Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989 Page: 14
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DIARY OF A
Gus Birkner's Story
By Joan Rabins
W ho built Main Street? In our efforts
to preserve the historic downtown areas in
Texas, we cannot help but speculate about
the people who designed and built the
businesses, the schools, churches and
homes that we admire and treasure for their
intrinisic charm and utilitarian integrity.
At best, we have property records and
contracts that give us the names of the
builders, the architects, the businessmen
and officials who initiated projects, but
seldom is the story fleshed out.
The memoir of Gus Birkner, a stonemason
and contractor who worked in the
San Antonio area in the late nineteenth
and first part of the twentieth century,
gives us a unique opportunity to know one
of these people and to read the story of his
14 HERITAGE * WINTER 1989
life in his own words. In recounting his life
and telling of his work, he also helps us to
understand the process of construction and
its evolution throughout his long lifespan,
and to feel the social context in which he
We have a copy of this memoir in the
collections of the repository of the Center
for Historic Resources at Texas A&M
University, as the result of an appeal in the
spring of 1988 issue by J. P. Bryan, editor of
Heritage magazine. We are creating an
archive of material on the Texas built
environment, and he asked readers to participate
in this effort. Among the responses
we received at the repository was a telephone
call from Mr. Joe A. Birkner, Jr. of
Bay City, asking whether we might be
interested in the diary of his father's uncle,
Gus Birkner, who had been responsible for
erecting, as he put it, some of "the first
permanent structures on the landscape for
When we had the opportunity to read
the memoir, which runs over 240 pages, we
realized that we had come upon a unique
resource. Gus Birkner completed his account
at the age of 79, based on the meticulous
diaries he had kept over the years,
recordings of his business transactions,
family history, accidents, natural disasters,
and local and world events.
Gustave was born in 1861 in Gonzales.
Both his parents had come from Germany.
His mother arrived with her brother at
Galveston in 1848. They settled in
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989, periodical, Winter 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45430/m1/14/: accessed August 18, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.