For exactly 158 years this month, the Guenther Mill has had a prominent presence in our neighborhood proudly anchoring the foot of King William Street. None of the homes that line King William Street were here when Carl Guenther began building his mill in 1859.
In 1848, twenty-two-year-old Carl Hilmer Guenther left his native Saxony to cross the ocean in search of the American dream. He arrived first in New York then traveled to Wisconsin where he worked at a number of jobs – carpenter, farmhand and millworker – before making his way to Texas.
Arritled first in Fredericksburg where he built a flour mill on Live Oak Creek just before it flows into the Pedernales River. On October 7, 1855, he married sixteen year-old Dorothea Pape in a Lutheran ceremony. By 1859, drought and competing mills caused him to look to San Antonio to buy land for a flour mill in “the busiest city in Texas,” he wrote in his journal.
On August 26, 1859, Guenther paid $2,500 for several acres on a sharp bend of the San Antonio River less than a mile south of the center of town. He was desperate to get his mill up and running but cash remained hard to come by. He didn’t have enough to pay for carpenters and builders, but a dam had to be built and millrace needed to be dug.
Struggling farmers in the Alsatian colony near Castroville proved to be the solution. They were wheat growers and they needed a mill. Guenther persuaded them to set up their camp near his new mill site, bringing their mules, picks and shovels. Their labor would be traded on the books for future milling services. The mill stones were imported from France and were hauled overland in ox-drawn wagons from the port of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast.
After Guenther’s new mill was in operation in mid-April 1860, he began building a stone house for his family adjacent to the mill. While milling operations continued to expand, he soon had to contend with the Civil War. As a miller, Guenther was exempted from military service though he was required to furnish wheat to the Confederate troops billeted in San Antonio.
After the war’s end, the mill began to grow and prosper. In just a few years, the city’s most fashionable German neighborhood began to grow up around the mill. In 1915, the Guenther family home was enlarged and reoriented so the entrance would face Guenther Street as it does today. The towering twenty-story grain elevator with its fanciful crenellations around the top was the tallest structure in the city when it was erected in 1922.
The 1968 flood control project relocated the river. The great bend that looped around behind the mill was eliminated and instead, the river was channeled across the front of the mill house. In 1988, the Guenther House opened to the public as a restaurant, museum and mill store offering Pioneer products and gift items. It continues to be a favorite destination for breakfast and lunch.
- Bill Cogburn
Source: The Legacy of a Texas Milling Pioneer, by Lewis F. Fisher; The King William Area, A History and Guide to the Houses, by Mary Burkholder; 1880s photo courtesy UTSA Inst. of Texas Cultures, Special Collection; current photo, Scott Cogburn
“City’s historic C.H. Guenther company is sold” was a headline on the front page of the April 5, 2018 San Antonio Express-News: “The sale of San Antonio-based C.H. Guenther & Son Inc. to a Chicago private equity firm [PPC Partners] ends more than 166 years of family ownership…Guenther has been Texas’ oldest continuously owned family business, founded in 1851 by German immigrant Carl Hilmar “C.H.” Guenther.” Those involved in the sale “sought to dispel speculation that PPC will sell pieces of Guenther’s business or real estate.” - Editor