Joseph Netzer


Joseph Netzer, a German immigrant, was an entrepreneur of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Along with many others, he journeyed to the US-Mexico border region in the late nineteenth century, attracted by new economic opportunities created by the construction of railroads that connected the industrializing areas of the U.S. with emerging capitalist centers in Mexico, including Monterrey and San Luis Potosi. Netzer, a hardware store owner and plumber by training, rose fairly rapidly to prominence in Laredo business and social circles. He became part of a cosmopolitan business class consisting of ethnic Mexicans, immigrants from western, southern and eastern Europe, from the Ottoman Empire, and from the northeastern and midwestern United States. His life illuminates the role of entrepreneurs who helped to integrate the U.S. and Mexican economies in that era.


Joseph Netzer (born May 1, 1863 in Frankfurt-am-Main; died July 29, 1937 in Laredo, TX), a German immigrant, was an entrepreneur of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Along with many others, he journeyed to the US-Mexico border region in the late nineteenth century, attracted by new economic opportunities created by the construction of railroads that connected the industrializing areas of the U.S. with emerging capitalist centers in Mexico, including Monterrey and San Luis Potosi. The convergence of three railroad lines made Laredo the gateway to commerce with Mexico and a significant port of entry on the US-Mexico border. Netzer, a hardware store owner and plumber by training, rose fairly rapidly to prominence in Laredo business and social circles. He became part of a cosmopolitan business class consisting of ethnic Mexicans, immigrants from western, southern and eastern Europe, from the Ottoman Empire, and from the northeastern and midwestern United States. His life illuminates the role of entrepreneurs who helped to integrate the U.S. and Mexican economies in that era.

Family and Ethnic Background

Joseph Netzer was born into a region undergoing political turmoil and substantial economic transformation. His birthplace of Frankfurt-am-Main, a free, independently governed city when he entered the world on May 1, 1863, had emerged as an important center of commercial activity, finance, and insurance during a period (1840-1890) when north central Europe was shifting from a relatively traditional, agricultural society to a more modern, urban society transformed by industrial capitalism. Frankfurt’s population expanded from 65,000 in 1850 to 91,000 in 1870 as factories sprang up throughout the city. This rapid growth led to overcrowding and hastily constructed tenement buildings where light rarely penetrated and diseases like cholera and typhus ran rampant. Whether Netzer grew up in these crowded areas of inner city Frankfurt is unknown. Since he became an apprentice to a plumber at a young age, it is likely that his father was an artisan rather than a factory worker and that he was probably part of a family and community primarily made up of master craftsmen, shopkeepers, and other small businesspeople. This lower middle class was experiencing significant upheaval as industrialization and urbanization contributed to more distinctive and stratified social classes, including a growing laboring class, a progressively more wealthy elite, and an increasingly powerful educated “German bourgeoisie.”[1]

In 1863, Germany was not yet a unified nation, and wars affected the region throughout Netzer’s childhood. The ideals of liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty spawned by the American and French Revolutions attracted young intellectuals and artisans living in Frankfurt, who became part of a larger network in the region that participated in the Revolution of 1848 (a little more than a decade before Netzer’s birth) and also contributed to the creation of a free press in Frankfurt. This free press potentially threatened the expansionist aims of the increasingly militaristic and powerful Prussia. Thus, the Prussian army occupied the city in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War when Netzer was only about three years old. Soon thereafter, Frankfurt lost its independence, merging into the Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau. The unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck, prime minister of Prussia, followed in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. Germany then suffered a brutal depression in 1873, triggered by the collapse of speculative investments in the 1850s and 1860s. Falling prices, layoffs in the mining and industrial sectors, and an agricultural crisis led to a period of stagnation for a couple of decades. The German economy did not fully recover until the mid-1890s.[2]

Netzer’s peripatetic wanderings as a young journeyman plumber throughout the cities of Europe, especially in Germany, Austria, Serbia, and Russia, and his subsequent migration to the United States in 1880 suggest that this regional turmoil and transformation shaped his decision to migrate.[3]Whether he was having difficulty finding work or endeavoring to escape conscription is unknown, but his travels reflected larger patterns. Land fragmentation, population growth and overcrowding, the decline of craft and home industries, all hallmarks of the shift from an agricultural to a more industrial society, coupled with wars, a harsh recession, and famines, led to significant emigration from central Europe between 1850 and 1890. At least one million people left German-speaking areas between 1864 and 1873 and another 860,000 between 1880 and 1885. (There was actually a decline in emigration just after the crisis of 1873 until the next great wave beginning in 1880. By 1890, the nation’s economy had recovered, and emigration slowed to only about 20,000 to 30,000 per year during that decade).

New transportation and communication networks on land and sea facilitated this movement. Germany’s railroad tracks, for example, expanded from 4,000 miles in 1852 to about 24,000 in 1873. Steamship travel out of ports such as Bremen and Hamburg made overseas migration cheaper, easier, and faster. In the mid-nineteenth century, most emigrants traveled to southern Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Paris, but by 1880, the vast majority left for the United States with the rest destined primarily for Canada and Brazil. The United States became attractive after the Civil War because of its booming economy and need for laborers and also because of its offers of land under the Homestead Act. Government agencies and emigration societies published pamphlets about the United States, providing information about

jobs, schools, travel costs, geography, and climate. Family members circulated letters from individuals who already lived there, contributing to a picture of the U.S. as a land of opportunity.[4]

In the spring of 1880, Joseph Netzer boarded a ship owned by the North German-Lloyd line in Bremen and landed in New York on or about May 20 at the age of 17. He arrived in a country undergoing tremendous political and economic transformation much like the one he had left. The Civil War had ended about fourteen years earlier, and the process of Reconstruction was officially over, but the nation was still feeling the pains of division and was only slowly moving back towards full reunification. The war had stimulated industrial capitalism in the northern states, and people streamed into cities like New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago where factories concentrated. Social divisions in the United States, as in Germany, were becoming more distinct; the laboring class grew to about fifty percent of the population while a small group of elite businesspeople, including men like Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, held the majority of the nation’s wealth. Opportunities for aspiring independent entrepreneurs, including artisans, with few or no assets were disappearing in the northeast. As a result, many young Germans had difficulty finding work when they first arrived in the U.S., and their inability to speak English compounded their struggles. The West, however, still beckoned as a land of promise, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad and subsequent expansion of railroad and telegraph lines facilitated settlement beyond the Mississippi. The military provided a way for young German immigrant men with no assets to move west; ongoing skirmishes with various Native American groups created a demand, leading recruiting sergeants to overlook language as a barrier to enlistment. Although Netzer reportedly worked briefly as a plumber in Philadelphia after he landed in New York, his enlistment in the army in Baltimore, Maryland in 1881 suggests that he may have had trouble making a living. He possibly saw the military as a path to new fortunes and adventures.[5]

Netzer initially served as a private in Company K of the 19th U.S. Infantry, which had been organized on May 4, 1861, shortly after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The company had participated in several important Civil War battles, including Shiloh and the Atlanta Campaign. After the war, in 1866 most of the regiment moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas and Indian Territory to participate in the Indian Wars. The 19th initially provided support functions, including escorting supply trains, guarding railroads, and scouting, and later became more actively involved in the fighting. In the fall of 1881, the year that Netzer joined, the army moved the regiment to the Texas border, to Forts Brown (Brownsville), Ringgold (Rio Grande City), and McIntosh (Laredo). Laredo itself was located midway between San Antonio and Monterrey, directly on the U.S.-Mexican border. Netzer’s Company K was stationed at Fort Brown. After a yellow fever epidemic in Matamoros swept across the Rio Grande to Fort Brown in the summer of 1882, all of the companies stationed there (B, C, D, E, and K), except for G, moved to Fort Clark near Brackettville, Kinney County, Texas, where they remained until 1890. (Brackettville is about sixty miles from Del Rio, which is located on the Rio Grande just across from Ciudad Acuña in Coahuila, Mexico.) In the 1880s, although the construction of railroads through Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña across the Rio Grande facilitated the arrival of more and more farmers, merchants, and other settlers as well as increases in cross-border commerce, Fort Clark was still on the edge of what was then considered the “Indian frontier.”[6]

Apparently, Netzer spent about a year at Fort Brown near the Rio Grande River and then moved to Fort Clark. After serving for a few years in the 19th Infantry, he enlisted in the 8th Cavalry in 1886. His company engaged in campaigns against the Apaches throughout New Mexico and Arizona. They also fought Geronimo’s band after the group’s escape from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona and helped to finally capture them in 1886. Netzer was honorably discharged “for disability” on November 3, 1888 at Fort Concho, located near San Angelo, Texas. It is unknown what Netzer’s disability was, but Netzer’s involvement in the Indian Wars was part of a larger, joint effort by the United States and Mexico, as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War, to subdue the nomadic tribes of the North American grasslands that had raided Mexican settlements for years. The final capture of Geronimo and his band represented the final subjugation of the Native Americans and their incorporation into the United States. It also paved the way for capitalist development of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.[7]

Netzer continued his involvement in military activities during the Mexican Revolution and World War I, when violence erupted along the Texas-Mexico border. In addition to arms smuggling into Mexico (discussed more fully in the next section), in the early 1910s he served as local chairman of the Military Training Camps Association, a voluntary civilian organization that sponsored summer camps for young men to train them in military discipline, use of arms, and preparation for war. These camps were part of the preparedness movement prior to US entry into World War I; borrowing from Teddy Roosevelt’s ideas about manliness, former Rough Rider Major General and Chief of Staff Leonard Wood conceived of them as a way to modernize the army. Wood spearheaded the establishment of the first camp at Plattsburgh, New York with the aid of President Woodrow Wilson and Bernard Baruch, Wilson’s financial advisor. Originally, participants had to pay their own way, which gave the camps the appearance of being elitist. This changed in 1916, however, when Congress included a provision in the National Defense Act of 1916 authorizing the government to pay for them. After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the Secretary of War authorized the conversion of the camps into officers’ training camps. Netzer participated in the formation of the officer’s training program for the Laredo camp.[8]

Business Development

After his discharge from the military, Netzer temporarily moved to San Antonio and then permanently to Laredo, Texas in 1889, where he lived until his death. It is unclear why he did not remain in San Antonio; after all, a sizeable community of German Americans lived and worked there. German immigrants had established a number of settlements around San Antonio, including New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, and Comfort, beginning in the 1830s as part of an underfunded, rather disorganized colonization effort known as the Adelsverein, sponsored by several princes and noblemen from different German territories and principalities. In those communities and in parts of San Antonio, people spoke German, read German newspapers, and participated in German cultural events. Interestingly, Netzer chose to avoid those places where German heritage had it strongest hold and instead left for Laredo, an increasingly cosmopolitan border town where Hispanic influence remained strong. Perhaps Netzer sought to move away from his roots or perhaps he thought there were better economic opportunities in the newly booming town of Laredo.[9]

San Agustín de Laredo, founded by Don Tomas Sánchez in 1755, was one of the ranching settlements originally known as the villas del norte established by the Spaniards along the Río Bravo del Norte as part of José de Escandón’s 1749 colonizing expedition in Nuevo Santander, a province of New Spain. Escandón, a Spanish-born military officer, received a commission from the viceroy of New Spain to establish these settlements north of the rich silver mining districts in Durango, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí. Their purpose was to serve as a buffer against possible intrusions by the English, based in Jamaica, whose ships were scouting the Gulf Coast, and by the nomadic tribes of the North American grasslands, especially the Lipan Apaches and the Comanches, whose seasonal raids during times of the full moon stretched south into Mexico. The settlers, or vecinos, lived in the villas or in smaller ranchos for protection and raised cattle, goats, horses, mules, and sheep. They traded hides, wool, tallow, and salt in exchange for metal goods and textiles carried by merchants in San Antonio de Bexár, Monterrey, and Saltillo. Mule trains and oxcarts occasionally wound their way between the towns, creating paths that later became commercial trade routes that Joseph Netzer would one day use.[10]

Laredo remained a relatively small, isolated village for most of the nineteenth century. Adobe buildings and jacales (thatched roof cottages made of mesquite logs held together by clay) lined the unpaved streets. Apache and Comanche raids during the wars for independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821 and then again in the late 1820s, while Mexico was struggling as a new republic, decimated the community’s livestock. In fact, Indian raids continued sporadically until the late 1850s, and bandit activity plagued the town after 1848 and especially during the 1860s as civil war raged in both Mexico and the United States. Epidemics of smallpox and cholera and economic recessions plagued the town through the 1830s. Even after Laredo became part of the United States when the U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848, and the Río Bravo (renamed the Rio Grande) became the international boundary, little changed other than the establishment of a small town on the Mexican side of the river, Nuevo Laredo. It was not until the arrival of transcontinental railroad lines in the early 1880s, right before Netzer settled there, that Los dos Laredos began to emerge as important business centers. One line essentially followed the old ox cart trails from San Antonio through Laredo down to Monterrey, while another linked Laredo to Corpus Christi and New Orleans.[11]

A booming economy in the United States after the Civil War coupled with the desire of Mexican leadership to modernize the nation transformed the U.S.-Mexico borderlands into a zone of capitalist development. U.S. business owners and financiers seeking new sources of natural resources, new markets, and new investment opportunities began to focus on possibilities in Mexico because of its close proximity. Moreover, Porfirio Díaz, who rose to power in 1876, ushered in a period of relative peace and stability that resulted in an improved business climate until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Diaz saw an opportunity to modernize Mexico, which had virtually no financial, industrial, or transportation infrastructure and was in desperate need of capital, by essentially integrating its economy with that of the United States. He pursued this project in part by offering concessions to U.S. railroad companies to construct north-south railroad lines in order to facilitate commerce and investment between the two nations. He also offered a variety of favors and subsidies to foreign investors, bankers, and potential land buyers.[12]

As a result, Northern Mexico, once a rural enclave made up primarily of fiercely independent rancherosand serranos (the non-native inhabitants of the Sierra Madre and Sierra Occidental) became the stronghold of Mexican industrial capitalism with its center in Monterrey, Nuevo León. Initially, commercial ranching and later irrigated agriculture transformed the landscape.[13] As trade increased, border towns attracted rising entrepreneurs and small businesspeople from Europe, other regions of the U.S., and interior Mexico. This new “business class” began to displace the former elite, the Hispanic landholding class, members of which had difficulty holding onto their lands due to challenges of proving title under Spanish and Mexican grants in American courts, paying property taxes, and adapting to the increasingly commercial nature of ranching.[14]

In the early 1880s, major railroad interests owned by Jay Gould and Collis Huntington constructed transnational rail lines through Laredo that connected the town to New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Antonio to the north and San Luis Potosí, Monterrey and Mexico City to the south. Laredo, strategically located on the U.S.-Mexico border, became a major “gateway to commerce.” Trade between the two nations, much of which moved through Laredo, more than doubled between 1880 and 1890, increasing from $15 million to $36 million (or, in 2010 dollars, from $330 million to $890 million).[15] Laredo began receiving national and even international attention. In May 1890, The New York Times reported a September 1889 visit by English investors to the city, around the time of Netzer’s arrival. The visitors noted that the population had quadrupled since 1880, growing from 3,000 to nearly 12,000. The city had an electric trolley car, a “large tannery, boot and shoe factory, foundry, and machine shops,” and nearly one hundred new brick residences. Construction of a woolen mill had begun, and nearby coal mines offered resources and jobs. Netzer became one of “the enterprising men” of Laredo, many of whom had recently arrived from Mexico, Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland to take advantage of new opportunities created by the arrival of the railroad.[16]

Building on his training and experience in Europe as a plumber, Netzer started a small plumbing and hardware business at this opportune time. It grew to encompass cross-border wholesale and retail sales and prospered before the Mexican Revolution. Germans had dominated the hardware industry in Mexico since the early 1800s, and Netzer followed this tradition. Hardware dealers became important to the project of Porfirian modernization because they often sold farm tools and machinery, mining equipment, and supplies needed for construction of buildings and railroads.[17] Netzer’s clientele stretched deep into Mexico. Although most of his customers were local, residing in either Laredo or Nuevo Laredo, he did business in Monterrey, Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Tampico, Veracruz, and Mexico City. He had a cosmopolitan customer base that reflected the population of the region; it included Mexican citizens, Tejanos (the Hispanic population of South Texas), Anglo Americans, and European immigrants. Like most non-Hispanic immigrants to Laredo around the turn of the century, Netzer probably learned to speak Spanish so that he could deal with his Mexican and Tejano customers. Most of Netzer’s suppliers were based in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest. This was typical of most merchants on the border, especially hardware merchants who carried mostly manufactured goods, and it reflected the industrialization of those regions.[18] The introduction of irrigated agriculture along the Rio Grande and the commercial growing of Bermuda onions in the area beginning in 1899 created an increased demand for farm and irrigation machinery and tools in Laredo, which probably also contributed to Netzer’s profitability.[19]

In August 1900, Netzer purchased property at the corner of Lincoln Street and Juarez Avenue in downtown Laredo (one lot actually faced Iturbide Street, which ran parallel to Lincoln) just down the street from the U.S. Customs House. The dominant feature of the property was a large brick building, facing Lincoln Street. Netzer established his store on the main floor and moved his family into the rooms upstairs. Behind the store were his warehouse and stable and later a storage area for his automobile.19 His home and business remained there until his death in 1937

By 1914, the Joseph Netzer Hardware Company, a sole proprietorship, was reportedly “one of the largest and most important establishments of this character on the Mexican border.”[20] Entries in the Mercantile Agency Reference Books published by R. G. Dun & Co. for Laredo show that the approximate value of his business grew from $2,000 ($53,600 in 2010 dollars) to $3,000 in 1901 ($79,000 in 2010) to over $10,000 in 1910 ($237,000 in 2010), and over $20,000 in 1918 ($290,000 in 2010). His credit rating improved from “fair” to “high” between 1901 and 1910 but fell to only “good” by 1918 during the Mexican Revolution when business was generally down across the city because of the cross-border warfare between the forces of Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza, both of whom were battling for control of Mexico.[21] Laredo was caught in the cross-fire in 1914, when Carranza’s forces captured Nuevo Laredo. Carranza finally seized power in 1915, ousting President Huerta, and was formally elected president in 1917, a capacity in which he served until 1920. Villa continued to battle him in the northern states. Villa and his men frequently crossed the border, especially in the vicinity of El Paso, a couple of hundred miles upriver from Laredo. It was these raids that prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send John J. Pershing and a force of 5,000 men to travel deep into Chihuahua, Mexico to break up Villa’s troops and prevent them from attacking US border towns and settlements.[22]

Local newspapers tracked Netzer’s growth as well; in 1900, he built a new addition to house his plumbing business and separate it from his hardware store.[23] In 1909, he received a government contract to construct two pumps at Fort McIntosh.[24] Netzer began to receive attention from outside of the area and in 1916 received a contract to construct the plumbing in a new federal building in Navasota, Texas, a town located roughly between Austin and Houston some 350 miles away.[25] Netzer profited enough to invest in other ventures, notably oil companies such as Gulf Oil and Refining. Drilling for oil and natural gas spiked in the Laredo area beginning in 1919 and had accelerated even earlier in northern Mexico.[26]

Although customers seemed to find him, Netzer’s store was not in the center of town but rather lay on the outskirts of the business district. In 1922, Sam Westbrook, a local real estate agent, reported that it was “in a pretty dead part of town… not the brisk business portion.” A brick Presbyterian church stood across Juarez Avenue on one side, and the front of the store faced a vacant lot on Lincoln Street. Nearby were a blacksmith shop, garages, Borcher’s Bakery, and a couple of small “Mexican residences.”[27]

Joseph Netzer continued to use the skills he learned in Germany as a plumber and excelled in that occupation in Laredo. In the early years of his operations, Netzer used a horse and wagon to fix plumbing around town. Although he continued to use a horse and wagon into the 1920s, he purchased an Overland truck. His plumbing career thus illuminated the transition from animal power to trucks, automobiles, and tractors.[28] Netzer also became an expert consultant on sanitary engineering, including sewage systems and other forms of public sanitation. Elected president of the Texas State Plumbers Association, he was the only one chosen for five successive years. He received a silver loving cup at the end of his term. Netzer served as a member of the executive committee of the Texas State Plumbers Association for 28 years.[29] Netzer’s abilities received national attention; in 1909, President Walter D. Nolan of the National Plumbers’ Association appointed him to serve on a national committee designed to recommend to Congress sanitary legislation for the entire country. This was a period when sanitary regulations were increasingly becoming compulsory.[30]

The Mexican Revolution, which began in October of 1910, created new, illicit opportunities for hardware dealers like Joseph Netzer. He had been selling guns since at least 1900, and now there was a significant demand. Porfirio Díaz resigned on May 25, 1911, and a band of Texas rangers descended on Laredo that fall. In 1913 and 1914, fighting between Pancho Villa’s forces, the Villistas, and those of Venustiano Carranza, head of the northern Constitutionalist Army revolting against the central government, both of whom were battling for control of Mexico, accelerated along the Texas-Mexico border. In April 1914, the Carrancistas seized control of Nuevo Laredo and burned the town, forcing many to flee across the international bridge to Laredo. Fighting throughout Mexico remained intense until Carranza finally gained control after elections under the new constitution in May 1917 and became president. Merchants all along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as arms dealers in other parts of the United States, sold guns and ammunition to the revolutionaries. Dealers included men like Amador Sánchez, a former mayor of Laredo and descendant of one of the city’s elite families. Netzer filled his display window with life-sized models of bear cubs holding rifles, the trademark of Remington Arms. The Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) discovered that Netzer had sold hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition to Mexican citizens and to a local grocer who brokered deals for Mexican arms buyers. Despite these seeming violations of U.S. neutrality laws, a grand jury refused to indict him. Historian George Díaz has suggested that this was because he had not gone “beyond the moral economy of smuggling in the borderlands.” Many other people in Laredo, including the mayor, were selling arms to revolutionaries at the time.[31]

Like any other businessman, Joseph Netzer faced boom and bust cycles in the economy and other challenges that at times made it difficult to make a profit. For instance, on April 1, 1907, a fire tore through his store, destroying inventory and causing several thousand dollars’ worth of damage. Fortunately, no lives were lost, and there were no reports of injuries.[32] But then, on May 1, 1922 (Netzer’s 59th birthday), he filed a bankruptcy case. His words to the bankruptcy trustee echoed the feelings of so many who experienced failure: “I hope to go back into business. If I had a year’s time, I would pay out dollar for dollar, but I was too pushed. I do not know just now what my present intentions are with regard to engaging in business; I am in the hands now of the creditors, I do not know what to do, I do not know where to turn. I am dazed, really, I have not been myself.”[33]

The cause of Netzer’s failure was not clear, but it appeared to be a problem of liquidity. In other words, although he had substantial assets, he did not have enough liquid cash to pay his debts as they came due. He reported $90,227.63 ($1.17 million in 2010) in unsecured debt and $237,079.54 in assets ($3.08 million in 2010); he valued his inventory of $62,890.61 ($818,000 in 2010) at cost rather than market value.[34] Before he filed for bankruptcy, Netzer either borrowed or attempted to borrow money from a variety of sources, presumably in an effort to pay his suppliers and other creditors. He tried to take out loans using his building as collateral but was unable to because the lenders believed it was a homestead. He borrowed over $11,000 ($143,000 in 2010) from his oldest son, Joseph C. Netzer, who had learned the hardware business from his father, and who worked for the traffic department of the International and Great Northern Railroad Company for a time before establishing his own successful storage and transfer business in 1916.[35] He also said that his wife had loaned him some funds, but he was actually borrowing from their shared community property. She rented out part of the building to boarders and collected the rents: “The money that was advance[d] to me by my wife that I now claim as owing her was advanced over a period of several years. Every time I felt real short, I borrowed that much from her, as much as I needed to pay some notes that were pressing very hard.”[36] The trustee, F.M. Ramsay, liquidated all of his business assets, and he received a discharge from bankruptcy on November 7, 1923.

Although bankruptcy was not uncommon, even among the elite at the time, it could be a difficult and painful experience as well as publicly humiliating. Local newspapers published information about the bankruptcy case, so everyone knew about it.[37] It could destroy a person’s credit rating; R. G. Dun & Co., which later merged with Bradstreet to become Dun & Bradstreet in 1933, listed Netzer in its 1930 and 1938 (probably based on information right before his death in 1937), but gave no credit rating or information about asset value, an indication of problems and possible inability to pay.[38] Many bankrupts, however, especially those who were well-connected like Joseph Netzer, were able to recover relatively quickly. Even during his case, Netzer said, “I have had some letters from creditors that were very nice, and they said even if I do owe money, at any time if I want credit they will give it to me.”[39] Advertisements in Laredo newspapers in 1924 and 1925 reveal that he was able to continue in business.[40] In 1927, less than three years after his bankruptcy case was over, The Pioneer Magazine described Joseph Netzer as a man of thrift and excellent business ability.[41] It is unknown how he weathered the Depression. Dun gave him a score of “N” during the 1930s prior to his death, which meant that his circumstances meant that he was a lending risk. (Most merchants who had declared bankruptcy received this score, so this was typical.)

A crisis in Laredo in 1929 likely affected Netzer’s business as it did that of other merchants. On Friday, December 13, 1929, John Valls, the local district attorney, issued a warrant for the arrest of Plutarco Elias Calles, president of Mexico, charging him with conspiracy in the 1922 murder of General Lucio Blanco, one of Calles’ political enemies. Calles was on his way back to Mexico from New York City at the time and had planned to travel through Laredo. In retaliation, the Mexican government effectively closed the international bridge between Nuevo Laredo and the United States and shut down the Mexican consulate in Laredo for several weeks. The customs house in Nuevo Laredo barred all American imports from Laredo, including small consumer purchases. Even after Mexico begrudgingly reopened trade over the bridge, it imposed customs duties ranging from 10% to 50% on all imports, large and small, from Laredo.[42]

The conflict occurred during the Christmas season, the primary time for sales for merchants. Sales losses for a number of merchants reached fifty percent for the year. Mose Franklin, the owner and manager of Franklin Department Store, reported, “A great deal of trade comes from the interior of Mexico and we lost practically all of it as a result of the trouble.” Even Richter’s Department Store, the most substantial one in town, suffered declines of 25 to 33 percent, so Netzer must not have escaped unscathed.[43] The Laredo merchants took matters into their own hands, making several attempts to negotiate directly with the Mexican government. The Mexican government refused to negotiate without the resignation of John Valls. Desperate to avoid bankruptcy, over 400 businessmen in Laredo signed a petition calling for Valls to resign. Valls refused but softened some of his rhetoric, and the consulate re-opened in mid-January, 1930.[44]

The Valls-Calles controversy, although it was a relatively short-term event, had long-term repercussions for the Laredo merchants. They faced competition from stores opened in Nuevo Laredo during the embargo. Sales prices declined, in some cases below wholesale costs, making it almost impossible to recover the losses from the winter of 1929–1930. As the Depression deepened in the surrounding area, consumer demand in general slowed, and merchants stocked fewer goods. Over the course of the decade, assessed values of merchandise in Webb County fell from $905,216 in 1930 (or $11.8 million in 2010 dollars) to $517,687 by 1936 (or $8.1 million in 2010 dollars), rising only slightly to $585,800 in 1940 ($9.1 million in 2010 dollar). Netzer could not have escaped the fall-out from this economic collapse. He actually passed away during this difficult time, in 1937.[45]

Social Status, Networks, Family and Public Life

A few years after his arrival in Laredo in 1889, Joseph Netzer met and married Annie E. Wright, a native of Wales, who had moved to Texas as a child. They had seven children: Joseph C., Fred, May, Ruth, Leo, Paul and Nellie. Joseph, the oldest, was born in 1892, and Nellie, the youngest, was born in 1912, an age range of twenty years. In 1922, the four youngest still lived at home, Ruth (21), Leo (19), Paul (14), and Nellie (10). The family seemed to have lived a fairly typical middle-class lifestyle above their store. They had a library and portraits. Joseph and Frederick, the two oldest sons, became merchants like their father.[46]

Netzer became a member of Laredo’s social elite not long after he moved to the town. There is little indication that he participated in German cultural activities or events promoting his German ethnicity and origin. As previously noted, when Netzer chose to settle in Texas, he avoided the German communities located to the west and northeast of San Antonio, such as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, striking out instead for the predominantly Hispanic border town of Laredo, where he blended in with a diverse group of businesspeople comprised of Tejanos, Mexicans, people from other parts of the United States, a few other Germans, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Syrians, and Jews from Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe. He was a founding member of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce and served as its president in 1913. Other clubs and associations he joined included the Council of the Grand Lodge of Texas, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Rebekah Association, the Loyal Americans of the Republic, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and the Loyal Order of Moose. He served as secretary and treasurer of Laredo Lodge No. 301. Little is known about Netzer’s church affiliation or spiritual life, but he appears to have been a Protestant. Although German Protestants in the region typically participated in Lutheran churches, it is interesting to note that a Presbyterian pastor presided at his funeral. Perhaps he was involved in some way with the Presbyterian Church near his home.41

Possibly the most important cultural activity with which Netzer became involved was Laredo’s George Washington Birthday Celebration, started in 1898 by the local chapter of the Order of Red Men. This annual celebration signaled the creation of a new social and racial order following on the heels of the full integration of Laredo into the international capitalist economy and the American nation, accomplished by the completion of the railroads through the city. The Order of Red Men, which Netzer joined in the 1890s, was a fraternal organization dating back to Boston in 1765 and the Sons of Liberty, who had protested British domination. The Order spread westward in the nineteenth century; according to historian Elliott Young, the Order “attempted to forge Anglo American hegemony in the U.S. West by representing the nation at the same time it enforced class and racial hierarchy by reserving manhood for white upper and middle classes.”[47] The Order appropriated Native American names and symbols as part of this process. The Laredo Chapter chose the name of a tribe from northwestern Mexico, the Yaqui, in part to signal that Texas Mexicans were included in the new social and racial order (yet Native Americans and African Americans remained outsiders). It was an exclusive group, however, including only 63 people out of 13,000 residents, most of whom had distinguished themselves in business or professionally.[48]

Although Tejanos, Anglos, and European immigrants all took part in the Washington celebration, it was a reflection primarily of Anglo-Americans’ desire to emphasize the cultural symbols of the United States in an area that had been predominantly Hispanic since the mid-eighteenth century. At the same time, it served as a way to harmonize relations between Anglos, Mexicans, and Tejanos because all participated together in this fully bicultural celebration. The celebration began with an “attack” by the Yaqui on the city hall, reminiscent of the raids suffered by both Anglo and Mexican settlers by the Apaches and the Comanches earlier in the century. The Indians were clearly depicted as savages, while the new Anglo American order had room for middle- and upper-class ethnic Mexicans.[49]

Netzer served on the committee for the George Washington Birthday Celebration for over 40 years, until his death in 1937. He reported that it was his idea to institute the celebration in Laredo in order to “honor the natal day of George Washington, the first great sachem of this country, for it was Washington with his Minute Men disguised as Indians that one of the biggest battles for independence of the United States was won.” It began as a two-day parade of “decorated carriages and floats” and drew tourists from Mexico. It later included dancing, rodeos, bull-fighting, and fireworks. In the early years, special trains carried Mexicans from Nuevo Léon and nearby areas to Laredo to participate.[50] Today, it is a month-long affair celebrating both U.S. and Mexican heritage.[51]

From the perspective of Netzer’s life, however, it reveals that he had assimilated into the cultural mix of the border society as an Anglo American, not as a German. He seems to have downplayed his German heritage throughout his life in the United States, beginning with his choice to leave the areas in Texas where German culture, society, and people dominated, for a region where different ethnicities within a similar social class blended together.


Joseph Netzer turned seventy-four on May 1, 1937 and fell ill not long after. He lingered for three months, and then died at his home on Lincoln Street on July 29. Many attended the funeral at his son Joseph’s home the next evening, and a local Presbyterian minister officiated. The pallbearers included six past presidents of the Washington Birthday Celebration. Residents of Laredo remembered him as a “prominent business man and civic leader.”[52] Newspapers around the state carried his obituary. The Lubbock Morning Avalanche noted that he “campaigned against the Indian warrior Geronimo and met Bean, ‘[the] Law West of the Pecos,’” at Langtry. (Judge Roy Bean was a justice of the peace and saloonkeeper in Del Rio, a border town along the Rio Grande. According to legend, at times he held court in his saloon.) The Valley Morning Star of Harlingen emphasized his role in the Washington Birthday Celebration and the establishment of the Yaqui Tribe of the Order of Red Men at Laredo, as well as his renown as an Indian fighter.[53]

These brief obituaries reveal how Joseph Netzer’s life and work had spanned a transformative period in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. When he arrived, it was still a relatively isolated region with few inhabitants, controlled largely by the Apaches and Comanches with a few dispersed Hispanic ranching settlements scattered across the landscape. It was, in the words of Captain John Bourke, a “terra incognita” for most U.S. citizens.[54] Netzer was part of a vanguard of European and Anglo-American settlers who moved in to modernize the borderlands and serve as agents to incorporate them fully into the United States or Mexico. By the time of his death, Laredo and the rest of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands had become sites of capitalist development, especially commercial ranching and agriculture, oil and gas production, and trade. Tied closely to markets in the United States and Mexico, the region had become part of the global system of capitalism. Netzer was also a transnational businessman, serving to tie the economies of the United States and Mexico more closely together. Exports and imports between the nations continued to increase throughout his lifetime, even during the violent period of the Mexican Revolution, and beyond. The ongoing intertwining of the two nations’ economies, societies, and, ultimately their destinies, is in part his legacy.


[1] David Blackbourn, History of Germany, 1780–1918: The Long Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 164.

[2] Martin Kitchen, A History of Modern Germany, 1800–2000 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 111–118; Blackbourn, History of Germany, 144.

[3] Stanley C. Green, Border Biographies, 2 vols. (Laredo, Tex.: Border Studies Center, 2000), vol. 1, 103.

[4] Blackbourn, History of Germany, 145–147; La Vern J. Rippley, The German-Americans (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 72–82.

[5] Petition for Naturalization, Texas Naturalization Records, 1881–1992, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration – Southwest Region (Fort Worth, TX); Michael E. McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003), 3–39; Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 5–7; Richard O’Connor, The German-Americans: An Informal History (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), 199; Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798–1914, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC).

[6] C. C. Hewitt, “Nineteenth Regiment of Infantry,” in The Army of the United States: Historical Sketches of Staff and Line with Portraits of Generals-in-Chief, ed. Theo. F. Rodenbough and William L. Haskin Major (New York: Maynard, Merrill & Co., 1896), made available online from the U.S. Army Center of Military History (accessed January 21, 2016).

[7] Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army; Green, Border Biographies, Vol. 1, 103; Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo Léon, 1848–1910 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 38, 52, 82.

[8] “The Application Blanks Have Been Received Here,” Laredo Times, August 4, 1918, 12; for more about the camps, see Richard Slotkin, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), 12–35.

[9] For information about German settlements in Texas, see Glen E. Lich, The German Texans (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1981).

[10] Armando C. Alonzo, Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 15–17, 25–46.

[11] Gilberto Miguel Hinojosa, A Borderlands Town in Transition: Laredo, 1755–1870 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983), 27–46, 69, 81–86.

[12] Stephen H. Haber, Armando Razo, and Noel Maurer, The Politics of Property Rights: Political Instability, Credible Commitments, and Economic Growth in Mexico, 1876–1929 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 47–51; John M. Hart, Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 124–126, 152.

[13] Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border, 38, 52, 82, 134–135; for a discussion of the impact of capitalist development on northern Mexico’s people, see Ana María Alonso, Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender on Mexico’s Northern Frontier (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995).

[14] Alicia M. Dewey,Pesos and Dollars: Entrepreneurs in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1880-1940 (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2014), 9, 11.

[15] All conversions to 2010 dollar values are made using the purchasing power calculator, based on the U.S. Consumer Price Index series, available from

[16] John A. Adams, Conflict and Commerce on the Rio Grande: Laredo, 1755–1955 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 105–117; “Wonderful Growth,” New York Times, May 29, 1890, 5.

[17] Jurgen Buchenau,Tools of Progress: A German Merchant Family in Mexico City, 1865–Present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004), 3, 40.

[18] Schedules A-3 and B-5, In re: Joseph Netzer, Case No. 50 (1922), Bankruptcy Case Files, 1898-1942: United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Laredo Division, in Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration – Southwest Region (Fort Worth, TX); Passport Applications, January 2, 1906–March 31, 1925, roll #1352, certificates 88250–88265, 7 Sep. 1920–9 Sep. 1920, National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC).

[19] Statement of Facts, 1-3, 23, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922); Sanborn Maps, Laredo, 1900, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

[20] Green, Border Biographies, vol. 1, 103.

[21] The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, Texas Pocket Edition (New York: R.G. Dun & Co., 1901), 358 and The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, Texas Pocket Edition (New York: R.G. Dun & Co., 1910), 271, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; Mercantile Agency Reference Book (New York: R. G. Dun & Co., 1918), Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[22] Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 567-69.

[23] “Little Locals,” Laredo Times, March 26, 1900, 3.

[24] “Little Locals,” Laredo Times, December 12, 1909, 11.

[25] “Laredo Man Gets Contract,” Laredo Times, January 23, 1916, 12.

[26] Adams, Conflict and Commerce on the Rio Grande, 160–166.

[27]Statement of Facts, 15, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922).

[28] Schedule B-2, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922).

[29] “A White Red Man,” Pioneer Magazine, February, 1927, 30.

[30] “Sanitary Committee,” Laredo Times, September 12, 1909, 8.

[31] George T. Díaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 76–77.

[32] “Fire at Laredo,” San Antonio Gazette, April 2, 1907, 3.

[33] Statement of facts, 3-4, In re: Joseph Netzer, Case No. 50 (1922). See Dewey, Pesos and Dollars, 190–229, for a discussion of failure and bankruptcy along the Texas-Mexico border in the early twentieth century.

[34] Schedules,In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922).

[35] Green, Border Biographies, Vol. 2, 96.

[36] Statement of Facts, 4, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922).

[37] See, e.g., “Local News,” Laredo Times, October 29, 1922, 8.

[38] The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, Texas Pocket Edition (New York: R.G. Dun & Co., 1930), 526, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; Dun & Bradstreet Reference Book, State Pocket Edition, Texas (New York: Dun & Bradstreet, 1938), 529.

[39] Statement of Facts, 9, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50 (1922).

[40] “Local News,” Laredo Times, May 23, 1924, 5; “Local News,” Laredo Times, August 8, 1925, 5.

[41] “A White Red Man,” 30.

[42] “Calles to Reach Border in a Few Days,” Laredo Times, December 11, 1929; “Valls Refuses to Grant Immunity,” Laredo Times, December 13, 1929; “Relations of Two Laredos at Normal,” Laredo Times, December 27, 1929.

[43] “Meeting Called Monday in Effort to Solve Business Situation,” Laredo Times, December 29, 1929; “Business Men Have Backs to Wall,” Laredo Times, December 30, 1929.

[44] “Attorney Says Mexico Can’t Dictate,” Laredo Times, December 18, 1929; “No Action on Consulate Taken,” Laredo Times, December 18 1929; “50 Percent Drop in Business Here,” Laredo Times, December 19, 1929; “Santibanez Appeals to Governor Moody,”Laredo Times, December 20, 1929; “Valls Answers Estrada Statement,” Laredo Times, December 24, 1929; “Meeting Hall Overflows as Laredoans Gather to Solve Business Crisis,” Laredo Times, December 31, 1929; “Laredo Port Opens Friday,” Eagle Pass Daily Guide, January 15, 1930.

[45] Testimony of Mose Franklin, Transcript of March 7, 1931 hearing, In re: Franklin Brothers, Inc., Laredo Case No. 99 (1931); State Tax Rolls, Webb County, Summary of Property and Values thereof, 1930, 1936, and 1940, TXSLA; Tom Lillie, “Five Wells Completed in Active Week in Laredo District,” Laredo Times, December 8, 1929, 4.

[46] Manuscript Census, Webb County, 1920; Green, Border Biographies, Vol. 1, 104; Statement of Facts, 22, and Schedule B, In re: Joseph Netzer, Laredo Case No. 50(1922).

41 “A White Red Man,” 30; Green, Border Biographies, Vol. 1, 104.

[47] Elliott Young, “Red Men, Princess Pocahontas, and George Washington: Harmonizing Race Relations in Laredo at the Turn of the Century,” Western Historical Quarterly 29.1 (Spring, 1998): 48–85, 54.

[48] Elaine A. Peña, “More than a Dead American Hero: Washington, the Improved Order of Red Men, and the Limits of a Civil Religion,” American Literary History, 26.1 (Spring, 2014): 61–81. For more information about the Washington Birthday Celebration, see Stan Green, ed., A History of the Washington Birthday Celebration (Laredo: Border Studies Publishing, 1999) and Jerry Thompson, Laredo: a Pictorial History (Brookfield, MO: Donning Company, 1986).

[49] Young, “Red Men, Princess Pocahontas, and George Washington,” 59–85.

[50] Joseph Falvella, “5 of Original Twenty-Five Fete Formers Live,” Laredo Times, February 18, 1937, 6.

[51] 119th Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association, (accessed January 31, 2016).

[52] “Many Attended Rites for Netzer,” Laredo Times, August 1, 1937, 1.

[53] “Texas Pioneer is Buried Friday in Laredo; Knew Judge Bean,” The Morning Avalanche, August 1, 1937, 3; “Rites for Pioneer,” Valley Morning Star, July 31, 1937, 3.

[54] John G. Bourke, “An American Congo,” Scribner’s, 1894.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Joseph Netzer
  • Coverage 1863-1937
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 28, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018