By Keva Hoffmann Boardman, Sophienburg Curator
I recently found photos of Alfred Selke in the Oscar Haas collection. In August 1926, Selke and several coworkers were walking around the grounds of the new Comal Power Supply Co. (LCRA). They caught what he described as a “lobster” in the millrace pond. The group gathered for photos to chronicle the oddity including displaying the “lobster” on a cloth to show its size. Knowing it couldn’t be a lobster, I decided it must have been a great-granddaddy of a crawfish. When Charlie Nowotny came in to do his volunteer time at the Sophienburg, he saw the photo and informed me I was wrong.
“It’s a prawn. I caught one once.”
Now Charlie has at least a million stories to tell, so I wasn’t completely sold on that identification. Together we googled “giant fresh-water prawn” and there it was: Macrobrachium rosenbergii. Needless to say, I was humbled. Charlie was smirking contentedly.
Charlie’s dad, Clarence Nowotny, worked 43 years for Dittlinger Flour Mill which was across the road from the new power plant. On Saturdays, Charlie would come into town with his dad and while his dad worked, Charlie fished. This was back in the 1940s and Charlie was just a kid.
As an historian, I am all about connections and I love this one. Mr. Selke would see Charlie fishing and would walk over from the power plant and tell him he couldn’t fish in the millrace pond. 10 year-old Charlie would say “Yes, sir,” and walk away; respecting your elders was a big thing back then. He would pick up his gear and walk behind one of the buildings and wait for Mr. Selke to go back inside the power plant. Of course he would return to his fishing spot once the coast was clear.
On one occasion, Charlie and friends caught one of the giant fresh-water prawns – 20 years later in the same pond where Mr. Selke had caught his “lobster”. Charlie took the giant prawn home with him and released it into the cattle tank on their property off 306 where it lived for many, many years. Sometimes the prawn would sit out on the edge absolutely still. “You could swear it had died,” recalls Charlie, “but you would take a stick and poke it and off it would go into the water.”
Charlie’s fish tales don’t stop there. He and his dad also fished the Comal for bass, catfish, and Rio Grande perch. If they caught a bunch of perch – say 30-40 – Charlie’s dad would drive through Comaltown on the way home and give the whole burlap sack of perch to a family they knew in need of a little neighborly help. The bass and catfish would be taken to the cattle tank and released.
During the drought in the mid 1950s, that old cattle tank was drying up. Charlie’s dad asked the local game warden, Bill Sumbling, if he could borrow the seining net. The Nowotnys used the net to drag the tank. They caught and then released over 1500 catfish fingerlings into the Comal River. Charlie swears that the catfish caught in the park today are the progeny of those little fingerlings saved from the drought.
People have told stories of eels and alligators found in the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers in the early years of New Braunfels. A story ran in the NB Herald, on June 24, 1938, about Mayor Sippel sighting a nine-foot alligator on his property at Solms Creek. He called in Marshal Knetsch who came and dispatched the creature. The Herald reported, “Though he never knew it, Mr. Alligator spent the remainder of the afternoon posing with his captors while Mr. Seidel snapped pictures.” True story; the photos are in the Seidel collection at the Sophienburg.
By the time Charlie and his buddies were fishing the rivers, the only alligators they caught were alligator gars. According to him, not only the most, but the biggest specimens were found below the Schumannsville Dam, south of New Braunfels, on the Guadalupe River. Here, the boys and young men would compete to see who could land the largest gar. Charlie’s dad Clarence hooked “a big one” and “worried that thing for over 40 minutes.” When he finally landed the monster, they discovered he had hooked it in the back fin!
Fish tales – you gotta love ‘em.
- Oscar Haas collection-Selke photos
- New Braunfels Herald, June 24, 1938
- Interview with Charlie Nowotny