By Myra Lee Adams Goff
Another downtown building, the Phoenix Saloon owners Ross and Debbie Fortune, are applying for a Texas Historical Marker. The Phoenix Saloon history really does live up to the story of the Phoenix, a legendary bird that builds its own funeral pyre, throws itself into the fire, lays an egg in the ashes and hatches a new Phoenix bird. This legend has been used often as a metaphor for rebirth or resurrection. The metaphor fits the local Phoenix Saloon.
The property at the corner of east Castell and west San Antonio Sts., according to the late Roberta Mueller, was owned by Valentine Sippel, her great grandfather. Valentine married Anna Ossman and they had three children: Kaytrina, who was crippled, Henry, who was killed in the Civil War, and finally son John, who lived to be 50 years old by his own choice, when he committed suicide.
John Sippel married into the successful Gruene family by marrying Johanna Gruene. After six children, the marriage ended in a bitter divorce, according to family members. Sippel had built the Phoenix Saloon in 1871 and moved into the second floor. Christian Hohmann and Henry Meier operated a bar and billiard room on the first floor of the two-story building. H.R. Schumacker operated a brewery in the basement from 1872 to 1875, selling a keg of beer for $2.25 and a glass for 5 cents, the going rate at the time.
About 40 different persons are associated with the proprietorship, bartending of the saloon, and sometimes restaurant, too many names to put in this column. The building was also called by several names until 1895 when it was finally called the Phoenix Saloon and Restaurant.
An unfortunate incident occurred in 1885 when proprietor Walter Krause fought with a customer named James Alexander. Testimonies of two men in the saloon that day (Harry Mergele and Emil Schertz), stated that Alexander asked Krause how much he owed and Krause told him a quarter. Alexander said that he would pay him after pay day. Krause took exception to this and called him ugly names. Alexander left the building to go to Naegelin’s Bakery (apparently he worked there) and returned with one dollar, put it on the bar and retaliated with more ugly names. Krause jumped him from behind the bar and they exchanged blows. Alexander then left the bar as Krause was bleeding near the eye. Twelve days later Krause died as a result of the wounds.
Beer garden and chili
One of the attractions of the Phoenix was its beer garden facing San Antonio St. Women were welcome out there, but not inside. Women never went inside a saloon. The beer garden was between the saloon and the old Comal County Courthouse facing San Antonio St. The garden was also accessible from Castell St. at the back of the building next to the Ludwig Hotel which was located in what is now the parking lot of Chase Bank. Sippel had built a small pool with a fountain in the garden containing gold fish, a large catfish, and even a baby alligator. It was a popular gathering place downtown. Bells hanging from the trees summoned waiters from inside.
Another big attraction was William Gebhardt’s café at the back of the saloon. Gebhardt developed a sort of stew using ground up ancho peppers that he called Tampico Dust. This extremely popular concoction caused Gebhardt in 1892 to move to San Antonio where his uncle, Albert Kronkosky, Sr. helped him organize the Gebhardt Chili Powder Co. Gebhardt’s mother was Rosa Kronkosky, sister of Albert. Incidentally Albert Kronkosky, Jr. was a very successful businessman who eventually owned the San Antonio Drug Co. as well as being a major stockholder in Merck & Co. Thus the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation was founded.
In 1895 a fire caused damage to the saloon as well as Fritz Maier’s “German Advocate” newspaper on the second floor, but the Phoenix rose again. After the reopening of the saloon there were many proprietors and “when everything was going right, up popped the devil – PROHIBITION”. The advent of prohibition dealt a blow to the saloon world. In NB as early as 1887 the second floor of the Phoenix had become the headquarters of the Anti-Prohibition movement for Comal County. Prohibition was a national issue so each state was to vote either for or against. New Braunfels held rallies around the Plaza and when the vote came up, Comal County voted 100% against prohibition. ”Gambrinus”, the legendary inventor of beer, had many followers in Comal County. At that time there were four breweries in New Braunfels: Rennert Brewery, Dampmann Brewery, Guenther Brewery and New Braunfels Brewing Co. This last one managed to stay open by producing a “near beer” called Busto.
During WWI, prohibition had linked itself with patriotism. First saloons were closed to soldiers and then in a burst of wartime feeling in 1918 the state of Texas voted in favor of prohibition. Rumors of an illicit brewery have circulated in NB but there is no proof. In the basement of the Phoenix there is a hole in the wall that some have speculated was an underground tunnel, but it turns out that it was probably a storage place for coal for the heating system.
Prohibition went into effect January of 1920, but the Phoenix Saloon closed down from 1918 to 1922. Then came two financial blows to the country, especially the government – the Great Depression and the fall of the stock market. One solution to these problems for the government was to repeal Prohibition so that taxes could be collected from the sale of liquor. Prohibition was repealed by 1933.
In 1922 the building was bought by Albert Ludwig, who expanded the building and added a third floor for the Masonic Lodge #1109. Jacob Schmidt bought the building in 1927 and operated a clothing store for 60 years. Several other businesses followed from 1996.
The latest rise of the Phoenix occurred when the Fortunes bought the property and brought it back to its original purpose, a saloon that has music and even serves chili. The Phoenix has risen again and remains a historic site!