Above: 1914 Labor Day photograph of workers in front of Maverick Building on Alamo Plaza provided by Connie Fuller to Paula Allen for The History Column appearing in the November 7, 2013, issue of the San Antonio Express-News
Labor Day was the only national holiday between July 4 and Christmas.”Carol Boyd Leon, “The Life of American Workers in 1915,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
With a dearth of holidays, it should come as no surprise that more than 50 unions turned out for San Antonio’s Labor Day Parade in 1911. A crowd of 5,000 gathered at the fairgrounds. “Colonel” Otto Wahrmund, vice president of the San Antonio Brewing Association which produced Pearl Beer, remarks in An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, and Yes, She Shot Him Dead, that there they encountered the excitement of the beer drivers’ union striving to have their candidate crowned queen; sporting events such as the fat men racing for 75 yards or the old men (50 years and up, how insulting!) crawling 50 yards to win a purse of $2; and fiery political speeches.
Time off was prized because there was so little of it. According to Leon’s article, the average work week for many, particularly in manufacturing, ranged from 55 hours to as high as 69 hours. Many toiled for a decade or more than today. We find ourselves concerned about current drop-out rates, but only about 14 percent of people ages 14 to 17 remained in school past the eighth grade in the 19-teens. Half of the men and more than a quarter of women ages 14 to 19 officially were recorded as in the workforce, and more than half the men found themselves still working past the age of 65.
Laborers not organized undertook some of the most dangerous jobs. In 1912, the Medina Irrigation Company employed more than 1,500 men around the clock to build a huge dam. In An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, Colonel Wahrmund points out:
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.
Otto Koehler, president of the San Antonio Brewing Association and the man who would be shot dead, remained a big booster of the dam to the east of the city: “But what glorious farmland is going to open up. Those lands will keep San Antonio well-fed in years to come.”
Workers desperate for better working conditions, shorter work weeks and living wages increasingly turned to unions, and they were abundant. The owners of San Antonio Brewing Association found themselves dealing with numerous specialized unions – brewers, drivers, maltsters and coopers among them.
Sometimes the relationship of management with unions was rockier than others. This tension surfaces in An Ostrich-Plumed Hat:
“That Happiness Fund that Adolphus (Adolphus Busch of the St. Louis brewery) started in 1910 for his workers has created nothing but headaches for us,” grouses Mr. K, not appearing at all happy. “As soon as he began providing pensions, aid for workers’ families in times of need and free entertainment for employees, ours began requesting the same. Before his signature was dry on that first brewery agreement with a consolidated labor union, our men were restless. Had no idea news could travel from St. Louis to San Antonio so quickly.”
The Colonel shakes his head. “The union men never seem to believe they have enough. We give them an extra pint of beer, and they immediately thirst for two. Four hours of work, and they want to be paid for a fifteen-minute lunch break. They will bankrupt us if this keeps up.”
Hard to envision bankruptcy as an imminent danger for the owners of the brewery as they were among the wealthiest men in San Antonio. When Otto Koehler was shot in 1914, headlines throughout the country referred to him as a millionaire.
Violence increasingly became a hallmark of both the labor movement and the reactions to it by company owners nationwide. When the McNamara Brothers were accused of bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times, unions in San Antonio supported them. As portrayed in An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, the men of Pearl reacted to that:
John (Stevens, third-ranking officer of San Antonio Brewing Association) makes himself at home in what has become his horned chair. “Well, the wind certainly is out of the sails of even our most blustery union men. We’ll not hear many demands from them for a while. I expected the McNamara trial in California to be livelier than a three-ring circus before the boys were found guilty. It came as a complete shock when the brothers pled guilty before things got underway.”
The Colonel weighs in on the verdict. “They killed twenty-one innocent people. It’s unbelievable that San Antonio’s unions rose so passionately to defend men accused of bombing The Los Angeles Times.”
Keeping the union men in line has occupied much of Mr. K’s attention lately. “More than mere passion was in evidence. San Antonio toilers contributed $11,000 toward the brothers’ defense by Clarence Darrow. Why ask us for pay raises when they have money to burn?”
John shrugs his shoulders. “President (William) Hoefgen of the State Federation is astounded. His face looked as though the McNamaras had dropped the bomb in his lap. A month or two ago, he said he shared Samuel Gompers’ opinion that two poor innocents were framed. Now he claims the San Antonio men only sent money to ensure a fair trial.” Disgusted, the Colonel grumbles. “Of course, labor turns around and elects Samuel Gompers to yet another term. Button workers. The meddler even is trying to stir up a revolt of the button workers in Iowa.
Things did not go well for the button workers of Iowa. Otto Koehler observed a couple of years later:
“You never think of buttons much, Andy (Stevens, his secretary),” says Mr. K examining a small white one in his hand that should be attached at the collar of his shirt, “until one is missing….
“Iowa had a flourishing button industry. They carved pearl buttons from clamshells. Then the button workers went out on strike for a year or two. The shortage of those clam buttons made people realize the importance of the lowly button.”
The Colonel arrives, but Mr. K does not pause. “But the strike struck an unintended fatal blow to the demand for carved clam shells. There is a palm nut found in Ecuador that resembles a miniature black head. After harvesting and drying, the negrito kernels resemble ivory. Perfect for buttons. They absorb dyes and can be polished. The United States now imports 10,000 tons of tagua nuts a year. The tagua button industry employs 10,000 workers.”
“I often wonder,” muses the Colonel, “if our employees pay attention to the negative results workers of other industries encounter when demanding raise upon raise.”
But the possibility of what violence could occur during strikes was brought close to home when a locomotive at the Union Pacific Roundhouse exploded. Chunks of metal debris actually landed on the grounds of the San Antonio Brewing Association. Otto Koehler headed over toward the explosion, where he encountered Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff:
“That’s August Peters’ wife,” says a deep voice behind him.
Peter is surprised to find Mr. Koehler at his side, although by now ambulances, fire engines, police, seemingly the whole city streams toward the spot where the roundhouse once stood.
“He is, or was, a boilermaker here,” continues Mr. Koehler. “Used to work for us, but we never knew when he was going to show up. There was always someone sick in his household–his mother, his wife, a child. He’d stay home to tend to them. And he had a passel of children. He was a good family man, but we had to let him go.”
“She’s breathing, but unconscious. A bolt or something is embedded here, in the side of her forehead.” Peter signals for one of the arriving ambulances to collect her.
Peter heads toward a body just ahead and turns the man over on his back. Intestines spill out, and the man is bleeding profusely. He gets to work, desperately trying to stop the hemorrhaging.
“I’m not sure you have all the parts,” murmurs Mr. Koehler, directing the doctor’s attention to a telephone wire overhead festooned with a gruesome garland of intestines.
“No. Everything’s here. Those must belong to someone else.”
“The ambulances won’t be able to handle all of this,” says Mr. Koehler. “I have my men hitching up the beer wagons to transport the injured to the hospitals. They’ll be here shortly.”
“Surely no war could be worse than this.”
“I fear in war, scenes such as this occur every single day,” says Mr. Koehler, turning to direct his arriving drivers.
Later, Otto Koehler reflects upon the day’s horrors with his wife Emma:
“Suppose they had been our boilers? Working around all that steam under pressure is much riskier than I would ever concede to the men we employ. And here I am, in the midst of labor negotiations, refusing to give them a raise that amounts to a paltry four cents an hour.“
Was the explosion accidental or a result of union violence sparked by the railroad’s decision to bring in strikebreakers? Investigations went on for several years:
“The gauge was destroyed,” continues Sheriff Tobin, “so there’s no way to determine whether the proper amount of water was inside. And we’ll never know how many men actually died there. The whole railyard was one messy giant pot of menudo. Unidentifiable body parts everywhere. A lot of the workers there that day were strikebreakers laboring under assumed names, meaning no one even knew who was on site.”
“Sheriff,” asks Mr. K, “do you believe it was an accident?”
“Well, Otto,” answers the Sheriff, “if you mean do I think it was the strikers, no. Any man familiar enough with a boiler like that would know how many people would be injured if it blew. The strikers were mad enough to resort to some violence, but not enough to commit mass murder.”
“Our men would never commit such an act, Otto,” says the Colonel. “Even if you hadn’t acquiesced to giving them a raise before you left.”
One issue management and the union men of San Antonio Brewing Association tended to agree on was the ever-increasing danger to their tastes during their limited time off and their very livelihoods posed by Prohibitionists. As Otto Koehler once exclaims: “Ich habe die Nase vol davon,” or “My nose is full of it.”
After a particularly contentious statewide election that went against the Prohibitionists during the summer of 1911, Andy Stevens finds the brewery’s three top officers, having over-celebrated, outside the offices in the early morning hours:
One of the stable hands brings up the Colonel’s carriage, and John and Andy struggle to boost the unsteady Colonel up to the coachman’s seat.
The horse stands patiently, even as the Colonel turns and swings the reins wildly to point at Andy. “We’ve ordered sausages for all the men. They’ll be delivered at noon. Have the foreman blow the whistle and let the workers all draw an extra pint.”
John snickers. “German sausages and tortillas. The Colonel was so excited about the Mexican vote, he ordered sausages and tortillas. Rang poor Ol’ Boehler up in the middle of the night. Ol’ Boehler protested that he didn’t carry tortillas, as though he happened to have hundreds of extra sausages and rolls already on hand. But the Colonel insisted we had to have the ‘white fluffy ones.’ His only concession to Boehler’s sensitivity was, ‘And lots of good German mustard.’”
The Colonel leans from the driver’s seat toward John. “Poke fun at me if you want, John, but just you wait. Soon I will be heralded throughout the land as America’s Earl of Sandwich.” He chuckles and clucks to his horse.
Arms around each other’s shoulders, John and Mr. K swagger off toward the stable to fetch their own carriages. John suddenly twirls Mr. K back around with him to address the departing Colonel. “Colonel-dogs!” he bellows. “Sausages on tortillas. They will call them Colonel-dogs on all the menus. You will be famous.”
Think of Colonel dogs when visiting Historic Pearl’s newest restaurant, Carriqui, opening Labor Day weekend in the original Boehler’s. Happy hours begin there on September 19. Surely Colonel dogs should be on the menu.
And remember laborers on their day. It wasn’t always about retail sales.