The Brodbeck Flight in Kendall County

[Airplane crash]When Paul Barwick was helping me with the Images of America: Boerne book, he gave me a copy of a little known book called Jacob Brodbeck “Reached for the Sky” in Texas,by Anita Tatsch.Paul said to check out where this flight took place, almost 40 years BEFORE the Wright Brothers. I was astonished, because it claimed that the Historic Herff Farm (that the Cibolo Nature Center had been working to acquire for 10 years) was the site of an early experimental “airship” flight.

I quickly did the modern thing and googled up 72 different internet sites that discussed the event. Governor John Connolly had declared Brodbeck the Father of American Aviation in 1967, and there is a bust of him in Fredericksburg’s City Park. And evidently there was also a flight near Luchenbach Texas in 1874. Why was this such an unknown story, with so many missing pieces?

Here it is in a nutshell. Inventor Jacob Brodbeckfled the tumult of revolutionary Europe for the wilderness life in Fredericksburg Texas in 1848. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire for these German refugees, who found themselves in a wilderness survival situation in a land of hostile Comanches. His most cherished project was his ‘air-ship’, which he worked on for twenty years.” Being a watch maker, he powered his craft with a set of giant springs! His flight demonstration was recorded by his family to have taken place in a large meadow at Dr. Ferdinand Herff’s home in Boerne on September 20,1865.
Herff and Brodbeck were evidently great friends, and Herff became one of the  financial backers for the Airship project. Later, Jacob had built an ice-making machine for Dr.Herff in gratitude. In the archives of the Daughter of the Republic of Texas at the Alamo, I found the stock certificates in the Airship Company that Dr. Herff had purchased, a photograph of the fateful crash, and Brodbeck’s technical notes.

Brodbeck wrote, “The day of the proposed flight, I was up bright and early to check out all the parts to see that the mechanism would work as before’. By this time, my neighbors and friends had arrived to help me hoist the ‘Air Ship’ on the platform. It was tied down in such a way that all I had to do was cut it loose when I was ready to take off.”

Share certificates“A rather large crowd gathered to watch this unusual affair there were many military men there. After Charles Nimitz spoke, a few other well wishers said a few kind words in my behalf. But I said a few prayers as I crawled into the aeronaut’s chamber.”

“I wound up the massive coil spring and cut loose the rope as I released the lever for take-off. The take-off was a success and the “Air Ship” soared majestically (about 50 yards) over the tree-tops. As the coil spring unwound suddenly something happened with the mechanism and I was unable to rewind the spring fast enough to remain aloft. I found myself dashing towards the ground with my spirits shattered. I suffered only minor injuries, but my ‘pride and joy’ suffered severe damage.”

“My craft was taken back to Dr. Herff’s barn where it was stored until I could rebuild it again. I had a plan to have a small steam engine built for motive power but did not have much success there.” His lifelong obsession with manned flight had, in fact, been realized. Yet, his reaction to the crash was utter disappointment, which conveyed a sense of failure to his backers, who promptly backed out. The event faded into obscurity.

I thought to myself that if ocibolo1nly Brodbeck had emerged from the wreckage and proclaimed, “Hallelujah! Success! Man can fly! It can work! Now I know it can work!” – he would have framed the scene with excitement and exaltation. His life and the history of aviation hinged on that moment. It was his attitude that failed to reach enough altitude.

In 1984 the Dallas Bonehead Club named Brodbeck “Bonehead of the Year” for the “monumental goof” of failing to perfect his promising aircraft, patent the machine, and market his product. Accepting the award was his great-grandson, Sherman Brodbeck, then chief deputy sheriff in Hays County. “It was so far-fetched,” Sherman said. “I remember my dad telling me that a lot of people called him crazy because he had this stupid idea of flying, when they were having the Civil War and fighting Indians.”

In one sense, the story of Brodbeck is one of a courageous failure, of determination that did not end in glory. And, perhaps that is the appeal of the tale – that it is everyman’s story, one that most of us can relate to. Said Dr. Herff regarding Brodbeck, “Sometimes people pay more attention to a person’s defects than his triumphs.”

The story is not without controversy, and a variety of versions are out there. So, I called up still-living Sherman Brodbeck, who was very interested to learn that there are Herff descendants living in Boerne and the Herff Farm is open for public programs. We cooked up a plan to reunite the two families, which we did at the farm this spring. It was amazing to watch the 91 year old Herff twins meeting 91 year old Elnora Kneese, the Great, Great, Great, Grandaughter of Jacob Brodbeck. She presented The Cibolo Nature Center and Farm her original painting of the airship in flight at the farm. We listened to the stories of 8 other Brodbeckfamily members, who all remembered the oral history of the flight occurring at the Herff Farm.

Then, Sherman noticed the old defunct windmill at the farm, and mentioned that his hobby was restoring vintage windmills. So, in a strange twist of fate, Sherman is now working on repairing the Herff Farm windmill. How ironic that Jacob’s obsession with flying in the wind eventually found expression in Sherman’s fascination with windmills on the same property some 147 years later.

At the upcoming Living History Festival at the Herff Farm on November 16, a talk on Jacob Brodbeck will be presented, and his descendants have been invited to attend and participate. Come join us, and learn about this strange and unexpected chapter from our local history. And, thanks Paul.


November 16 and November 30
Farmers Market at the Cibolo, 33 Herff Road, Boerne
8:30 am -12:30 pm
The Farmers Market at the Cibolo features local produce, baked goods, canned goods, and other natural food products, along with handmade artisan products.  The Market also features a demonstration organic and water-conscious garden and regular live music.

Cibolo Nature Center Programs for NOVEMBER

Tree Walk
Location: Meet at CNC Pavilion
Time: Offered at 9 am and again at 5:30 pm
Cost: FREE

Fire Ecology: How to Conduct a Prescribed Burn
Location: CNC Auditorium & Prairie
Time: 9 am – Noon
Cost: $25 members; $30 non-members

Tree Planting & Care
Location: CNC Pavilion (by parking lot)
Time: 10 – 11 am
Cost: FREE

Second Saturday Volunteer Day of Service
Location: Herff Farm at 33 Herff Road
Time: 9 am – Noon

Kid’s Club: Thanksgiving Hot Dog Feast
Location: CNC Visitor Center/Courtyard
Time: 10 – 11:30 am
Suggested Donation: $5.00 per family

Don’t miss out!
Location: Herff Farm at 33 Herff Road
Time: 10 am – 3 pm
Cost: FREE

Boerne Birders: Cibolo Nature Center
Location: CNC Pavilion
Time: 8 – 10 am
Cost: FREE

Mother Nature’s Storytime: Clouds!
Location: CNC Visitor Center
Time: 10 – 11 am
Suggested Donation: $5.00 per family

Winter Sparrows and Wrens Workshop
Location: CNC Library
Time: 9 am – Noon
Cost: $15 Members; $20 Non-members
Free to Winter Prairie Bird Survey Participants

Call 830.249.4616 or go to to learn further details about each of these events.


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