At a time before most American women were even able to vote, Polish immigrant Mary Rzeppa Schulz was renowned as a business leader, church supporter and pillar of the community who had a strong impact on Falls City, Panna Maria and beyond.
During a recent presentation Mo Brown, marketing director for the Polish Heritage Center in Panna Maria, gave a presentation highlighting Mary’s contributions and legacy.
Although she was known as an entrepreneur and successful businesswoman, Mary was also an inspiration for many who came after her and who also aspired to be successful.
Today, one of Mary’s descendants, Elaine Moczygemba, lives on property in Falls City that Mary once owned. Much of the photographs and family history that has been preserved is in the care of two more of Mary’s descendants, Cheryl Lynn Highley and Melissa Balser Poth.
A tribute to Mary’s contributions is one of the features of the Polish Heritage Center (PHC).
“In the permanent exhibition, she is highlighted because she did have so many business endeavors in Panna Maria and Falls City, and people came to shop from all over South Texas,” Brown said. “She was pretty famous all over Texas.”
Mary was born Maria Rzeppa in 1844 in Toszek, Upper Silesia, a part of Poland which at that time had been absorbed into the German state of Prussia. She was the last of seven or eight siblings, depending on different sources.
After Father Leopold Moczygemba wrote a letter home to people in his homeland encouraging emigration to Texas in 1854, 100 Polish settlers came to Texas and founded Panna Maria on the San Antonio River in Karnes County.
In 1885, at age 11, Mary Rzeppa and her family came to the area from Poland. They donated a Christ figure to the local church, as well as a church bell.
In 1865 at age 20, Mary married Gottlieb Schulz who had come to Texas with his family from Germany five years earlier. They lived in downtown San Antonio before selling the property in 1873 and moving to Panna Maria. Schulz was a tailor who also transported goods between San Antonio and the port of Indianola. The Schulzes has three children, Maria, Johanna Elizabeth and John.
Mary’s mother deeded property to her in Panna Maria, and Mary and Gottlieb opened a store in the community. After Gottlieb died in 1876, Mary continued to operate businesses in the community. In 1877, when a new church was built in Panna Maria, Mary was the only woman listed among the people who donated $100 to help with construction.
By 1879, Mary owned a town lot valued at $1,000, had six horses or mules, nine cattle and $2,000 in merchandise. It would have been a considerable sum for anyone at that time. She was named post mistress of Panna Maria in 1880, and operated G. Schulz Dry Good & Groceries.
An advertisement for the business listed “nicely furnished rooms and excellent cuisine for $2 per day” and “a fine line of ladies hats.”
When a railroad was built through Karnes County which went through the future site of Falls City, many from Panna Maria and nearby Cestohowa moved to Falls City, and Mary was among them.
She continued to own the store in Panna Maria, but also opened another store in Falls City, Mrs. G. Schulz Mercantile. She also owned a third store in Falls City and was a merchant who also owned a mill and a cotton gin.
A July 28, 1896 article in the Dallas Morning News reported that a shipment of cotton — the earliest of the season — had been shipped from the Mrs. G. Schulz Mercantile’s cotton gin in Falls City.
Banking became another family business, as she and a son-in-law owned and operated what would later become Falls City National Bank. That business today has branches in Falls City, Poth and Floresville.
When the site of the store burned in 1935, a firewall kept the bank from being totally destroyed. A newspaper article about the fire notes that the store and stock worth up to $75,000 was consumed by flames.
Mary wasn’t around to experience that setback. She died in 1923 at age 79, but a house that was built for her, a daughter and a son-in-law is still in the family today, owned by Melissa Balser Poth.
“We want to dedicate this presentation to this amazing woman of Polish descent and entrepreneur of South Texas,” Brown said.