The Muelders in New Berlin
by Evelyn Muelder
When my father, Herman George Muelder, died in Seguin on Wednesday, August 23, 1995, he left behind H. G. Muelder General Merchandising Store, the last remnant of a family business begun almost one hundred years earlier by his father, Otto J. Muelder and his business partners Luedger Kuehler and H. E. Kalies. These men, on June 6, 1898, had agreed "to associate themselves in a general partnership for carrying on, in the town of New Berlin in Guadalupe County, Texas, a general merchandise business and the buying and selling of cotton under the firm name of L. Kuehler and Company." Under the terms of the agreement, Kuehler had obligated himself to furnish ten thousand dollars; Muelder and Kalies agreed to "donate their individual time and attention to the management and conduct of said business." On July 25, 1916, Luedger and Hulda Kuehler sold the store, gin and seed house, saloon, residence, and barns and outhouses, to O.J. Muelder.
Descended from Derf Mulder and Justian George Mulder of Schuettorf, Hanover, Germany, both Lutheran ministers, Otto John Muelder married Blanche Schmidt at the Schmidt home in Kingsbury in 1897. A daughter, Irma, was born on October 3, 1898, and a son, Herman George, on October 2, 1909. The prominence of the Muelder family in the New Berlin area can be illustrated by newspaper accounts of the wedding of Irma to Edgar Weyel in September of 1917. The ceremony and reception were held at the Muelder home, with 200 guests in attendance. Piano, violin and clarinet played the wedding march as the bride entered the room, wearing a diamond lavalier, a gift from the groom. Toasts were offered by local dignitaries, including Mr. L. Kuehler, Reverend Freuh, and Judge Williams. The Marion Brass Band played during the reception, and Edgar Zuehl drove the newlyweds to San Antonio in his new Buick for their honeymoon. After their honeymoon, the couple took up residence in the Muelder home. Irma helped her parents with the business while her husband Edgar commuted to Marion where he had a car dealership. Two children were born to them in the house, Marjorie and Rodger.
Eleven years younger than Irma, little George (or "Bubie," as he was nicknamed, looked up to her almost as another mother. Like most of the other residents of New Berlin at that time, he spoke German as his first language, not learning English until he started school. Growing up in New Berlin, as my father described it to me, included adventure and excitement as well as hard work and strict religious observance. Baptised into the Lutheran faith in January 1910, he was expected to observe Sundays in traditional form: go to church in the morning, wear your church clothes all day, be solemn, sit up straight, read only the Bible, pray and sing hymns, etc. No running, playing, shouting, or anything else that would appeal to a young boy was allowed. (He came to regard Sundays in much the same manner he regarded the orange juice with which his mother mixed his castor oil. No small wonder that, as an adult with a choice, although he had deeply ingrained religious values and beliefs, he chose not to attend church until he had a child of his own who he was afraid was going to grow up a little "heathen." He and Mother, whose family was Presbyterian, compromised: they became Episcopalians. It was a choice both of them were happy with, except that when it came time to repeat the words in the Nicene Creed, "I believe in the holy catholic church...," my good Lutheran father just kept his mouth shut!)
Other days of the week were better for young Bubie. From his father he absorbed a love of the outdoors, which translated into many hunting and fishing trips. (Irma once told me that when he was very small, he couldn’t pronounce "fish," but would get really excited when they were "gonna go catch some hih!") Some of the snapshots saved from his boyhood show him with strings of fish caught in the Cibolo, and later, strung-up deer beside a slender young man striking a "pose" with his rifle in one hand and the other on a cocked hip. He told me about his "Papa’s" favorite style of camp cooking: get a huge, two-inch-thick sirloin, lay it over the coals, and keep turning until black on the outside, done and juicy on the inside. His passion for hunting included chasing ‘coons all night with his friends Adolf and Henry Enck and their dogs, sometimes returning in the early hours with more than coonskins. An encounter with Brer Polecat resulted in having your clothes burned and your body scrubbed with lye soap until you were fit for human companionship again!
In New Berlin, young George also found time to practice what would become an early source of accomplishment and pride: baseball. He would play by himself for hours, pitching a baseball against the side of the barn until he could hit the same spot over and over. He pitched for the Seguin High team, and for Billy Disch’s UT Longhorns for two years. During the summer of 1926 and ‘27, he came home to pitch for the Seguin White Sox, earning such comments from baseball writers as "arm of steel," "pitched a whale of a game," "bears down hard on the enemy," "fertile material for the professional box." For the seasons of 1928 through 1930 he signed on with the New Braunfels Tigers, where he rotated as pitcher with "Dazzling Dizzy" Dean. He also played alongside men with whom he would remain lifelong friends, including Ralph Stein, Buck Bergfeld, Red Schuenemann, Gilbert Staats, his brother-in-law Edgar Weyel and Edgar’s half-brother, Arlon Krueger. In one writeup from this period, he "averaged six strikeouts per game and has pitched ten games this season in which the opposition scored three runs or less, several of them being shutouts." Not all his days on the mound were this good, but the many articles saved for him by his sister Irma in a scrapbook generally use glowing superlatives when they refer to his pitching performance. In 1931 he came home to re-sign with the Seguin club, and in 1932 he made the roster of the San Antonio Indians of the Texas League. He even got the chance to hurl against major league teams such as the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians when they made their exhibition tours. One of his fondest memories was having pitched three perfect innings against Cleveland. His baseball career seems to have ended with the 1932 season; no articles dated after that appear in the scrapbook. He was fiercely ambitious to get into the major leagues, but that didn’t happen. According to Mother, it was recurring attacks of the malaria he had contracted while playing in Louisiana that made it necessary for him to quit baseball. He, of course, disagreed; he never liked to admit that he was ill. I believe he considered giving in to illness to be a form of moral weakness. But several articles in the scrapbook from 1932 mention that he was removed from a game because of the heat, so I suspect that her version was accurate.
George had started school in New Berlin at the age of five. He attended the New Berlin school until he transferred to Seguin High School, from which he graduated in 1925 at the age of 16. That fall he entered the University of Texas, where he spent two years as a business major and member of the Longhorn baseball team. His father’s untimely death from a hunting accident in 1927 meant that he was needed to help in the family business, a store and cotton gin, which was heavily burdened with debt. He left school and returned to New Berlin to work beside his mother and sister, who were determined to keep the business running and pay off the vendors’ liens against the property.
At Seguin High, George had met Betty May Duggan, the daughter of a prominent Seguin family. Already an accomplished pianist under the tutelage of her aunt, Clara Madison of Houston, she followed George to the University in 1926 to major in music. Both left school in 1927 after O. J. Muelder’s death. They were married on December 20, 1928, at the Duggan residence (the "Old Short House") in Seguin. The ceremony was attended by about fifty close friends and relatives. They honeymooned in New Orleans, afterward returning to Seguin to reside with Betty’s parents, Evelyn and Charles Duggan, in the Old Short House. During their early married life, there was little money, much of her family’s savings having been wiped out in 1929. But she shared his love of the outdoors, and they made trips to Port Aransas, camping on the beach and fishing in the surf. She also helped in the store occasionally, and taught music at their home in Seguin. George supplemented his business income by working as an oil leasing agent, driving all over South Texas to talk people into signing lease agreements. Later he did his own leasing and drilling, first in partnership with L. W. Campbell and then on his own.
They were both concerned about getting out of debt, and so postponed having children until that was accomplished. The store was a family operation. Blanche Muelder, who retained ownership until 1951 with her son as manager, worked in the store on a daily basis, and Irma Weyel helped frequently. As they grew up, Marjorie and Roger also worked in the business. Roger operated the gin’s elevator and seed crusher, getting his lungs well dusted in the days before people wore protective masks. By 1942 the liens were satisfied. But one morning in the spring of 1946, with a one-year-old child and just beginning to see their way out of the hole, George and Betty awoke to the devastating news that the store and family home had burned to the ground. Roger recalls that his father had roused him from bed because there were noises coming from the store. It sounded as if things were being thrown from the shelves, as someone would rifle through things hurriedly in a robbery. "Get your pants on!" cried Edgar, and father and son ran to the store with a shotgun, but saw flames licking out beneath the pier and beam structure of the building. Shortly thereafter the entire structure was ablaze. They had no hope of salvaging the store or anything in it. Because it had been a dry year, there was not enough water in the cistern to fight the fire. The house sat right next to the store and seemed certain to burn. They worked as fast as they could to empty all 16 rooms of the house. They managed to rescue the contents of all but two rooms, including a piano and the toilet (an unusual luxury in New Berlin at that time.) The heat was so intense that an Oldsmobile they had pushed away from the house had the paint burned off it on the side nearest the blazing structure. The fire department had not been called because the only phone was in the store. By the time word had reached Marion and the fire trucks neared at dawn, the store and house had burned virtually to the ground.
Glass bottles were melted into grotesque shapes by the intense heat. The safe could not be opened for about six weeks because exposure to oxygen would have caused the contents to ignite. With the home went much of the family’s irreplaceable memorabilia. The exact cause of the fire was never determined; however, because of the intense thunderstorm which had occurred that night, lightning was the primary suspect.
The old saloon, built in 1898 and located about fifty yards from the burned buildings, was the only usable structure spared. It was here, where George had been forbidden to enter as a boy, that Blanche Muelder and her son decided to set up business. The old building had covered over 5000 square feet; the saloon occupied less than 1000. In the warehouse, they housed feed, seed and implements. On the concrete porch at the back of the building would sit a big old-fashioned wooden icebox lined with tin. Because most country houses had the same kind of icebox to keep food, he sold about 500 pounds of ice every two or three days, hauling it from the ice house in Seguin in the bed of his pickup, covered with a heavy canvas tarp. The only electric refrigeration in the store at first was the meat counter; beer and sodas were kept cold with block ice in a Coke box on legs, and ice cream was preserved with dry ice (which also kept his little daughter entertained for hours on the back porch.) A large square metal drum fitted with a pump on top held kerosene, which powered lights and heat in many homes. A big commercial scale sat in the corner for weighing such items as sacks of pecans which he bought from people who had the trees.
Inside, shelves lined the walls to hold everything from canned and boxed goods to nuts and bolts, tools, kitchenware, medicine and veterinary supplies, ammunition and fishing tackle, nails, you-name-it. If he didn’t have what you wanted in stock, he’d get it for you if he could. He bought eggs from local people, candling them one at a time during lulls in business. He also bought local produce, as well as meat and vegetables from vendors in Seguin and San Antonio. He ordered beef by the quarter, laying it out on the wooden counter atop butcher paper and carving it into steaks, roasts, ribs, and chops with a meat saw and a long butcher knife thinned in the middle from frequent sharpenings with the long steel. The scraps were ground into hamburger with a hand-cranked old-fashioned meat grinder. Using the same sharp knife that carved the meat, George could slice sausages and cheeses almost as accurately as any mechanical equipment. His thick-sliced bacon became a local legend; he even had a customer who came from San Antonio to buy it.
As I’m sure was true of the old Muelder Store, George’s place was far more than a place to buy staples and supplies. It was where people came at the end of a workday to visit and swap yarns, lies and jokes over a beer or two. It was where you came to find out what was going on in the community, to discuss crops and cattle, to have important papers notarized (George read every word of every document before he signed the notary’s affidavit), to pick up your mail if your box was one of those located in front of the store, to drop off mail for the RFD carrier if you weren’t on his route. If you were interested in the oil business, it was a place you could discuss core samples, underground formations, drilling, leasing, or the latest on whose well was producing what with George; a lifetime of chasing oil had given him a wealth of information, if not of "black gold." It was, as the themesong for the TV show Cheers went, a place "where everybody knows your name." If you’d ever been there before, George Muelder would remember you. He’d greet you with a smile and a handshake, and make you feel at home. He knew your kids, too, and would often give them a piece of candy or bubblegum from the old glass candy case beside the meat counter. Then they would probably notice one of the ever-present kittens that usually came into the world inside one of the large boxed rope coils in a darkish corner of the store. If George was lucky, some of those kittens would go home with some of those kids. Many, however, grew to cathood and stayed on, greeting him on the back porch each morning, sharing his lunch, napping in his lap, and eating the majority of the cat food he stocked. Dogs, too, found a home at Muelder Store, especially if they liked cat food. He never went for fancy names; they were "Gray Cat," "Mama Cat," "Old Yeller Cat," "Little Puppy." His favorite stray dog, though, did get a name: Brownie.
During his years as a storekeeper, George also farmed and raised cattle on the 217 acres that made up the old Muelder farm, purchased by his father in 1910, about a quarter of a mile down the road from the store, as well as the 98 acres that made up his 1952 purchase from R.E. Tewes across the road. George had the land terraced and fenced, and over the years, by purchasing good bulls, bred up a bunch of mixed cattle into a herd of first-class Herefords that he delighted in looking at and hand-feeding. He didn’t believe in horses, but rounded up his cows by leading them into the pen with his pickup loaded with hay bales and a sack of range cubes. He stopped branding them because he thought it was cruel. He never enjoyed selling his cattle, and as he got older, he even refused to butcher his own calves for beef. They became more like pets, and he was happy if the farm broke even.
His love of nature and animals manifested itself on the farm in many ways. Although he planted many crops, from cotton, peanuts, corn, clover, oats and sudan to truck garden vegetables, he made sure to keep part of it in wild pasture land, with plenty of trees and brush for wildlife and for the cattle to use as protection from the weather. He enjoyed the wildflowers that grew up in the coastal fields; we often didn’t shred until they had gone to seed. On Sunday mornings he and I would often walk over the fields, stopping to pick up a handful of soil and run it through our fingers, or follow a cattle trail back into the thick brush of the pasture. We might spend an hour or two casting into the tank for the bass he had stocked there, but usually "patted ‘em on the head" and put them back. We had lots of jackrabbits, coyotes, rattlesnakes, birds, squirrels, and even a few deer in the back 40. We hunted doves in the fall, but he insisted that most of the animals be left in peace, even the snakes. He was careful to teach me the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous varieties, because he recognized that the "good" snakes, such as bull snakes, king snakes, coachwhips and chicken snakes, held down the rodent population as well as keeping the "bad" snakes in check. One morning we were driving down a track on the farm when he stopped the truck and told me to look where he pointed. There, halfway out of a hole, was a bull snake in the process of swallowing a small rattler. It was a lesson I never forgot.
After his father’s death in a hunting accident, George had promised himself that when he had children of his own, he would quit deer hunting, and he kept that promise. But he never lost the thrill of the chase; he only translated it into fishing. With his friend Louis Brenner, and later Ben Stein and/or me, he would leave the house around four AM most Sunday mornings, and usually return around eight, smelling of fresh fish and cigars, with a respectable string of bass, catfish, crappie, or perch. Our regular Monday night meal was one of the above, fried in cornmeal and accompanied by French fries and coleslaw. He did not believe in "trophy hunting;" there were no mounted fish on our walls. But as long as you could eat it, go for it! There was one exception to this rule. One Sunday he brought home an eight-pound bass that he had enticed from under a willow tree on the Guadalupe. That was the lunker of his fishing career. Instead of being filleted for the table, it stayed whole in the freezer for at least a year, where visitors could appreciate its length and girth. After it had been appreciated by all, it was too far gone to eat. Another Sunday morning I heard a gasp from the bathroom. Mother had turned on the light only to discover that the bathtub was occupied by a 27-lb yellow catfish. He wanted us to see that one, too. When I "helped" him clean it (I was about three) we discovered that it had just swallowed a baby squirrel. I remember refusing to eat any of that "bad" fish! One more fish story: when I was a child, Daddy’s idea of a long vacation trip was to get up at two AM, drive to Rockport or Port Aransas, go out with a guide in the morning, and return to Seguin that afternoon, stopping only to pour the water off the garbage cans in the trunk, which were full of melting ice and trout, mackerel or kingfish. That way he saved the price of a motel and an icechest, and we had fish for the rest of the year. But even "Generous George" had his limits. He told about a trip with his father before anyone had refrigeration. They caught a truckload of mackerel, and after giving away all they could, they ate mackerel three meals a day for a week. He said it was a long time before he could even think about eating another mackerel!
My dad was also a fairly accurate weather forecaster. If you walked into the store and said, "Well, George, is it going to rain today?" you could usually bet on his response. He could look at the clouds in the evening, or the way the birds and animals acted, and tell what the next day’s chances would be. Like all farmers, he loved rain, but when drought came in the 50’s and he watched even the mesquite brush die and the topsoil blow away, he didn’t quit farming. He sold down to eleven head of cattle, fed them the hay he had stockpiled, and hung on until conditions improved. Being prepared, "saving up for a rainy day" were part of his working philosophy. He worked on through extremes of heat and cold, even after his health began to falter and he would get dizzy or sick. The weather was just part of life that you accepted because you had to, not something to "bellyache" about.
Despite chronic heart failure, two abdominal surgeries, a bad back, painful feet, deafness and bouts of depression, Daddy continued to keep his store open six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day, until he was 81 and suffering from confusion and memory loss in addition to his other ills. It became a place of refuge for him as well as others; here he could relax, laugh, drink a few beers, pitch some washers with the fellows behind the store, and reminisce with the many friends who dropped in more for the company they would find than to purchase groceries, many of which had long outlived their "sell by" dates on the shelf. The dust grew thick, as did the cobwebs, for Daddy didn’t believe in killing spiders (or in too much dusting, for that matter; he said it would "ruin the atmosphere.") He allowed the yellow jackets to nest under the porch roof, and a swarm of bees to build their hive between the walls of the store. The paint peeled, but that "just adds to the atmosphere." The building’s foundation settled, causing the floor to buckle and the shelves to sag, but he just said, "That’s all right. It’ll last as long as I will." In 1992, finally unable to drive or to stand behind the counter, he fulfilled an old handshake agreement by selling the store to his neighbor, John Bohannon. When the building was torn down shortly thereafter, I drove him out to New Berlin, fearful of his reaction. His only comment was, "Well, it looks better now." He lived at home in Seguin until, after a short stay in a nursing home, he died on August 23, 1995.
Several incidents during his later years illustrate the esteem in which George was held by his friends at New Berlin. For both his eightieth and eighty-first birthdays, they threw barbecue parties behind the store, complete with cake, presents and washer contests. Freddie Frederick, as Mayor, presented him a Certificate of Appreciation, and the year after his death, he was selected by the City Council as Man of the Year. Because he never bragged about such things, I will never know the full extent of the generosity for which he was famous (an old friend, Elam Scull of La Vernia, once told me, "Your Daddy would have owned an H.E.B. by now if he hadn’t given half of it away"). But I will always remember, with respect and not a little awe, the absolute honesty, integrity and decency with which he conducted both his business and personal life. Not to speak of the fun we had, and the father I loved, learned from, and will always miss. I also remember that, even though he didn’t make his family home in New Berlin, he was intimately involved with the life of the community, giving his time and services to projects such as the annual sausage supper as well as to individuals who happened to need help. Perhaps my father never made the major leagues in baseball or in the business world, but to me he was the most successful of men: one whose legacy was to leave all of us better for having known him. If it is true that "a rich person is not the one who has the most, but is one who needs the least," then George Muelder was a rich man indeed.