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History among the ‘stones — Comal Cemetery

PHOTO CAPTION: This aerial is from 1994 and shows the layout of all the cemeteries on Peace. The New Braunfels Public Library now sits where the ballfields are shown.

PHOTO CAPTION: This aerial is from 1994 and shows the layout of all the cemeteries on Peace. The New Braunfels Public Library now sits where the ballfields are shown.

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

When I was in junior high school, I sometimes would tag along with my dad when he drove my Oma to Comal Cemetery. She tended my Opa’s grave twice a month. While they were scraping the dirt and replacing the flowers, I would wander through the gravestones. It may sound goofy, but I loved the way that they were perfectly aligned, each with their own color and design according to the personality of the person laid beneath them. I rarely made it down to the “really old” part of the cemetery before we had to go, but I loved seeing the “cemetery trees” (Italian cypress and cedar bushes) that had long ago outgrown their originally intended landscape purpose. It was not until much later that I came to love Comal Cemetery for the history that it holds.

The arrival of German immigrants on Texas shores in 1845 opened the doors to a new life, adventure and unfortunately, untimely death. Some immigrants died on the way to their new town and impromptu burials were performed along the road. By July 31, 1845, 505 people had arrived in New Braunfels. When surveyor Nicolaus Zink laid out the town, he reserved a little over 4 acres of land on the southwest side of town for the New Braunfels Cemetery. Settlers kept coming to New Braunfels and sadly, 293 burials took place in the New Braunfels Cemetery between 1845-1846.

New Braunfels continued to grow, prompting the later settlers to seek land/housing across the Comal River. The new developments of Braunfels and Comal Town eventually became known as Comaltown (although still part of New Braunfels). A new cemetery, Comal Cemetery, was established in Comaltown in March 1868. It was perched on the bluff above the Guadalupe River where Common Street came to a dead end.

New Braunfels businessman John F. Torrey issued a promissory note, donating 8 acres of land plus $500 to three trustees for use only as a public graveyard, with the exception of a small plot of land for his family. There were additional stipulations that it be fenced and have a proper hearse to transport bodies for burial. The first known interment in the cemetery was Fredrick (Fritz) Hartwig on August 12, 1873. The City of New Braunfels took over administration of the cemetery from the Comal Cemetery Association in January 1887 (at John Torrey’s request) in exchange for $1.00.

The Comal Cemetery acreage has increased over the years. The original cemetery of 8 acres gained 6.93 acres in 1913 when Henry Kellermann sold his land adjoining the Torrey acreage. A small amount was gained when heirs of John Torrey, signed a quit claim deed to the original Torrey family plot, as their father had died and been buried elsewhere. Then in 1927, it gained another 10 acres with the purchase of land formerly belonging to E.A. and Ella M. Eiband. Today, the cemetery covers almost twenty-five acres and is the final resting place of over 12,550 souls.

The earliest graves are laid out in an east-west orientation, with feet to the east. I was always told that with feet to the east, your face will see the rising sun forever. It must have been an inefficient use of the land because in the later sections, graves are slightly akilter, with feet facing more northeast and mostly parallel to Common Street. I get it, perfectly square plots. The square plots hold 4 graves and most likely were sold as a “family plot”.

My Opa’s was an 8-grave plot, curbed and covered in sandy dirt and a caleche rock mix, much like the rest of the cemetery. Everything was dirt, including the spaces between the graves and the roads. A good family tended their loved one’s gravesites to keep the weeds off. Grass growing on a grave was said to be disrespectful. The wealthier families, like in the old part, had fancy Victorian wrought-iron or pipe fences around their plots (in very rural areas, it was to keep animals from grazing). Some families completely covered the family plot over with concrete to permanently prevent weeds. Others marked their plots by planting evergreen bushes at the corners, which then grew into huge “cemetery trees” that can be seen from a distance. Comal Cemetery was a “scraped earth” type cemetery until at least the late 1970s before allowing grass to grow between the grave plots.

One of the most unique features of Comal Cemetery is that unlike some cities, Anglo Americans, African Americans and Hispanic peoples are buried in the same cemetery. It was Mr. Torrey’s wish to establish a Freedman’s section. Sexton’s records prior to 1917 were lost, but between 1917 and 1957, over 200 burials took place in the Freedman’s section. Citizens petitioned City Council and were granted the addition of more burial spaces in the Freedman’s section. One of those citizens was Amos Ball Jr., who was the city’s Animal Warden for 26 years and is buried there. Another notable burial in this section is Ruth D. Harper, who was born in New Braunfels and taught and served as principal at Booker T. Washington. Notable Hispanic persons resting in Comal Cemetery include Thomas Sias Villanueva, Sr, a distinguished Army veteran, who worked for the City of New Braunfels as the cemetery sexton for 20 years; and the Rev. Daniel Campos, a Pentecostal minister, who began the Iglesia Santa Pentecostes Jerusalem church, in 1958, serving the Hispanic community in New Braunfels for 35 years.

Remains of some of the earliest New Braunfels settlers can be found in the oldest part of the cemetery including those from Germany, France and other parts of the United States. The more notable persons found in Comal Cemetery are Ferdinand Lindheimer; Hermann Seele; Ernst Gruene; and H. D. Gruene, (son of Ernst), who built the now famous gin, saloon, store, and dance hall in Gruene, TX. One important, but lesser-known person buried there is Daniel Murchison. He was born in North Carolina and moved to Texas when he was 23. He was hired by Prince Carl as a guard for the early colonists. He went on to help with the Veramendi’s Braunfels and Comal Town developments; served in the 11th Texas Legislature, representing Comal County; and helped revise the state constitution.

The headstones marking a life gone in Comal Cemetery are truly like stepping-stones through New Braunfels history. Comal Cemetery received a Historic Texas Cemetery designation in 2000. It will soon receive a Texas Historical Marker from the Texas Historical Commission. Please watch for the marker dedication ceremony announcement.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Comal County Historical Commission