DAYS OF BEER AND PRETZELS: A beer-garden history of Austin

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

This essay has been in the O. Henry section of richardzelade.com for quite awhile, but recently the German-Texan Heritage Society asked permission to reprint it in their quarterly journal, which I gladly granted. I am about to launch into a several-part series on Carl William Besserer, the most important person in Austin music history, so I thought it apropos to reprint this essay here.

The 1880s and the 1890s were the golden age of live entertainment in Austin, before the siren songs of the phonograph, moving pictures, radio, TV, and Wing Commander began to lure the masses away from fresh entertainment to canned entertainment. Leisure time was among the many miracles of the marvelous new industrial age that came to Austin after the Civil War, and Austinites wanted diversion: song, dance, drama, comedy, daredevils, freaks, blaring horns and big bass drums, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Austin culture had a decidedly German flavor in those days; the German immigrants who poured into Texas brought their love of food, drink, and the arts with them and soon began rebuilding their Old World social structures out here on the Texas frontier: churches, schools, social and sports clubs, bands and choirs, and beer gardens.

The first German singing society in Texas, Germania Verein, was organized in New Braunfels in 1851. In 1852, German settlers in Austin formed the Austin Maennerchor, or Mens’ Choir. In 1853, the two groups got together via horseback in New Braunfels for a Saengerfest, or singing festival. Where there’s German singing, there’s also beer, so a good time was had by all. In 1854, a statewide federation of German singing clubs was formed, as singing societies sprouted up across the state like the wild mushrooms the Germans used to hunt back in the old country.

All the singing came to a screeching halt with the start of the Civil War, and the Saengerfests didn’t resume again until 1877. After postponing the 1878 Saengerfest because of a yellow fever scare, Austin hosted the 1879 statewide Saengerfest, which was the greatest and most stupendous musical event Austin had yet witnessed, and a precursor to Austin’s current, annual South By Southwest Music Conference. A triple triumphal arch was built across Congress Avenue and Pecan Street. Groups came from across Texas and from neighboring states. A grand nighttime torchlight parade snaked through the downtown streets. Concerts were given at the Millet Opera House on E. 9th (See Congress Avenue Walking Tour.). A grand banquet was served at Turner Hall, now the Ben Hur Shrine Temple at 18th and Lavaca. Germania Hall, now the Saengerrunde Hall next to Scholz’s Garden at 17th and San Jacinto, hosted the business meeting.

Visitors climbed to the top of Mount Bonnell to drink in the view and everybody took a special train from the International and Great Northern Depot on Congress Avenue out to Pressler’s Garden for music, singing, and dancing. Orchestras from as far away as Saint Louis and New Orleans provided music for the Grand Ball at the Opera House and for the various parades, processions, and garden programs.

Currently, Austin boasts of being the “Live Music Capitol of the World.” Dozens of groups play in dozens of clubs on any given night. But Austin clubs, which seldom offer more than booze and ballads, are small beer compared to the pleasure resorts that were Austin’s beer gardens 100 years ago.

Buaas Garden, Pressler’s Garden, Scholz’s Garden, Jacoby’s Garden, and Bulian’s Garden were social centers of the capital city. “They were mighty fine places,” one aging patron fondly reminisced in 1937. “The beer gardens of the old days were places where you went to drink pleasantly, not to get drunk. You took the family along. And the food they had! You don’t know what good food is these days!”

You didn’t have to be a German to enjoy Austin’s beer gardens–folks of all stripes came and went–but it sure helped, at least when it came to understanding the words of the songs. But beer is a universal language, as are fireworks and parades and other spectacles, of which the gardens had a bumper crop.

A typical Scholz’s Garden or Pressler’s Garden Sunday afternoon extravaganza in the 1880s might include a concert by a touring orchestra from Germany, fireworks, hot-air balloon ascensions, tightrope walkers, marching bands and military drill teams, plus bowling and other games and amusements. Originally much larger than it is now, Scholz’s Garden featured a bubbling spring, fountains, a bowling alley, a menagerie with bears, deer, alligators and parrots, two outdoor stages for concerts and plays, and, of course, lots of shade, tables, and beer. Scholz’s dinners were legendary, with ham, roast beef, jellied fish, herring salad, potato salad, bean salad, chili, and every other kind of vegetable imaginable, plus cake for dessert, all for 75 cents. Mrs. Scholz and her family spent all week preparing them. The extended Scholz family lived in houses scattered around the fringes of the beer garden.

Scholz’s Hall, which adjoined the beer garden, hosted many community activities: political rallies, social club meetings, plays, concerts, weddings, balls, dances, and dinners. It’s said that Austin’s most infamous and best-liked city marshal, Ben Thompson, celebrated at Scholz’s after his acquittal in San Antonio on murder charges, shortly before he would die in an 1884 San Antonio gun battle. Today, Scholz’s Garden is Austin’s oldest business, the oldest beer garden in the state of Texas, and the only survivor of Austin’s great nineteenth century beer gardens.

August Scholz was born in 1825 and moved to Austin in 1860, where he soon settled on the block bounded by San Jacinto, 17th, Trinity, and 16th Streets. For a brief time, Scholz boarded German immigrants who were waiting to get their homestead grants processed, but the Civil War soon put an end to German immigation to Texas and thus to Scholz’s business. On October 1, 1862, he bought the entire block on which Scholz Garden now stands from Swante Swenson and immediately established Scholz’s Garden. The first building on the property was a three-room log cabin. At some point after the end of the Civil War, Scholz built Scholz’s Hall, which still stands today, much altered, as Saengerrunde Hall. We don’t know exactly when Scholz’s Hall was finished, but we have a good idea; its first written mention comes on February 24, 1871, when it hosted a “Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert.” This wasn’t Scholz’s first fling in showbiz; his “Deutsch Theater” had operated out of Buaas Hall from 1865 to 1871. In June 1872, the opera Preciosa was staged in Scholz’s Hall. It starred Madame Marie Methue-Scheller.

Buaas Hall and Garden, located in the 400 block of old Pecan Street, opened in July 1860, making it the first of Austin’s great entertainment centers. The Austin Gazette celebrated the new hall’s arrival:

The New Hall Ready–Just the Place Needed–John L. Buaas takes pleasure in informing his friends and the public generally that his New Hall will be opened on the 21st, inst., where he will be fully prepared to accommodate Balls, Parties, Theaters, Public Meetings and Exhibitions of every description. The Hall has been built expressly to meet the wants of the community, is fitted up with elegant seats, and lighted Peters’ Patent Gas Lamps, and will be found the largest, best arranged and neatest of any public room in the City.

Connected with the above is an elegant seven octave Piano, with the latest improvements, for use of Balls, Parties, etc.

There is also a large refreshment Saloon where a fine supper can be served up at short notice.

The public immediately embraced Buaas Hall and Garden, and the newspapers told of many events that took place there in following years. With the end of the Civil War, Buaas completely remodeled the hall and it became Republican Party headquarters. This left Buaas Hall and Garden tainted in the eyes of Democrats, who regained power in Texas in 1874. This paradigm shift spelled Buaas’ demise, along with commercial development along old Pecan Street, which drove property values up and made the Buaas property too valuable to remain a beer garden. In its place, in 1875, went up the three present buildings at 401-405 E. 6th.

August Scholz cast his lot with the Democratic Party and prospered. The Democratic and Greenback parties began meeting in Scholz’s Hall soon after its completion. Scholz served as Austin city councilman from 1873-75; he also bought and sold real estate and dabbled in the printing business. In May 1878, the Daily Democratic Stateman accused Scholz and other Austin businessmen of improprieties with a state-owned printing press located at the state Deaf and Dumb Asylum. That same year, Scholz served as an election officer.

Scholz’s Garden’s ties with the University of Texas go back to the university’s beginnings. Scholz was named an official University fundraiser in 1883, and the 1893 UT football team celebrated its first undefeated season there.

Take a look at the 1893 team photo that still hangs in Scholz’s Garden and you’ll what prompted Will Porter (O. Henry) to quip, in an 1894 issue of The Rolling Stone, “Newcomers to Texas are warned to beware of the long-haired citizen. He may be only a desperado, but it might be discovered, when too late, that he is a football player.” Nowadays he plays rugby for the Austin Huns.

Porter, who could drain a 32 oz. fishbowl of beer without pausing, was well acquainted with Austin’s beer gardens and their patrons. He summed up the two loves of his life once, in four lines:

“If there is a rosebud garden of girls,

In this wide world anywhere,

They could have no charm for some of the men,

Like a buttercup garden of beer.”

Porter had a bass voice of some charm, and the group he sang with, the Hill City Quartette, sang all over Austin. His wife, Athol, sang regularly at concerts at Scholz’s and Presslers’ and Jacoby’s Gardens, under the direction of William Besserer, the father of music in Austin.

Carl William Besserer was born in New Braunfels in 1851, the son of German immigrants who had come to Texas the year before. Besserer’s father died 3 months before his birth. Besserer went to Germany at age 14 for his higher education. When he settled in Austin in 1869, there were very few musicians among the citzenry. Pianos were few, and many of them were old, out of tune, and in serious need of repair. Besserer opened a music store and began giving lessons. A talented pianist, Besserer got a few local boys interested in forming a band and orchestra. They worked by day, and learned how to play music at night on inferior instruments, under Besserer’s patient and unflagging tutelage. Finally, they were playing well enough to attract new recruits, and then some paying gigs, which allowed them to buy better instruments. Besserer’s band and orchestra became locally celebrated. UT students helped spread their reputation statewide, and soon they played in cities across the state. Besserer’s Orchestra played at governors’ inaugurations, during presidential visits, when troops were sent off to war, and when they came back for burial. When Lake Austin became the scene of boating parties about 1891, he directed the band that furnished the music. He also provided the musical programs for the Ben Hur river boat excursions that were so popular before the dam broke in 1900. Besserer also directed a state military band. A talented pianist, he helped found the Austin Saengerrunde, or singing society, for the singing of German songs in 1879.

Despite this whirlwind of activity, he still found time to fall in love and marry August Scholz’s daughter Mary in 1873. In 1885, Besserer took over management of Scholz’s Garden. At that time, Scholz’s Garden boasted of being the “Most Popular Pleasure Resort in Austin,” and guaranteed a free Grand Concert every Sunday evening in the summer. Scholz’s even ran its own street cars to and from the grounds on special occasions. In 1886, the Daily Statesman lent credence to this boast when it noted that “Scholz Garden is well patronized, especially on Sunday evenings.” The Tyroleans, a singing group, sang English-language and German songs there every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The German Theater continued to present plays in Scholz’s Hall, often accompanied with fireworks and balloon ascencions, even a one-legged tightrope walker! A typical Garden Theater Sunday program would consist of six or seven operatic specialty numbers and a two-act comedy, such as Promise at the Hearth. Click here to see advertisements for Scholz’s Garden from the 1880s.

Austinites had a wealth of entertainment options to choose from. Let’s take a look at Sunday, June 26, 1887. Scholz’s Garden featured a free Grand Concert by Professor Herzog’s Orchestra at 7 pm. George Herzog, who founded Herzog’s Orchestra in 1873, was a local musical luminary whom Will Porter loved to poke fun at.

For 10 cents a head, Pressler’s Garden offered an afternoon Grand Balloon Ascension and tight-rope walking by the renowned Professor De Ivey, “Whose areal (sic) voyages to the clouds have earned for him the title of Cloud King, will make an ascension in his monster air ship, one of the largest ever inflated, 150 ft. in circumference.” The Manning Rifle Band was also in attendance. Dancing until midnight in the pavilion followed. When the band wasn’t playing, someone turned the crank of a giant music box so that the music never stopped.

Pressler’s Garden, located at 1327 W. 6th, at Pressler, near the Treaty Oak, was built in connection with the Pressler Brewery. Shade by large live oaks, the Garden spread from 6th St. down to the river, with the bandstand in the center. There was a boating house by the river, a rifle club, an alligator pit, and the pavillion. You could play croquet, or just sit and swing. Pressler’s most memorable character was Schwammel, the head cook, whose vast beard grew down to his waist. Click here to see an advertisement for Pressler’s Garden from the 1880s. As I mentioned recently on another day’s posting, the first recorded use of the phrase, “ice cold beer,” in Austin occurred in May 1880. Pressler’s, under the management of Charley Dyer, not only offered ice cold beer but “secluded nooks for spooning.” During the early 1880s, the Austin Fire Department celebrated several San Jacinto days there (San Jacinto Day was also the date of AFD’s founding.)

While Pressler’s brewery succumbed to competition with national beers like Budweiser, the Garden fell prey to subdivision as the city grew westward, and closed as World War I began.

Austin’s famous dam created beautiful Lake McDonald (now Lake Austin). It was the perfect spot for a beer garden, and so Walsh’s Garden and Picnic Grounds opened about 1895, two blocks above the dam. It promised “fine lunches, cool fresh beer, lemonade, soda, etc.” and guaranteed “Perfect Order Always Prevails.” Manager Dick Bulian soon took over the garden and renamed it Bulian’s Garden. As such, Bulian’s Garden figured largely in the famous March 2, 1897, uprising of the UT Law School’s student body. Annoyed at having to attend classes on the most sacred of Texas holidays, they vowed to celebrate anyway and started their celebration of Texas Independence Day with a bang. The law students, led by such future political heavyweights as Senator Tom Connally, Senator Morris Sheppard, and Governor Pat Neff, fired off two old cannon on the football field. At noon, the president of the university caved in and dismissed the entire student body for the day. The fizz gone from their rebellion, the laws repaired to Bulian’s Garden to revive their spirits. Bulian’s Garden closed a year or so later, as Bulian moved back to Congress Avenue to open the Popular Saloon and Chop House.

Jacoby’s Garden, conveniently close at 15th and Lavaca, was another UT student haunt. During the 1890s, you could get a shave, hair cut, and a hot bath at Jacoby’s, in addition to a hot meal, cold beer and ice cream. (Its founder, Walter Jacoby, was a barber.) A famous law school jingle went, “The junior law comes down to school, But doesn’t get very far Until Jacoby catches him And admits him to the bar.” “Alexander Frederick Clair,” a wooden statue that became the patron saint of UT engineering students in 1908, was found discarded under Jacoby’s front stairs by students.

One of Jacoby’s annual rites was the wein probe, or wine testing. On an arranged date foreign wine representatives would arrive at Jacoby’s, which was filled with Austin’s leading citizens. They would gather and solemnly sample the fine wines, then lay in their supply for the winter. Fathers brought sons along to learn the art of wine. Jacoby’s annual oyster roast was also greatly anticipated. Jacoby’s closed a year or two before Pressler’s Garden.

The Germans seldom let a little thing like Sunday blue laws get in the way of Sunday afternoon beer drinking. In June 1881, Scholz was convicted of violating the Sunday blue law against liquor sales and was fined $20. There were other ways around the blue laws, as Will Porter observed in The Rolling Stone: “Most of the saloons now get a bonafide close on their every Sunday, and the chaser of the merry jaglet must needs fortify himself Saturday night or become a member of the Singenderinkeneinmehrfritzgehaben Society.”

In a little poem entitled “Unsusceptible,” Porter zinged the German singers:

How many dimes my Lena’s heart

I’ve dried to catch by singing.

It seems dot all my highest art

No nearer her is pringing.

Though oft I soar above High A

Und tremulo and quiver

She says if I don’t cease my lay

She’ll jump right in dot river.

Und ven I sing to her my best

Und vith my voice surprise her

She says “Dis is no Saengerfest,

Let’s open dot Budweiser.”

The annual spring arrival of Anheuser Busch Bock beer was highly anticipated in saloons and beer gardens all over town, shipped in from St. Louis by refrigerated rail car.

Formation of the Austin Saengerrunde in 1879 was the younger generation’s answer to their fathers’ Maennerchor, and contained a women’s chorus and a men’s chorus. At first they practiced in Horst’s Pasture, just south of Memorial Stadium on the UT campus. From there they moved to Jacoby’s Garden and Turner Hall.

About 1892, the Saengerrunde began to slip into its present relationship with Scholz’s Garden, as singing practices bounced back and forth between Jacoby’s, Turner Hall, and now Scholz’s. In 1895, the Saengerrunde subleased the Scholz’s Garden bowling alleys from the Germania Club, which had long headquartered at Scholz’s. In 1901, the Saengerrunde moved permanently to Scholz’s.

When August Scholz died in 1891, the Garden became the property of daughter Mary and son-in-law William Besserer. They ran the place another 2 years before selling the operation to the Lemp Brewery of Saint Louis, which was seeking market share for its newly introduced brew. Breweries could own retail liquor establishments back then, and Besserer wanted to spend more time on his music. His orchestra continued to give Sunday afternoon concerts there. The Garden Theater presented acts like “Slater and Finch, the popular Chicago sketch artists and supporting company presenting a program full of nothing but laughs. This team will appear three times each evening in their celebrated society sketch, ‘The Rehearsal,’ their rural sketch ‘Love at Sight,’ and the most laughable black face act ever put before the public, entitled ‘The Military.'” Adults paid 20 cents to get in, children, 10 cents.

In 1904, the Austin Saengerrunde leased the bowling alleys, and Scholz’s Garden on Sundays. The Saengerrunde became a leading social club in Austin, and the vast majority of its members were nonsinging, “passive” members who enjoyed the ambience and the right to drink beer on blue Sunday. Even Governor Oscar Colquitt belonged to the Austin Saengerrunde. Click here to see a map of the Scholz Garden block in 1900.

In 1908, the Saengerrunde bought the entire Scholz’s Garden complex from the Lemp Brewery. And it has been that way ever since, despite Prohibition and two world wars with Germany. Click here to see a 1910 advertisement for Scholz’s Garden.

After World War II, Scholz’s Garden took on a new life, that of “the cloakroom of the Texas Legislature,” immortalized in Billy Lee Brammer’s 1962 novel The Gay Place as the “Dearly Beloved Beer and Garden Party.” Common wisdom says that the Legislature got about as much work done in the beer garden as it did on Capitol hill, at least until the advent of liquor by the drink in 1974. Only then did the monopoly of Scholz’s Garden on the thirsts of government begin to slacken, as solons gravitated to establishments that served more potent social lubricants.

All of Scholz’s peers passed from the scene decades ago, victims of a growing city, but also of automobiles, phonographs, radio, the movies, and Prohibition.

The Austin beer garden scene enjoyed a brief revival in the 1970s, in the form of the world-famous Armadillo World Headquarters and Beer Garden at Barton Springs Rd. and S. 1st, but the pressures of commercial development turned the AWHQ into a memory at the dawn of 1981 and left Scholz’s Garden alone again as the city’s lone purveyor of gemuetlichkeit, or “good times.”

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