830-629-1572 | Open Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m., archives by appointment.

When cotton was king

By Myra Lee Adams Goff  —

The fall of the worldwide stock market, known as the Great Depression in 1929, was not of major concern to New Braunfelsers. Being an agrarian area, the county was more affected by a serious drought that had occurred in the early 1920s up to about 1925. The effects on crops to the farmers was loss of farmland. Many farmers were just trying to recover from losses in 1929 and what was happening in the rest of the United States was not as important to their immediate needs.

The drought and the stock market fall was met with an increase in population of people moving to Comal County, especially if the move was to seek jobs. The local citizens needed the jobs for themselves so the locals didn’t look too kindly on this increase in population. Is this possibly where the term “aus Lander,” or “out of the land,” comes from? In New Braunfels, the population in early 1920 was 3,590. In 1930 it had jumped to 6,242. Imagine the effect on a town with limited jobs available. Up until this time, jobs were plentiful because business was good, but when the drought came, some farmers and ranchers left their farms to get work in town. Many didn’t plant crops. Even the mesquite trees lost their leaves, and that’s unusual.

The history of Gruene can give you a clear picture of what was happening generally in the county during the depression. The town of Gruene was a major economic contributor to New Braunfels. Can you imagine Gruene as we know it today, becoming a ghost town? Here’s the story of the rise and fall and rise again of Gruene. The rise of Gruene had mostly to do with the importance of the cotton industry and the creativity of Henry D. Gruene.

Gruene was the son of Ernst and Antonette Gruene who emigrated from Germany with the first group of immigrants in 1845. Their son, H.D. Gruene was born in 1847 in New Braunfels. As a young man, he was interested in ranching and was even part of cattle drives from New Braunfels. He returned to Texas in 1872. He purchased some land from his brother in the Gruene area, originally called Goodwin. Along with his new bride, Bertha Simon, he built a home on the Guadalupe River. Here’s where the cotton crop comes in:

Gruene involved himself with the importance of growing cotton. The production of cotton was so important that the economy of the South was referred to as King Cotton. Cotton was actually grown here in the early 1850s. Cotton growing was long gone by the time I was born, so I was surprised to see photographs of bales and bales of cotton brought to town on hundreds of flatbed trucks. Whatever happened to the King?

When Gruene advertised that he was seeking tenant farmers, the response was overwhelming with 20 to 30 families seeking opportunities. Two types of tenant farmers were hired. There were half renters whose implements were owned by Gruene and whose food and clothing were to be bought on credit at Gruene’s Mercantile Store. They gave one half of their crop earnings to Gruene. The other type of tenant farmer was one who had their own implements and teams but gave one third of their profits to Gruene. Each family was assigned a plot of one hundred to two hundred acres according to the size of the family.

Gruene was very successful and established a mercantile store (now the wooden Gruene Mercantile Store) and eventually a gin, lumberyard and dance hall. He built the Gruene Mansion and several family homes and then the red brick mercantile building in 1904. The town flourished into the 1920s.

By 1927 the worst of damage from the drought seemed to be over. Guess who came along in 1925, “a lookin for a home.” The boll weevil. Add this little critter to the drought that was already in progress and the cotton crops were gone. King Cotton was dethroned.

A song about this bug was written by Brook Benton. I’ve taken a few lines from it. Only the last line is to be sung. The rest is stated.

Let me tell you a story about a boll weevil
A boll weevil is an insect
And he’s found where cotton grows
Where they come from no one knows.
The farmer said to the boll weevil
“Say why do you pick my farm?”
The weevil just laughed at the farmer and said
“We ain’t gonna do you much harm
We’re lookin for a home
We’re looking for a hooooooooooooooome.

The tenants were ruined and the farming system stopped in 1938. The San Antonio to Austin road moved to where the IH 35 corridor is now and stopped going through Gruene. Gruene was deserted but like the phoenix (mythical bird), it rose again later.

Large businesses in the county and city suffered losses and loss of tax revenue to governmental agencies from decreased land values. This made progress impossible and slowed recovery. Larger industries like the Landa Industry, and the Planters and Merchants Mill (textile mill, later Comal Cottons) had a big impact on the whole community when Jobs became scarce. But Comal County moved slowly forward until the economy finally moved on.

Much of the information for this paper was taken from a master’s degree thesis written by Iris Schumann, long time coordinator of the aarchives collections of the Sophienburg Museum and Archives. There is much more to the thesis than I have reported here since the thesis covered the depression in Comal County beginning 1920 all the way up to the end around 1938. She covered many human-interest stories about how people came together helping each other out. Her conclusions is that because of this kindness and charity on the part of the citizens, New Braunfels made it through the Great Depression. Thank you, Iris for the contribution of this research to our history.

 Cotton wagons on Main Plaza in front of Joseph Landa store and home, circa 1900.

Cotton wagons on Main Plaza in front of Joseph Landa store and home, circa 1900.