High and Dry

Back in high school I admit I wasn’t real ripped on history, to me it was just a required course I took after lunch when I was already nodding off and my teacher was a coach who told us to read a certain chapter & answer the questions at the end while he read the sports section.   He didn’t really strive to make it a living, breathing thing and besides, we were usually studying something like the finer points of the Stamp Act which, while I’m sure that can be fascinating, made absolutely no impression on a 16 year-old who found it more compelling to ponder whether one might possibly run into some Clark boys while cruising Main the coming weekend, and sometimes got lost in admiration over the way her peg-leg jeans looked tapering off into her pumps.

I was a numskull. My after-school job was up at the Hilltop Nursing Home, where most of the residents had been born in the 19th century and had grown up in a Boerne that was fast disappearing, who all went to school together in the wood-frame schoolhouse before they built the 2-story rock one, who remembered the first fair and who went to the parade barefoot when it wound down a dirt Main Street with oak trees growing in the middle. And I just never noticed all the real living, breathing history all around me. I did sit and talk with some of the old folks up there, the ones who were my friends, when things were quiet after other people had gone to bed, and they talked about life and gossiped about each other- after all, they’d gone to school together when the graduating classes numbered in the single digits and had lived all their lives in the same little isolated mountain town. One old lady had a terrible foul mouth and would cuss you out in a piquant mix of German, Spanish and English, and a couple other languages I’m pretty sure she made up, and one of the ladies that I sat with tsk-tsked and told me that the old firecracker had been a maiden lady who worked in a restaurant here and who was always very shy and quiet and almost painfully ladylike, and who suddenly in her dotage shocked everyone by turning into a fluent and artistic cusser, and loudly and publicly spilling all the secrets she’d ever known about anybody, to much consternation. Ach, said my friend Mrs Schwope, we didn’t even know she knew what some of those things were! Sometimes I used to sit with a brother and sister pair named Emil and Alma Haag, neither of whom had ever married and who’d lived together their whole lives on the farm where they were born and at the end shared a room at the nursing home. Alma would hold my hand and pat it while she told me about their life on the farm. What wasted opportunities! How I wish I could go back there and pay attention, and ask them more about their lives in this little town, to listen to their stories, to what it looked like and sounded like and smelled like! That’s history, not just long lists of English kings in the 15th century but the people who put the rocks together to build the places you grew up in and who walked on the paths and climbed in the trees and swam in the river and lived and died in the place where you are.

So, speaking of the nursing home (neat segue) the Hilltop Nursing Home was at 200 Ryan Street, and nowadays is called Care Choice. It’s between Main and Blanco Streets, on the top of the hill behind the pet store and next to the Kuhlmann-King historical house museum. The nursing home is one of those long, low-slung brick buildings they built in the 60s, strictly functional and not very interesting to look at. Just what you want to read a story about right? But in the early 80s, when I worked there and my great-grandmother lived there, just out the back door stood another building, a big old abandoned house in serious disrepair and threatening to collapse at any moment, a place my sister and I naturally snuck into to have a look around. It had been the old nursing home before they built the new boring one, and some of the rooms were still set up for business with old stuff they hadn’t bothered to move- old iron bedsteads with their mattresses belching feathers and a couple of old-fashioned highback wheelchairs like the one that chased George C Scott around in ‘The Changeling’. If the beds people certainly died in a hundred years ago and old-school wheelchairs don’t give you the creeps, then your creepometer is on the fritz, pal. It freaked us out most pleasantly. A staircase had fallen in on itself. Somebody had been storing the kind of things in there you feel you can’t legally throw away until you’ve aged them at least 20 years, so there was a dressmaker’s dummy in a doorway, a croquet set moldering in a dim, narrow hallway, an old tin bedpan here and there. Seriously, all it needed was a clown and you would’ve had a readymade set for the scariest horror movie ever made.

This old house was the second Kuhlmann house, the one he built for his childhood sweetheart who died there in childbirth, in its heyday the crowning jewel of Boerne, the mansion on the hill.

William Kuhlmann was born in Germany in 1856, immigrated to Texas and bought the hill in the original town section from John and Helena Werner in 1883. He first built the rock house that stands today and houses the Historical Society Museum in 1885. Kuhlmann was a druggist in here in town and once he established himself, he returned to the motherland to marry his sweetheart Marie and brought her back to Texas with him, where he began building his bride a bigger and nicer house next door. It was finished in 1895 but William and Marie lived there together just a little more than a year when Marie died delivering their baby, who also perished. William, who would go on to be a very well-known guy in town, who owned the first motor buggy in Boerne, sold his empty dream home and moved off the hill.

Meanwhile, in the latter part of the 19th century, the ‘White Plague’ was cutting a swathe through the population of America and the rest of the world. Tuberculosis was a voracious killer, at one time responsible for one out of every four deaths in the US. A doctor in San Antonio, Dr. Ferdinand Herff, was the first one in the medical community of that city to begin sending his tuberculin patients to Boerne- at first he sent the hopeless cases here, to spend their final days in relative comfort, as the higher altitude and drier climate eased their labored breathing. He sent so many of these walking dead to town that they started calling Boerne ‘Herff’s burying ground.’ But soon the town began to gain a reputation as a healthful spot for TB patients, as some of the ‘hopeless cases’ began to recover here, and doctors from all over the country began to recommend Boerne to their patients. The Kuhlmann mansion was sold to Dr WE Wright, who established a tuberculosis sanitarium there, and the old house began to fill up. In World War I, chemical warfare was- arguably- employed for the first time and soldiers began returning from the front with lung diseases caused by poison gas. Dr Wright signed a contract with the Veteran’s Administration to treat soldiers suffering from lung ailments, both nerve gas and TB, and Dr Wright’s Sanitarium was immediately filled to overflowing. Patients had to be lodged in private homes all over town- one contemporary report says that at one time or other almost every home in the section boarded a consumptive. Many patients also had to stay at St Mary’s Sanitarium, a mission of the nuns of Santa Rosa, begun in 1896 and located next door to Dr Wright’s on the now empty lot across Main Street from St Helena’s Church. (These two places weren’t the only game in town- sanitariums and resorts sprung up all over Boerne.) Dr Wright got busy expanding to accommodate the overflow, adding onto the house and building 15 cottages around the place bunking 4 men a piece. Some of the men who came to town to recuperate liked it so much they stuck around and made Boerne their permanent home, including Dr Dewitt Hogue and his wife Cora who lived into the 80s and are buried in the Boerne Cemetery.

Due to the imperfect medical knowledge of the day regarding how tuberculosis was spread and the importance of taking precautions against it, many of the families who took in consumptive boarders had members who also became infected and died. Also, there are stories that some of the young girls from poor local families who were employed as servants at Dr Wright’s, not knowing any better, finished leftover food on the patients’ plates and so sickened and died. There are many, many death certificates in the courthouse that list TB as the cause of death, and its victims came from all over the country to die here.

Dr Wright’s last patients left in 1929, and the house on the hill passed into the hands of a man named Gallagher who turned it into the Hilltop Hotel and Tourist Courts- the cottages were the tourist court part. Gallagher also added onto the house, and put in a swimming pool on the grounds for the comfort of the guests. In the hotel lobby one could buy a picture postcard of the oak-shaded pool with a farm and its windmill in the background, to send to the folks back home. Adding to the thrill of a stay at the Hilltop was a dance school that rented a couple of rooms from the hotel, where I imagine you could waltz on in and learn the Charleston or the Lindy Hop, or whatever they were cutting a rug to in the 30s. Sadly, it seems as if all these happenin’ attractions weren’t pulling in enough to pay the bills, and the Hilltop Hotel and Tourist Courts were repossessed for payment of debts.

After that the old house became a private home again, and Harry Davis Sr lived there until his death in 1957. In those days it was plainly visible from up and down Main Street and from miles around, a big white two-story stuccoed rock mansion with open porches and screened porches and balconies, rambling additions and fountains and planters and statuary and a swimming pool, with little cabins dotted around the lawn. The town was proud of her, that showplace on the hill, home to one of Boerne’s most well-known citizens. After Davis’ death, the place was rented to Mrs Mosely who established Hilltop Nursing Home there and, in 1963, broke ground on a new building that stands today, and the old home was abandoned, and began its decline. In 1990, 94 years after it was built and 10 years or so after my sister and I explored its rooms, the mansion was torn down. The cottages had been falling apart and disappearing a few at a time, and one or two of them still stood in my callow youth, but then the last of those went too.

I went up on that hill the other day while I was thinking about this story, and back behind the nursing home I saw a sort of ghost. There’s a fountain in the back courtyard of the nursing home with a lady’s figure at the top. And listen! In an old picture of the Hilltop Hotel you can see that same fountain, with the lady on the top, cascading water in the front yard. The fountain is dry now but there it is, one of the adornments of the glory days. And the woman on the fountain- she may be one of the muses, who knows- but standing there, a spirit stepped out of a photograph of the past, she reminds me that the mansion that crowned the hill was built for a lady, William Kuhlmann’s muse, who also lived here a while, and then passed into history.



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