The Menger Hotel in 1905. Courtesy image.
The Menger Hotel in 1905. Courtesy image.

How did mid-19th Century San Antonio, a frontier town of mud streets and huts, morph in less than forty years to become the fastest growing city in Texas with paved streets, multi-story offices, luxury homes and a trolley system?

An answer to finding the galvanizing force for San Antonio’s urbanization only emerged several years ago and from my mother’s storage room of a New York City apartment.

As a Texas German descendant having lived all my life in New York City, in 2006 I was perplexed at my inheritance of a dark rosewood Victorian secretary with drawers containing an archive as well as with four portraits and a strange black, stippled book reading ¨Record.¨ My deceased parents had never referred to them, though I knew they were from San Antonio.

Curiosity led me to the “First Lady of Texas Art,” the Witte Museum’s late Cecilia Steinfeldt.  Through photographs she immediately identified the portraits as having been painted by  Robert Onderdonk and Carl Von Iwonski, two of the most famous artists of the period.  She assured me they were of my great, great grandparents, the John Herman Kampmann family.

A second call was to the well-known architectural historian, Mary Carolyn Hollers George. Her comment, Kampmann is an unsung hero and he’s not even recorded in the Handbook of Texas; it’s inexplicable,” urged me onto bring the lost Kampmann out of the shadows.

Painting of John Herman Kampmann. Courtesy image.
Portrait of John Herman Kampmann. Courtesy image.

Kampmann’s story started to unfold. I found that a politically-forced emigration caused him to leave a promising career in Germany, arriving penniless because a friend had absconded with what little money he had.  Having extensive skills and having worked on the famous Cathedral of Cologne, he started humbly in the New World  as a stone mason with a pick and trowel.  He soon bought a quarry to cut, to haul, and to build in the local creamy white limestone for homes that brought a German vernacular style to a city of adobe Spanish design.

He engaged in a business partnership with another German architect sharing commissions for a land office and a courthouse, and eventually became a prolific builder, credited in the local press with having built one-third of the entire city of San Antonio.

“High tech” for his period, Kampmann introduced the first elevator and electric bell in what was then the tallest building in the City, his legacy Lockwood/Kampmann Bank building, which, though dilapidated, still exists on West Commerce and Solidad Street.

The Kampmann Building at West Commerce and Solidad Streets. Courtesy image.
The Kampmann Building at West Commerce and Solidad Street. Courtesy image.

His involvement in infrastructure advancements included development of the first utility, the San Antonio Gas Supply Co., and the first water works, the Metropolitan Water Co.  He was the first to use steam power in manufacturing.

His transportation innovations included the introduction of the first trolley system, and he worked indefatigably over many years on a committee which eventually succeeded to bring in the first railroad. He rose to position of Major in the Civil War where he both fought and commanded army supply trains while running a manufacturing operation to make hats and coats for the Confederate States Army. He served the local offices of councilman and alderman, and even as a volunteer fireman.

I was completely convinced that this was an untold story, but how was I going to convey that to San Antonians?  It turned out it was not difficult, because San Antonians love their history.  The Witte Museum, San Antonio’s oldest and most widely visited museum, agreed to showcase Kampmann in a February ’13 show, Wanderlust: From German to Texan,which many of the Witte’s 130,000 visitors saw during its three-month period.

My cousins, Tom and Don Frost, joined the Kampmann reclamation effort when they discovered that the portrait over Don’s fireplace, unbeknownst to them, was of Kampmann, painted by Robert Onderdonk. To go public about Kampmann’s  accomplishments, the Frosts coordinated obtaining an historic marker.  A celebration after its unveiling and the Wanderlust show opening attracted  Kampmann family members  from all over the country to the Menger Hotel.

Author Judith Carrington, two TMI Caroline Bonnet Kampmann annual Scholarship recipients, and archivist/historian of the Bonnet family, and Ken Bonnet at the Menger Hotel after the unveiling of the historical marker on Feb. 1, 2013. Courtesy photo.

Two major pieces of research on Kampmann surfaced.  Professor Raymond Boryczka’s monograph in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, ¨’The Busiest  Man in Town,’ John Hermann Kampmann and the Urbanization of San Antonio, Texas, 1848 – 1885,¨ described how Kampmann straddled his artisan origins and interest in the community with being a member of the elite with entrepreneurial self-interest.

It described how his power burgeoned during Reconstruction and in 1877 when he was ranked as San Antonio’s third largest real estate owner and San Antonio’s largest employer with 150 workers.

"John H. Kampmann, Master Builder" by Maggie Valentine.
“John H. Kampmann, Master Builder” by Maggie Valentine.

Recently released is architectural historian Maggie Valentine’s architectural/sociological book-length view of the man and his buildings, “John H. Kampmann, Master Builder, San Antonio’s German Influence in the 19th Century.

The book explores the built environment as it exemplified the social, political and economic history of the city while appreciating the many roles Kampmann played as stonemason, builder, architect, contractor, soldier, factory owner, real estate magnate, politician, banker, businessman, patriarch, brewer, hotelier, fireman and millionaire.

But the most unlikely result of my Kampmann detective work was breaking the code of the inscrutable German writing in the mysterious black ¨Record¨ book.  Only because someone at the Witte happened to have learned the Suetterlinschrift, or “steep script” taught in Germany pre-Hitler and was able to translate it, did we find out it was the diary of Kampmann’s daughter, Eda.

My cousin, Juanita Chipman, and I self-published ¨Eda & Ilse¨ in 2013.  In it we meet the diarist, Eda Kampmann Herff, a 28-year-old widow, bedridden from Dengue fever and suffering from freezing temperatures in San Antonio on New Year’s Day, 1884.

Eda Kampmann, daughter of John Kampmann. Courtesy photo.
Eda Kampmann, daughter of John Kampmann. Courtesy photo.

Grieving for her husband who died two years previously at the age of 31, she tells the story of a second generation pioneer family enjoying “rags to riches” privilege, preparing seven course meals, watching murals being painted in her parlor, traveling freely, and also as a first generation pioneer Texan, riding horseback and involved with farm tasks.

The Ilse portion, written by Kampmann’s granddaughter, shows a more opulent next generation lifestyle.  It reveals a pre-adolescent girl’s view in the first decade of the 20th Century in San Antonio, living in a big house next to “Oma and Opa’s,” belonging to Kampmann and his wife, Caroline, and in a ranch house in Boerne.

Rich with visual and intimate details of domestic life, it includes descriptions of Christmas celebrations, their home zoo, slaves’ tales, being sent to boarding school in the East, hanging around the horses’ stables and entertaining their parents with tableaux —a picture of a stimulating and privileged existence.

My enormous satisfaction with recovering Kampmann stems from having the opportunity to gain credit, especially in a full-length book treatment, for my great, great grandfather’s life of hard work in the early days of San Antonio.

Ilse, John Kampmanns granddaughter, aged 15. Courtesy photo.
Ilse, John Kampmanns granddaughter, aged 15. Courtesy photo.

It fueled my pride in being his descendant.  Also rewarding was the return of the archive and portraits to San Antonio, donated to the Witte Museum after its 30-year detour in New York where they might have been destined for the thrift store.

Finding my roots in San Antonio and bonds with Kampmanns all over the country was an unexpected bonus.

Finally, the ability to eavesdrop and spend time in early San Antonio with Eda and Ilse and their domestic lives was almost like cheating time and protocol. Eda’s own words were never meant to be read by anyone and Ilse’s only by family.

My advice to Rivard Report readers: be curious about the people behind old documents you inherit. They may reveal fascinating stories that can inspire and teach.  There are lessons lurking in those lives; it just might take a little sleuthing to find them.  You may discover as you search to make friends of family from the past that you find new family friends in the present.

*Featured/top image: The Menger Hotel in 1905. Courtesy image. 

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