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Connecting the dots of history

Caption: Ferdinand Paulus, Jr. in 1899.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

Remember dot-to dot coloring books? The fun of dragging your pencil around the page to connect each black dot in order to get an image to color? I find that working at the Sophienburg often entails finding and connecting dots.

Recently, Wendy Zunker Coleman donated a small oil painting of “Torrey’s Mill” that had belonged to her great-grandmother, Alma Paulus Zunker. Pasted on the back is a yellowed news article on the mill and a ink pen message ending with “Alma Paulus Zunker gives to you Dec 24, 1964.” Up to the left is the date 1906. Wendy didn’t know much about the painting but didn’t think her g-grandmother painted it.

The sweet little thing was pleasantly painted but needed a gentle cleaning to remove surface dirt, so I spent several hours up close and personal with it.

A couple of days later, I was moving the Sophienburg’s painting collection. I reached for a small oil depicting the original Sophienburg and literally stopped in my tracks. The technique and color palette was eerily familiar. No signature on it, so I turned the canvas over and found a pencil message scrawled on the backing, “Painted by Ferdinand Paulus in 1905.” I got goose bumps. Was this the same painter of Wendy’s painting? Who was Ferdinand? Had I connected a dot?

I contacted Wendy and asked for a family tree. Meanwhile, I looked up the Sophienburg painting and found out it had belonged to Erna Zunker Timmermann who had lived on Klingemann Street. The oil painting had survived the 1972 flood and the water damage had been “restored” with acrylic paint. Our notes also said that Erna was the daughter of Ferdinand Paulus. Wendy came back with information on her g-grandmother and we found out that Alma and Erna were sisters. Pretty great, right? Had their father been the artist?

Plot twist.

Wendy shared the findings with her siblings and cousins and new information was added to the story connecting a few more dots for me. Armed with her family history, Wendy found out that her g-grandmother Alma had six brothers and sisters including Erna. The paintings had not been done by Alma and Erna’s father Ferdinand, but by their brother Ferdinand Jr. And to add drama to this story, Ferdinand Jr. was killed by a train. Yes, a train ran over him.

On Thursday September 2, 1909, the MKT “Alamo Special” (#241) was headed southbound to make its scheduled stop at 5:14 am in New Braunfels. Passing first through Comaltown on its way to the depot, the train crew was unaware that an accident had even occurred. In its wake, two men, Ferdinand Paulus, Jr. and Albert Bauerschlag, were left lying fatally injured at the crossing on Grove St. near Paulus’s home. “Mama, mama, help me!” groaned Ferdinand according to the reports. Mrs. Karoline Paulus, hearing her son’s cry, ran to his side. She had the severely mangled men carried into her home and the doctor was called. The physician found that Albert had already succumbed, but Ferdinand remained conscious and hung on for another hour and a quarter. They were both laid to rest that very afternoon in Comal Cemetery with Pastor Morhinweg of the Protestant Church officiating. That it was a quick burial tells you how bad it was.

Some family story, right? With this HUGE dot added to the tale of the oil paintings, I dug a little deeper into the museum’s resources. Newspapers in Shiner, Palestine, San Antonio, and Houston had all carried the story of the train accident. But I wanted to know more about the artist Ferdinand Jr.

I got in touch with the Zunker family again. They shared several images of Ferdinand with me. A cabinet card from 1899 shows a nice looking young man with a kind face. Another photo illustrates a fun-loving side as he and his friend Albert Bauerschlag (yes, the same guy that also was hit by the train) enjoy the newspaper and brews poured by an aproned bartender. Snippets of info from the NB Herald have told me he was a member and officer in the Comalstaedter Schuetzenverein (Shooting Club) so he must have loved camaraderie and competition. The Zunker family records state that he was “a pretty good poet” and while I have as yet seen no examples of his writing talent, I did find that he took part in Mayor Hoffmann’s 58th birthday celebration in 1905 by giving “original comic recitations [which] contributed not a little to the merriment of the occasion.” So many more dots!

The Zunkers also shared pictures of two other paintings by Ferdinand Jr. that are owned by the Timmermann branch of the Paulus family. A lovely composition of the Filipino gazebo in Landa Park includes palms and the gorgeous nearby magnolia as a young tree. The other painting is of our stately courthouse proudly flying the US flag from its topmost point. Family members recollect that he also painted the old NB Academy Schoolhouse and other landmarks in New Braunfels. In 1907, Ferdinand exhibited his work in photographer H.D. Klenke’s Gallery booth at the Comal County Fair. “The oil paintings of Ferdinand Paulus, the gifted, natural artist, who has never taken a single lesson in the art, were admired by all.”

And that’s as far around my dot-to-dot of Ferdinand as I’ve been able to go. My picture is incomplete but I know him a bit better, giving his little paintings new meaning. As usual, it’s the stories behind the things in the Sophienburg’s collections that so engage me in our history.

One more thing … I just found out he was involved in the early days of the NB anti-prohibition movement … but that’s a story for another time.

Every family has a history and every person a story. Do you know yours?


Sources: Newspapers 1908 — 1909: NB Zeitung, NB Herald, SA Freie Presse, Shiner Gazette, SA Daily Express, Houston Post, Palestine Daily Herald; Paulus-Zunker Family records; Interviews with Zunker and Timmermann family members; The Official Guide of Railways and Steam Navigation (1908); Sophienburg Museum & Archives: First Protestant Church records, Comal Cemetery records, obituary collection.