Since buying the historic Woldert-Spence Manor in Tyler six years ago, Chris Garrett has spent countless hours researching the history of the house, as well as the people who lived there.
He found that a lot of the information passed down throughout the years was wrong.
“Even the date on our sign — 1859 — appears to be incorrect. But that doesn’t worry me. History, like this house, evolves over time,” Garrett wrote in “A Brief and Utterly Fascinating History of The Woldert-Spence Manor,” a compilation of all the information had found on the house.
He worked to find more accurate information from as many original sources as he could find; the most important being a biography of John George Woldert, written by his son, William, tucked safely away in the archives of the Smith County Historical Society. He also found fire insurance maps from the Sanborn Co. online, and in the Tyler Public Library, he found maps and old city directories.
Woldert, the patriarch of the family, was born on July 18, 1814, in the small village of Adorf in the Kingdom of Saxony, now part of Germany. He was a woodworker and cabinet maker and served a brief stint in the Prussion Army before immigrating to America in 1838. In New York, he became foreman of a factory making pianos, guitars and violins before sailing to Galveston, then walking on to East Texas a year later.
The history tells of Woldert being captured by Indians and escaping and later moving to San Augustine. He bought land and opened a cabinet shop there, and counted amongst his friends Gen. Sam Houston and Judge Thomas Jefferson Rusk.
In 1846, Woldert was awarded 320 acres from the Land Board of San Augustine County and, about the same time, heard that the Texas Legislature was forming a new town, Tyler, and a new county, Smith. He bought 1,920 acres 6 miles east of present-day Tyler.
In 1850, Woldert closed his shop in San Augustine and took a trip back to Adorf, where he married Alma Edelina Richter. After returning to San Augustine, he opened a photo studio, and was believed to have taken the last known portrait of Houston.
He moved his family to San Antonio and in addition to taking portraits and building cabinets, he turned to retail, selling imported German wines and beers, Swiss cheese, laces, musical instruments and glass ware. By this time, he reportedly had amassed more than 20,000 acres of Texas land.
Woldert moved to Tyler in 1859. He rented a house at the northwest corner of what is now Bonner and Woldert streets and purchased a 3-acre tract nearby, where he settled permanently. He and his wife had eight children.
“Cabinet maker, soldier, surveyor, land baron, photographer — whatever he had done previously, when he arrived in Tyler, John George settled on ‘merchant’ as his profession,” Garrett wrote. “From 1860 to 1875, on the north side of Tyler’s square, he ran an importing business of laces, embroideries, fancy goods, musical instruments, toys, wines and beers; also imported Bohemian glassware.”
Woldert reportedly was one of the first to make wine from native Texas grapes and received a raving review of his wines in The New Orleans Times, according to old records. He made wine not only from grapes, but also from tomatoes, blackberries, apples, peaches, plums and apricots.
In 1860, Woldert was reportedly worth about $36,000, which is close to $3 million today, he wrote.
“John George lived the rest of his life in Tyler, raising his children, living in the house on Fan Street (now Woldert Street), playing accordion on the front porch in the evenings and running his store,” Garrett wrote.
He died at age 73 in 1887 and is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery.
Historic reports of the house said that Woldert settled on the property in 1859 and built the Victorian downstairs of the house in 1884, constructed dog-trot style from two cabins on the property. The second story was added later.
Other accounts, mostly from family descriptions, tell that Woldert never lived in the house that now is the Woldert-Spence Manor. Instead, he lived south of the property in the house described above.
Garrett challenges the historic reports that Woldert built the Woldert-Spence Manor. Physically, things didn’t add up for Garrett, who noted that the manor’s ceilings were too high for 1859 cabins, that the pier-and-beam foundation ran all the way across the house and there were no traces of any cabin foundations. There was also originally no central hallway, typical of dog-trot houses, until restorations were made in the 1990s.
“At the time the Victorian downstairs of the Manor was built — 1884 — John George was 70 years old and at the end of his full life,” Garrett wrote. “Why would a man, in poor health, three years after his wife had passed away and with all of his children well grown, build a new house across the street from the land that he had owned for decades?”
So who built the Manor?
Garrett believes it was his second son, William Albert Woldert, who worked in retail and as a cabinetmaker. His first daughter, Alma Mary, was born in the Manor in 1884, followed by four more children.
By 1905, William was a civil engineer and surveyor, publishing a widely used map of Smith County. Boxes of his survey documents stored at the Smith County Historical Society are reportedly still referenced today. William was also a respected historian, writing an eight-volume unpublished work — “East Texas” — and his father’s biography. He also traveled the world, working for his brother Alex. One of Tyler’s earliest surviving city directories from 1887 lists his occupation as “commercial traveler.”
William lived in the house at 611 W. Woldert St. his entire life. After his wife died, he raised their children, with support from the rest of the family living across the street.
Alma Mary married and moved to El Paso before becoming a widow and moving back to Tyler, where she remarried Robert Spence in 1912. They had three children. She was organizer and president of the East Texas Tuberculosis Association, Tyler’s Woman of 1954, honorary president of the Tyler Creative Writers’ Club, world traveler and poet. She was published in several journals and wrote two poetry books.
The house slowly emptied. The children grew up and moved away. William died in 1937, followed by Alma Mary in 1955 and her husband, Spence, in 1965 — who was the last of the family living in the house.
“It was Alma Mary’s tenure in the house that made it what it is today,” Garrett wrote. “With the exception of the sunroom, the rooms are named for her, her father, and her children.”
There appears to have been four major renovations to the home. Between 1907 and 1912, a room and porch were added for William’s study. This also was probably when electricity and plumbing came into the house. Between 1928 and 1938, the upper floor was added and between 1938 and 1990s, a bathroom was added and the original downstairs bathroom was expanded.
After 1965, the house and garage apartments, built behind the house in 1935, became rental housing. It fell into fairly dismal shape until Richard and Patricia Heaton bought it in 1991. They renovated it and turned it into a bed and breakfast, now for sale.
What became of the other five sons of John George Woldert?
John George Woldert Jr. died at the age of 20. Theodore was a prominent lawyer in Tyler and became a judge in Houston. Gus moved to Arkansas and sold furniture.
Alexander met the most financial success of the family. In 1890, he founded The Woldert Co., which had a canning factory in Lindale. Between 1898 and 1906, he built the brick house across the street from the manor, which is now a law office. The Wolderts living in Tyler today all herald from Alex and many of the “Woldert landmarks” are due to his generous monetary donations, Garrett wrote. He died in 1939.
Albert, the youngest of the brothers, became a physician. An expert on malaria and tropical diseases, he served as Tyler’s city physician. He built and lived in the house just east of the manor and published a widely respected book, “A History of Smith County and East Texas.”