san antonio river in brackenridge park

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Twenty-Eight

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Twenty-Seven

Andrew Stevens, July 1912

“A piece of good news emerged from Mayor Callaghan’s funeral,” announces Mr. K. “The Kalteyers finally can breathe easier. Doctor Herff says he expects their nine-year-old, little William, to recover from his concussion.”

“Speeding driver right there on Blum Street,” gripes the Colonel. “Hurled the boy off the wheel he was peddling and then sped out of Alamo Plaza, leaving Willie behind, a little heap in the street. Lucky the lad’s not dead. The only way to control these speed demons racing through downtown is to hire motorcycle policemen to chase them.” 

John has been running his hands through his hair over and over, and it now sticks out at all angles. Andy pats his own head to try to signal John to smooth it back down, but John is still too deep in mournful thoughts to pick up on it. “Otto, I know I shouldn’t compare the loss of Bryan Callaghan to your loss of your twin brother. After all, Bryan Callaghan was more stubborn than any mule….”

“Ah, but quite often,” says Mr. K, “the Mayor was our mule. It’s far easier to prod a hardheaded pack mule than to have to carry the load on your own back.”

“Once Bryan made up his mind,” continues John, “arguing with him was as worthwhile as whistling jigs at a milestone. But our parents and his parents were among the first to settle in San Antonio after the Texas Revolution. Not only were Bryan and I born in the same city, we were born on the same day. He arrived on this earth a mere thirty minutes prior to my entrance. Before his parents shipped him off to study in France, we were in the same class all the way through Saint Mary’s.”

“And you fought all the way through life,” Andy reminds his older brother.

“Once a man’s buried safely underground, we Irish forgive almost anything. We talk about the dead man’s sins with the same affection as if they were the attributes of a saint. Of course we fought, Andy. I repeat. He was like a brother to me.”

The Colonel smiles. “‘No monkeyin’ around.’ That’s what the Mayor always told the men he was pushing to pay their poll taxes.”

Mr. K raises his half-empty glass in tribute. “He could get the vote out for us. The poll taxes of even the poorest would get paid. The Mexicans always believed amigo Callaghan would take care of them. The only reason opposition candidates were so successful during this last election was the construction of the Medina Dam pulled so many able-bodied Mexicans out of the county.”

The Colonel tilts his glass in response. “Mayor Callaghan could talk to men in their mother tongue, whether it was English, French, German or Spanish. He disguised his law degree from the University of Virginia well. Sounded just like the common man in every language he spoke. Sometimes it seemed he even had his own language—Callaghiese.”

San Fernando Cathedral

“Bryan certainly was no highbrow,” says John. “Long ago, he requested bandmaster Smith play not only ‘San Antonio’ but also ‘There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ at his funeral. While the band members toned down their rendition of the irreverent tune, I still am shocked the Bishop allowed it to echo within the hallowed walls of San Fernando Cathedral.”

“The Bishop,” remarks the Colonel, “even condescended to offer one of the prayers in English for the benefit of us heathens who know no Latin.”

Mr. K stubs out his cigar. “As Mayor Pro Tem, William Richter certainly is wasting no time sweeping away any accomplishments of his predecessor. Garbage. That’s what he says will be his major focus. Mayor Callaghan was hardly in favor of leaving the garbage in the streets, but he couldn’t get the garbage collected because he couldn’t get the city budget approved.”

As though on cue, a fly alights on the Colonel’s right ear. The Colonel waves it off. “In the minds of most citizens, garbage is a popular front to attack. It’s watermelon season, and nothing attracts the attention of flies like rotting rinds. It would be of major public benefit if those elements known to consume the most melons would put screens on their garbage cans.”

The subject of flies seems to pick up John’s spirits. “But the fly-swatting contest was particularly fruitful this year. The lads competing in the newspaper’s promotion eliminated more than five million of the pests. The sixteen-year-old winner drove in a wagon full of flattened flies.”

The Colonel chuckles. “Pity the poor men at the Daily Express who were stuck with the job of counting the millions of filthy dead flies to determine who would win the prize. Even being assigned to write obituaries would be preferable.”

Mr. K shoos the same fly off the edge of his glass. “No matter how many millions of flies they hit, millions remain swarming around our stable.”

“The horses’ tails must be exhausted,” concludes the Colonel. “My arms tire of flailing at the flies, as does my nose from pinching it every time I near the river’s banks. The stench is growing worse.”

“Hard to call it a river,” says John, “when you cannot float a boat in it—even a paper one. A river needs water.”

Mr. K sighs in agreement. “The low stage of the river this summer is unpleasant. The flow easily could be supplemented by pumping water from an artesian well near the headwaters. George Brackenridge has everyone convinced there’s an underground water shortage, but our wells are pumping as strong as ever. Why, there’s no purer water anywhere in the world.”

“Mister Brackenridge,” grunts the Colonel, “has no business discussing water. Sold San Antonio’s Waterworks to someone out of state. The man had no right to do that. Speculators in what belongs to the people should not be rewarded. And now our water is under the control of foreigners, Belgians who call it Companie des Eaux de San Antonio. Sounds like some cheap cologne. That deal smells worse than the river water.”

Mr. K sneers. “Yet San Antonians continue to hold George Brackenridge up as their hero. The worst proposal for solving the problem with the San Antonio River, however, is flowing from the lips of Atlee Ayres. That foolish architect wants to fill in the riverbed plum up to street level and make it a roadway. Says making the river a driveway would eliminate the need to worry about maintaining bridges.”

“That makes as much sense,” growls the Colonel, “as tearing down your house so you wouldn’t have to paint it.”

John throws in his two cents. “Or filling your yard with rocks so you wouldn’t have to hire someone to trim your lawn.”

Now armed with a flyswatter from the closet, Andy’s eyes follow the circling pest.

Mr. K. flaps the fly away from his beer again. “One can’t expect an intelligent solution from someone who’d erect three brick flats on Maverick Street all lined up in a row—all identical. I didn’t build my house up on a hilltop to look out over a bunch of rooftops that appear made with a cookie cutter. Atlee Ayres says he wants to create a ‘picturesque thoroughfare’ when, with a little bit of water pumped in, we could again make our river itself picturesque.”

The Colonel raises is cigar to make a point. “Pompeo Coppini is much more sensitive to San Antonio’s charms. Compares a city without a flowing river to a woman without long flowing hair. He thinks turning our river into a roadway would be as barbarous as setting the entire town afire.”

“The sculptor Coppini is on the right track,” agrees Mr. K, “but he takes things a little too far. Although our river has more curves than an ample-bosomed maiden and I am for handsome bridges, condemning private property on both banks of the river to allow for terraced landscaping and pathways would be trampling on the owners’ rights, including ours.”

John finally flattens the spikes in his hair. “I heard W.W. King speak the other day, and his recommendations make the most sense. He wants to lay pipe underground, heading downhill from San Pedro Springs to empty into the river somewhere between Fourth and Ninth Streets, and possibly even divert some of the water flowing in that irrigation ditch on Flores Street. He also says we should build a major dam across Olmos Creek. The accumulated rainfall in the resulting reservoir could be pumped into the river when it was low. Then we actually could float boats downtown. Passengers could board the motor boats from stairways leading down from the bridges.”

Mr. K slaps one hand on his desk, unaware he almost hit the fly. “That’s brilliant! Flowing water and no need to take private property.”

Architect Alfred Giles’ design for proposed Alamo Heroes Monument, UTSA Libraries Special Collections

The Colonel rubs his chin. “A fifty-foot-high dam would be sufficient do it. Seems easy to accomplish compared to the Medina Dam. Or, for that matter, the 800-foot-tall monument to those who fell at the Alamo that Emil Locke has been trying to sell to everybody. Have you passed by the window of Wolff & Marx to see the model of what would be the tallest monument in the country?”

“No,” answers Mr. K, “but Emil has been by several times with sketches of the design by Alfred Giles. He’s soliciting subscriptions—naturally including a substantial request of us—to cover the $2.5-million tower of steel and terra cotta. It’s nothing but an over-priced obelisk to commemorate a battle where Texans were trounced. Erect a massive tower on the battlefield at San Jacinto instead.”

“If you ask me,” says the Colonel, “our neon was more impressive. Selling that tower will take more skills than Emil has ever had to employ peddling real estate.” 

John’s attention was wandering, his eyes following the fly as well, but he suddenly smiles. “The skills of our treasurer, Henry, are about to be tested in another arena. Otto, your brother Henry must rue the day he agreed to be the executor of the estate of old Emil Behrens’ daughter, Elfrieda. An unmarried woman. No direct heirs to fight over the will. Bet it sounded easy as pie.”

Mr. K. shakes his head. “Who could have foreseen the little lady would want to take her animals with her?”

“Frieda, that cream-colored mare of hers,” adds the Colonel, “could and would do anything her mistress demanded, except maybe talk. Elfrieda would drive her in the midst of traffic downtown with no bridle, just barely tapping her with the tip of the whip to give her directions. Her dog Minerva always trotted almost directly under Frieda’s hooves.”

Mr. K poses another question. “So why would Elfrieda want to have her perfectly trained animals killed just to be buried alongside her?”

The Colonel grimaces. “Sounds like something out of the Dark Ages. Although the precedent does exist here. A horse was buried alive right in the middle of Main Plaza when we made peace with the Apaches.”

“Saints alive, Colonel!” exclaims John. “Her request wasn’t to have her animals buried alive. Fortunately for her pets, though, there’s a prohibition against burying animals in the City Cemetery.”

“We’d outgrow even the new cemetery in no short time,” offers Mr. K, “if we added dogs and horses to the population. Next thing you know, the Staacke brothers would want to be buried with their automobiles. There’d soon be no land left for the living.”

“The Humane Society is after your brother Henry,” adds the Colonel. “They say the horse can’t be killed.”

John assumes his pontification pose. “While an animal shouldn’t be killed on a whim, those who call themselves humane would tread indifferently upon a Mexican beggar sitting on a corner in order to stroke the muzzle of a horse tethered nearby.” 

“Poor Henry,” says Mr. K. “The Humane Society crowd is almost as rabid as the prohibitionists always nipping at our heels. Judge Ramsey drones on and on about other topics, but that’s a farce. He wouldn’t have a shred of support in this state if it were not for the Pros.”

“Ramsey’s worthless on the stump,” adds the Colonel. “A cool reception is what he got in Dallas. Only mustered a crowd of 1,200, and most of them were imports from his hometown or were skirt-wearing practitioners of temperance. I hear they plan to call in a posse of venomous tongues to rescue him—Tom Campbell and Cone Johnson.”

“But our Governor is on fire,” says John.

Always forced to defend the Governor’s inaction to Mr. K, the Colonel looks pleased. “Hotter than the weather, he is. He’s fearless on his trek through the blackland prohibition belt. Four-thousand people showed up to listen to him in Cleburne. Cleburne, Judge Ramsey’s home base. Hundreds sat outside on the sidewalk throughout the entire two-hour speech.”          

Never enough for Mr. K, though. “I wish he’d douse his flame somewhat and quit repeating that he’ll include an early closing time for saloons on the party platform. The Governor doesn’t need to be that conciliatory to the Pros to secure the nomination.”

The Colonel surrenders. “Suppose the Pros manage to get the convention to accept both early closing and restrict the sale of whisky to packages? Men simply will buy larger quantities of liquor at a lower price. Unfortunately, the only thing a law like that will accomplish is to reduce beer sales.”

“But as a strategy, early closing might prove a pill we have to swallow,” John speculates. “It might keep the Pros at bay and prevent them from forcing yet another statewide vote on it next year.”

“A strategy I do not like,” grumbles Mr. K. “But I guess I will not be here to listen to the ruckus it’ll cause at the convention next month. Emma is not waiting. Not even to let me vote in the primary. She is full steam ahead for Germany. She says she refuses to fry like an egg on the sidewalk to wait to see the election results when we know the outcome. She predicts Governor Colquitt will secure the popular vote by more than 100,000 votes.”

“I pray her crystal ball is right,” says the Colonel. “We have the Mexicans solidly behind him. And even though most of our fellow Germans tend to have Republican sympathies, they will not sit this one out. Beer’s almost as important as water in our lives. Huge numbers of Germans will cross over to vote in the democratic primary to combat the threat of the Pros. But keeping the convention delegates in line later is more complicated.”

“I depend on you to do so.” With each word, Mr. K jabs his cigar toward the Colonel. “Emma’s not giving in on this one. I want telegrams after the election and throughout the convention. Colonel, John—you need to finely tune that steamroller or our profits will evaporate. Adolphus has a team working as well.”

Andy now finds the cigar aimed at him. “Andy, find out when the band is practicing before the convention. Get a keg of beer delivered to them. And locate a spot at the convention hall to set aside a keg for them there as well. We want our musician friends well lubricated.

“As the Colonel will be occupied ensuring the Governor keeps those saloon doors open as many hours of the day as possible, John, make sure the band plays on. And on and on.

“As it would be impossible to round up enough strawberry blondes for them, make sure they are well compensated. They need to understand the generous tip is from their continual benefactors here at the brewery.”

Footnotes

The almost-kinship of John Stevens and Mayor Callaghan was documented in the lengthy tributes in the newspapers after the mayor’s death. The Irish-American-Catholic tradition of affectionately mocking one’s flaws to the point they are considered amusingly endearing was practiced within the family of the Author’s father.

George Brackenridge gets such high praise in San Antonio that the Author was surprised by some of his less than public-minded dealings recorded in newspapers. Some of the ill feelings between Koehler and him prompted the Author to shine a light on those oft-overlooked matters.

The Author was shocked to read that the eminent architect Atlee Ayres was among those promoting filling in the San Antonio River. The talents of Pompeo Coppini often tend to get shoved aside. There currently is a plan afoot, perhaps run aground, to move his Cenotaph, selected for construction instead of the soaring Locke-promoted plan designed by Alfred Giles, to the south side of Alamo Plaza. The Author always has felt that, if a city is going to erect a monument, it should be monumental in size. Overwhelming. Kind of prefer Giles’ tower, but do like Coppini’s references to the river.

The Author possesses no proof the successful plan to lubricate the band during the convention was hatched at the San Antonio Brewing Association.

Continue to Chapter Twenty-Nine

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