east commerce street

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Forty-Four

Above, the intersection of Navarro and East Commerce Streets. John Stevens’ office building is mid-block on the left side of the street.

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Forty-Three

Andrew Stevens, March 1913

“Thought the prophecies of the Book of Revelation were coming true last night!” John hangs his hat and umbrella on the stand just inside the door of Mr. K’s office.

“My best hens,” responds Mr. K, “never laid an egg as large as those hailstones plummeting down from the heavens. Half the slate tiles from my roof lie splintered on the ground. Both greenhouses shattered. All their contents destroyed.”

“Your financial loss must be enormous,” remarks Andy. “I am so sorry, sir.”

“Approximately 5,000 dollars. But my mourning is not monetary. Insurance will replace the roof and the glass. But those rare specimens of orchids I collected and cultivated? Irreplaceable.”

The Colonel clicks his tongue. “Almost every greenhouse from downtown to Laurel Heights was destroyed. Finding flowers for a wedding or a funeral would be nigh on impossible.”

“Noticed Tom Frost’s roof is in similar shape,” says Mr. K.

“When I drove by the high school on Main Avenue,” adds John, “the policeman on the corner told me 150 windows were broken.”

“Wish we had insurance against the 16th Amendment,” grunts the Colonel. “It’s nothing but a soak-the-rich plan.”

Mr. K throws up both hands. “I never expected to feel the government’s hands in my personal pockets in this country. Seven-percent income tax on the wealthy is an egregiously greedy grab.”

“Stealing is what I call it,” spits the Colonel. “We get punished for working hard. Lawmakers have declared war on the successful. Newspapers make it sound as though the wealthy are all robber barons.”

John takes his handkerchief and wipes the mist off his face, a combination of moisture from the weather outside and the vehemence of the Colonel’s proclamation. “The self-taxation I do desire is for the widening of Commerce Street. We should’ve done it several years ago—before the Houston Street merchants did—and then topped the surface with brick. Commerce Street was left behind, clogged with traffic caused by that narrow bridge crossing and bogged down in mud every time it rains. Or hails.”

Mr. K nods. “I know every businessman along the street is in favor of establishing the improvement district to cover the $240,000 bond issue, John. But can you get it past the qualified voters?”

“Damndest election ever held here,” blurts the Colonel. “All depends on the whims of women.”

John shakes his head. “More than fifty taxpaying property owners and corporations there, but we all live elsewhere. Commerce Street is almost all commercial. Only eight owners meet the residential requirements to cast anything other than a straw vote on the issue, and six of them are women.”

“Surely you have no worries about the widow Stribling,” says Mr. K. “She inherited much of her property from her father, but she manages it as well as the shrewdest businessman. Must be worth close to one million dollars.”

“The first woman bank director in the entire country,” the Colonel points out for Andy’s sake.

“No, no,” John answers Mr. K’s question. “Eleanor Stribling’s no fool. And Missus Bohnet and Bertha Stumberg have confided in me about the future of their property on Main Plaza. Instead of lamenting the proposed razing of their building, they have plans in hand for a new three-story building with businesses on the first floor and hotel rooms on the top two. They even are investing funds to make the structure sound enough to support another five floors on top of those three. The main unpredictable votes lie with the tight-lipped Pancoast sisters.”

“Aaron Pancoast is the city engineer,” notes the Colonel. “No doubt he can convince Irene, Harriet and Beulah of the benefits of increasing the value of their property. Getting those three votes should be an easier task than moving the five-story Alamo National Bank Building sixteen feet will be. Moving such a monumental structure will be a remarkable feat of engineering.”

“No one is taking any chances.” John chuckles. “During the past two weeks, businessmen with neighboring interests have wined and dined the trio of spinsters every meal. The sisters relish the attention, refusing to reveal how they plan to vote so the sudden abundance of suitors keep calling on them. They are the blushing belles of this unusual downtown ball.”

“So the future development of downtown is held hostage by women,” scoffs Mr. K. “Suffragettes. Eleanor Stribling is one of them, but she’s not so fanatical as to have traveled to Washington for the march. Some 8,000 women did.”

suffragettes parade 1913 washington
Suffragette Parade in Washington, D.C., Keystone View Company, Library of Congress

The Colonel slaps his hands together. “And what a melee that was! Jeering mobs of men on the attack. Many of the liberal-leaning ladies had to physically fight their way, inch by inch, up Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Andy’s brother shakes his head. “The hoodlums were indeed out of control. The police stood by doing almost nothing to afford protection. Close to 100 women were hospitalized.”

Mr. K slaps a hand on his forehead. “I made the mistake of joking to Emma that the police rightly agreed with the men in the crowd. Women should stay at home where they belong—in the kitchen. She failed to grasp any humor in the situation. Threatened to begin attending suffrage meetings with Eleanor Brackenridge. She also launched into her complaint that a feme sole has more rights than a married one. For some reason, the legislation that uppity lady lawyer from Houston, Hortense Ward, pushed regarding married women’s rights has Emma thinking she wants real estate holdings of her own.”


“I read that Thomas Edison’s studio,” adds the Colonel, “made a talking picture of one-minute speeches by a handful of women after the march. Recorded on some machine he calls a Kinetophone. New York audiences hooted and howled uncontrollably when the cylinder was shown in vaudeville houses.”

“The massive Inaugural Parade the day following the Women’s March was followed by no ball.” John shakes his head. “No festive ball at all. The dour Wilsons merely went to the White House and retired for the night.”

“President Wilson,” grunts Mr. K, “finally is showing where he stands. Firmly in the Pro camp. Pronounced his administration dry. The Wilsons are so averse to the use of liquor in any form, no intoxicating beverages will be served in the White House over the next four years.”

“The President,” harumphs the Colonel, “insulted the entire diplomatic corps by entertaining them with a tea party. A tea party? He soon will find conducting international affairs without wine and wassail is no waltz.”

John wags a finger at the Colonel. “And then we have your legislative colleague, Representative Morris. Isn’t he supposed to be on our side?”

“How does he expect,” sneers Mr. K, “a madam to afford to operate a brothel if she can no longer sell liquor?”

John holds a hand up by his mouth as though giving an aside on stage. “I hear slipping into bed with the majority of those Class B and C girls in San Antonio’s Red Light District requires prior intake of a multitude of stiff drinks.”

The Colonel chuckles before returning to John’s earlier question. “Leopold Morris is Anti-Pro. But he labels himself a strict ‘regulationist.’ Wants to crack down on any and all unlicensed sales.”

Mr. K scowls. “Including a provision distinguishing between saloons and social clubs in the 9:30 closing bill was a sneaky ploy by the Pros. Pitting saloonmen against the clubs.”

“Enjoying a beverage of your choice in a private club is no different than having a cocktail in your own living room. Or a beer here.” John glances at Andy to signal the men might be ready for their first one of the day. “How are places like the Casino Club or the Turnverein going to stay afloat if they can no longer charge members for their drinks?”

“And, Colonel, what did your Governor do to stop it?” Mr. K shrugs his shoulders. “Nothing. He’s far too occupied trying to retrieve General Santa Ana’s cork leg from the Illinois State Capitol. If the Illinois Volunteers were willing to travel deep into Mexico to steal Santa Anna’s leg in 1847, they deserve to keep the macabre souvenir for their efforts. What does Governor Colquitt want with an old pegleg anyway?”

Cork leg of Santa Anna, Illinois State Military Museum

“I imagine,” answers the Colonel, “he wants to mount the trophy in the Alamo.”

John cracks a smile. “You and the Governor both are fortunate that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas are not mounting your heads as trophies from their victory at the Alamo. How did the governor talk you into trying to attach an amendment to the Alamo bill establishing an Alamo Commission that would place him in command over the Daughters?”

“My amendment did go down in titanic fashion,” admits the Colonel. “Missus Sevier won. She and the Daughters are in charge of the Alamo now. Free from gubernatorial supervision.”

Mr. K slaps his knee. “Well, perhaps the Governor now can turn his attention from that frivolous endeavor to more important issues in our state. Critical ones for our economic survival. Forget the Alamo.” 

“Emil Locke is not willing to forget it for an instant,” says John. “Failing to solicit enough subscriptions locally to pay for his two-million-dollar Alamo Heroes Monument, he’s taking his fundraising campaign statewide. He believes Texans from every tiny town in the state will fork over fifty cents to purchase an advance admission ticket to the interior of the yet-to-be-built monument.”

“Just four-million tickets are all he needs to sell?” smirks the Colonel. “Why do I sense the tallest monument in the world will never wind up on Alamo Plaza?”     

“Rather than skirmish over that war with Mexico of long ago,” grumbles Mr. K, “I worry about current problems. The rubber company outside of Cuatro Cienegas, the one that German group owns, was blackmailed into contributing $5,000 to Governor Carranza to ‘maintain constitutional government’ in Mexico. Ransom probably is being demanded of managers of our company as we speak.”

“What constitutional government?” sputters the Colonel. “President Madero was betrayed and assassinated by his own general. Now General Huerta declares himself President. And our Ambassador to Mexico got himself all stuck in the midst of the mucky mess. President Wilson had to recall him but still steadfastly refuses to recognize the butcherous Huerta.”

“Why bother recognizing him?” asks Mr. K. “He probably won’t be in office any longer than President Madero.”

John shakes his head. “Fifty-thousand dollars is the amount Carranza demanded from the President of the Bank of Monclova. The banker told Carranza’s agents the money was in Eagle Pass. As soon as he crossed the border he hightailed it here.”

“The President of the bank in Piedras Negras,” adds the Colonel, “barely escaped ahead of the scoundrels running Coahuila. Shaved his long flowing beard and bushy mustache, donned a dress and a lacy mantilla and linked arms with a lady friend to stroll across the bridge to Eagle Pass.”

“Governor Carranza is running Coahuila as though it is his own separate country,” laments Mr. K. “In order to discourage exodus to or invasion from Eagle Pass, his men tore up the tracks. He seized the national railroad, and the trains arriving and departing Monclova must pay state agents for the right to do so. Yet Lucius Lamar remains down there running trains amongst the revolutionaries.”

John holds up his glass as though examining the golden liquid within. “Sometimes it seems the whole world is mad as hops.”

Mr. K sighs. “Emma and I plan to escape a bit of the madness by settling in our box at the Dallas Opera House Saturday night. We’ll leave the workmen hammering away on our roof to fall under the spell of Madame Luisa Tetrazzini.”

madame luisa tetrazzini
Madame Luisa Tetrazzini, Kirkland Denver, Library of Congress

“Better beware of the bewitching soprano,” winks the Colonel. “She collects men as some women acquire jewelry. Not one of her husbands has been able to prevent her from draining a quart of red wine with dinner followed by a lurid liaison for dessert. She will not sing without first savoring both.”

“I will be well chaperoned,” grins Mr. K. “Both Emma and Hettie will protect me from becoming Madame Tetrazzini’s prey.”

John smiles. “The last time Lucius Lamar was in San Antonio,” John smiles, “he told me his oldest two children received quite an education from Madame Tetrazzini. They were staying on the same floor in a hotel in Mexico City, and he caught the two peering through the keyhole to an adjoining room. Her hotel room.”

The Colonel laughs. “No need ever to explain the birds and bees to them.”


The topics of the conversation in this chapter all are based on actual events occurring during February and March of 1913. The strong-willed Emma Koehler seems a woman who would want some property in her own name, particularly if she were not clueless about her husband’s wandering ways.

Governor Colquitt’s Alamobsessive (my portmanteau) behavior battling the Daughters of the Republic of Texas likely triggered his quixotic quest for Santa Anna’s artificial limb. While the author has no idea how many citizens purchased advanced admission to the proposed Alamo Heroes Monument, she does know they never were able to use their tickets in what proved to be a pipe dream of Emil Locke.

The only portion of the chapter not drawn directly from news stories is the next to the last paragraph. The Mister’s grandmother, Virginia Lamar Hornor (1895-1988), often repeated her story of being caught peeping into the talented but notorious Madame Tetrazzini’s quarters in Mexico City.

Continue to Chapter Forty-Five

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