Draw of Downtown San Antonio

The Draw of Downtown

By Celia Hayes

Now and again we are drawn downtown – usually not when there is a mass event involving crowds of people, expensive parking and temperatures of 90 degrees and above – but for purposes of our own, often involving visiting friends and relations, book research, or just plain curiosity. On these occasions we are reminded again of what a lovely civic jewel the Riverwalk is, even though I am certain that the noise and congestion would become tiresome for those living or working in one of the buildings overlooking it … but still. Green water, fringed with immensely tall feather-leaved cypress trees and narrow gardens, stone walkways, little bridges and ornaments of civic art in tile, metal and stone. It is a marvel and I do not grudge a penny of my taxes which helps to maintain, support and enlarges it, yea even to the north as far as Breckenridge Park and to the south as far as Mission Espada. Let all be adorned and improved, let the gardens and fountains be extended, ancient and not-so-ancient structures be repaired and repurposed, to the greater glory of our fair city. It brings in tourists and conventions, after all – as well as the creative, the enterprising, the trendy and artistic – and as the Riverwalk is extended, brings even more of it to those of us who live here.

But this last Labor Day, I had a curiosity about the arts and crafts show which was supposed to be arrayed along the banks of the Riverwalk adjacent to the Chamber of Commerce. Of course, by the time that we drifted in from parking around the corner from Main Plaza and walking from there, a fair number of the arts and crafts vendors had departed. It was y, it was hot, the crowds were thin and the next day was a regular work and school day, so I wasn’t the least surprised.

We parked near Main Plaza and walked through it on the way to the stair down to the Riverwalk. This was a project of a former mayor to make the Main Plaza a more park-like and pedestrian-friendly place than it was when I moved here in 1995. Then, if I recall correctly from calls for jury duty, it was a mean and isolated little patch of discouraged grass, a statue of St. Anthony, and a stand of oak trees, isolated by four very busy streets – Soledad, Main, Commerce and Dolorosa on each of it’s four sides. Hizzhonor’s original plan was to cut off all four streets and divert local downtown traffic who-knows-elsewhere. He was discouraged in this by the screams of local businesses and commuters, although it just may have been a bargaining chip. In the end, only Soledad and Main were pinched off. Now the sweep of the old square in front of San Fernando is adorned by ornamental paving, fountains, trees, a couple of kiosks, moveable chairs and tables in the European style, and very few aggressive homeless.

We wandered briskly along, stopping to admire a number of dogs downtown with their persons in tow, and wondered if we should bring our own next time. Eh – maybe. Of the artists remaining, one which drew our rapt attention was one featuring silver and larimar stone jewelry. Larimar is, according to the vendor behind the table, a unique volcanic stone, rather glasslike and several shades lighter blue than turquoise. It only comes from one little mine in the Dominican Republic. Then there was an artist whom my daughter had been looking for, ever since spotting the art at a First Friday several months ago, and never seen since. So – all to the best was this trip downtown. We emerged back into Main Plaza somewhat dehydrated but triumphant. That was my weekend – yours?

Hauptstrasse Quiltfest in Boerne

The Allure of the Quilt

by Celia Hayes

Once again this last weekend, we were lured to the pleasant bedroom-slipper community of Boerne by the charms of the Squirrel’s Nest on Main Street, which supports the totally worthy services provided by Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation to animal-kind of this part of Texas. This visit also coincided with the celebration of a uniquely American art form – with contemporary examples hung from storefronts, and along the sides of Boerne’s town plaza. They made a splendid show, all through downtown, and many of the businesses along Main Street (or Hauptstrasse) also had window displays incorporating quilts – and many of them were offering drinks … although we had to turn down the offers of margaritas at one otherwise inviting establishment. Were they non-alcoholic? My daughter doesn’t drink, and although I do, 1:30 in the afternoon is just to darned early. There was a lemonade stand in front of one place though. Perhaps we should have gone back…

Anyway; quilts – an essentially American fabric art form, which pretty much runs the gamut from the brutally practical to the over-the-top artistic. Many examples of the latter were on display this weekend; lovingly designed and carefully calculated to draw the eye and to show off the design skills and the artistic eye of the person who made them. (Almost always a woman in the case of modern examples, and totally in the case of historical ones.) There are three different strands in quilt design, by the way, although very often they can be combined within a single quilt. There are quilts that are patched or pieced, in that scraps of fabric are sewn together to form plain or intricate geometric patterns. Then there is the use of an applique, where the design is cut out and appliqued to the fabric of the quilt top itself – and finally, there is white-work quilting, which is used on a length of plain fabric and depends on an elaborate pattern of stitching for the effect.

Historically a theme for the quilt was chose, pattern and color was selected from material either purchased or thriftily using scraps left over from making clothing. Then the quilt top pieces were cut, seamed together, and combined through various means with a padding and a backing to provide a reasonably warm and practicable bed-covering. All clear about the concept here? Things to cover a bed with, to keep people warm with on nights which might be cold, things which were often made on the cheap, utilizing scraps of woven fabrics, flour and seed sacks, and sewn together by women who didn’t have much free time… and such bedcovers were practical things which might on occasion be thrown up upon, or have other stains from bodily functions deposited on them … (urp).

Among some historic quilts shown off in the town plaza were a number made between 1920 to 1950 or so by the grandmother of the collector who had rescued them from storage in the old family farmhouse in Kentucky. Most were patchwork, in the simpler patterns and random fabric scraps, but one was particularly eye-catching, pieced together from pink and greenish-aqua cotton fabric in an interlocking pattern of rings. That had obviously been made from deliberately purchased fabric; and very likely intended to be a show-piece, for the best guest bedroom, perhaps. Two of the quilts were interesting in that they had been pieced together from rectangular patches of light-weight woolen men’s suiting. It seems that they had come from fabric sample books, and when the company catalog was updated, the seamstress had thriftily pieced together the outdated fabric samples. It made a very heavy quilt, in simple rectangles of muted shades of grey, brown, navy, and olive; not much to look at, designwise, but I’ll bet anything that quilt would have been warm to sleep under on a cold winter night.

Libraries

Libraries

 

by Celia Hayes

Knowing how important historic ‘firsts’ are to civic life and the partisans of hometown institutions, I expect that any day there will be a showdown between Lockhart and Galveston over which town has the oldest continuously operating public library in Texas. A routine googlectomy turns up the competing claims of the Rosenburg Library in Galveston (1871) and the Dr. Eugene Clarke Library in Lockhart (1899), despite the 30 years difference. Perhaps the Rosenburg Library was sidelined in the aftermath of the great hurricane which struck in 1900, and that is why the ‘continuously operating’ caveat is in play.

In any case, San Antonio’s public library system was late to the game, with the oldest library branch only opening in 1930. (It’s the San Pedro Branch, in San Pedro Park.) A round of public libraries in Texas were funded around the turn of the century by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, a bare handful of which still exist as libraries, although many of the buildings are still in use for other purposes. Generally, it appears that any lover of books and reading in Texas before the last quarter of the 19th century was pretty much on their own, although this does not rule out private libraries and friends circulating books among themselves. Having so many other civic and personal needs – such as sheer survival, defense against bandits, Indians, wild animals, poverty, drought, flood, and all – the life of the mind and of literary interests rather naturally took a lower priority until relatively late in the game. Once established, though – and especially in smaller towns – libraries took a central part in civic life. I wonder if establishing libraries, schools and churches wasn’t as much of an outlet and focus for the women of a town, at least as much as the militia, volunteer fire companies and fraternal organizations were for their husbands.

Perhaps Texas were late to the game in establishing public libraries for citizens, but I’d have to say they’ve made up for it sine then. And local libraries in smaller towns are still a mainstay of the community – especially if they are centrally located. I did a talk for the library in Harper, and another in Junction a couple of years ago, and found it to be so. The Junction library even had a lovely little coffee bar set up in the facility, so that patrons could read and caffeinate at the same time. The library in Comfort is also on the main street, in an old two-level store building. Fredericksburg’s main library is also right in the very heart of town, in a Beaux Arts building that once was the Gillespie County Courthouse. Boerne’s main library is also in a historic building on the main town square – another indication of how important a repository of books for the loan of, to the public, can become.

As many books as I do have myself – the library will always have more.

Disorder in the Court in 1842

Created Monday, 29 November 2010 02:46

Disorder in the Court: 9/11/1842

Strange but true – General Lopez de Santa Anna’s invasion of Texas in 1836 was not to be the last time that a Mexican Army crossed the border into Texas in full battle array – artillery, infantry, military band and all. Santa Anna may have been defeated at San Jacinto – but for the Napoleon of the west, that was only a temporary setback. In March of 1842 a brief raid by General Rafael Vasquez and some 400 soldiers made a lightening-fast dash over the Rio Grande, while another 150 soldiers struck at Goliad and Refugio. They met little resistance – and departed at speed before Texan forces could assemble and retaliate. All seemed to have quieted down my late summer, though: Texas had ratified a treaty with England, and the United States requesting that Texas suspend all hostilities with Mexico.

It seemed a good time to get on with urgent civic business, such as the meeting of the District Court in San Antonio. There had not been the opportunity to try civil cases for many years; the town was full of visitors who had come for the court session: officials, lawyers and litigants. Court opened on September 5th – but within days rumors were flying of another Mexican incursion. Such rumors were cheerfully dismissed – not soldiers, just bandits and marauders. Just in case, though, local surveyor John Coffee Hays – who already had a peerless reputation as a ranger and Indian fighter – was sent out to scout with five of his men. They saw nothing, having stayed on the established roads; unknown to them, one of Santa Anna’s favorite generals, a French soldier of fortune named Adrian Woll was approaching through the deserted country to the west of San Antonio, with a column of more than 1,500 soldiers – as well as a considerable assortment of cannon.

Under cover of a dense fog bank on the morning of September 11th, Woll’s army marched into San Antonio, with banners flying and a band playing. Having blocked off all escape routes, the General had a cannon fire to announce his presence. There was some sharp, but futile resistance, before surrender was negotiated. General Woll announced that he would have to take all Anglo men in San Antonio as prisoners of war; this included the judge, district attorney, assistant district attorney, court clerk, court interpreter, every member of the San Antonio Bar save one, and a handful of litigants and residents, to a total of fifty-five. They were kept prisoner – after five days they were told they must walk all the way to the Rio Grande, but they would then be released. Sometime during this period, the-then Mayor of San Antonio, John William Smith, managed to escape and send word of what had happened to the nearest town, Gonzales.

John Coffee Hays and his scouts had also managed to elude capture upon their return to town. The word went out across Texas for volunteers to assemble; two hundred came quickly from Gonzales and Seguin, led by Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell, and fought a sharp skirmish on Salado Creek. A company of 53 volunteers recruited by Nicolas Mosby Dawson in LaGrange or along the road to join Caldwell’s volunteers along the Salado Creek north of San Antonio, ran into the rear-guard of Woll’s army, a large contingent of cavalry and a single cannon as they were withdrawing to San Antonio. Dawson’s company was surrounded; in the confusion of surrendering, firing broke out again. Only fifteen of Dawson’s company survived, to join with the San Antonio prisoners on their long walk towards the Rio Grande.

Once there the prisoners were informed that they would be taken into Mexico. Some were paroled and permitted to leave as a personal favor to the US Consul in Mexico City. Others escaped, but most of the San Antonio prisoners were kept for two years at hard labor in Perote Prison, in the state of Vera Cruz, until an armistice was signed between Mexico and Texas in March of 1844.

The site of the Dawson Massacre is marked by a granite monument, where the present-day Austin Highway crosses Salado Creek. The first case to be heard at that momentous court session was never settled; Dr. Shields Booker brought suit against the former mayor of San Antonio, Juan Seguin, for a payment of a 50-peso fee. Dr. Booker died in Perote Prison. The lawyer representing him, Samuel Maverick, was paroled after six months in Perote, and returned to Texas.

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Lockhart Texas The Capital of Texas BBQ

Road Trip: The Capital of Texas BBQ

by Celia Hayes

Having reason last Saturday to go up to Lockhart, to participate in an evening fund-raising event to support the Eugene Clark Library, my daughter and I thought; let’s drive up in the early afternoon and take a look at the sights of historic downtown Lockhart; a district of several blocks centered on the archetypal Texas courthouse in a square with a number of businesses housed in classic late-19th century or early 20th century buildings.

It’s a short drive from our San Antonio home, all things considered, and a fascinating place to spend a weekend afternoon. We would hit a couple of thrift and antique shops, check out one of the four notable BBQ houses, and generally have a relaxing afternoon. Lockhart is a mere hour and a bit drive away: up IH35 to San Marcos, as if going to Wimberly, but instead of turning left and going through downtown San Marcos and past the university, turn right and just carry on until a left turn on Hwy 142, which leads straight into the heart of lovely downtown Lockhart.

There is a weekly farmers’ market in the mornings – which we missed – but we had been told about a consignment shop called the Citrus Peel and my daughter was enthused. She came up with a winner immediately; a leather Doney & Burke mini-planner . . . and a charming funky vintage handbag shaped like a western saddle. We both loved it, talked about over lunch and went back for it, agreeing to split the cost and custody, having never, ever seen the like of it before. (Looking it up online, there are a handful of them in the same design: Mexican tooled leather, but different colors and slightly different pommel/cantle detail. Not mass-manufacture; likely a craftsman in a leather-goods shop in a border-town, doing them one at a time for the tourist trade.)

We chose BBQ at Kreuz Market for lunch, which was good, if not quite as sublime as we had expected. The side dish beans were excellent, and the hot German potato salad had an admixture of sauerkraut in it – very tasty. Afterwards, people told us we should have gone to Blacks, or Smitty’s. The first rule of road-food: always go where the local people say they go.

We were also referred to the Main Street Gallery, which is set up in a lofty old building which the owner, Johnny Lay, explained had used to be a stable. Now it is fully stuffed with lovely antique furniture, stained glass panels that my mother, the stained glass hobbyist, would give her eyeteeth to be able to replicate. There is a case of Civil War era tintypes and daguerreotypes, most of them just the size to fit into a pocket, and some really splendid art glass. There was also a long shelf of books; among the few things that I could afford. This is one of those antique shops which I would love to furnish an entire house from, once I have become a very rich and famous writer. (The other is Back Alley Antiques, in Artisan’s Alley here in San Antonio).

We finished up at the Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches, open on Saturdays and by appointment; which guided tour was a great deal more fun than most guided tours usually are. The single most amusing item in the museum is a concoction of dark mahogany which once belonged to showman PT Barnum: A clock-desk-music-box-organ, which was stored in a local barn for nearly seventy years and restored by the museum staff. They also have the original works from the clock in the tower of the courthouse . . . which has also been recently restored.

It’s a short drive from our San Antonio neighborhood, all things considered, and a fascinating place to spend a weekend afternoon.

 

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