Wagner, Mathilda Doebbler (1856–1944)

By: Jo Ella Powell Exley

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Mathilda Wagner, memoirist, was born on August 29, 1856, in Fredericksburg, one of five children of Louis and Mathilda Doebbler. Seven years before her death she dictated her life story to her granddaughter Winifred Cade, and the manuscript was published in 1937 as I Think Back: Being the Memoirs of Grandma Gruen. The book is significant for what it reveals about life in the middle and late nineteenth-century Hill Country, for its insights into experiences particular to girls and women of that place and time, and for information about contemporary life expectancy, child labor, family structure, and marriage. Mathilda's parents escaped political upheaval and immigrated to Fredericksburg in the early 1850s. Her father was a stonemason, and her mother did fancy sewing. Her only brother drowned in a mill stream, and her mother died of an infection when Mathilda was a child. Because Louis Doebbler could not care for four girls alone, he sent them to live with and work for other families. As children, one sister died from accidental poisoning, and another suffered a crushed and permanently disfigured hand while working with a sugar press. Her father remarried, but Mrs. Wagner described her stepmother as a cruel woman who beat her own children as well as her stepchildren. At nine Mathilda was sent to San Antonio to live and work for a family that hired her out to pick cotton in New Braunfels. She was, however, sent to school and confirmed in an evangelical Lutheran church. She survived the cholera epidemic of 1866 and in her memoir described the sight of death wagons collecting bodies. In 1872, when she was sixteen, Mathilda Doebbler married Fredrick William Gruen, thirteen years her senior, to escape her living conditions. They lived for a time with his parents, then moved into a log cabin on his farmland. The couple had ten children. They eventually lived in a two-story stone house her father built, but about 1890 hard times forced them to sell out and move to Kerrville, where they took in boarders. She wrote of envying her husband's freedom to come in from the fields and rest while she continued into the evening with boarder-related chores that he considered women's work. Fredrick Gruen shot and killed himself, an act Mathilda Gruen described as an accident. After his death she and six children moved to San Antonio, where she married John Wagner and helped raise his two children. Mathilda Wagner died in San Antonio in 1944, having outlived both husbands and several children.

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Jo Ella Powell Exley, ed., Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine: Voices of Frontier Women (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985). Crystal Sasse Ragsdale, ed., The Golden Free Land: The Reminiscences and Letters of Women on an American Frontier (Austin: Landmark, 1976).
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  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
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  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jo Ella Powell Exley, “Wagner, Mathilda Doebbler,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wagner-mathilda-doebbler.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995

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