joskes dulce mexicano

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Twenty

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Nineteen

Andrew Stevens, March 1912

Mr. K’s hands dance above his desk. “That Leroy Denman is no more than a marionette. George Brackenridge jerks his strings, and he plops right down into the automobile seat next to ventriloquist Tom Campbell’s dummy, Judge Ramsey.”

The Colonel agrees. “If Governor Hogg hadn’t appointed Leroy Denman to the Supreme Court, not a soul would know his name. Yet he struts around town as though he were Le Roi instead of plain old Leee-roy.”

John smiles. “His briefs from the bench were so brief, there’s scarcely a scintilla of evidence he has any sense at all.”

Mr. K grunts. “Ludicrous! Arming those old gray soldiers in Gonzales with push-brooms. Amazing the brooms did not get tangled up with the old Confederates’ canes, sending the whole decrepit lot cascading to the ground like dominos.”

John smacks his right fist into the palm of his left hand. “Like the dominos fell in Galveston. After unraveling the Attorney General’s case against the proprietors of The Cave Bar, Judge Fontaine is my hero. By decreeing the testimony of employees of the Controller’s Department could not stand uncorroborated, he delivered us an unexpected coup. When they asked to be served liquor on Sunday, the Judge ruled the Controller’s men themselves became accomplices. Entrapment. As everyone else in The Cave was a contented regular Sunday customer, no other witnesses came forward. The State must now concede it is pointless to take any of the other gazillion trumped-up cases to trial.”    

The Colonel twists the tips of his long mustache. “The courts are improving our business outlook lately. Unions are taking another hit with the new allegations against the leadership of the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. Those men brazenly commissioned their minion to travel throughout the country toting explosives in his suitcase. Sent him out on mission after mission to blow up non-union construction projects. Did they think they’d get away with such crimes?”

“Greedy men engaging in desperate activities,” says Mr. K. “We certainly have a couple of rabble-rousing union men within our plant. We continue to treat our workers well, giving them raise after raise, but the grumblers are never happy. Although I don’t trust some of the men, our workers would never resort to such dastardly destruction.”

The Colonel gives a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness Texas never will have to call in the militia like they did in Massachusetts. Besides, San Antonians would not stand by idle if strikers ever disrupted their flow of beer. There’d be no need to import any strikebreakers from another state because we would have eager volunteers standing in line to keep production rolling.”

Mr. K cracks a smile before shaking his head. “Frightening to hear about Albert Kronkosky. His house is under constant surveillance. His three-year-old under lock and key because of a menacing Black Hand letter demanding ransom. With deputies watching to nab the blackmailer, Albert went so far as to deliver $1,000 to a nook under a bridge. No one appeared.”

Creases appear across the Colonel’s forehead. “His ownership of the Drug Company and Alamo Cement makes his family no more likely a target than ours. Fortunately, Sheriff Tobin believes the amateur fool was scared off, hightailing it miles and miles away from San Antonio.”

John raises his index finger. “The other good news is the rather spectacular fall from grace of the Reverend Frank Norris. Here he was in the middle of his spurious crusade against Fort Worth’s saloons and gambling dens. Claimed they operate with impunity in property rented from rich, front-row-sitting churchgoers. He compared them to Dives of the Bible, the wealthy man who ignored the poor beggar Lazarus: ‘God sent the rich Dives to cook in the lower country, while Lazarus was lifted up to the heavens.’ Then the ranting reverend wondered why his collection basket had not been filled up by those he just condemned. When church elders told Reverend Norris he couldn’t have a new church, by some amazingly convenient miracle, the existing one burned.”

The Colonel chuckles. “Not once, but twice. The fire didn’t spread fast enough the first time. But the second time, the fool almost burned up his wife and children.”

John waves his right hand in disgust. “Then Reverend Norris invented some cockamamie story about threatening letters and some mystery man no one else saw firing shots at him in the night. Claims it is all part of a vast conspiracy against him.”

“If it had been our conspiracy,” Mr. Koehler sneers, “we would’ve made damn sure we sent a skilled marksman.”

“But will someone explain the Baptists to me?” asks John. “The man’s been indicted for arson and perjury. One would think that would muzzle him, that God-fearing Christians would steer clear of him. Yet hordes of them flock to hear him preach in a temporary tent. Don’t they think arson is a far worse crime then renting to a saloon? If the Good Lord did not intend for people to drink, why would he arrange for wine to be served at Communion?” 

“The first thing Noah did after the flood,” the Colonel pipes in, “was to plant a vineyard.”

Andy’s brother never has a shortage of Biblical justifications for drinking. “Proverbs, Chapter 31: ‘Procure strong drink for someone on his deathbed; wine for those with heavy hearts. Let man drink and forget his misfortune, and remember his misery no more.’ And what was the first miracle Jesus performed? Why, he turned water into wine to make a marriage feast festive.” 

As though inspired by John’s version of preaching, the Colonel takes a deep gulp of his beer. “Now they claim San Antonio saloonkeepers have to turn away minors who simply want to see the impressive horn collections hanging on the walls.”

Mr. K shakes his head. “Tom Campbell and his Pros are going too far. Attempting to forbid anybody connected with the brewing industry from contributing to political campaigns is anti-American. What next? Legislate away our right to vote? If they want to pursue this flawed line of reason, apply it universally. Let no Baptist contribute to prohibition candidates. Prohibit judges from taking sides in elections. Are they not supposed to be impartial anyway? Tom Campbell will rue the day he put his cock in the ring.”

The Colonel clenches a fist. “The longer we can thwart their efforts, the better our odds. All these Catholic immigrants are busy producing future Antis as fast as they can. Texas is growing so rapidly that two times more babies are born every month than old codgers die.”

John’s mood seems to change. “Thank goodness a lot of birthing is going on because it seems the grim reaper is visiting town with increasing regularity. Our daughters were devastated by the death of Elizabeth Bell, only fifteen. Just a tiny spark from a grate set her dressing gown ablaze. Dr. Herff could do nothing to save her.” 

“And a good number of the ‘old codgers’ the reaper is harvesting seem to be uncomfortably close to our age,” adds Mr. K. “First William Negley. Then George Franklin plain dropped dead in the middle of a round of golf at the Country Club.”

“Certainly, you do not consider old Friedrich Groos near our age,” huffs the Colonel. “His first wife, Gertrude Rodriguez, was friends with President Madero’s grandfather. Friedrich was probably eighty-five.”

John adds one more to the list of the Grim Reaper’s recent victims. “Charles Degen was no spring chicken either. Eighty-seven he was. His funeral cortege stretched for more than two miles.”

The Colonel beams. “People love the men who give them beer. And what a fine eulogy that silver-tongued C.A. Goeth delivered.”

degen's brewery

Mr. K lifts his glass in tribute. “I must admit, Charles Degen brewed one fine beer. Always insisted on pure hops and malt. No rice allowed in the mix. Salesmen would bring him samples, and he took keen delight in turning around and tossing their inferior offerings to his chickens. But what I like best is that he was a one-man show. Took his brewing secrets to the grave with him. I wouldn’t mind having it in our possession, but at least no Adolphus Busch is getting his hands on that recipe. Of course, that knowledge started Emma off on an inquisition. ‘Is our recipe safe?’ was her first question. Before I can utter a reply, she demands it be in her hands. Wants to make sure it is not lost if something happens to me. I assured her that, not only am I a long way from 87, but City Brewery is not a one-man operation. Our brewmaster and the three of us all have access to our formulas.”

The Colonel laughs. “Tell Emma that her future’s as secure as that of the wife of the Candy King. As his Mexican mother passed on the secrets of her syrup to him, Tomas Contreras willed his to his widow.”

John smacks his lips together. “That pecan candy has been better than Aladdin’s lamp for the Contreras family.” 

mexican candy seller

Mr. K agrees. “A more toothsome pecan candy cannot be found anywhere in the country. Before he learned English, Tomas found earning a living difficult; so his mother Juanita urged him to take to the streets to vend her dulces, much like I started at the bottom at Adolphus’ brewery before I learned English. Tomas first sold his madre’s confections from a covered basket on Alamo Plaza near the Menger. Soon he worked a deal with the hotel and could be found at his post every day in the lobby next to the blind harpist. Now his army of vendors stand on every corner downtown, with lines forming around them immediately upon their arrival. The homemade candy commands high prices in some of the finest specialty stores in the country.”

“Why, his mail order business grew to the point,” says John, “it overwhelms our post office clerks. Do you realize the gross receipts of the post office have tripled in the last decade? We deliver more than three-million pieces of mail a month.”

Mr. K slaps his palm on the desk. “That indicates how fast this city is growing. Growth’s not only good for our business but also for producing voters to keep us in business. We need the immigrants moving here from Europe to outnumber those Baptist rubes flooding in from the southeast.”

The Colonel taps his finger up and down on the desk. “And we need to have the water to support that growth. Jesse Oppenheimer just sold another 9,400 acres east of Pearsall for development by the Medina Irrigation Company.”

“Mister Pearson has more than 1,500 men working around the clock on his dam,” adds John. “That works out to about one man per foot in length.”

Explosives, Medina Dam Construction, The Edwards Aquifer Website

The Colonel nods. “And they certainly aren’t all union men. Most of them are Mexicans who worked on Pearson’s dam projects south of the border. I’ve heard rumors that close to fifty have perished. But two dollars a day in pay keeps more pouring in to replace them, despite the dangerous working conditions.”

“But what glorious farmland is going to open up,” says Mr. K. “Those lands will keep San Antonio well-fed in years to come.”

medina dam construction
Medina Dam Construction, The Edwards Aquifer Website

Footnotes

Unions were rowdy during this period as they strove to create bargaining tools to deal with the wealth of business owners. At the end of this chapter, the story of workers at Medina Dam perishing makes one realize the necessity for unions or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to prevent abuse.

The Author encountered the case of the “black hand letter” delivered to Albert Kronkosky in the March 20, 1912, edition of the Brownwood Daily Bulletin. She never found it reported in the San Antonio papers and remains unsure whether she simply missed it or whether authorities were trying to keep the blackmail threat quiet.

The Author’s fascination with the ups and downs of Reverend Frank Norris stems from an old Goldbeck photo of a mass baptism at San Pedro Springs.

The Author accidentally stumbled across the story of the candy king, Tomas Contreras. When the praline maker passed away, a newspaper ran a full-page story about San Antonio’s favorite confectioner. The Author hopes someone will step forward with information about whether this recipe survives and is still produced by anyone. And, yes, the Author would like one, please.

John Stevens served as Postmaster of San Antonio for years.

Continue to Chapter Twenty-One

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