least in the 1870 US census there were a lot of new people not named Brown: there were The Bierschwales, Henry and Elizabeth, the Giles family (no relation to architect Alfred Giles), there were the Hauflers and the Howells and our old friends the Insalls, Mannings, Nichols, Nowlins and the Rose family. And on that same census the school teacher is listed as Hampton Smith, and he had the charge of seventy students- ages 7 to 12 years- in the school.
There was never a post office in Brownsboro, but the town is included on a list of ‘postal stations’, and I include that information even though I’m not really sure what it means. I will tell you that the US post office didn’t begin rural free delivery until 1896, which might have something to do with this puzzle, or it may not- but I invite you, readers, to fill me in if you know anything about it. Our old friend Caroline Insall recalled that before the San Antonio and Aransas Pass (SA&AP) railroad came through the river bend in 1890, Brownsboro folks only got mail once a month, but that didn’t make any difference to Caroline at least, since, as she said, no one ever wrote to her anyhow.
In the 1850s Brownsboro was a stagecoach stop on the San Antonio-Fredericksburg Road, which would become Number 9 and Hwy 87 and eventually I10- a pretty important road. In time the SA&AP railroad came along- a major milestone for most of the citizens of the river bend community but not all that thrilling as far as Mrs Insall was concerned: ““It scares the chickens so,” she declared, “and we didn’t really need it at all.”
The coming of the railroad in the late 1880s brought a new crop of people to Brownsboro. The men who worked laying the tracks, mostly Hispanic, settled in Waring and Comfort and in Brownsboro too, and when the railroad work was done a lot of them stuck around, trying their hand at farming, working as hands on the ranches- and maybe some of them even putting in a little shingle cutting too. When their lives ended in the river bend, they were laid to rest beside their neighbors in the Brownsboro Cemetery.
A lady named Emma Altgelt, descendant of the founder of Comfort, wrote in 1901 about a coup she believed to have taken place among the Brownsboro folks. When Kerr County was formed in 1856 they took a vote to decide where to put the county seat, and Comfort lost to Kerrville. Emma Altgelt felt certain that the “American settlers who resided in the small colony of Brownsborough gathered friends and relatives from all areas of the State in order to out-vote the Germans [of Comfort].” It didn’t actually happen that way, according to the official election numbers, but it does point to a certain friction between the two populations, which definitely wasn’t in Ms Altgelt’s imagination. The Germans who’d founded Comfort were staunch Freethinkers and abolitionists, and had stood with the United States when the whole state seceded and became part of the short-lived CSA. Down the road in Brownsboro, however- by many accounts, a whole lot of them kin to the Browns in some way or another- those American settlers were solidly anti-US. Both Joshua and John Caleb Brown, and who knows how many of their friends and family in Brownsboro- fought on the side of the CSA. Even before the Civil War, in 1856 when Kerr County was formed, there was no love lost between the abolitionist Comforters and the pro-slavery settlers in Brownsboro.
Emma Altgelt finished her thoughts on Brownsboro by noting its eventual fate: “After a short duration,” she reported, “Brownsborough ceased to exist with exception of several ruins and lonely chimneys looking over its own apparent demise.”
Some little communities grow up around a stage stop, a river ford, a water mill. A shingle camp. In a river bend in the middle of ‘Indian country’, a handful of lone young men, a murderer who fled retribution and a wife who chose to stand behind her man, a whole slew of assorted kinfolk, a squad of railroad workers who stayed when the work was done- all came together, and a community grew around their togetherness. Sometimes little towns grow and flourish, become bigger towns, swell into cities, and sometimes they grow and flourish only for a while, and then the people drift away- like the fluffy little seeds of a dandelion on a windy Spring day. Brownsboro is mostly a memory now, and most of the people who remembered firsthand are gone now, and if it weren’t for people who want to know, who need to know, who are fascinated by the mystery, who are compelled to gather the clues and give chase and go on to tell the story, even the memory of Brownsboro itself would cease to be. That was actually happening to this little town in the big bend, but then the Comfort Heritage Foundation got involved, and people got to work cleaning up the cemetery, replacing broken headstones, restoring what was left. There’s a state historical marker there now, on River Bend Road off Hwy 473, almost to Comfort. And the history, the memory, of Brownsboro, Texas, lives on.
Oh, and in case you were wondering whatever happened to the Browns- John Caleb, I believe I hinted, went on to make a name for himself and I promise I’ll tell you all about it someday. I will tell you this, he spent much of his later life, until he died, living along Joshua Creek- he called it Joseway, as do all the authentic old-timers in these parts- which he claimed was named for his big brother, and when he died in 1919 he was buried in the Brownsboro Cemetery.
Joshua Brown, though, he’s not buried there. No, ol’ Josh was still restless, still determined to press up the Guadalupe, and in 1845 he kept on going and finally hit on the perfect site for his next shingle camp. He hurried back to Gonzales and rallied all his friends and kinsmen there to go back with him and help establish this new camp- which they did, and for several years Joshua ran back and forth between the new place- another Brownsborough- and his home in Gonzales, with his kid brother John Caleb in tow. (Joshua Brown may not have possessed a very fertile imagination for thinking up town names, or maybe he was just too darn busy to exercise it.) But somewhere in there, Brown began to take notice of all the new people moving westward up the Guadalupe and got to thinking on things. In 1848, Joshua Brown officially established the town of Brownsborough on what had been the shingle camp of Brownsborough.
In May, 1856, Joshua had that land of his on the Guadalupe, surveyed for city lots, setting four acres aside for a courthouse, which four acres he then offered to the use of the newly formed Kerr County (brand-newly formed, created in January of the same year, 1856), free of charge. They took him up on it, and when Joshua died in 1874, he was buried in the new town he founded. But first, Joshua re-christened his new town in honor of an old buddy of his, who would never actually see the place named for him- a Major James Kerr of Texas Revolution fame.
Joshua called it Kerrsville, now just plain Kerrville. It’s still there.