By Myra Lee Adams Goff
Recently in the “Smithsonian” magazine, consumer sensor expert, Kevin Ashton, talked about successful innovator skills. His observation was that they possessed tenacity. “The difference between successful innovators and everyone else is that innovators keep failing until they don’t.” He also said “For most of history, creation was seen as a consequence of common people doing ordinary work.” I believe New Braunfels is full of such individuals and that Richard Gerlich was one of them.
Richard Gerlich was born in Prussia in 1852. He grew up in Germany and married Augusta Puppe in 1875. In 1878 they came to the United States. They did not come with the first wave of immigrants with the Adelsverein, but came separately, landing in New Orleans eager to make their way to Texas. He appears on the 1880 Comal County Census list as a 28 year-old, along with his 28 year-old wife, his 26 year-old sister, Alma and his children, Emil (4) and Gertrude(2).
Richard’s occupation is listed as a carpenter and wheelwright, which is a repairer of wheels. He became a naturalized citizen in 1882. By 1883 he had purchased a two-acre lot #168 from owner Heinrich Hoeke who had originally been granted the lot from the German Emigration Company. Gerlich immediately built his house at 505 W. San Antonio St. This wooden frame house remains intact with later additions to the rear. It is this house that is now a Bed and Breakfast owned by the Conservation Society. The standing seam tin roof and windows are original. Next to this house Gerlich built his shop where he would establish a business, now the site of Wagenfuehr’s Buckhorn Barber Shop Museum.
Meanwhile the family increased adding Linda, Walter and Augusta. The oldest child, Emil died. Richard’s sister Alma, who accompanied the family to New Braunfels, set up a millinery shop on San Antonio St. (possibly where the Miller & Miller parking lot now stands). Here she taught young girls hand sewing and machine sewing skills.
Aside from his business of being a “Jack of all trades, master of ALL”, Richard busied himself with other activities. He gave swimming lessons in the Comal Creek to boys and girls. The importance of swimming skills in NB cannot be underrated. Coming from Germany, swimming was not a skill learned naturally by boys and girls as it is here. Old records of NB show that many people, especially children, drowned in the early days. New Braunfels was surrounded by water. Gerlich would separate swimming lessons for boys and girls. Family tradition says that Gerlich’s method of instruction was to tie a rope around the child’s waist, throw them in the water and pull the rope toward shore. This technique in my early days was called “sink or swim.” Whatever it’s called, it worked.
At the shop, Gerlich sold produce from the adjoining two-acre farm such as corn, all sorts of vegetables and cotton seed. He was also a wagon builder, but working with wood was his specialty. Historian Oscar Haas described a one-cylinder steam engine which powered his (Gerlich’s) jigsaw: “He had a jigsaw and did a lot of gingerbread (cutout wood for decoration) on your porch and gables… and he had to fire that engine with wood.
“He had a little mustache and smoked cigars…When he was firing the stove to produce steam, he’d forget about drawing on the cigar.” Haas said he switched to a gasoline engine and then later to electricity after 1892 when the Landa Power Company made electricity more available.
Gerlich had the ingenuity to make up patterns for the gingerbread trim and to meet the taste of the more modern world. When he pulled down his “Richard Gerlich Wheelwright” sign he replaced it with “Richard Gerlich Gunsmith”. He repaired clocks, sewing machine, bicycles, toys and just about anything that was broken. He died in 1930 and his wife died in 1933 and both are buried in the Comal Cemetery.
Richard’s son Walter grew up in the house on San Antonio St. and worked with his father in the shop. He eventually opened his own bicycle repair and gun shop there. He was definitely mechanically inclined like his father. An opportunity arose that he could not resist; a representative of the Ford Motor Company offered him a dealership and he accepted. The offer had been made to Eiband & Fischer, but they declined because they did not want to get into the new automobile business. Gerlich did.
The Ford Company would send him the parts (probably by train) and he would assemble them into a Ford automobile. Needing more room to work in, Gerlich bought the property on which he would establish Gerlich Auto Company on the corner of Academy and San Antonio Sts. from Albert Penshorn who had a blacksmith shop there. Penshorn sold the shop to W.H. Gerlich for $24,000 in 1920. He built his building with a large basement and an elevator. Large boxes arrived with car parts and were delivered to the elevator and taken to the basement. After assembly, the finished product was put on the elevator and taken up to the show room for sale. Henne Hardware had a similar setup with elevator, only they put together wagons on the second floor and brought the finished product down. I believe it was not accidental that both these businesses were close to the railroad tracks. Large items arrived by train because there were no large delivery trucks.
Walter Gerlich had married Laura Bielstein and they had two children, Norman and Marguerite. The untimely death of Laura in 1914 left Walter with two young children.
The Gerlich home at that time was on Academy St. Six years later in 1920, Walter was married to Valeska Babel. Their daughter Madelyn was born in 1923. A new home on the corner of Seguin and Garden Sts. was built for them by my grandfather, A.C. Moeller. The ten room home was complete with basement and wine cellar. It is now the law office of Marion J. Borchers.
Walter died in October, 1933, and four months later daughter Wallie Henrietta was born, never having known her father. Valeska Gerlich became the sole owner of a thriving business. The final chapter of Gerlich Auto Company was sale of the property to Ben Krueger in 1944 and the building now belongs to Joe Keen who restored it and replaced the name Gerlich at the top.
I believe that the quality of tenacity in Richard Gerlich as he fixed the little toys, bicycles, and clocks, was passed on to his son. Walter Gerlich used this same tenacity to put together automobiles.