san antonio song

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Twenty-Six

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Twenty-Five

Emma Bentzen Koehler, April 1912

“I do so love the spring season in San Antonio,” says Sophie Wahrmund. “This dedication of the Hermann Sons Home is as elegant as any of the parties we’ve enjoyed throughout Fiesta.”

san antonio song cowgirl postcard

Otto tucks his thumbs under his lapels. “This is particularly welcome after the Chamber of Commerce’s silly shenanigans at the Saint Anthony Hotel. They handed everyone horns and cowbells and made us parade down the street like fools singing…”

The Colonel bounces as though astride a horse as he launches into song. “She hopped up on a pony and ran away with Tony. If you see her just let me know…”

Otto joins in harmonizing the last line of the popular ditty, “And I’ll meet you in San An-to-ni, San An-to-ni-o.”

Sophie ignores them. “I’ve never seen more creative and beautiful dance cards, delicately painted ivory fans dangling from ivory bracelets. The young ladies certainly will treasure these keepsakes for years.”

“Well, Hettie barely needs to consult hers,” huffs Otto. “I flipped it over, and almost all twenty dances were reserved by Frank Bosshardt. He must have committed to no other dances on anyone else’s fan because he stands ready to cut in on the few slots Hettie allowed others. I asked Paul Meerschiedt to try to keep Frank occupied with official duties, but, evidently, he failed to do so.”

“Otto, why do you fret so unnecessarily?” asks Emma. “They make a handsome couple.  If you must worry, it should be about the behavior of your nephews—standing around idly smoking and joking with their friends. Their refusal to dance turns attractive young ladies into wallflowers. And, they dropped in, uninvited, at the end of the reception Lottie Guenther and I hosted in the parlor at the Gunter Hotel yesterday, just to smirk and cast asides behind their hands about our honored guest, Stella Elmendorf, and her artwork. They regard a woman as incapable of applying paint to a canvas. After all, Stella’s work was included in a show in the Armory in New York last year.”

Otto wags his finger at his wife. “Inclusion in an exhibition at the Armory, my dear Emma, is all I need to know about Miss Elmendorf’s work. That represents no endorsement from a major museum or gallery. Rather than being judged by knowledgeable art critics or arbiters of good taste, the artists are selected by other artists in their same circle of friends, provided they can buy their way into the show. Having paid too much attention to the artists swilling absinthe in the Left Bank cafés of Paris, the artists’ heads are filled with contorted images like the so-called portraits of women whose heads have been twisted around backwards until both of their eyes bulge out on only one side of their sharp, angular faces. And why in the world would any artist want to eliminate the curves of a woman’s body? Almost nothing sold out of the show. Too avant-garde even for New Yorkers. If Stella Elmendorf strives to be considered a serious painter, she needs to come back home to San Antonio instead of risking her respectable reputation associating with decadent artists in New York City.”

Stella Elmendorf (Tylor) (1885-1980)

“Making her own way in New York, Stella’s got spunk and determination, though,” adds the Colonel. “Added the initial ‘T’ between her first and last name. ‘T’ for Texas. ‘Texas,’ that is what everyone calls her up there. She had a photograph made of her at dusk, posed in her painter’s frock with palette and brush in hand as though painting the thousand-light American flag installed in front of the Alamo for Fiesta San Jacinto. Wanted to take it back with her to show her fellow artists what it means to be a Texan.”

Otto snorts. “Well, there is certainly nothing Texan-looking about Stella Elmendorf’s artwork. Looks Left Bank to me. If ‘Texas’ expects to sell anything, she would be better off making sturdy, functional pots—or practical bricks—out of that good clay old Henry Elmendorf dug up south of town.”

The Colonel sighs. “Alamo Plaza certainly appears drab now that the illuminated flag and our neon signs are removed. All of downtown looks naked, in fact, after Fiesta. No more six flags of Texas and colorful buntings strung across the streets. Strings of lights no longer cast flickering reflections shimmering across the river. And the Court House and City Hall seem downright dowdy without bulbs outlining their silhouettes.”

“It’s a relief, though,” says Otto, “not to have to fight your way through a parade every time you try to go somewhere.”

“Oh, but the Battle of Flowers Parade,” gushes Sophie, “and the Chariot Fire Light Parade were well worth any inconveniences.”

Emma groans. “However, the Automobile Parade stretched on forever. One thousand cars? I believe that actually the same hundred black cars must have been circling through downtown over and over. They all looked the same. And the continued cacophony created by the car horns, railroad whistles and factory whistles all blowing simultaneously was unbearable.”

Otto extends both arms straight out to the side. “At least Dr. Zucht’s car was disguised as an aeroplane with a propeller on the front and wings out to the side.”

The Colonel nods with enthusiasm. “While Mister Staake had many Cadillacs in the parade, he swears they might soon be a thing of the past. Claims that by 1920, he will be selling almost as many airships as automobiles.”

Emma waves her hand dismissively. “Colonel, that is absurd. Some of us are not yet convinced that even automobiles, with their tendencies to run out of fuel or break down, are superior to horse and buggies. My confinement to this chair serves as testimony to their dangers.”

harriet quimby
Harriet Quimby (1875-1912)

“Airplanes are worse,” agrees Otto. “When they run out of fuel, they fall from the sky. Poor Harriet Quimby. The first woman to fly across the English Channel plummeted into the Boston harbor in front of thousands of horrified spectators yesterday. When questioned about the danger prior to taking off, she laughed, saying she was like a cat. ‘I don’t like cold water.’”

“Nine lives would have proven useful to the late Miss Quimby,” adds the Colonel.

“As well as for those four men,” continues Otto, “whose dirigible burst into flames over Atlantic City.”

“Enough!” Emma slaps her fan closed on her lap. “Why must every conversation with you two seem as gory as if we had invited Bram Stoker to join us at the table? No airplanes. Boats are the only way to cross water,” she pauses, surprised to realize she is ignoring the tragedy of the Titanic still vivid in the minds of all, “which brings me back to our original topic—floats. I don’t mean to offend you businessmen, but the Big Civic and Trades Parade was almost as tiresome as the Automobile Parade.”

“What?” asks Otto. “You didn’t enjoy Ed Steves and Sons’ six floats exhibiting building products?”

The Colonel snickers. “The glass-paneled doors were almost as stimulating to watch pass by as was their float bearing the ‘widest boards that ever emerged from a planing mill.’”

“After the boring board float,” says Otto, “I think Emma’s favorites were the well-oiled machines clanging away on the entries of Alamo Iron Works and Southern Welding.”

Emma sighs. The pair are off on a tangent yet again.

“Out of all the parades,” proclaims the Colonel, “my favorite attractions were the scantily clad guests from the Fiji Islands. Real cannibals. You definitely wouldn’t want to be stuck aboard the same ship on a long sea voyage with that savage lot.”

Emma glares at Otto to deter him from picking up that bait.

stevens' house on martin street
Bettie and John Stevens’ home on Martin Street

Amazingly, Otto does not. “The Stevens’ party for the Townsends tied up traffic almost as much as the daily street parades. Four-hundred guests trying to alight from their carriages and automobiles on Martin Street all at the same hour was nightmarish. If Bettie insists on throwing lavish parties with guest lists including everyone in town, she and John better move out of the downtown congestion.”

“As I am doing,” announces Sheriff Tobin as he approaches the table. “Minnie’s thrilled you managed to carve out a lot for her to buy for us, Otto. We can’t wait to join you on the rise where we can catch those southern breezes. Minnie thinks she’ll be able to keep me home by buying a spyglass for me to view what is happening downtown. Although I’d rather not see. What with chattering Chinamen claiming New York chinomobs are on the way here to kill them, and now I have to deal with that negro voodoo doctor in my jail.”

“Sheriff,” the Colonel gestures for him to take a seat. “I assume the arrest of that unwelcome Louisiana import puts an end to the negroes’ fear of meeting the same fate as William Burton’s family—hacked to death with an axe.”

Sheriff Tobin puts his hands on the table and leans down instead. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe the voodoo man committed that crime. Although, he’s extremely uncooperative, sitting there in his cell, refusing to say a word. I found a watch and two rings on him that were stolen from Miss Maggie Thomas’ house on Avenue C, but burglary and Mumbo Jumbo appear to be his most serious offenses. Today, I received an anonymous letter purported to be from white men whose goal is to rid Texas of negroes flirting with miscegenation. The note threatened death to any negroes married to white or even half-white women.”

The Colonel looks disgusted. “While death by axe is not a sentence I’d impose, Texas has had laws against intermingling races since the days of the Republic. The punishment, though, is usually only a year or two in prison. But, with all the brown-skinned Mexicans already living here, we certainly have no need to multiply mulattos.”

The Sheriff tempers his voice a little. “Although the writer of the note claims to be white, I think the letter was penned by some negro religious crank. But the negroes certainly are scared stiff, hiding behind locked doors. I had to offer a $500 reward to try to quell the darkies’ apprehensions.”

Save the Alamo float in the Battle of Flowers Parade

Sophie breaks back into the conversation. “Pelting one another with flowers is preferable to all of this violence. The floats in the Battle of Flowers were brimming with more flowers than ever.”

“Colonel,” asks Sheriff Tobin, “was the Governor impressed with all the festivities?”

“Indeed he was,” says the Colonel. “Nothing can compare to being imprisoned in a conspicuous box seat for hours during the Fiesta Fete, forced to smile through the entire Dance of the Canoe Girls and the Dance of the Tallyho Maids and Men. As silly as the young men appeared, though, I dare say Luke Lamar was happy to be prancing around on the stage as one of the Tallyho Men instead of dodging bullets in Mexico.”

Otto reenters the conversation at a point that will not further incur Emma’s ire. “At least Colonel Chapa finally has resigned from the Governor’s staff. This liberates the Governor from unnecessary entanglement in the messy Mexican cabal. Changes in political and military positions are so rapid, President Taft has one man assigned full time to move masses of different colored pins on a map of Mexico for his daily review. It resembles no common war between two countries, nor the Civil War, but has multiple so-called generals commandeering their own bands of misfits marauding through the countryside with impunity. Revolt erupts in so many spots at once, President Madero is powerless to prevent its spread.”

“How can 2,000 ragtag revolutionaries,” asks the Colonel, “hold a country of 15-million people hostage?”

Sheriff Tobin shrugs his shoulders. “Those Zapatista insurrectos are impossible for anyone to corral. With so many men vying for power, the bandit element is left free to loot and set the countryside ablaze.”

Otto groans. “All business down there, including ours, is at a standstill.”

“Our King Zeus reigning over Fiesta,” sneers the Colonel, “commands more power and respect than any leaders in Mexico.”

Otto furrows his brow. “I hope the Battle of Flowers remains the only one fought. If those pillaging Mexicans harm any more Americans, they could drag us into war. President Taft would be left with no choice but to invade.”

Emma objects. “Surely, it will not come to that, Otto. Such talk spoils the party. Invite Sophie to join you in this waltz before the orchestra breaks for more of Paul Meerscheidt’s long-winded speeches.”

The Colonel winks at her. “Maybe we need to send the great organizer of the Equal Franchise Society, Eleanor Brackenridge, to Mexico to whip those men into shape.”

“I might not care,” huffs Emma, “for much of what she represents, but have you ever read the Constitution of this state? Why, women in Texas have no more rights than criminals.”

“Gentlemen,” interrupts Otto, “I recommend we scurry out to the dance floor before Emma launches her own revolution.”

Footnotes

While the art, Fiesta and Mexican events are based on newspaper accounts, the characters’ opinions of them are inventions of the Author. Although, beware, dates of actual events are a little scrambled for the Author’s convenience.

The racist language, sadly, is lifted straight from the pages of San Antonio newspapers.

To find out more about the “San Antonio Song,” click here.

Continue to Chapter Twenty-Seven

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