German leads Pioneer Mills

  • This photo, circa 1851 shows the original Pioneer Mill along the banks of Live Oak Creek. — Standard-Radio Post file photo
    This photo, circa 1851 shows the original Pioneer Mill along the banks of Live Oak Creek. — Standard-Radio Post file photo

When C.H. Guenther first went into the milling business on Live Oak Creek near Fredericksburg, Sam Houston was a United States Senator, Bigfoot Wallace carried the mail between San Antonio and El Paso, and the combined population of Lubbock and Amarillo was zero.

Carl Hilmar Guenther was born in Germany on March 19, 1826. He apprenticed as a miller but left Germany for the thrill of frontier life in America.

He landed in New York in 1848, and after a short stay, he traveled to Wisconsin. Later he sailed down the Mississippi to New Orleans; then by steamship to Indianola on the Texas coast. He walked to San Antonio and then New Braunfels but decided to make his way to the German settlement of Fredericksburg on the Texas frontier.

When Guenther came to town in 1851, the citizens of Fredericksburg rolled out the red carpet. Millers were important people in frontier communities.

Guenther bought land along the banks of Live Oak Creek where he built an earthen dam and a millhouse. The site of Guenther’s mill is just north of the Live Oak Creek bridge on Texas Highway 16, between the bridge and Lady Bird Johnson Park.

The gears and working parts of the mill were made of wood, but typical of Guenther, the millstones were the best money could buy. They were carved from a special kind of quartz found only in France. The millstones came to the Texas coast by ship and then to Fredericksburg by ox cart.

Soon after establishing himself in business, Guenther married Henrietta Dorothea Pape from Fredericksburg.

The first few years were good to the young couple, but in 1859, a drought hit West Texas. The Pedernales puddled up and Live Oak Creek went bone dry. With no water to turn the wheel, Guenther’s mill stood still as a tombstone.

He had to find a more reliable power source.

So Guenther sold his place in Gillespie County and bought property in San Antonio, a mile south of the Alamo. He built a mill powered by the San Antonio River and one of the first houses in what is now the King William District.

Guenther’s company struggled at times until the railroad came to town and solved the grain supply problem. And with the coming of the railroad, markets extended far beyond the range of ox carts and horse-drawn wagons. By 1885, sales exceeded Guenther’s wildest dreams.

In 1898, the business was incorporated under the name C.H. Guenther and Son, Inc., using the trade name Pioneer Flour Mills.

Time has washed away every trace of Guenther’s mill on Live Oak Creek, but Pioneer Mills is still doing business in San Antonio. Its sales territory covers 22 states in the South and Southwest. Many of its products, including Pioneer All Purpose Flour, are on the shelf at H-E-B. 

C.H. Guenther’s company is reported to be the oldest continuously owned family milling business in the country. Corporate offices are at 2201 Broadway in San Antonio. Dozens of Guenther’s descendants are shareholders in the company.