AUSTIN, Texas - Looking around Austin today it’s hard to imagine a simpler time when there were fewer restaurants, bars and people. But step inside the iconic Scholz Garten and you can get a sense of what it may have been like.
The nostalgic feelings for “Old Austin” hit you right when you walk through the door
German immigrant and Civil war veteran August Scholz opened Scholz in 1866 over an old boardinghouse. He purchased the building and surrounding property for $2,400.
At that time, Austin was still a small town that was recovering during the First Reconstruction era after the Civil War says Mike Miller with the Austin History Center.
Miller says that government returned to Austin and there was activity around drafting a new state Constitution to be re-instated in the Union.
Union forces in Austin brought much needed money and commerce. There was also an influx of freedmen looking for work and opportunity within the various freedman communities around Austin.
Miller says that Scholz was a very social place and family friendly unlike saloons. He adds that Scholz wasn’t actually the only beer garden in town.
In the period after the war, Miller says Austin had two vibrant and bustling beer gardens: Scholz and Buaas Hall.
Both halls competed for customers but Miller says the town seemed to be able to support both. Miller says that it was politics that ultimately sealed the fates of the two gardens.
Miller says that Buaas Hall was the headquarters of the State Republican Party and frequented by people like former Texas Governor Elisha Pease and since no Democrats at the time would want to socialize with members of the other party, Texas Democrats took to hanging out and conducting business at Scholz.
Democrats took control of Texas politics in 1874 and thus business at Buaas dried up and the garden closed shortly after. The rest, as they say, is history.
Changes Over Time
Scholz is now the longest running beer garden in America and the oldest bar and live music venue in the state of Texas.
Austin has changed a lot in the more than 150 years Scholz has been open but Miller says that Scholz itself has pretty much stayed the same. There’s still a restaurant, beer garden, singing hall and bowling.
In 1901, the Austin Saengerrunde, a German singing club, began meeting at Scholz. In 1908 the group purchased it and made some renovations to the property, including a new hall which remains today.
A bowling alley the group built also still exists today. The six lane alley at Saengerrunde Hall is one of the oldest continuous operating bowling centers in the U.S.
Of course it should come as no surprise that a place as old as Scholz has had a few different owners since August Scholz. After August died in 1891 his stepson took over ownership for two years before selling Scholz to the St. Louis based Lemp Brewing Company which made Falstaff Beer.
Today it’s Daniel Northcutt’s job to make sure everything runs smoothly. Northcutt has revamped the space and made changes to the menu.
“A place this old you can’t come in and make it too shiny and you certainly don’t want to mess with the energy and remodel everything. So it’s a little bit of old. Little bit of new. And a whole lot of history,” Northcutt says.
“We have to pay attention to yesterday and we very much have to pay attention to today,” Northcutt adds.
Today means adapting to the changes in public tastes.
When it first opened, Scholz was mainly limited to German lager beers. Miller says the beer perhaps came from Paul Pressler’s brewery before Pressler opened his own beer garden on West 6th.
The original bar remains but it serves more than just beer now.
Northcutt began selling liquor at Scholz for the first time in its history just a couple of years ago in 2017.
The food menu has evolved over time as well. Northcutt says today the food has many of the classics that Scholz regulars would recognize. He says the menu sticks with its German based roots and combines aspects from the surrounding community.
It’s that surrounding community that perhaps is the biggest reason for Scholz’s longevity.
Besides being a large part of the German community at its start, Scholz has had interesting intersects with multiple aspects of Austin life.
Scholz is located on San Jacinto Boulevard and is close in proximity to both the University of Texas and the state Capitol.
It remains a popular spot for Longhorns tailgates and in fact the Longhorns football team reportedly celebrated its first undefeated season at Scholz in 1893.
It’s not just athletes but a host of well-known and significant people in Austin and Texas history have walked through Scholz’s doors including Old West gunman Ben Thompson, former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and several important Texas politicians including several governors.
“There’s this long running history with government and sports and community and music and it’s all kind of wrapped up in the Scholz Garten ball,” Northcutt says.
Since it opened in the 19th century, Scholz has always been a gathering place for people of all walks of life and all ages.
“It’s special to so many people. So many different people for so many different reasons,” Northcutt says.
For many it's the entertainment that has drawn them to Scholz. Numerous musicians have performed there as well full on orchestras back in the day.
At one point there was a zoo which reportedly had an alligator and a bear. Miller says the garden was bigger in the past as well.
Austin Saegerrunde member Julius Young remembers when he first stepped in to Scholz.
“Going in and kind of that wooden interior and the schnitzel. I really love schnitzel back then I still do now,” Young says. “Seeing all the beer steins on the wall but also all the old pictures of Austin. I can tell there’s a real family around Scholz.”
Northcutt says that it’s people like Young that makes Scholz what it is.
“This place just oozes memories and energy,” Northcutt says.
Young talks about a word that can be seen in Scholz: Gemütlichkeit. Young says it means cheerfulness and “just the idea that we’re sitting down here to eat, drink and have fun and enjoy each other. Fellowship. Company. That’s kind of what I think Scholz is so much based around.”
It’s that feeling of camaraderie and family that keeps people going back and cements Scholz’s place in state and national history.
In 1966, Scholz was honored on its centennial by the state legislature and received a state historical marker a year later in 1967. It received historic zoning status in 1975 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Northcutt says, “We really hope to continue the tradition…or be a catalyst with continuing this tradition for the next 150 years.”