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German heritage runs deep in the heart of San Antonio

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of RIO Magazine, the official magazine of the San Antonio River Walk Association.

German flagYou often hear both Spanish and English spoken on the streets of San Antonio. We are proud of our dual-language skills that go back for generations. If you’d been a resident of the Alamo City in the second half of the 19th century, you would have also heard German.

From 1847 to 1861, more than seven thousand German immigrants moved to San Antonio, comprising one-third of the county’s population at the time. A German-English School, now used as an event venue at the Marriott Plaza San Antonio hotel, taught English, German, Spanish, writing, poetry, history, arithmetic, algebra, sewing and singing to local children from 1858 to 1893, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Germany’s roots are deep in San Antonio, with a historic neighborhood, German choirs, restaurants and beer gardens to prove it. No need to book a flight to Berlin. This October, enjoy San Antonio’s very own German heritage. PROST!

King William Neighborhood

Villa Finale_Photo by Denise Barkis Richter, Ph.D
Villa Finale photo by Denise Barkis Richter, Ph.D.

The lands now occupied by the King William Historic and Cultural Arts District south of downtown along the San Antonio River were once irrigated farmland belonging to The Alamo, according to Cherise Bell, executive director of the King William Association.

Carl Guenther, a German miller, purchased the southwestern section of the area in 1859 and established a mill and his home there. Pioneer Flour Mill still exists today with the house now serving as a restaurant that’s open daily from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Other prosperous German businessmen followed and had their ornate, architect-designed homes built. The influx of Germans earned the area the nickname “Sauerkraut Bend.” Home styles include German Vernacular, Greek Revival and Victorian and almost 50 remain.

The neighborhood fell into disrepair until Walter Mathis, a local investment banker and preservationist, bought and restored 14 homes in the seventies. His 1876-era home, Villa Finale, a National Trust property, is open to visitors, as is the Steves Homestead. Pick up a free card with access to a cellphone audio tour of the King William neighborhood at the Villa Finale Visitor Center, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Free walking tour brochures are available at the King William Association, 122 Madison Street, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and online through the San Antonio Conservation Society.

Beethoven Maennerchor

Beethoven Garten photo courtesy the Beethoven Maennerchor
Beethoven Garten photo courtesy the Beethoven Maennerchor

Ryan Loyd, Beethoven Maennerchor Board Member, said it really makes no sense for him to be a member of the group. It is made up of people who are much older than he is, and he had never been in a choir before, only band. He doesn’t speak German, even though at least half of the members are native speakers. Yet, Loyd feels drawn to Beethoven Maennerchor, one of the oldest German singing societies in Texas. It was founded in 1867 and celebrated its 150th birthday this year.

First Fridays, Gartenfest concerts, Fiesta, Oktoberfest, and all the events that draw crowds to the famous Beethoven Biergarten are what keep him coming back each week. It’s the dedicated volunteers and members who incorporate Beethoven into their lives—to work the food line, man the parking lot, prep the food, pour German beer from their taps—that make Beethoven a place you want to hang out.

The Maennerchor, all-men’s choir, is rounded out by the Damenchor, an all-women’s choir; the Kinderchor, a children’s choir; Germania Chor, a mixed choir; a concert band; a dance band; and German folk dancers. Don’t miss your chance to soak up some of Deutschland while you’re in San Antonio.

Schilo’s Delicatessen

Schilo's bar photo courtesy Schilo's Delicatessen
Schilo’s bar photo courtesy Schilo’s Delicatessen

Papa Fritz Schilo opened a saloon in San Antonio in 1914, but Prohibition closed it down in 1920. Fortunately for Papa Fritz, Mama Schilo had started serving food at the saloon in 1917, so they stayed in business and added homemade root beer into the mix. Schilo’s is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, making it San Antonio’s longest operating restaurant.

Schilo’s moved from South Alamo Street to Commerce Street in 1927 and to its current location in 1942. The restaurant stayed in the Schilo family until 1980, when the Lyons family, owners of Casa Rio Mexican Restaurant, purchased it. Bill Lyons, also of German-American descent, said he is most proud of the consistency of Schilo’s food and of their longtime staff, some—like Ursula and Inga—who worked at Schilo’s for decades. A staff makes or breaks a restaurant, Lyons said, and the they still use Mama Schilo’s original recipes.

“We’ve never hired a chef,” Lyons said. “A chef wants to create. We want consistency.”

Lyons said that people who ate at Schilo’s as a child return, bringing pleasant memories from way, way back. The restaurant, once a bank, sports the original tile floors and pressed-tin ceilings, and the oak bar in the back of the restaurant made the trek from Papa Schilo’s first saloon in Beeville, Texas.

Schilo’s is known for its Reuben sandwiches, hot mustard, split pea soup, cheesecake and homemade root beer. Reasonably priced plate lunches are also a big draw. Meat Loaf on Wednesdays and Chicken and Dumplings on Thursdays are their most popular lunch items, and Sunday Brunch has become a weekend favorite. Even though the restaurant can be crowded at times, Schilo’s is known for getting downtown’s employees and convention attendees in and out quickly.

Rumor has it that the ghost of Mama Schilo still wanders around. I’m pretty sure she’s checking to see whether or not her root beer is up to snuff. Take it from me, it is.

Bier Garten

Sausage Paddle photo courtesy the Bier Garten
Sausage Paddle photo courtesy the Bier Garten

Boston may have Cheers, but San Antonio has the Bier Garten. Nestled between the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk and the Alamo, the Bier Garten is a place where people make it a point to know your name.

Justin Guerrero, our server, said that’s the reason he ended up quitting his construction job to work at the Bier Garten. The friendliness of the staff and the deliciousness of the food and beer convinced him it was a place he wanted jump on board.

Blue and white-checked flags atop spacious picnic tables help create a little slice of Germany in downtown San Antonio. Throw in a flight of German beers, salted Bavarian pretzels and live music, and you will be living la vida Alemania.

At a recent visit, my husband and I started off with the Bier Garten’s krautwurst balls. I’m not a huge fan of sauerkraut, so I was a little worried. Not any more! When you mix pork sausage, cream cheese and sauerkraut that has been rolled into Panko bread crumbs and deep fried, magic occurs.

Next, we shared a paddle topped with knockwurst, bratwurst and polish sausage, sauerkraut, potato salad, a salted pretzel and German mustard. All delicious! Our eyes were definitely too big for our stomachs, but we couldn’t resist sharing a herzhaft (hearty) schnitzel. The gently browned pork schnitzel was smothered with a tasty bacon mushroom gravy with sides of sauerkraut and potato salad. We had to get to-go containers so that we could leave a little room for apple strudel and German wine.

Throughout our meal, we enjoyed visiting with fellow guests, including a couple from Virginia who were in town for a conference, and the Bier Garten’s friendly staff, who know how to encourage people to break out of their shells, dance and sing. No need to head to München. San Antonio has brought Germany to you.

For even more ideas of fun things to do and see in San Antonio, visit Barnes & Noble, The Twig, Whole Foods, Half Price Books on 410 across from North Star Mall and on Broadway near downtown, San Antonio Museum of Art gift store, and Fiesta on Main to purchase “100 Things To Do in San Antonio Before You Die” by yours truly. Please like my Facebook page to stay in the loop on every San Antonio Tourist post.

Denise Barkis Richter, Ph.D., author of “100 Things To Do in San Antonio Before You Die,” has been blogging about San Antonio at facebook.com/SanAntonioTourist since June of 2010. Her love affair with the Alamo City began at HemisFair in 1968. Her husband’s German great-grandfather moved to San Antonio in 1879.

2 thoughts on “German heritage runs deep in the heart of San Antonio

    1. Your article couldn’t have been more timely for me. I was in Austin last week to learn about the new travel app about German Texans, developed by the Texas Historical Assn. Also, now that I am a Certified Tour Guide, I hope to develop some SA & Hill Country tours on German Texans. Thanks!

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