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Joske’s of Texas and the Guadalupe River

Photo caption: 1950s postcard of Joske's department store in San Antonio.

Photo caption: 1950s postcard of Joske’s department store in San Antonio.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

Joske’s of Texas.

For many of us, hearing the name “Joske’s” conjures up memories of trips to downtown San Antonio for a day of shopping at the well-respected department store. My favorites were the trips during the Christmas holidays to visit the Fantasyland exhibit on the 4th floor and ride the miniature train through the animated village. This was free and was a brilliant ploy to get shoppers into the store. Joske’s also had a for-real bargain basement with bins full of discounted handkerchiefs, unmentionables, household items and toys.

Joske’s and Sons was established by Julius Joske in 1857. By 1900, his son, Alexander, was sole owner. The family was one of the many influential entrepreneurial families in Central Texas of Jewish ancestry. Amongst them were the Joskes, the Franks (Frank & Bros.) and the Marcuses and Neimans (Neiman-Marcus). New Braunfels had their own Jewish merchants: the Schmidts (Jacob Schmidt’s & Sons), the Mendlovitzs and, of course, the Landas. The Texas Jewish community was a close-knit group of like-minded men, so it wasn’t a surprise to find that Joske family members visited our town and had company parties at Landa Park.

The Joskes, like so many other San Antonians, participated in local singing, shooting, bowling and card societies. They also visited Landa’s park and came to picnic on the banks of the beautiful Comal and Guadalupe rivers. This is why Harold, Alexander Joske’s only son, came to enjoy a day on the Guadalupe River in 1921.

Harold Joske was born in 1890 and raised in San Antonio. He was one of the young princes of the elite in the Jewish community. Harold began working at the family’s department store as a salesclerk supervisor in 1909. His father put him in charge of Joske’s 34th Anniversary celebration for the store’s over 500 employees. Harold planned and pulled off a banquet, musical program and dancing at the San Antonio Türnverein (Athletic Club), proving he was ready for more responsibility.

World War I intervened. Harold enlisted, like many Central Texans of German descent, and he served at Fort Sam Houston in charge of the government store. After the war, Mr. Joske promoted Harold to buyer of ladies ready-to-wear, then to assistant manager and finally to store manager and vice president. Thirty-year-old Harold was a healthy, wealthy, athletic, eligible young man who had definitely arrived on the San Antonio social scene.

On Monday, September 5, 1921, Harold drove up to New Braunfels with friends: two women and “a married man from Dallas.” The group decided on a picnic spot on the Guadalupe above Waco Springs about 9-10 miles from downtown NB. By Monday evening, the citizens of San Antonio were mourning the death of one of its best-known sons, Harold Joske.

The tragic story broke in newspapers across the state in English, German and Spanish. In fact, the most detailed account of the accident was in the San Antonio “La Prensa.” This, alone, testifies to the influence of the Joske family in Texas. Details vary in the different published accounts, but the basic storyline begins with a swim.

Harold Joske was a good swimmer and around 3 P.M. that Monday, he jumped into the Guadalupe to enjoy the cool water. Witnesses reported that Harold’s “lower extremities” became entangled in roots and plants on the river bottom. He was said to “have laughed and then submerged himself.” He disappeared and never resurfaced.

Harold’s companions, “one of the women in a swimsuit,” jumped into their car and headed for New Braunfels. Within sight of town, it was reported that the man from Dallas jumped out of the car and “pulled for tall timber.”

The Record of Inquest (September 6, 1921) states that at about 4 p.m., Myrtle Chalmers notified New Braunfels Justice of the Peace, Emil Voelcker, of the incident. He left for the location at once after securing an ambulance.

At around 5 p.m., Harold’s body was found in 10 feet of water by Fred Gardiner, a boy scout from Austin, who was camping nearby with several other scouts. The young men headed into New Braunfels with the body and met Judge Voelcker and the Baetge & Friedrich ambulance on the way. After another half hour, Voelcker accompanied the ambulance and body to San Antonio. They were met on the road by Joske family members and friends.

As all that was playing out, Harold’s two women friends reported to Comal County Courthouse officials before returning to San Antonio. They came back to New Braunfels the next morning to testify at the inquest. The man from Dallas was said to have been located in San Antonio, but there is no further mention of him.

Yes. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this account and this led to many rumors about what really happened. But in deference to Alexander Joskes’s wishes, the press went quiet in respect for the family. The inquest and Harold’s death certificate state cause of death as “accidental drowning.”

Unfortunately, the tragedy didn’t end here. In 1924, Alexander Joske donated property on Broadway near Breckinridge Park to the San Antonio Council of Boy Scouts for its first permanent headquarters. Was this perhaps a thank you to the boy scouts who had found and cared for his only son?

The grand opening of the Boy Scout Headquarters occurred in February of 1926. Mr. Joske did not attend. On July 8, 1925, Alexander Joske had been found dead at his home by his good friend Stanley Frank (Frank & Bros.). He had shot himself.

FYI: Joske’s of Texas, located at the corner of Alamo and Commerce streets, was sold in 1987 to Dillard’s which became the east anchor for Rivercenter Mall in 1988. Dillard’s closed its store in 2008. Developers reopened the old Joske’s store space with new vendors in 2016 as part of the reinvention of the mall as Shops at Rivercenter.

Sources: “The Promised Land”, Mimi Swartz, 1994; LaGrange Journal; Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung; San Antonio “La Prenza”; The National Magazine : An Illustrated Monthly, Vol 52, 59; The Granger News; New Braunfels Herald; www.expressnews.com/life/life_columnists/paula_allen/srticle/Joske-mystery-death-10858227.php