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From distillery to woolen mill to laundry

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

Two sisters, Debbie Elliott and Lynn Norvell, have built homes on the property that has been in their family over 100 years. The property is on the corner of Garden and Comal Sts. on the Comal River, next to the Garden Street Bridge. They are very much interested in people knowing the history of this property, from distillery, to woolen mill, and finally to a laundry.

Distillery

In the early 1860s Dr. Theodore Koester purchased the property and began a brandy distillery. It didn’t last long and in 1867, a group of New Braunfels businessmen organized a stock company to purchase the distillery and begin a woolen mill. The distillery building was a large wooden two story building 40 by 90 feet. The price of the property was $9,000 and machinery purchased cost another $25,000. The former brewery became New Braunfels Woolen Manufacturing Company.

New Braunfels Woolen Manufacturing Company

Organizers of the company were Franz Moreau, Thomas Perryman, Otto Groos, and brothers Adolph and Julius Giesecke. The Giesecke brothers operated the mill. Julius Giesecke’s son was Dr. F.E. Giesecke who would later become a professor at A&M College and operate a summer school for his students. Some of you may remember that Camp Giesecke was on the property that now is “the Other Place”.

The woolen mill, with its prominent 80- foot smokestack, was in operation from 1867 to 1883 and received recognition throughout the state. For that matter, a diploma in 1870, names the mill the outstanding woolen mill in the Southern states. Their products included jeans, tweeds, and blankets. It took 600 to 700 pounds of wool per day for production and employed up to 40 people.

The Texas New Yorker magazine reported that the mill, run by a steam engine, furnished 1,233 yards of gray woolen cloth to Texas A&M College for uniforms. After seven years of operation, the shareholders transferred the property, and incidentally its indebtedness to Groos and the Giesecke brothers for $18,265. During the operation of the mill, a cedar covered tract of land was purchased near Huaco Springs. This 1,210 acre tract was covered with cedar, so vital for burning in the boilers of the factory, but the cost of cedar cutting was high. Products from the mill had gained a reputation for quality, but financial trouble occurred when woolen mills in the Eastern U.S. began copying the NB product. A blanket appeared on the market with the trademark and label of the local mill. This eastern product was inferior and it is thought that people confused the products. Soon the NB mill was in financial trouble.

In 1883 the mill closed and the machinery was broken up and sold as junk. The building just sat there until 1902 when Franz Popp and his wife Anna bought the property, building and all. They used the second floor to live in and put in a steam-operated laundry on the bottom floor.

Evolution of laundry

I’ve lived long enough to witness the evolution of washing clothes. Not that I actually saw anyone beat their clothes on rocks in the Comal, but I heard about it and know it was done. As a young child, I watched a neighbor build a fire under a very big pot, putting the laundry in the pot along with a big bar of homemade lye soap. All the while she stirred it. Oh, what fun! Then she emptied out the whole thing and started over with clean water for rinsing it. She didn’t even have to go to the Comal to get water, she just turned on the faucet. Then she dragged the clothes over to the clothesline and hung them up to dry. No wonder Monday was called “wash day” because it took all day! In the early days if you washed on Mondays you would know not to drink water out of the Comal on Tuesday.

Then came the electric washing machine. Out in the garage there were two connected tubs (You’ve probably seen them in antique stores). Between these two tubs was a rubber wringer. Clothes were put in one tub and would be washed just by turning on an electric switch. Then the washed clothes were fed into the wringer and into the clean water tub to which blueing was added. They were swished around and again put through the wringer. From here the clothes dropped into the basket and then lugged out to the clothesline. Monday was still wash day, a little easier but still an all-day process. Well, maybe only a half day.

Now every day is wash day. If you don’t believe it, just ask one who does it. The washing machine washes the clothes, spin-dries them, rinses them, then spins them almost dry and the dryer dries them. All you have to do is take them out of the dryer and put them away. Guess what! I complain about this last step. I can just imagine that the women of old didn’t “whistle while they worked” on Mondays.

New Braunfels Steam Laundry

Getting back to the Popps and their laundry purchased in the early 1900’s. Franz Popp emigrated from Prussia in 1886 and married Anna Mielke in Texas. Two of their children were Bruno and Emma. Emma married Carl Doeppenschmidt who was proprietor of the Phoenix Cafe.

Emma’s life was full of sadness, but she was a strong woman. First her husband Carl died in 1926, then her mother Anna in 1934. A fire at the laundry was the ultimate cause of her mother’s death. Her father died in 1938. She operated the laundry alone during the Depression, was also a cook at the Phoenix and lived upstairs over the laundry with her two small children, Lawrence and Thelma. Eventually Emma married Adolph Krause.

Emma’s daughter Thelma, with her husband James Ethridge, lived in a house next to the laundry until Thelma died in 2002. She was the mother of Debbie and Lynn Ethridge, the two sisters who have built homes on the property.

In 1954 the old building was torn down, so they have decided to apply for a historical site marker designating the laundry history .The large bell salvaged from the top of the building will be included with the marker. Part of the smoke stack is still visible. It should be quite attractive as it marks the site of an old New Braunfels landmark.

New Braunfels Woolen Mills, 1880-90s showing the bell tower and the tall smokestack.

New Braunfels Woolen Mills, 1880-90s showing the bell tower and the tall smokestack.