Cross-Examining My Family's Texas Courthouse History

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by Gwendolyn Purdom 3 Comments

The author’s great-great-great-grandfather was one of the first judges at the Comal County Courthouse. Robert Bodemann is pictured in front of the courthouse (fourth from the left) the year the structure was built. Credit: Gwendolyn Purdom
The author’s great-great-great-grandfather was one of the first judges at the Comal County Courthouse. Robert Bodemann is pictured in front of the courthouse (fourth from the left) the year the structure was built.

I never met my namesake. My maternal grandmother, Gwendolyn, died when my own mother was just a girl, along with my maternal grandfather a few years later. So my understanding of where I came from, on that side of the family at least, derives almost entirely from stories I’ve been told and the mountain of yellowed records, tattered documents, and black-and-white photos my mom keeps piled in an upstairs closet as unofficial “family historian.” Those things -- and the cornerstone of the 1898 Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels, Texas.

Etched into the stone of the Romanesque building half the country from my D.C. apartment and nearly 1,200 miles from my Chicago childhood home is my great-great-great-grandfather’s name. Julius Robert Bodemann was elected to District and County Clerk of Comal County in November of 1884, and served the public for 12 years. In November of 1898 he was elected County Judge of Comal County as an at-large candidate. The defeated incumbent had opposed construction of the new courthouse and refused to allow his name on the cornerstone. Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Robert's name appears there instead. It’s dated May 16, 1898.

Last month, the people of New Braunfels celebrated the completed restoration of their beloved 115-year-old courthouse. The project, made possible by $3.4 million in grant funding from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, put the Comal County Courthouse among the 83 and counting historic courthouses across the state that have been fully or partially restored or preserved thanks to the Texas Historical Commission’s program.

It also made the town of New Braunfels the perfect setting to kick off our I Love Texas Courthouses campaign here at the National Trust. In partnership with the THC, we’re using February’s love-centric ambiance to celebrate our love for the 235 historic courthouses that dot the Lone Star State and urging Texans to join in the mushfest by sharing their own personal connections with the sites. Knowing I can still walk the halls my ancestor walked is mine.

Julius Robert Bodemann was a county judge from 1898 to 1902. Credit: Gwendolyn Purdom
Julius Robert Bodemann was a county judge from 1898 to 1902.

Robert Bodemann was born in Brunswick, Germany on Feb. 24, 1831. He arrived in New Orleans on New Year’s Day 1850 and, along with other family members, was among the first settlers in the German Hill Country of Texas. Robert had been well-educated in Germany, attending college and a Lutheran theological seminary, but when he arrived in America he started out as a farmer and freight wagon driver.

He became a U.S. citizen on Nov. 15, 1858, and went on to serve as the first teacher in the first school in the Yorks Creek Community (where he was paid $200 for 9 months), a Texas Ranger along the Rio Grande, a lumber mill bookkeeper until the Civil War dried up his business, a cotton clerk, county coroner, and a father of nine (I wasn’t kidding about my mom keeping track of our family history). When an 1862 murder rocked the community, my great-great-great-grandfather was one of the deputies who pointed a pistol at the perpetrators and got them to surrender as they were trying to escape in their nightshirts.

Robert was a judge at the newly constructed Comal County Courthouse for four years. He wasn’t reelected in 1902, the citizens of Comal County having “cast [him] to the old iron,” in Robert’s own words. In the more than a century since, the courthouse has been the site countless people have visited to obtain marriage licenses and property titles, a central gathering place for a close-knit community, and an architectural point of pride. With restoration efforts now completed, it will continue to be for generations to come.

Robert Bodemann died on February 17, 1905, a week after his 74th birthday. His obituary read: "One of our best and well thought of citizens ... after a two year break he was chosen as County Judge. He fulfilled the duties of this office 4 years in a nonpartisan manner and received general support ... the men's choir performed hymns of comfort at his graveside."

The author, age 2 (second from right), with relatives in front of 212 E. Zink St. in New Braunfels, the house her ancestors bought in 1883. Credit: Gwendolyn Purdom
The author, age 2 (second from right), with relatives in front of 212 E. Zink St. in New Braunfels, the house her ancestors bought in 1883.

As the associate editor of Preservation magazine, I spend my days writing and learning about other people’s histories and the places that connect them to those histories. The Comal County Courthouse is part of what connects me to mine. I love knowing the bricks that built that community make up the same foundation that anchors my family’s story.

I haven’t had the chance to visit New Braunfels since I attended a family reunion there in 1988, and as I was only two years old at the time I can’t say that I remember the experience all that well. But knowing those walls still stand -- and will continue to -- is a comfort to me. I know I’ll go back and trace my finger along the letters in that cornerstone and hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to hoist up my future children and guide their chubby little fingers across their great-great-great-great-grandfather’s name too.

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3 Responses

  1. William Handley

    February 28, 2013

    Thank you for your article!
    Get your hands on a copy of The Courthouses of Texas by Dr. Mavis P. Kelsey and Donald H. Dyal.

    I got mine at the TX State Capitol around 2001, and it has provided hours of armchair travel. In the book I learned that it was designed by Texas’ premier courthouse architect J. Reilly Gordon. I have not visited the Comal courthouse, though I remember seeing it on the bus once. I have been to two of Gordon’s, Ellis in Waxahatchie and Decatur in Decatur. They are splendid.

  2. Tere O'Connell

    March 6, 2013

    Gwendolyn, Thank you for relating your family’s story to the historic Comal County Courthouse. I was the architect for this restoration. It’s stories like yours that give our work meaning and depth.

  3. Jerry Coles Blanchard

    March 14, 2013

    Dear Gwen, It is clear you love history, and I am glad you are in a place where your skills as a writer and your passion for history can help preserve and enrich the past. All best wishes, Jerry