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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Anna Martin,
Frontier Banker

Michael Barr
Anna Henriette Mebus was born in Rhineland, Germany on December 10, 1843 into a wealthy and aristocratic family. She was educated in the best private schools in Europe. She was fluent in German and French. She was raised in comfort and luxury, and she experienced the very best the civilized world of the 19th century had to offer.

Then she came to Hedwig's Hill in Mason County.

Anna and her family immigrated to Texas in 1858 after her father's business failed. Their pride would not let them to stay in Germany. The embarrassment of poverty was too much.
Anna Mebus Martin
Anna Mebus Martin
Wikipedia

They landed in Galveston on Anna's 15th birthday with a few clothes and $150 cash. No one spoke a word of English.

From Galveston they took a steamship to Indianola where Anna's Uncle, Louis Martin, met them at the dock. The entire group traveled by oxcart from the Texas coast to Louis Martin's house at Hedwig's Hill on the Llano River. They made the 350 mile trip in 14 days.

One can only imagine what went through Anna's mind when she first saw the wild Texas frontier. There are no words in High German or fashionable French that do justice to Hedwig's Hill.

But Anna made the best of it. This daughter of a once wealthy father and aristocratic mother soon found herself killing rattlesnakes, milking cows and plucking chickens on the West Texas frontier.

In 1859 Anna married her cousin, Karl Martin, Louis Martin's nephew.

Karl built a store at Hedwig's Hill, the first store west of the Llano River. But Karl was not healthy. He suffered from rheumatism and was an invalid by 1864. Anna worked her fingers to the bone taking care of Karl, running the store, and raising their two sons, Charles and Max.

When Karl died in 1878 the store closed. At age 35, Anna found herself with no husband, no money and no way to make a living.

She had nowhere to turn, so she went straight ahead.

She borrowed $150 from a friend and reopened the store. Fortunately for Anna, Hedwig's Hill was on the San Antonio to El Paso stage route; an important road in this part of Texas. The stage passed through daily, and Anna catered to its passengers. She established a way station and a boarding house. She sold whiskey, guns and groceries. Suddenly things were going her way.

Anna Martin proved to be an amazing, pragmatic businesswoman. Because money was rare on the Texas frontier, she took just about anything in payment for goods she sold at the store. She bartered dry goods for cattle. She speculated in wool.

And she bought land. By the turn of the 20th Century she owned 50,000 acres in Mason, Llano and Gillespie counties. She strung the first barbed wire in this part of Texas.

Because Anna's store had an iron safe, and because her honesty was never questioned, she acted as a banker for cattlemen - keeping their hard-earned money in her safe and cashing their checks. That's how she got into the banking business.

Then in 1901, with a capital stock of $3000, Anna Martin established The Commercial Bank of Mason. She served as its president for 24 years.

Mason TX - Commercial Bank
Anna Martin's Bank in Mason
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, January 2017

Anna Martin is an entrepreneurial legend. She is believed to be the first woman bank president in Texas and one of the first in the United States.

She thrived in a man's world. More often than not she was the only female in the room. She is an amazing role model for young women of any generation

In her last years she traveled extensively in Europe and tore through Mason County at the wheel of her black Cadillac.

Hedwig's Hill TX - Martin Cemetery
Martin Family Cemetery at the foot of Hedwig's Hill
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, November 2016
More Texas Cemeteries
Hedwig's Hill. - Grave of Karl and Anna Martin at Martin Family Cemetery
The grave of Karl & Anna Martin at Martin Cemetery
Click on image for inscription
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, November 2016
She died in Mason at age 81 in 1925 and is buried in the Martin Family Cemetery in the shadow of Hedwig's Hill.

In 2011 Anna Martin was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Worth.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
January 15, 2017 Column

Sources:

The Mason County News, July 9, 1981, "The Commercial Bank of Mason," p4.
The San Antonio Express, July 14, 1925, "Texas Woman Banker Who Built Success From $150 Borrowed Capital Dies At 81," p2.
Kristin Fawcett, "Anna Martin: Was She The First Female Bank President?" Cowboys and Indians Magazine, April 2016.


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