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Teamsters were Fredericksburg's Lifeline

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

A teamster sometimes found it necessary to use indelicate language to coax a team of tired mules pulling a heavy freight wagon up a steep hill. Flattery and sweet talk wouldn't get the job done. Mules had to know the teamster meant business. It has been said more than once that a teamsters' most useful skill was his ability to cuss.

Before the railroad came to Fredericksburg in 1913, teamsters were the community's lifeline. Every consumer item not produced locally had to be freighted in over rough country from a considerable distance.

The earliest teamsters used oxen to haul freight to Fredericksburg and Fort Martin Scott, but by the 1880s they switched to mules and horses. Oxen were strong, reliable and could pull a lot of weight, but they never got in much of a hurry.

Fredericksburg TX - Willie Knopp's six-spanner team and freight wagons.
Willie Knopp's six-spanner team and freight wagons.
Clck on image to enlarge

Courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society

A trip by ox wagon from Fort Martin Scott to Fort Mason, a distance of 45 miles, took most of a week. A trip from Fort Martin Scott to Fort McKavitt, a distance of 95 miles, could take 2 weeks, depending on weather conditions.

By contrast a freight wagon pulled by horses or mules could, with a little luck, make the trip from Fredericksburg to San Antonio, a distance of 75 miles, in about 4 days, as long as the teamster didn't come down with laryngitis.

When hauling with oxen, the teamster walked beside the animals, shouting encouragement. When hauling with horses or mules, the teamster usually rode the wheel animal.

While government teamsters hauled freight to Fort Martin Scott, over on Town Creek the Fredericksburg Germans organized their own freight lines. At first teamsters hauled freight to the Hill Country from Indianola. Later they hauled cargo to Fredericksburg from San Antonio and Austin. They traveled as far west as Big Spring and as far east as Waco.

Teamsters hauled lumber, wire, nails, feed, flour, cornmeal, sugar and bacon. Sometimes the wagon bulged with kegs of beer, hauled from one of the breweries in San Antonio.

A teamster's life wasn't for sissies. His bed was a blanket on the ground with a sack of corn for a pillow. He ate a lot of cornbread and bacon along with whatever game he could kill and roast over a campfire. What his diet lacked in flavor it made up for in cholesterol.

Weather, particularly in the winter, could be brutal for teamsters. Julia Estill wrote about William Kammlah who suffered so much from the cold "he lost all his toes on both feet. Another man was so cold his companions thought he was dead. He revived after vigorous rubbing and never realized he had been frozen stiff."

And yet, despite the hardships, some men couldn't resist the lure of the wagon trail. Henry Hotopp made an estimated 1,000 round trips between Fredericksburg and San Antonio.

Not only did a teamster need an iron stomach and a salty vocabulary, he had to be absolutely trustworthy. In addition to freight, he carried letters, personal items and important documents.

"Fellow townspeople entrusted them with important messages to friends along the way," Julia Estill wrote, "and money to pay bills to wholesale houses in the city."

Teamsters sometimes hauled canvass bags of silver dollars guarded by watch dogs. They hauled money hidden in nail kegs, bound for San Antonio banks.

Then in 1913 the railroad came to Fredericksburg. Trains, along with trucks and paved roads, put teamsters out of business.

The teamsters were a distant memory when, on May 8, 1935, a group of the old guys watched a parade on Fredericksburg's Main Street. The sight of old teamster Willie Knopp Jr. driving by in a freight wagon inspired them to organize an Old Teamsters' Reunion.

Klaerner's Park on the Harper Highway hosted the first reunion on July 20, 1935. Representatives of 60 old teamster families showed up. The group met annually for the next 40 years.

Today trucks are Fredericksburg's lifeline, and while trucks are easier to handle than horses or mules, I know a couple of truck drivers whose language could make a teamster blush.

It's good to know some of the old ways still apply.
"Gillespie County Teamsters Attending the Second Annual Reunion At Klaerner's Park," Fredericksburg Standard, August 13, 1936.
"Ox-Teamsters Of County Who Hauled Freight from 1866-1883 Are Listed," Fredericksburg Standard, October 4, 1944.
"Horse Teamsters had Busy Time hauling Freight For Early Day Christmas Rush," Fredericksburg Standard, December 20, 1944.
"Old Teamsters Reunion," Fredericksburg Standard, June 13, 1935.
"Old Teamsters Continue Traditions With Reunions," Fredericksburg Standard, June 30, 1976.

Michael Barr
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