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E.A. Grist: Watching over New Braunfels

PHOTO CAPTION: Rabies clinic set up in 1953.

PHOTO CAPTION: Rabies clinic set up in 1953.

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

Have you ever heard of the song “Someone To Watch Over Me”? It was written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1926. I am, in fact, a fan of jazz and big band music, so my favorite version is the one recorded in 1959 by the deep, velvety-throated, Ella Fitzgerald. In truth, it is a love song, but really, who would not want someone to watch over them?

We each have family, friends, neighbors, doctors, nurses and many others that watch over us. Then there are those that watch over our animals, our community and our future. Meet E.A. Grist, DVM. You may have known him. He was a man of many talents, most of which involved caring — for animals, for family, for people, for New Braunfels.

Born Edgar Alfred Grist in Austin, Texas, in 1915, he grew up being outdoors. He was a Sea Scout and attained the rank of Eagle Scout. Having expressed an interest in caring for animals at a very young age, Grist set off for Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College after high school to be a veterinarian.

He arrived in New Braunfels in June 1937, just two days after he and the other 21 members of the Class of ‘37 graduated from Texas A&M. He promptly opened his veterinary practice at 637 W. San Antonio St. on June 25, 1937, becoming the first veterinarian in New Braunfels and Comal County.

In what could only be described as the “perfect meet-cute”, Dr. Grist met Elizabeth Ann (Betty) Wille, daughter of a prominent New Braunfels dentist and granddaughter of one of the first physicians to practice in the city, when she brought her sister’s sick dog into the vet clinic. That meeting was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. They married a couple of months later and eventually added four wonderful children to the family: John, Eddye-Beth, Mike and Joe.

Early in his practice, Dr. Grist was awarded a scholarship to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for sanitary engineering, adding a whole new dimension to this veterinarian’s life. In 1940, he began working for the Texas State Health Department, Food & Drug Division. The job required that he travel across the state for five to six weeks at a time by bus, and yet he still managed to practice veterinary medicine in Comal County. His wife Betty would meet him for weekends in various parts of the state when he was traveling.

He then worked as Assistant State Veterinarian for a year, before he was elected as Texas State Veterinarian in 1943. It was his job to investigate meat processing sites around the state to prevent illness from parasites and diseased meat. He would many times be sent out to find rural illegal slaughter sites set up in a canvas tent with poor sanitation in the heat of the Texas summers. Imagine cattle carcasses lying in pools of blood leaching into the ground water. The health and safety of his fellow Texans was very important to Dr. Grist.

In 1949, he and Betty bought 20 plus acres on 727 N. Live Oak along the Comal Creek, where they set up New Braunfels Veterinary Hospital to treat small animals — dogs, cats, birds. The barn for large animals was added later where they treated sheep, goats, pigs, horses and cattle. Their impressive patient list even included a python from the Snake Farm and Russian bears from a traveling circus. The whole family was involved in his clinic. Betty wore many hats. She became his receptionist, vet tech and bookkeeper. The children’s chores included cleaning cages and stalls, and sometimes assisting on ranch calls. In 1952, the Grists built their home on the property. Their youngest son, Joe, still lives on the family property with his wife, Susi.

Grist took his commitment to veterinary medicine seriously. Throughout his career, he held multiple offices at the state and federal levels. He served as Executive Secretary of the Texas Medical Association, Vice President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Extension Veterinarian for Texas A&M and the first federal poultry inspector. In New Braunfels, Grist established the Comal Cooperative Creamery, which later became Ol’ Bossy Dairy.

Veterinary medicine presented multiple challenges to Dr. Grist. In 1955, he was appointed as the city’s Chief Meat Inspector. It was in this capacity that he worked to educate ranchers, deer hunters and pet owners about disease, proper sanitation and vaccination of animals, especially during several outbreaks of rabies, anthrax, psitticosis (parrot fever threat to humans from parakeets) and brucellosis (threat to humans from dairy products).

Dr. Grist and wife, Betty, at Wurstfest.

Dr. Grist and wife, Betty, at Wurstfest.

It was also in his capacity as meat inspector that he may have accomplished his most recognizable achievement, known by people far and wide. Grist and wife, Betty, hit upon an idea for a festival based on similar festivals in Germany. Grist presented his idea for a sausage festival to generate tourism, create commerce and pay tribute to the city’s heritage to New Braunfels City Council in 1961. I think he hit it out of the park! What began as a one-day sausage festival has grown to the 10-day Wurstfest we know today drawing over 230,000 visitors and generating over $2 million for local civic organizations, not to mention the commerce enjoyed by local businesses.

Dr. Grist retired in 1970 after 33 years in veterinary practice, and 15 years of meat inspection, but he did not slow down. He became the City Sanitarian, protecting our water, rivers, and aquifer from contamination by humans. Dr. Grist passed away in 1994.

Dr. E.A. Grist, veterinarian, family man, proponent of public safety and water conservation, and community minded leader. This is the kind of guy I want to watch over me and my family and my community. I can just hear the velvety tones of Ella’s words, “Someone to watch over me”.

The Texas Historical Commission will honor the achievements of E.A. Grist with a historical marker. The marker dedication will take place at 1 p.m. on June 2 at Wursthalle on the Wurstfest grounds.  The marker will be installed at the Grist property at a later date.

Sources: The Grist Family Collection; Texas Historical Commission.