I think the cheap soap opera fan in all of us has a secret yearning, half-sleazy, half-romantic, to be a member of a dynasty of wealthy movers and shakers, of patriarchs and grande dames, ambitious young bucks and beautiful, if scheming mademoiselles. We see families like this in great literature and pulp fiction and in TV shows from “Bonanza” to “Dallas.” Even in real life we’re fascinated with business dynasties, like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and political ones, like the Kennedys and Bushes.
And what’s the key to our fascination? Maybe we think life is more interesting, or at least more dramatic, when you’re rich and powerful, or that the pain of existence is made much more bearable when you have tens of millions of dollars to cushion you.
For much of the nineteenth century and for the first half of the twentieth the Bremond family was the most prominent business dynasty in Austin. Indeed, in the 1870s, the Bremonds accounted for a whopping twenty percent of the city’s tax revenue.
The Bremonds were prominent merchants who later branched out into banking and railroads, but they also built the “Bremond block,” an enclave of Victorian houses on Guadalupe, just south of the downtown Public Library.
Before I get too involved in this story, though, I should provide an abbreviated “Who’s Who,” as the Bremonds were as prolific as they were wealthy.
For our purposes we’ll start with the first Bremond in America, Dr. Paul Bremond (whose middle name was either Barr, Barlic, or Barlie, depending on the source). Dr. Paul (1770-1851) was said, according to family legend, to have been a doctor of Napoleon’s, but whether or not that was true he came to America in 1805, settled in New York, and married Catherine Green (1795-1874). They had eight children, including Paul (1810-1885) and John (1813-1866).
Paul and John both started out working as hatters in Philadelphia, but Paul moved to Texas in 1839, living in Galveston first, then later settling in Houston, where he worked as a merchant and railroad financier. John later came to Texas, settling in Austin in 1846.
Paul’s daughter Margaret married William Marsh Rice, whose will provided for the establishment of Rice University.
In 1833 John Bremond married Elizabeth Roberts (1814-1898), and they twelve children: Eugene (1832-1910), Marie Louise Bremond Haynie (1838-1889), Josephine Bremond Crosby (1840-?), John, Jr. (1840-1918), Mary Bremond Haralson (c.1842-?), Madeline Bremond Robinson (1845-1923), Virginia Bremond Nagle (c. 1846-?), Pauline Bremond Robinson (1849-1935), Pierre Augustus (1853-1871), Clara, Walter, and Katherine Bremond Eggleston Hamby (1855-1939).
Eugene Bremond was married twice, first to Mary Amelia Robinson (1842-1872), and then to Augusta Palm (1843-1929), a relative of the noted bibliophile Swante Palm, who bequeathed his library to the University of Texas, thereby greatly increasing its holdings. Eugene had six children: Elizabeth (1862-1876), Walter (1864-1925), Eugene, Jr., a deaf-mute (1870-1948), Lillie Bremond Steiner (1867-1927), Pierre Augusta (No, that’s not a typo—1875-1937), and Maud Bremond Carr (1876-?).
John Bremond, Jr. married Hallie Robertson (c. 1843-1887), and they had four children: Randolph (1865-1890), Estelle Bremond Hilliard (1863-1902), John Bremond III (1868-1923), and Hallie Bremond Houston (1885-1964).
John Bremond, Sr. opened a dry goods store in Austin in 1846, eventually settling on what is now the southwest corner of Sixth and Brazos. He later added groceries to his stock, and claimed to carry “cheese, chains, clams, clothing, crackers, cranberries, crowbars, and cutlery.” (I guess if you wanted dresses, decoys, dentures, diapers, Doritos, dillweed, doo-hickeys, and Drambuie you were out of luck.)
John, Sr. was friends with another local merchant, John Henry Robinson. The families had business ties, and three of Bremond’s children married three of Robinson’s.
John, Sr. had been a New York City fireman at one time, and in 1858 organized the Austin Hook and Ladder Company #1. Apparently the Bremond family made fire-fighting an elite pastime. John, Sr. had special uniforms tailored for him in New York, and several of his descendants were involved in various local fire companies.
The Washington Fire Company here had wealthy members, and when they arrived at a fire the poorer people in the affected neighborhood often hurled rocks and catcalls at them. Sometimes fights even broke out after the fires were extinguished.
John, Sr.’s wife, Elizabeth, was terrified of what the Texas sun would do to the milky complexion of her daughters, so she cut holes in the girls’s hats, yanked their hair up through those holes, and knotted their hair in such a way that the girls couldn’t ever take their hats off.
John Bremond, Sr. died in 1866 in Buffalo, New York, while on a business trip. His interests were taken over by his sons Eugene and John, Jr.
John, Sr.’s brother Paul Bremond started several Texas railways. One, the Houston East & West Texas, or HE&WT (“Hell Either Way Taken” as some said), serviced the forests of East Texas, and got the nickname “The Rabbit” because of its jumpy cars and bumpy tracks. But Paul also organized the Galveston & Red River Railway, which came to Austin in 1871 under its later name, the Houston & Texas Central Railway.
The advent of the railroad made it much easier and more profitable for merchants to bring goods to Austin, and the Bremonds did well indeed. Eugene started lending money out of the back of the store at eighteen percent interest. He eventually sold his share of the family mercantile business to John, Jr. and started the State National Bank, serving as its president.
As for John, Jr., well, I found it interesting to see how the Austin city directories over the years described him and his business.
1872-1873: “Wholesale merchant.”
1877-1878: “Wholesale dry goods, notions, boots, shoes, groceries, wines, liquors and cigars.”
1887-1888: “Wholesale Dry Goods, Notions, Hats, caps boots, shoes and groceries.”
1895-1896: “importers and wholesale grocers, cotton factors and commission merchants.”
John Bremond and Company also went into the business of roasting and grinding coffee beans for home use, shipping four different blends all over the state.
The death, in 1872, of Eugene’s first wife, Mary, prompted effusive public tribute: “As a wife and as a mother she has well fulfilled her mission. From her home, which for ten years has been made happy by her virtue and affection, and from her four little children whose tender hearts clung to her for support and guidance, she has suddenly been taken away. To him [her husband] and them who are thus deeply bereaved human consolation were but mockery. But holding the blessed word of Jesus we own the truth, it’s darkness is dispelled.”
When John, Jr.’s wife Hallie died in 1887, the “Daily Statesman” reported no less lavishly, “Notwithstanding all the skill of the most eminent physicians in the country and the most affectionate and loving care and attention of a deeply devoted husband, the best of mothers, and the tender and constant nursing by her children, her relatives and friends, all that was mortal of Mrs. Hallie Bremond succumbed to the fatal illness, and the spirit of this good Christian lady took its flight to the God who gave it, during the quiet hours of Sunday night, surrounded by all her loved ones.”
Indeed, all the Bremonds elicited great amounts of praise and sympathy when they passed on, which indicated the esteem with which the community held the family.
While I was digging around in the Bremond files at the Austin History Center I came across the transcript of a threatening note Eugene Bremond once received, a note made all the more interesting by the fact I could find out nothing else about it or what happened as a result of it. I reproduce the note in its entirety, spelling errors intact:
“Read with care or take the consequences.
April 10, 1901
Mr. Eugene Bremond, Dear Sir,
Please leave $500.00 under west steps of Hyde Park Baptist Church, Cor. 2nd & Cong. Ave, Hyde Park. Leave money by 6 oclock Friday evening Apr. 12, 1901. Said amount must be in gold and greenback. Bills must not be larger than $20.00 a peice. If money is left by said time, we will repay it soon. If said money is not left at said place by said time, we will kill you or some of your family or destroy your property soon. You can take the risk of losing your life or of getting the money back, just as you like. We are gamblers and have done this several times before and have always got the money. We have always paid it back inside of six months. You must say nothing about this to no one till you get your money back. But if you think you can catch us, and fo mention this, you and your family and property are in same danger, and you will be destroyed as quick as possible. We have asked you as gentlemen should; now be a gentleman and leave the full amount. You will not miss $500.00 for six months. Take warning from us.
Two Honest gamblers.”
(Oh, that Tom DeLay is such a scamp! Is there ever any end to his monkey shines?)
One of the most colorful of the Bremonds was Eugene’s son Pierre. His wife, Nina Louise Abadie, was an athletic and beautiful young socialite from St. Louis, and was fond of swimming, cycling, dancing, and tennis. During her youth she went ice skating on a lake and fell through some thin ice, and was saved from drowning by George Chopin, young son of Kate Chopin, the novelist who wrote “The Awakening.”
Pierre and Nina were fond of golf and initially they used tin cans for holes, but one day they were having an outing with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Hancock, when they spied a piece of land that took their fancy. They bought the land and built a little hut to store their clubs. Lewis Hancock then laid out what would become the first ever golf course in Texas.
Pierre’s big vice was automobiles, and he brought the first gasoline car to Austin in 1903. He had to carry gas, oil, water, and other supplies with him every time he drove the thing. Since there were no auto mechanics in town in those days, he hired someone to go to the car factory and learn how the vehicle operated.
In 1904, farmer August Mayer sued Pierre for $10,000. Mayer claimed that he’d been driving his buggy when his horse was frightened by Pierre’s car, and bolted, overturning the buggy and reportedly injuring Mayer. But the jury ultimately sided with the defendant. (In other telling court news that day, the “Statesman” reported “White Man Bound Over on a Charge of Theft of Chickens From a Negro.” Sorry, folks–I have no jokes for this one. I just thought the headline said a lot about those days.)
Now meditate on this piece from 1903 the next time you’re on Mopac at 5:30pm: “Pierre Bremond of Austin, who came to San Antonio for the Battle of Flowers with his wife on an automobile made the trip in eight hours running time. They left Austin Monday afternoon and stayed over night in New Braunfels, traveling fifty-four miles and crossing two rivers, having two and a half feet of water. Mr. Bremond thinks that the trip can be made in four to five hours’ time on fair roads.”
Pierre’s auto fixation lead him to become a local dealer in “Stearns Touring Cars.”
In 1914, Eugene Bremond, Jr. went with a group of friends to spend the summer in Europe, only to run face first into World War I. Though he had letters of credit and traveler’s checks with him, he was unable to use them to book passage back home and had to get the US Postmaster General to wire him money through the American Consulate in Bremen, Germany. He managed to re-cross the Atlantic safely in a Dutch freighter without getting fired upon.
According to the “Austin American,” “Only once was he held up, he said, and that was in Bremen during the first few days of the war. On being examined by an officer, he was immediately suspected, being deaf and dumb. He soon, however, convinced the officer of his identity and was graciously allowed to depart, after having received a written passport which called upon all the subjects of the Kaiser to extend to him every consideration. The order was adhered to in every detail, said Bremond, and he was at all times treated with extreme courtesy.
“He stoutly denied stories published in a Galveston paper relative to his alleged arrest as a spy.”
Eventually the State National Bank was absorbed by others. John Bremond and Company moved from its original building in 1925, and finally ceased operation in 1967. The old Bremond store was the oldest commercial structure in Austin when it was demolished in 1979 to make way for the Littlefield Mall.
Just like the Vanderbilts on the East coast, the Bremonds are today best remembered for the houses they built. Initially the family lived over the store downtown, but eventually John, Sr. built a house at Sixth and Rio Grande, where Katz’s Deli stands now. The Robinson place was a block away, on the northwest corner of Rio Grande and Seventh.
When John Bremond, Sr. died his lot was divided up between Lillie Bremond Steiner, Louise Bremond Haynie, Virginia Bremond Nagle, and John, Jr.
Sometime between 1866 and 1872, Eugene began buying up portions of “Block 80,” between Seventh and Eighth and Guadalupe and San Antonio. He purchased the Greek Revival home of Dr. William Phillips, which had been designed by Abner Cook in 1854, and sat on the northeast corner of the block. Eugene later added a wing to the back of the house.
When Eugene remarried in 1874, he moved Eugene, Jr. into this house. Later it was occupied by John, Jr.’s daughter Hallie Bremond Houston and her husband.
Eugene moved his new bride into an Italianate house on the southwest corner of the block. The house featured bay windows, extensive porches, bracketed cornices, and for a time, a cupola. After Eugene’s death the house was taken over by his nephew, Alfred Robinson, Jr., and Robinson descendants lived in the house until 1974.
John, Jr. actually preceded Eugene on the “Bremond Block,” buying a Greek Revival house on two lots on the southeast corner. This, sadly, was the site where in earlier days Indians had killed and scalped a child and kidnapped two others.
Eventually John, Jr. tore down his original house and constructed an exuberantly Victorian one in its place, in the French Second Empire style. The four-story, five bedroom, brick and stone house featured six fireplaces, black walnut woodwork, etched glass doors, brass doorknobs and hinges, detailed ironwork, plaster moldings, stained glass windows, floors inlaid with fifteen different types of wood, and yes, the very first indoor toilet of any house in Austin (Sa-lute!). There is even a huge letter “B” elaborately carved into a chimney on the west side of the house. Amazingly, this palace was built for only $49,000, and was serving as a YMCA before the Texas Classroom Teachers Association bought and restored it.
Soon after John, Jr.’s new house was finished, Eugene bought a little stone house on the northwest corner of the block, greatly enlarged it, and gave it to his son Walter as a wedding present. In 1891 Eugene installed his widowed sister Pauline Robinson in a stone house on the west side of the block, between his house and Walter’s. A decade later Greek columns were added to the front of the house. Pauline’s unmarried daughter Catherine lived in this house until her death in 1961.
The last house built on the Bremond block was turreted brick structure in the Queen Anne style that Eugene commissioned in 1898 as a wedding present for his son Pierre. The family had moved all the stables to another block, and the alley that ran from east to west between the houses served as a courtyard within which the Bremond/Robinson children could play, as well as a display area for gear-head Pierre’s collection of early automobiles.
It is truly fortunate that we have such a large chunk of our Victorian past preserved complete at the edge of our downtown. Indeed, it is amazing that we have as many old houses as we do still standing in the neighborhoods around the County Courthouse.
On the other hand, I can’t help but find it sad that these structures serve now as soulless offices, filled with tacky desks, drab beige filing cabinets, and jumbles of electrical cords, that the huge dining rooms will never again play host to family feasts and that the drawing room rugs will never be rolled up for dances. Historic preservation can only go so far, I suppose. We can save the artifacts of our past, but we’ll never be able to regain the past itself.
—April 28, 2005