steves homestead

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Six

Above, Johanna Steves rocks in front of her home on King William Street. The Steves Homestead is now a House Museum owned by The Conservation Society of San Antonio and is well worth touring.

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Five

Emma Bentzen Koehler, May 1911

Sophie Wahrmund clasps her hands together over her heart. “After Papa’s funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to think of leaving all the family in Fredericksburg. I started weeping the minute they started playing ‘Oh Fair, Oh Sweet, Oh Holy!’ and didn’t stop dabbing at my eyes until we pulled up to the front door. Yet here I am, thoroughly wrapped up in this wedding. How can one so rapidly leap from the depths of despair to a state of bliss? My tears of mourning have been replaced by those of joy.”

“Nothing helps heal loss like births or weddings, Sophie.”

The fireflies are beginning to flicker as servants wander through the yard lighting candles at all the tables. Over Sophie’s shoulder, Emma catches a glimpse of her husband on the dance floor. She smiles. Otto’s partner is none other than the groom’s grandmother, Johanna Steves. While Otto does do a turn or two or more with some of the prettiest women in town, he always takes care to alternate them with the oldest widows available at any social occasion. “And your Jennie just looks positively radiant in that green.”

Sophie turns to admire her daughter, who is huddling with the cluster of bridesmaids, laughing gaily as they exchange stories about their encounters with the large pool of eligible bachelors attending the reception.

Emma’s niece Hettie joins them at the table, almost breathless with excitement. “Look at the attendants. Standing all together, they resemble a rainbow. However did Carrie think of having her bridesmaids wear such a brilliant array of color? Jennie’s gown—she says they call it ‘Nile green’—makes her eyes shimmer like emeralds. This is without a doubt the most beautiful wedding I have ever witnessed. Oh, Aunt Emma, will there ever be a turn for me?”

“Of course, there will, Hettie. This certainly presents an ideal occasion to shop for prospective suitors. I have seen more than one or two of the Steves’ tribe glancing your way, and what about that young Dr. Herff?”

“Oh, Aunt Emma, they’re just college boys, and Dr. Herff doesn’t take his stethoscope out of his ear long enough to carry on a civil conversation.”

Otto Koehler joins them at the table. “The widow Steves certainly is in fine form for dancing. She is tireless. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with her on the dance floor once she gets ‘fit,’ as she says, after her natatorium is finished. Says she plans to exercise in the pool an hour every day. It will take 70,000 gallons of water to fill it, but the widow Steves has no fear of water rates. Enraged by a hike in water rates, she up and had her own well drilled a decade ago. 

“Sophie, I hope you don’t object, but I’m trying to convince your brother, Charles, to part with those fine copper kettles in the basement of the Nimitz Hotel. Until he and the Colonel took me down there after the funeral, I had no idea that your father had brewed a Nimitz beer before the Civil War. From what I hear about the quality of his brew, I’m lucky he didn’t resume production after he shed his Confederate uniform. While the equipment is all too small for any of our brewing needs, I would proudly display it at the brewery.”

nimitz hotel in fredericksburg, texas

“That would be wonderful, Otto. It needs a good home. Charles has long wanted all those vats and things out of the way, but, as long as Papa was in residence at the Nimitz Hotel, they were not moving. My sisters and I, and our daughters after us, spent many hours over those enormous pots preparing pretend feasts for imaginary husbands and children.” 

Noticing Hettie gently fingering the petals in the massive centerpiece, Otto inventories the contents. “Bride roses, pink Killarney roses, pink sweet peas, daisies and lavender sweet peas. If I hadn’t strolled in our garden this afternoon, I’d suspect some of the Steves boys had scaled the fence.”

A full glass in hand, the Colonel strides up to the table. “Jennie’s green dress reminds me of the siege of the Alamo today. Arise Texans, sons of the heroes of San Jacinto, the Alamo has been desecrated….” His booming words about the Alamo turn many heads toward their table. 

Sophie raises her finger to her lips. “Shhh! Whatever are you ranting about?”

The Colonel lowers his voice only the slightest bit. “The woman in the harem skirt! This tourist sported a pair of trouserettes or something. They say they were of green taffeta with a white polka dot sash. She marched right into the holiest shrine in Texas, she did. People on the plaza were hissing and booing when she emerged. The police actually had to restrain several men from physically attacking her.”

Otto picks up the theme. “The newspaper this morning was encouraging women to box to stay in shape. Can you imagine anything so foolish?  Trouserettes, boxing, the vote. Women are determined to create havoc. If women were to ever get to vote, my friend, that would be the day you and I would be forced to cease our beer operation.”

A stern glance from Emma clearly indicates they are treading on dangerous turf.

The Colonel wisely elects to redirect the conversation. “Old Rothman told me his son was hauled into court after stopping for a beer on his way home. He was accused of reckless driving—driving too fast down Commerce Street. But he has the sorriest specimen of a horse you’ve ever seen. He told the judge that if any man could make his horse do anything faster than an ordinary trot, he’d let the gentleman keep his horse.”

“Did that defense work?” asks Otto.

“No, the judge declined to test the horse. Young Rothman is spending tonight in jail. Otto, I have seats reserved for you and Emma at Governor Colquitt’s banquet Monday. You are planning to attend, aren’t you?”

“We wouldn’t miss it,” her husband answers. “I hope you’ve arranged for every seat at the St. Anthony Hotel to be occupied.”

“We’ll have a full house, and an enthusiastic one at that. Political gatherings are so much more amiable now that dry is out of fashion,” says the Colonel as he raises his now nearly empty glass to clink against Otto’s.

Otto takes the last swallow out of his own glass. “The wool growers, Captain Schreiner and Alfred Giles, are bringing in Senator Hudspeth this week, so we should have anti-news dominating the pages of the newspapers all week. The only thing that worries me, Colonel, is that the Senator from El Paso is overconfident about our chances for victory in July. El Paso may have defeated prohibition ten to one last time around, but there just aren’t that many Mexicans, or Irishmen and Germans, in that Bible-thumping belt to the east of us.”

“Speaking of Mexicans, Otto,” says the Colonel, “I’m sure the Mexican village that has sprung up in San Pedro Park, almost your backyard, has not escaped your notice. The Mexicans celebrate the fifth of May like the Battle of Puebla was yesterday.”

“I can almost sleep through their exuberant, off-key versions of the polka,” says Emma, “but they continually punctuate the music with loud firecrackers. Their fireworks in San Pedro Park light up my bedroom like daybreak.”

“No rest for the weary, Emma,” warns Otto. “They’ll still be there tonight and are unlikely to pack up their wagons until Monday morning. I guess they can embrace the defeat of the French at Puebla with more enthusiasm than our Battle of Flowers’ commemoration of their defeat at San Jacinto. Anyone whose home country is so continually in upheaval needs excuses to celebrate. Colonel, with Madero asking President Diaz to resign and the Mexican Army threatening Parras and Saltillo, our mining interests are looking rather precarious. I heard the President might even dispatch the Navy to protect Americans in Acapulco.”

“Good evening, Missus Koehler, Missus Warhmund.” Frank Bosshardt swings around slowly and smiles. “And Miss Hettie.”

The other men turn from their conversation. “Frank,” says Otto, “Congratulations! I heard you have been elected president of the Beethoven Junior Club. We’re just heading to the bar for some refills so we can adequately plunge into discussion about the tumultuous times faced by our neighbor, and our investments, to the south. Come join us.”

“Thank you very much, sir, but I’m really here to beg Miss Hettie to join me for a dance.” 

Hettie blushes and rises to her feet almost a little too eagerly. “I would love to.”

As Frank leads Hettie away, Otto scowls. “I like the man, but, Emma, don’t you think he’s too old for Hettie?” 

“Oh, Otto. There’s not a man on earth you would view as good enough for Hettie.” 

“On the contrary, Emma, I’ve always envisioned her marrying the offspring of a prominent brewer, forging a great merger of empires. That tack certainly worked well for the ambitious Adolphus Busch.”

“Otto, Hettie rightfully expects her future marriage plans to be determined by love, not the prospect of a corporate merger. You’d be as bad as Kaiser Wilhelm trying to convince his only daughter that the new Prince of Wales is a suitable marriage prospect instead of a philandering party boy. Besides, it’s just one dance, and it is the first one they’ve ever had together. Go fetch your drink and let her enjoy herself.” Emma dismisses the men as though shooing away pesky flies.

“Well, excuse us ladies. We’ll return shortly,” promises the Colonel.

Sophie waves them away. “We’ll not see them for a while.”

“Men!” exclaims Emma. “They worry about women wearing trouserettes and getting the vote. A man can no more represent a woman at the polls than he can in a millinery shop. Otto came home one day with a massive clump of ostrich feathers and said he thought I would like one of those large brimmed hats covered in feathers. Not only am I most certainly not a fluffy hat person, but in my chair? Anyone peering down to converse with me would feel as though they were addressing an ostrich’s hind quarters.

“We’ll handle the responsibility of voting much better than men. You don’t see any women foolish enough to freeze their feet off racing to get to the South Pole. Anyway, what happens if those lunatic explorers get there? They just have to turn around and try to race back before the frost bites off their fingers or that organ between their legs that tends to direct all their actions.”

Sophie giggles and clinks her wine glass with Emma’s. “To our voyage without the boys.”



Funerals, weddings, festivals, current events–all of these referenced in this chapter, even the harem pants at the Alamo–are drawn from the pages of newspapers, with one exception—the reference to the young Dr. Herff. Peter Ferdinand Herff recounted in his autobiography, The Doctors Herff: A Three-Generation Memoir, that he was working too hard to marry early. But he married Lucie Francis Frost in 1909. The Author does not feel guilty delaying that marriage as it does not push any descendants into birth out of wedlock.

It is impossible to truly know anyone’s personality so the Author creates imagined reactions to daily occurrences and news reports to flesh out the characters. The Author believes she understands them fairly well, as they sit around the edge of her bathtub conversing with one another as she soaks in the mornings. But there is no way to ascertain how close to reality she strikes.

This is the first mention of an ostrich-plumed hat, a particularly unimaginative name for a book. But it sounds so appropriate for a novel published in the teens, and the Author does have her reasons.

Continue to Chapter Seven

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