The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio

Mary Menger

(1816-1887)

During the 1870s, Mary Menger operated two large San Antonio enterprises and demonstrated that a woman could thrive during a time when men dominated local commerce. As a widow and single mother, Menger profited from both her Western Brewery and her Menger Hotel over the 1871-1881 period, and became San Antonio’s largest employer in the 1877.

Born Mary Baumschlueter on September 14, 1816, in Gesmold in the Kingdom of Hanover, Menger arrived in San Antonio at the age of 29 on June 2, 1846. Two years later, she married Emil Guenther, a butcher, and started a boarding house on Commerce Street along the San Antonio River. Her excellent cooking attracted many boarders to her house and many townspeople to her table, bringing the couple good income. In 1850 when her husband died, she continued running the boarding house alone. The following year she married William Menger, a cooper who had arrived from Germany in 1847 and had lived at her house three years.

Over the next eight years, Mary Menger and her husband had four children, three of whom survived infancy. They built a larger boarding house at the corner of Blum and Bonham Streets one block east of Alamo Plaza, but because the residential and business life of the town centered on Main Plaza, they sent a driver and a hack to bring noontime customers to dine at their house. Then in 1854, William Menger started the Texas brewing industry, building the Western Brewery next door to the boarding house. Hard work and economy allowed the couple to buy additional lots along Blum Street and by 1856 they owned the entire block from Bonham to Alamo Plaza. On February 1, 1859, they opened the Menger Hotel with a gala open house that brought lavish praise in the press in the following days. Enough customers stayed at the hotel that within three months they began building an expansion with forty more guestrooms. The hotel’s state-wide reputation for excellent service and fine cuisine grew and in its first two years the hotel attracted such prominent guests as Governor Sam Houston, Col. Robert E. Lee, and ranching baron Richard King. Over the next twelve years, the brewery and the hotel prospered despite the upheaval of the Civil War and Reconstruction period because Menger and her husband went to great lengths to offer the highest quality service to the traveling public, buying seafood from Galveston, ice from Boston, and fine furniture from Europe.

When William Menger died in March 1871 at age 44, Mary Menger assumed the roles of single mother, widow and sole owner of the brewery and hotel. Addressing the public about her new situation, she ran a newspaper announcement letting San Antonio know that she would carry on the businesses alone, writing that her husband’s death would “cause no change in the affairs” at the hotel or brewery. During the period 1871-1878, the brewery became the largest manufacturing company in San Antonio, and the largest brewery in Texas. Although she depended on brewmaster Charles Degen, a loyal employee since 1856, to produce the beer, she managed such duties as buying malt from Cincinnati and dealing with customers from Fort Concho to Galveston. When national brewers Jos. Schlitz and Anheuser entered the local market, Menger closed the brewery in December 1878.

To realize her ambitious plans for her hotel, Menger bought neighboring land so she could add more rooms. Over a three month period from November 1877 to January 1878, more than two thousand guests registered in her lobby; one January night, she hosted 165 guests. To serve that many people, Mary Menger hired more workers than any other San Antonio employer. Her expertise as a hostess continued to make her the town’s choice to host dinners for visiting dignitaries: in April 1873, a “Grand Supper” honoring General Philip H. Sheridan, and Secretary of War William W. Belknap had a budget of $980, and in 1880, President Grant stayed at Mary Menger’s hotel four days and she hosted another elegant ceremonial dinner in the hotel’s Colonial Dining Room. While these elaborate affairs offered extravagant menus, they surpassed the daily offerings by only a small margin because the dining room’s everyday menus included quail, venison, roast beef, turkey, fresh vegetables, and wonderful desserts.

Beyond raising her three surviving children and running her business affairs during these years, Mary Menger also took an active role in improving San Antonio. She helped establish the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and its orphanage, contributed to the city’s first Jewish Synagogue, and succeeded in lobbying Post Office officials and Congressman Gustav Schleicher to build a new San Antonio Post Office in 1877 on Alamo Plaza, right outside the Menger Hotel.

In the fall of 1881 when she was age 65, Menger sold her hotel to John Kampmann for $118,500. Menger died on July 3, 1887, and the headline of her obituary paid tribute to her as “The Orphan’s Friend”. It recounted the love of San Antonio’s citizens for her, the success of her family and businesses, and the ways she had benefited her city.

Bibliography:

Chabot, Frederick C. With the Makers of San Antonio: Genealogies of Early San Antonio Families (San Antonio: Artes Graficas, 1937).

Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, Vertical Files.

Everett, Donald E. San Antonio, The Flavor of its Past, 1845-1898 (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975).

Keeth, Kent. "Sankt Antonius: Germany in the Alamo City of the 1850's," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 76 (October 1972).


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