Photography: Archives of the Commercial Bank, Mason, Texas
Photography: Archives of the Commercial Bank, Mason, Texas

A German immigrant to the Texas Frontier, Anna Martin grew up to be the first female bank president in the state — and possibly the country.

On December 10, 1858, a ship from Bremer­haven, Germany, docked in Galveston, Texas, and off stepped a scared teenage girl. She was the descendent of European aristocracy, yet her family had only $150 to its name. She spoke French and German, but she didn’t know English — or, for that matter, how to milk a cow, run a ranch, or navigate a wild Texas frontier teeming with outlaws, roustabouts, and Indians. And it was her 15th birthday, but survival — not celebration — was on her mind as she, along with her mother and five siblings, embarked upon a long journey to the Texas Hill Country. On the north bank of the Llano River awaited the family’s new home — a windowless one-room cabin surrounded by countryside awash with promise and peril.

The girl’s name was Anna Mebus, and she would someday grow up to become a wealthy landowner, a respected Mason County businesswoman, and the first female bank founder and president in Texas. But her path was paved with poverty and disease, death and war — odds she overcame with a strong will and a savvy mind.

Born to Allwill Mebus, a wealthy German textile salesman, and Henriette Martin, a middle-class woman who possessed noble blood, Anna was likely raised in comfort and luxury. But her refined lifestyle abruptly came to an end after an ill-advised business venture cost her father his fortune. Rather than face their friends and family as failures, Anna’s disgraced mother gathered her children and fled to the United States to live with her brother, Louis Martin. Louis had been one of the first Germans to migrate to Texas under the German Immigration Society plan. Sensing a good business opportunity, he purchased a home and dry goods store adjacent to an Indian travel trail that later became a well-worn stagecoach road.

Allwill Mebus eventually joined his family in America. Finally reunited, they lived in a home rented to them by Anna’s brother and tried to assimilate into their new lives. But life was lonely on the Texas frontier. The closest neighboring homestead was miles away. Anna’s only companions were her siblings and a cousin, Charles Martin, who managed  their uncle Louis’ store.

The Mebus family and Charles Martin eventually became partners in a small farm. On her 16th birthday, a year after her arrival, Anna married her cousin Charles. To­gether, the two fought tooth and nail to make a living. They plowed and planted, milked and butchered. They ran the dry goods store and sold sausages to soldiers stationed at Fort Mason, where families often sought shelter during fre­quent Indian raids.

Eventually, Anna gave birth to two sons, Charles and Max. For a period of time, the little frontier family thrived. And then the Civil War came.

Soldiers and settlers alike abandoned the Confederate-controlled Fort Mason base, which led to the return of Indian attacks. Adding to the hostility were the Martins’ pro-­Confederacy neighbors, who scorned Louis and Charles’ Union sympathies. Louis was eventually hanged, likely by Confederates or Confederate deserters, though robbery of gold bullion he was known to carry while trading may have been the primary motive. Meanwhile, Charles fell ill with inflammatory rheumatism, which rendered him lame. Adding poverty to illness and injury, the Martins found themselves penniless when Confederate money they had accepted for payments during the war became worthless after the fighting ended. Looted twice, their store was later sold to another owner. Anna became the family’s sole caretaker, breadwinner, and protector.

The shrewd Anna obtained a contract to maintain a stagecoach station at their house, which conveniently lay along the San Antonio-El Paso route. She boarded travelers, stocked and opened a new store, and sold groceries and other goods to passers­by. She also helmed and managed the region’s post office. As the years crept by, both her father and mother passed away. Eventually, her husband, who had been confined to his bed and required constant monitoring, died as well.

Charles’ death steeled Anna’s resolve. “I had made up my mind that I either be somebody or break down,” she would write years later. Freed from her role as nurse, Anna was now able to send her youngest son, Max, to school and grow her business with her eldest, Charles. She expanded her merchandise and began purchasing items on commission. Her store flourished, and Anna constructed a new building to hold her growing line of goods, which she christened A. Martin & Sons.

A. Martin & Sons sold items ranging from horse collars and canned lobster to windowpanes and whiskey. It was one of the first regional businesses to sell barbed wire, and the first to have a telephone and electricity. Cash was scarce, so patrons paid Anna with whatever goods or services they had at their disposal: oats, cattle, lumber, labor.

As A. Martin & Sons boomed, so did Anna’s fortune. She now possessed a large stone home, hundreds of acres of land, thousands of cattle, and a credit list of more than 217 different family names. By middle age, Anna finally felt financially secure enough to sell her merchandise to her brother, O.H. Mebus, in 1901. But she still had a long life ahead of her — and much more to accomplish.

While manning her family’s first store, Anna had managed the locals’ money. She cashed checks obtained from livestock sales, distributed loans, and routinely sent funds to an Austin bank for safekeeping. It was only natural, then, that her next career move would transition her from business owner to banker.

On July 1, 1901, Anna, who was now 58 years old, established The Commercial Bank of Mason. She didn’t do it alone: Her sons and two local businessmen, Alfred Vander Stucken and T.J. Moore, lent helping hands. But Anna owned the building that housed the bank — the Ranck Building, which today still stands on the northwest corner of Courthouse Square.

Anna wasn’t the first banker in Mason County. Nevertheless, she quickly became the most trusted. Her competitor was the First National Bank of Mason, which predated hers by more than a decade. But its founder, F.W. Henderson, sold it to a new owner, who was later charged with embezzlement. The public lost confidence in the First National Bank of Mason, and Henderson’s second bank, the Bank of Mason, attracted a modest patronage. As acting president of The Commercial Bank, Anna was only too happy to welcome Henderson’s unhappy clients. Within one year, the Mar­­tins bought out their partners in The Commercial Bank; shortly after, the family bought Henderson’s interest in the Bank of Mason. The new Commercial Bank was moved to the Bank of Mason’s old location — a building with a vault, near the middle of Courthouse Square. There, Anna presided over the establishment until her death in 1925.

Anna’s early years were fraught with loneliness and hardship, but her later years were filled with companionship and comfort. When she wasn’t touring Europe, playing dominoes with friends in her palatial Mason estate, or spending time with her sons and grandchildren, she could be seen whizzing around Texas in a black Cadillac, attending ranching and banking conferences.

Anna passed away at the age of 81, but her business lived on: The Commercial Bank of Mason remained in the Martin family until 1958, when it was sold to other interests. In 1965, the bank moved to a new location, and in 1987, a Texas Historical Com­mission marker commemorating Martin’s memory was placed on the building. On October 26, 2011, Martin was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, in recognition of her courage, resilience, and independence — and a legacy that stretches far beyond the confines of Mason County.

“Anna Martin became my inspiration for hard work and a spirit of self-reliance in the field of banking because of her life’s struggles and accomplishments,” says Bobbie McMillan, who retired as president and CEO of The Commercial Bank in 2014 after 44 years of service. “I would often walk down the hall at the bank where her portrait hangs and look at her and say, ‘Miss Anna, I hope you approve of what I’m doing with your bank.’ I particularly felt a connection with her because many times did I think that she and I were so often the only woman in the room.”

The first female bank president in Texas, by some accounts the first female bank founder and president in the United States, and often the only woman in the room, Anna Martin was a true trailblazer. An inspiration to other women, she also became an example to men, who would often consult with her about their business affairs. In a letter to a New York banker who was keen to learn how she achieved financial success, Anna wrote, “I heard men say, she is only a woman, but I showed them what a woman could do.”

From the April 2016 issue.