A Founding Father’s Legacy
By Brad Meyer
Sunday, January 8, 2012 4:00 am
Reprint from The Courier
The original wooden J. Wahrenberger store circa 1900. At the time, it was said
to be one of the largest mercantile stores in Texas.
What passes for a modern place of business in Conroe’s bustling downtown has a unique history and a significant connection to
the entrepreneurial spirit on which the city evolved from its humble beginnings.
A century after it was constructed, the Cochran building located on the northeast corner of Davis and Main Streets serves as an
office building for a variety of professional services – but the building has served an important role in Conroe history.
One of the major retail institutions in late 19th-and-early-20th century Conroe was the Wahrenberger General Mercantile store
that sold a wide range of consumer goods and specialty equipment to the city’s early residents. John Wahrenberger, a lawyer, city councilman and entrepreneur, built the original store in 1890.
This was a year after an election had been held on moving the county seat from Montgomery to Conroe. The vote was 1,161 for
Conroe and 1,099 for Montgomery. Wahrenberger, a district clerk and deputy sheriff at the time, arranged for the transfer of county record books from Montgomery to Conroe.
In 1912, a year after a major fire destroyed most of downtown Conroe and local ordinances were established prohibiting the
building of wood structures, Wahrenberger tore down the original wooden structure and replaced it with a larger, brick building.
The J. Wahrenberger store circa 1913. In 1912, a year after a major fire destroyed most of downtown Conroe and local ordinances were established prohibiting the building of wood structures, Wahrenberger tore down the original wooden
structure and replaced it with this larger, brick building.
“He expanded it to 7,800-square-feet so he would have more retail space to handle more general merchandise,” said Bill Cochran,
whose father purchased the building in 1977. “He also relocated the building closer to the street so it was more accessible.”
The total tab for construction of the new building was $3,100, according to Cochran. According to articles in The Conroe Courier around that
time, the population of Conroe was 2,500; Willis had 1,200 residents and Montgomery had 1,000. Houston was a city of 115,000.
“Mr. Wahrenberger was of German descent and he was very specific about wanting a plain building with very little ornamentation,” said Cochran.
“But it’s very well built and sturdy – the walls are two or three feet thick and made of solid brick.”
A civic leader in Conroe, Wahrenberger also served as a bank president, built the Witherspoon Hotel and operated the only funeral home in town.
“The Wahrenberger General Mercantile was one of the largest retail operations in the state at the time,” said Cochran.
Inside the J. Wahrenberger mercantile store. It offered everything from dry goods to furniture, ready-to-wear clothes and fabrics
In that same year, Wahrenberger built a 6,600-square foot Victorian home on Phillips Street, featuring 11 bedrooms, each with private bath. The
structure has been restored and now is Heather’s Glen Bed & Breakfast, a popular private facility for weddings and special events.
In 1916, The Conroe Courier reported a total of 122 cars registered in Montgomery County, up from 42 the year before. Most of the vehicles were
Fords or Overlands, but Wahrenberger owned a Studebaker.
In 1925, Conroe State Bank president John Wahrenberger and the bank’s directors voted to convert the financial institution from a state bank to
the national banking system and a charter was granted for the First National Bank of Conroe.
Wahrenberger, considered one of the founding fathers of Conroe, died in 1933 at the age of 72. He is buried in
Oakwood Cemetery in Conroe with his wife Mittie Carson Wahrenberger.
Prior to acquiring the Wahrenberger building, the Cochran family had operated a clothing store across from the
Crighton Theatre location in downtown Conroe. The family converted the Wahrenberger building to a men’s and women’s clothing store.
During the conversion process, Cochran said his brother Greg discovered a large object he assumed to be an old filing cabinet. It turned out to
be a casket with a glass panel for a lid.
“He saw his face reflected in the glass and took off running,” laughed Cochran. “He didn’t want to have anything more to do with that thing.”
The casket was a part of Wahrenberger’s multiple businesses in Conroe. Cochran said Wahrenberger’s business motto had been “We fit you from the
basket to the casket.”
In 1996, after nearly 50 years in the men’s and women’s clothing business, Cochran’s father decided to retire. He renovated the building to
provide offices for a variety of professional services. The building continues to serve in that capacity today.
“We sold off all of the old fixtures and materials that went back as far as ledger books from 1891,” recalled Cochran. “Thinking about it now,
it would have been nice to hold on to some of that.”
The building in downtown Conroe isn’t Cochran’s only connection to significant sites. Around 1963, he said the Grogan-Cochran family sold 58,000
acres of land that had been in the family since 1918. The family received $130 per acre on land that would eventually become known as The Woodlands.
“There is a lot of history in this area,” said Cochran. “It really is important that we stay connected with our past.”
For more information on the unique history of Conroe and Montgomery County, visit the
Heritage Museum of Montgomery County, located at 1506 I-45. For information, call 936-539-6873 or visit the Heritage Museum.
Wahrenberger Family History
History compiled by local historian
A portrait of Conroe founding father John Wahrenberger. Today if you go by the site of his store at Main and Davis streets, you will see two large concrete steps that are
encircled by the new sidewalk pavers. It has been said these originally were used as steps for people to step down from the wagons that pulled up to the front of the store. Wahrenberger is pictured sitting on one of these steps.
Sept. 21, 1862: John Wahrenberger was born in Austin, but is orphaned at age 7. As a young man he worked as a store clerk in Montgomery before
moving to Conroe, where he worked for the established mercantile store of Carson, McKibben and Company on Avenue A.
May 6, 1889: An election was held for purpose of moving the county seat from Montgomery to Conroe, the results being 1,161 votes for Conroe and 1,099 for Montgomery, with Conroe winning as the new county seat by the combined votes of Willis, Conroe and the
sawmill community of Leonidas west of Conroe.
June 20, 1889: John Wahrenberger married Mittie Carson in
The Wahrenberger family, top daughter Mary Agnes, son, John C. Wahrenberger, wife Mittie Carson Wahrenberger and John Wahrenberger.
1890: John Wahrenberger, the district clerk, a deputy sheriff and a lawyer, arranged to move certain county
record books from Montgomery to Conroe. He later built the Witherspoon Hotel (later known as McGee Hotel) and by the late 1800s had purchased the Carson, McKibben and Company general store on Avenue A. He had married Mittie Carson, daughter of the founder of
the original store and starts the Wahrenberger general merchandise store which is built on Davis at North Chambers Street (today it is Main Street).
The J. Wahrenberger general store was a place of gathering
for many in the growing town of Conroe.
1912: The J Wahrenberger Company store at the corner of Davis
and Main (then known as Chambers) streets in Conroe is rebuilt in brick after the 1911 fire, becoming one of the largest department stores in Texas at that time, offering everything from dry goods to furniture, ready-to-wear clothes, and fabrics.
1912: John Wahrenberger built his three-story new Victorian
home at 200 East Phillips Street. Today the house has been restored into a private wedding facility known as “Heather’s Glen Bed and Breakfast.”
April 20, 1933: John Wahrenberger, considered one of the
founding fathers of Conroe and a leading businessman, died at age 72. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Conroe with his wife Mittie Carson Wahrenberger.
1936-1937: John C. Wahrenberger, who operates his father’s
retail business, serves as president of the Conroe Rotary Club in 1936-37.
1977: William (Bill) Cochran Sr. buys the old Wahrenberger
Building on Davis Street, and opens a clothing store in the building.
2012: The building has been renovated and is the site of
various professional businesses. The building is located at the intersection of Main and Davis streets in downtown Conroe, across from the old bank building.