By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
Request from Fargo, North Dakota: Do you know anything about a New Braunfels photographer named J. Serdinko? “Uhhh…yeah,” I thought to myself, “but not enough to answer this request!”
The Sophienburg photograph collections contain several hundred thousand images; about 300 of those are impressed with Serdinko’s name. These take the form of carte de visite (small business card-size photos), cabinet cards (hardboard-backed photos larger than a postcard) and stereoviews (two-image cards for use with a stereoptican viewer).
Yes, Serdinko was a photographer in New Braunfels. But who WAS he?
John, or Ivan, Serdinko was born in Bohemia in 1849 and emigrated to Texas in the 1860s. He became a naturalized citizen in 1867. I found him, and his partner Alonzo Newell Calloway, setting up a photo studio in a tent in Columbus in 1875. By January 1879, Serdinko had set up shop in New Braunfels and in November of that year he married Ernestine Fernanda Reich, daughter of Julius Reich of Hortontown. The couple moved to Fredericksburg to set up a studio.
In July 1880, John and Ernestine were back in New Braunfels and opened a studio on Seguin Street across from the woolen manufacturing company. The quality of his work was highly praised in the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung.
Serdinko proved to be more than a good photographer; he was also an inventor. In February 1882, John received his first patent for “a portable darkroom for dry plate photography.” Serdinko was thinking of ways to improve and adapt his profession to the changing times.
In March of that same year, John and Ernestine put down roots and bought a house in New Braunfels. He purchased all new, up-to-date equipment and life for the couple looked bright. Tragedy struck in January 1883. The Serdinkos lost their 14-month-old son. That September, the studio moved closer to Main Plaza, two buildings down from the NB Zeitung office on Seguin Street.
John seemed to settle into life in NB and his studio did well. There had been photographers in New Braunfels as early as 1855, when a man set up a studio to produce daguerreotypes. You will find many photographers’ names on carte de visite and cabinet cards made in New Braunfels from the 1860s to the early 20th C: Carl Iwonsky (who was also a painter), William DeRyee, J.M. Slater, Doerr, Ranney, Winther, Jacobson, Jakobi & Parks, J.H. Chapman, Hoffmann, Schwarz and Klenke are a few.
Serdinko received a second patent, this time for a “rotary force pump,” in April 1885. He got a third patent in February 1886 for a “wind machine.” Like so many of the early citizens, he was a highly educated man with many interests, very much a man living up to the ideals of the Victorian Age and the industrialization it brought. With glowing reports that the quality of his work was “as good as anywhere in the States,” Serdinko purchased all new photographic equipment.
The Serdinkos were blessed with a second child, Rosa Lee, in 1887. John was mainly producing cabinet cards and selling them for $3.50 per dozen. He became a trustee in the newly formed fraternal organization, Knights of the Golden Rule (sort of a mutual aid society). Folks dropped by his studio to have both posed and candid photos taken. Serdinko photographed the first members of the Six and Sixty-six Card Club.
In November of 1887, trouble was brewing in the domestic life of the Serdinkos. Mrs. Serdinko had a sale which included household items, a windmill, pumps, and handwork, to be paid in cash. Ernestine then informed the public on March 1, 1888 that she was leaving NB in two weeks and was selling what was left of her furniture, picture frames and more. She also said she would finish all her photos at a very low price; she must have been doing some of the processing for her husband. She left and the studio on Seguin Street was rented to J.W. Writer who came from the studio of Serdinko’s friend, Alonzo N. Calloway, in San Antonio.
In April, John Serdinko returned from travelling to California and reopened a studio. When did he leave? Where did he go? I followed his trail west, and I found the reason for the North Dakota request. During 1887, Serdinko somehow met up with F. Jay Haynes of Fargo. Haynes was the official photographer of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He had his own railcar fitted out as living quarters and photography studio and is best known for his early views of Yellowstone National Park. There are several stereoviews, from the “Northwestern Pacific Views” series, depicting Native Americans and one view of Yellowstone that are published by Serdinko in Fargo. There are also cabinet cards with “Serdinko, New Braunfels” found in Fargo.
John may not have been the best husband, but he was shaping up to be an interesting man.
When the new IG&N railroad bridge across the Guadalupe River collapsed in 1891, John Serdinko was the photographer who chronicled the tragedy. In 1892, Serdinko designed and fabricated “an excellent telephone apparatus” which was installed to connect Henry Streuer’s Two Brothers Saloon on Main Plaza with the Streuer home in Comaltown. This was the first telephone in New Braunfels!
Serdinko sold his studio and took off for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago — – THE perfect place for an inventor and photographer. After his return to NB in October, John received his fourth patent for “an automatic telephone exchange system.” He then rented his home on Seguin Street and moved to San Antonio in 1894. Serdinko got a patent for his telephone in April 1895.
The photographic business was sold to L. J. Wilson in 1899. Serdinko is listed in the 1900 Census for Colorado County and in March of 1901, Ernestine filed for divorce in the District Court in San Antonio.
And this is where I lost the trail for John, or Ivan, Serdinko. I found the last tidbit of his life in Ernestina Serdinko nee Reich’s family tree, “He died 11/15/1919 in Austria.”
How this free-thinking, intelligent, wanderlustig photographer and inventor made it to Austria remains a mystery.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives: Reich family genealogy; New Braunfelser-Zeitung; New Braunfels Herald; Lens on theTexas Frontier, by Lawrence T. Jones III; Nesbitt Memorial Library, Colorado County History, Part 8, by Bill Stein; 1900 Census, Colorado County, Texas; https://texashistory.unt.edu/explore/collections/TDNP/; https://dsloan.com; https://www.ha.com/; https://www.yellowstonestereoviews.com/