Mary Menger, owner of San Antonio’s Western Brewery and the Menger Hotel, was born Maria Clara Baumschlüeter to parents Maria Catharina (Seling) Baumschlüeter and Berhard Heinrich Baumschlüeter on September 14, 1816, in the village of Gesmold in the Kingdom of Hanover (in present-day Germany). First with her husband, William Menger, and then as a sole proprietress after his death, Menger introduced a modern first-class hotel experience to West Texas with offerings of gourmet cuisine, attractive furnishings, and an attentive hospitality staff. By providing such premium accommodations Mary Menger made significant contributions to the commercial life of nineteenth-century San Antonio, Texas.
At the age of twenty-nine, Mary Baumschlüeter and her mother left Germany in the fall of 1845 and arrived in San Antonio on June 2, 1846. (see GERMANS) Her status as a homeless and unemployed immigrant soon worsened when her mother passed away later that summer. In 1848 Mary married Charles Emil Guenther, a German-immigrant butcher, and ran a boarding house on Commerce Street where she offered meals, shelter, and even employment. In 1850, when her husband Guenther died, she managed the boarding house as a single woman entrepreneur. In 1851, when she was thirty-five years old, she married William A. Menger, then her handyman, boarder, and a cooper. In the first eight years of marriage, Mary Menger had four children, three of whom survived infancy and lived to adulthood.
In 1854 Mary Menger opened a new boarding house at the corner of Blum and Bonham streets, one block east of Alamo Plaza. That year her husband established the Western Brewery, considered the first commercial brewery in Texas, next door to the boarding house (see BREWING INDUSTRY). During the next two years the Mengers applied their substantial beer profits to the purchase of all the properties along the block to Alamo Plaza to build what became the Menger Hotel. Construction began in the summer of 1858; workmen built the new hotel in eight months. The local paper said the investment, including furnishings, equipment, and stock, approached $50,000. The plans featured imposing stone architecture, a “Cuban-styled” courtyard, and fashionable furnishings. Because Mary Menger intended to welcome not just men but couples and families, too, the plans included a ladies parlor and ladies entrance, then considered the latest mid-century innovations in hotel design. In the entire state, only Galveston offered comparable first-class lodgings before the Menger Hotel opened on February 1, 1859. Within three months, customer demand led the Mengers to begin a three-story expansion project that added the Colonial Dining Room and forty guestrooms.
Through, in part, Mary Menger’s insight and previous business experience, the hotel gained a statewide reputation, and in its first two years, the hotel attracted such well-known guests as the South Texas ranchman Richard King, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Governor Sam Houston. Over the next twelve years, the brewery and the hotel prospered despite the economic upheaval of secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Menger and her husband went to great lengths to offer the highest quality service and offered such luxuries as seafood from Galveston, ice from Boston, and the finest dining room in West Texas to their patrons. Their services included infrastructure support for the local community as well. In 1865 Western Union installed the San Antonio’s first telegraph service in the Menger lobby.
In 1871, after the death of William Menger, Mary informed her customers and suppliers that she would carry on the hotel and brewery businesses as sole proprietor and stated her husband’s death would “cause no change in the affairs” of either venture. Over the next ten years, as Texas’s population boomed, Menger demonstrated her management skills and business acumen in an increasingly competitive market. After 1871 her brewery employees produced enough beer to make Menger the number one producer in the state with a customer base stretched from Fort Concho to Galveston. Menger shuttered her brewery operation in December 1878 after national brewers Joseph Schlitz and Augustus Busch entered the local market in the mid-1870s. Anticipating the impending completion of the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, she bought adjacent land to expand her hotel operation in 1874. By January 1878 she could host 165 guests in one evening and 2,000 patrons during a three-month period. To meet the needs of that many people, she hired and managed the largest workforce of any San Antonio business, and her 1876 property valuation was $106,410, one of the highest in the city.
In the 1870s Mary Menger expanded the hotel’s convenient services that appealed to traveling salesmen and tourists alike. She advertised that her hotel had the largest sample rooms in the state, and the expansion allowed the hotel to host meetings of various business and political interest groups. Along with the telegraph office, the hotel had a railroad ticket office, a livery with an on-site veterinary surgeon, barbershop, a bar and billiard parlor, a stage line office to serve the two stagecoach lines that stopped there. Menger’s success promoted business growth on Alamo Plaza and gave her civic opinions political gravitas, such as when she lobbied officials to build a new San Antonio post office in 1877 on Alamo Plaza. The city’s main post office remained there for 125 years.
Mary Menger’s expertise as a hostess made her the town’s choice to host gala dinners for visiting dignitaries, including Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and Secretary of War William W. Belknap in April 1873, Gen. Geronimo Trevino and Governor Santiago Vidaurri from Mexico, and Gen. Rafael Quesada and José Agustín Quintero from Cuba. In 1880, when President Ulysses S. Grant and the First Lady stayed at the Menger Hotel for four days, Mary Menger hosted a citywide ceremonial dinner in the Colonial Dining Room. Such elaborate affairs offered the most extravagant menus the experienced host could produce, yet the dishes served at great celebrations surpassed the routine bill of fare by only a small margin. During the 1870s Menger Hotel menus regularly included wild game such as quail, venison, turkey, and, often enough, bear.
Menger’s business practices reflected nineteenth-century San Antonio ethnic and political diversity. She employed German immigrants as clerks, formerly enslaved women as chambermaids, and two African American men to manage the hotel barbershop. Menger also purchased produce from Consolación Urrutia Henry, a Tejana descendent of Canary Islanders and the widow of William R. Henry. In 1874 a Black physician saw patients during his stay in the hotel. Also, two Kickapoo guides stayed at the hotel with U.S. Indian commissioner Henry M. Adkinson. Before and after the Civil War, Mary Menger hosted both members of the Confederate and United States Army, as well as pro-Unionist Charles Anderson (who was taken prisoner of Col. Henry E. McCulloch in 1861 at the hotel and later became governor of Ohio) and his daughter Kitty Anderson.
In the fall of 1881 when Menger was sixty-five years old, she sold her hotel to John Herman Kampmann, who oversaw the buildings’ original construction, for $132,500. It is a testament to Mary Menger’s reputation that for 160 years both Kampmann and the succeeding owner, William Lewis Moody, Jr., kept the name of San Antonio’s oldest business as the Menger Hotel.
Mary Menger died in San Antonio on July 3, 1887 and was buried at the city cemetery. She was a devout Catholic and directed her philanthropy toward St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, its orphanage, and school, as well as local civic interests and the establishment of the Temple Beth-El, the first synagogue in San Antonio and in South Texas. Mary Menger passed her devotion to the Catholic Church to her children Louis William, Peter Gustav, and Katarina Babette (Catherine Barbara). Louis started the Catholic newspaper the Southern Messenger (see CATHOLIC JOURNALISM). Two of Menger’s granddaughters took vows as Sisters of Divine Providence, and two great-grandsons were ordained as priests by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.