Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989 Page: 15
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Opposite page: An early photograph of a group of
workmen on the Texas State Capitol building,
courtesy of Texas Barker History Center, UT at
Top left: The Ray Building was built in 1898 by
Gus Birkner as a dry goods and millinery store.
Top right: This building was constructed by Birkner
in 1900 as a warehouse for E. L. Bowden.
Bottom right: Built in 1898 for A. L. Brock. In
1902 the Lockhart National Bank moved in and
the Chamber of Commerce also had an office in
Gonzales. His father came to the same port
ten years later and walked all the way to
Gonzales, sleeping at night in cowpens to
hide from Indians and managing to buy
food and find his way although he spoke no
English. His parents met and married in
1860. With the outbreak of the Civil War,
even though he was new to the country,
Godfried Birkner left to fight for the Confederate
After the war, Godfried ran a mill and
supported his growing family with a variety
of jobs, including that of stonemason. His
brother-in-law, John Stoffers, became a
builder and was responsible for many of the
brick buildings in the Gonzales area.
Gus did not have much formal schooling;
as the eldest, he helped support the
family. His father hired him out for such
work as driving horses for a horse-powered
cotton gin, and working in a beer bottling
plant. His toil added eight dollars a month
to the struggling family's coffers.
In 1879, at the age of eighteen, he impulsively
married Bettie Boyle, daughter of
one of his employers, and settled down on
a rented farm in Bear Creek. Farming provided
a precarious living, and Gus supported
his wife and first son, who was born
in 1880, by supplementing his farm income
with a variety of jobs. The first construction
project he worked on was a rock building
in Kyle. In 1882, he returned to
Gonzales to work for his uncle John Stoffers,
and to learn to become a brick mason.
In 1886, after he lost his livestock as the
result of a long drought, he decided to walk
to Austin to see if he could get work helping
to build the new state capitol. Construction
of the Capitol had been under
way since 1882, but progress was slow because
Texas lacked stonemasons and carpenters
in sufficient numbers to support a
project of such magnitude. Convicts were
used to quarry stone, and craftsmen were
imported from Europe and Mexico.
He was hired as a stonemason, though
he knew he did not qualify. He kept this to
himself, and was rewarded with a salary of
$3.50 a day-three times his accustomed
wage. He states in his memoir, "I thought
that I was getting rich." The reason for such
high wages in addition to the scarcity of
skilled labor was the dangerous nature of
the work. Accidents were a frequent occurrance.
Two-ton blocks of granite and limestone
were hoisted and swung into place
over the heads of the laborers working
below. At one point, the top floor gave way
because of the weight of the stone piled on
it, and crashed through to the basement,
killing a man working there. Birkner, too,
was the victim of an accident. A man
working above him lost his grip on a chisel
that fell and hit him on the forehead,
knocking him unconscious for a time. Birkner
records that one casualty was a carpenter
whose wife poisoned his lunch with
arsenic; perhaps she hoped to escape detection
because accidents on the project were
Since he was young and agile he was
often assigned to work up in the dome,
which involved more risk than other assignments.
As the Capitol neared completion
in 1888 a crack in the arch of the dome
was discovered. Because of his ability to
climb, Birkner was assigned to work in an
air shaft just 50 feet under the top of the
dome, cutting through the stone to allow
insertion of a rod to anchor the structure.
Because this job was so risky, he was paid
$4.00 a day. Gus not only felt fortunate to
have made handsome wages on this project,
but he writes of how proud he was to
have contributed his labor to the construction
of his state's Capitol. When he was in
HERITAGE * WINTER 1989 15
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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/m1/15/: accessed August 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.