Years ago, a kind friend gave me a framed set of illustrations from sketches by L.W. MacDonald, which were originally published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,” in New York, on May 28, 1881.
They’re detailed illustrations of cowboys driving cattle, one showing the herd and cowboys on a road; the other, in a hill-crowded valley lined with trees.
Of special interest are the captions. One reads “On the road to Kerrville,” and the other, “Rounding up the cattle.” At the bottom of the page it reads “Cattle-raising on our great plains. — Scenes at Kerrville, Texas.”
Images of Kerrville from 1881 are exceptionally rare. There are two main reasons: There were few, if any, cameras here during those years, nor any easy way to develop photographs, even if you had a camera; and second, there were not a lot of people here. Some sources say the population of Kerrville in 1880 was only 156 people.
These cowboy illustrations, of course, were not photographs, but were drawn from sketches by L.W. MacDonald. Still, they show Kerrville when it was still a tiny town beside the Guadalupe River.
There are only a few structures in Kerrville today that were here in 1881. The Favorite Saloon building, at 709 Water St., was built in 1874 by F.J. Hamer. The Gregory Hotel building may have been around in 1880; after many renovations and additions, it became Pampell’s. The oldest part of the Schreiner store still standing probably dates from 1882, although the oldest part of the Schreiner Mansion dates from 1879.
In 1881, there were no church buildings in Kerrville. The Union Church was completed around Christmas 1885; St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s first building was built around 1884, but that original building lacked a belfry until 1898.
The railroad did not arrive in Kerrville until 1887. Kerrville was not incorporated until 1889.
Let’s look now at the illustrations published in New York in 1881.
In “On the road to Kerrville,” there are several parts of the drawing that look very true to our community, like the shape of the hills and the juniper tree on the hillside. The other flora shown in the image also seem plausible.
There are very few buildings in the image, which would be about right, and I don’t see any church steeples among them.
The poor building right on the riverbank is in harm’s way the next time the Guadalupe decides to flood. I don’t see any exact renditions of the few buildings I know were standing in Kerrville in 1881, but I don’t think that matters much.
The artist was not trying to illustrate Kerrville; these images were about cattle and the men who worked cattle.
Elsewhere I found another image by L.W. MacDonald that shows stampeding cattle racing away from a lightning strike.
“A flash of lightning and the crash of thunder sent many a herd of Longhorns stampeding to parts unknown,” the same issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported. “It also was dangerous for the cowboys who on horseback were the highest objects on the prairie, making them targets for lightning. This storm broke over a herd near Kerrville, Texas.”
These three images show a glimpse of our community before the convenience and accuracy of easy photography. They show cowboys hard at work, negotiating difficult terrain, handling stampedes, driving a herd of cattle to market. They illustrate a way of life that was dangerous and difficult.
We know so little about the earliest days of our Hill Country communities.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is happy he lives in the present day. Life here in 1881 would have been a lot of very hard work.