By Myra Lee Adams Goff
There was a time when women and alligators and catfish and perhaps a man or two sat side by side in the Phoenix Saloon and Beer Garden. Why is this such a big deal, you ask. It’s because it just wasn’t socially acceptable for women to frequent saloons and alligators were even less welcome. New Braunfels in the late 1800s and early 1900s had many, many saloons but they were the domain of men. The Phoenix Saloon and Beer Garden was different- it welcomed women. Of course, I’m not talking about the Miss Kitty of Gunsmoke kind of woman, but every day respectable women..
Located behind the regular saloon (where Color Express is now), the Garden was a social gathering place.In the center of the Garden, under beautiful shade trees, was a pond and fountain with big catfish and small alligators. That’s not too unusual because alligators had been seen in the Comal many times.
Meanwhile, men and women sat together at tables and if they wanted anything to eat or drink, they simply pushed the button on the nearest tree to summon a waiter. Some of these people that enjoyed the Garden could have looked across the street at Prince Carl’s greater-than-life mural (if it had been painted 100 years ago) and said, “I remember him.”
Inside, saloon owner Heinrich Ludwig employed a man named Willie Gebhardt to cook hamburgers and his famous stew which he seasoned with ancho chili peppers
from Mexico. Spices were ground and mixed three times and then mixed with the peppers that he ran through a home meat grinder. Yes, you guessed it! Gebhardt’s Chili Powder was born in the saloon at the lunch counter.
Soon Gebhardt realized that he had a good thing going, so he moved to San Antonio to produce his chili powder and expand his business. Do you remember Gebhardt’s potted chili meat? A favorite of children’s lunches, this little can looked like cat food but mixed with mayo and put on bread, it was right tasty. Just last week I bought Gebhardt’s Chili Powder but they no longer make the potted chili meat. Too bad.
By 1922 Albert Ludwig owned the Phoenix and then had contractor A.C. Moeller remodel the building. A third floor was added, becoming the home of the local Masonic Lodge.
In 1928 a man named Jacob Schmidt bought the building and he and his wife would develop the property into a successful mercantile business.
Jacob Schmidt has an interesting background. He was born in the German speaking section of Hungary to successful parents. The family made their fortune by having the exclusive rights to sell beer in the taverns where they lived. Young Schmidt dreamed of America and in 1897 he sailed to New York. Heading towards Seguin, Texas, he sold dry goods and household wares along the way out of a wagon hitched to a mule. He opened his first store in Seguin with his brother-in-law. Eventually he moved to NB because of the predominant German language.
The couple’s son Max joined his parents in the store, while son Jeremiah became an architect with his name on many buildings in and around town.
The Sophienburg has lots of info on what became known as the Schmidt building. In the collection room, there is a hatbox, a hat, dress patterns and paper bags with the Jacob Schmidt & Son logo. There are many brand name dresses, hats and shoes that have labels in them that some of the collection ladies recognize as coming from the store.
Da hast es! (There you have it) We have gone from saloon alligators to chili powder to Masons to mercantile store all in one location.