Immigrants Built a San Antonio Icon

The 159-year-old Menger Hotel is the grand dame of San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, thanks to the hard work of two young immigrants William and Mary Menger. William was one of those younger sons in Germany who didn’t inherit so he became a cooper, making casks and

William Menger
Courtesy Menger Hotel

barrels for beer and wine. The twenty-year-old sailed for the United States in 1847 and arrived in San Antonio about 1850. He took a room in a boardinghouse run by Mary Guenther because the young widow spoke German and she was a fine cook and housekeeper.

Mary and her mother emigrated from Hanover in 1846. Soon after they reached San Antonio, her mother died, and Mary was robbed of all her money. She worked for an American family until she married Emil Guenther in 1848. Together, they operated a boarding house, but within the first year of marriage, Emil and their infant baby died, leaving Mary alone again.

Mary’s new border, William Menger found that his cooperage skills served him well because barrels were in demand for shipping and storing everything from coffee to crackers, molasses to bacon and flour. The following year, although she was eleven years his senior, William and Mary decided to marry.

William was Lutheran, but in deference to Mary’s Catholic faith, he hired a horse to go thirty miles west to Castroville to bring his friend Rev. Claude Dubuis (future Bishop of the Galveston Diocese) to perform the nuptials. When the priest arrived, William apologized for the horse that was obviously a broken-down old nag. The priest said, “I’m glad you didn’t send a better horse or Indians along the way would have killed me to get my horse.”

William helped with the boardinghouse, continued with his cooperage business, and over the next nine years, they had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. In 1855, William decided to stop making the barrels and concentrate on filling them. He hired a German master brewer and constructed the Western Brewery east of Alamo Plaza. He selected the site for two reasons: its access to the spring waters of the Alamo Madre Acequia or irrigation ditch. The waters cooled his thick-walled underground cellar and chilled the lager beers. And the locale sat next door to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Depot, providing a clientele of officers and soldiers.

The Mengers also built a larger boardinghouse nearby. They solved the problem of it being across the San Antonio River from the primary commercial centers of the Main and the Military plazas by offering carriage rides for boarders and diners in the boardinghouse restaurant. Of course, the guests enjoyed the brewery.

1859 Menger Hotel

Apparently, the high-quality beer and fine restaurant grew the business, because within two years the Mengers hired a Prussian born builder J.H. Kampmann to construct a two-story limestone (from the quarry that created the current Sunken Gardens) hotel on the boardinghouse site. The Menger Hotel opened on February 1, 1859, with tours of the rooms, a reception, and positive reviews even in the national press. By the third night, the hotel was fully booked with army officers, their families, and traveling merchants.

Menger Gallery, historic wing.

Almost immediately, plans began to add a forty-room annex with a tunnel connecting to the brewery. Since the railroad would not arrive until 1877, the Menger offered fine stables for the convenience of their guests.

The Menger family and many of their employees who were German immigrants lived in the hotel, along with about twenty-four hotel guests. The restaurant under the direction of Mary took advantage of German farmers for fresh fruits and vegetables that were not common to Anglo-Americans. She broadened the meat selection to include venison, wild turkey, quail, bear meat, buffalo, and turtles from the San Antonio River. William raised and butchered his own hogs for bacon, ham, and sausage. They imported specialty items such as tea, cod fish, seasonal cranberries, sultana raisins, English currents, and stuffed olives. Eager to make the hotel more than a local attraction, Menger brought in champagne, wine, claret, sherry, and whiskey. The hostelry was famous for its ice shipped from Boston through the port at Indianola and hauled to San Antonio on special wagons. It cost extra if a guest wanted ice in their whiskey.

Menger Hotel prospers

The Menger served as a center for social and civic organizations. In the approach to and during the Civil War, the hotel accommodated political groups where speeches were held and parades gathered in front of the building. Despite the Union blockade of the Gulf ports, Confederate officers stayed at the hotel, and Menger acquired food through his connections in the West and South for shipments from the neutral Mexican ports.

By 1867, the city was still ten years away from getting a railroad that would connect with Texas ports, and the Army was looking for a better location. Menger quickly built facilities following Army specifications, which included a large warehouse and two cisterns, next to the hotel. He then leased the buildings to the federal government at a low rate. The Army used the facilities until Fort Sam Houston was opened in 1877.

The Mengers traveled to Germany and Paris in 1867 to purchase furniture for the hotel. Upon their return, William saw a Silsby Rotary Engine used for firefighting in New York. He had founded and led the Alamo Fire Association Number Two before the war. He immediately paid $4,000 for the equipment and had it shipped at a cost of $900 to Indianola and then by ox wagon to San Antonio, giving his city the first steam engine in Texas.

William Menger died unexpectedly at the age of forty-five in 1871, leaving Mary and their eldest son Louis to successfully maintain the high standards of the hotel. Mary bought more land to expand the hotel and added modern gaslights. Illustrious guests continued to frequent the hotel. When President Ulysses Grant visited in 1880 the menu for his reception was printed in French.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1877, national beer companies moved in to compete with the Western Brewery. Mary and Louis Menger closed the brewery the following year and used its space to build a three-story, L-shaped addition, which added one hundred rooms. In 1881 Mary and Louis Menger sold the hotel and property for $228,500 and the furniture for $8,500 (about $2.8 million today) to the original builder, J.H. Kampmann.

The Menger continued to prosper, underwent several major restorations and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of America.

The Menger Hotel today

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Immigrant Creates a Food Tradition

In 1892 when Adelaida and Macario Cuellar left their impoverished home, crossed the Rio Grande, and were married in Laredo, they had dreams of working hard and finding success. They did not imagine that their family would eventually head a multi-million dollar food business.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

The Cuellars spoke very little English and worked on farms in South Texas as they moved north, eventually settling as sharecroppers on a farm outside Kaufman, a town southeast of Dallas. By 1926 Macario worked as a ranch foreman at Star Brand Ranch and the family had grown to twelve children. Mama Cuellar, as Adelaida was known, decided to add to the family income. She set up a stand at the Kaufmann County Fair to sell her homemade chili and tamales while her five sons, known as Mama’s Boys, played guitars. She not only won a prize for her cooking, she sold out. The tamale stand made $300, the family claims that was more than Macario Cuellar made in a year. Thus began the family’s annual trek to the county fair.

Two of her sons soon opened a Mexican restaurant in Kaufman with Mama Cuellar doing the cooking, but the Great Depression forced them to close after a couple of years. Over the next few years her five sons tried unsuccessfully to operate restaurants in several East Texas towns, until 1940 when sons Macario and Gilbert, using Mama Cuellar’s recipes, opened El Charro in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas. As the restaurant became more profitable, all five sons pooled their resources and expanded to other locations under El Chico Corporation.

In 1961 Angus G. Wynne, Jr. owner of the Star Brand Ranch that had employed Macario Cuellar in the early days, planned to open an amusement park in Arlington to be called “Six Flags Over Texas.” Wynne wanted to serve food representing all the cultures in Texas, and he invited the Cuellars to open a restaurant in the Mexico section of the park. El Chico proved so popular at the opening that it ran out of food and even paper plates and cups.

Mama Cuellar

Mama Cuellar

By the time Mama Cuellar died in 1969, El Chico had expanded into twenty different businesses from canning to restaurant franchising. Over the years the business went public and then returned to the family’s hands several times, each time at considerable profit. Many of the El Chico employees, realizing the growing popularity of Mexican food, opened their own Mexican restaurants. Some facilities were white tablecloth and fine dining establishments, while others served Mexican seafood, and some catered to the post-college boomer crowd.

In 1974 Mariano Martinez, one of Mama Cuellar’s grandsons who owned Mariono’s in Old Town, hit on the idea of refitting a soft-serve ice cream machine to serve frozen margaritas. His invention opened a whole new line of Mexican restaurants and bars and a whole new way to enjoy Mexican food. That original machine is now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Today the tiny Mexican immigrant’s dream of using hard work to be successful has expanded into almost one hundred El Chico restaurants in Texas and the surrounding states and twenty-seven El Chico Restaurant franchises.

The Harvey Girls Go West

Their uniform consisted of black dresses covered by starched white pinafores, opaque black stockings, black shoes, and hairnets secured with a regulation white ribbon.  They were

The Harvey Uniform

The Harvey Uniform

Harvey Girls who could serve a meal in thirty minutes that included fillet of whitefish with Madeira sauce or roast beef au jus and lobster salad.  The homemade pie was cut and served in generous quarters unlike the customary one-sixth portions.

Harvey House locations in Texas

Harvey House locations in Texas

As railroads had spread across the country, passengers either carried their own food, endured meals that often included rancid meat and cold beans, or simply did without.  Fred Harvey, a dapper British immigrant who worked as a railroad freight agent, observed the terrible conditions on trains and convinced the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1876 to let him open a restaurant in Topeka, Kansas.  His idea of fine fresh food at a reasonable price proved so popular that his establishments began spreading along the railroad.  Harvey Houses reached the isolated cattle towns of West Texas in the 1890s, and crossed the state from El Paso and Amarillo to Dallas and Houston and south to Kingsville.  Even in remote towns, up to four passenger trains came

Harvey Girls o Somerville, TX from the Gordon Chappell Collection

Harvey Girls o Somerville, TX from the Gordon Chappell Collection

through daily carrying from fifty to eighty people who expected to be fed in thirty minutes.

From the beginning, the railroad allowed Harvey to set up his restaurants as he saw fit, which meant fine China and Irish table linens. He demanded civility, cleanliness, and high standards of efficiency.  The Harvey girls were not called waitresses; they could not wear makeup or chew gum while on duty.  He personally inspected his restaurants and was reported to have sometimes overturned a table that was not set to his standards.  He advertised for “white, young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent.” Upon entering their month of training they quickly learned that their work would be demanding—serving meals, polishing silver, brewing fresh coffee every two hours, and following a strict code in dealing with customers.  Beginning pay was $17.50 a month, including room, board, and tips.  They lived in dormitories with a 10:00. PM. curfew, and were supervised by a senior Harvey Girl who served much like a housemother.

Although the environment sounds harsh by today’s standards, it allowed young women a rare career opportunity.  In later years, married women entered the program and benefited from the chance to add to family income. Some of the women were widows who claimed that they and their children were welcomed like family into the Harvey House environment.

Harvey branched into hotels alongside depots, eventually opening eighty-four facilities.  When railroads began offering food service, he reluctantly agreed to staff dining cars with Fred Harvey Company personnel.  The Harvey brand began moving in the 1930s into locations away from the Santa Fe Railroad and in 1959 the restaurants started lining the Illinois Tollway.  Although the Harvey House era came to an end with the death in 1965 of Fred Harvey’s grandson, the company is credited with offering the first “blue plate special”—a good meal at a reasonable price, creating the first restaurant chain in the United States, and opening tourism to the American Southwest by making railroad travel more enjoyable.

Judy Garland in 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls

Judy Garland in 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls