Thursday, November 20, 2014

Duval Commissioners Court meeting runs three days, in 1879

Duval County Commissioners declined a petition from Precinct 2 citizens to reinstate their county commissioner. Commissioner P. W. Toklas hastily tendered his resignation on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1879.

Toklas was upset by the court’s approval of warrants submitted by Sheriff E. A. Glover and quit on the spot. After some argument, the court accepted his resignation. Later that day, as the court resumed its meeting that started on Feb. 10, a group of Toklas constituents came before the court to ask that they reconsider the matter. Another argument ensued and the court voted 2-1 not to reinstate Toklas. Precinct 1 Commissioner C. K Gravis and Precinct 3 Commissioner E. N. Gray voted to keep Toklas out and Precinct 4 Commissioner E. H. Caldwell sided with Toklas. 

The court had fined Toklas and County Judge James Luby $1 earlier in the meeting for being late. It was Luby’s second fine for tardiness.

Reporters covering commissioners court meetings in yesteryear had to be have the endurance of a long distance runner. The meeting opened on the morning of Feb. 10 and after a number of recesses concluded on the evening of Feb. 12, running three solid days.

In other business, the commissioners court addressed a number of public health issues. After approving a $101 payment to Dr. T. S. Kupfer for performing surgery on a pauper, the court asked Dr. Kupfer if he would be willing to serve as the county’s physician. The doctor and court reached an agreement that he would perform as county doctor for an annual fee of $250, payable quarterly. The court would also pay him 25 cents per mile for cases outside of San Diego. The court authorized the Judge and commissioners to request the doctor’s services.

Acting on a citizens’ petition, the Commissioners Court declared the jacals on the waterfront across from the P. Gueydan Store a nuisance. The court also approved warrants for W. J. Smith for a coffin and to F. de los Santos for digging graves.

Commissioners Court authorized the jail committee to contract for a fence around the jail. The cost was limited to $1 per running foot. The court added Sheriff Glover to the jail committee.

The court also named election precincts and presiding officers. Commissioner Precinct 1 had two voting precincts with Precinct 1 located at the courthouse with T. W. Gillette serving as judge. The commissioners selected the store of Jose Vaello in La Rosita as the voting site for Precinct 2, with George Copp as judge. In Commissioner Precinct 2, the schoolhouse at Piedras Pintas was designated the location for Voting Precinct 3, with William Hubberd as presiding judge. The court named Rafael Salinas as judge for Voting Precinct 4 in Commissioner Precincts 3. Voting would take place at the Concepcion schoolhouse. Finally, the court located Voting Precinct 5 in Commissioner Precinct 4 at BarrroneƱa at the office of Justice of the Peace A. P. Ayers.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book about small South Texas town will bring back memories to any reader from Duval County

In 2006, when I lived in Austin I used to take Cap Metro’s 935 Express into town to work. I usually tired to find and empty pair of seats so as not to have to interact with anyone while I wrote a novel I was working on. One day there was no place to seat where I could write so I sat next to an African American woman and we struck up a conversation. As it turned out she had been writing a book on the bus as well. Mada Plummer was her name and she published her book “Closure” later that year.

This long introduction to a story that will have only an indirect connection to this blog is important because it provides a direct connection to the rest of my story. Her story is based in New Orleans, and while I have never been to New Orleans, I found an immediate connection to the story. You see, the lives of poor folk, whether black, white, or brown often are very much alike. I could relate to Mada’s experiences even though I had only known her briefly on the bus. Her childhood adventures were very similar to my own.

Which brings me to my real intent for this blog. I recently read a book by Arnoldo X. Cuellar, “Coronado's Garage: Coming of Age Stories of Bygone Days in Rural South Texas.” Cuellar was
born and raised in Benavides–a place unlike New Orleans–where I have visited many times. His story, which many Benavides natives will find entertaining and will make a quick connection, provided me–a San Diego native–with the same sense of “this is my story, this is my town.”

Cuellar had to return “home” to empty out his mother’s house. She had recently passed away and he had sold the house in which he had grown up. The visit brought back a rush of memories to Cuellar. Early on he writes, “As we approached that oh-so-recognizable hill that offered a panoramic view of the city, I was overcome by feelings that I had experienced before, but in a very different sense. It was as if a thick fog had lifted, revealing to me that my hometown, a place that I had always expected to be there, patiently waiting to welcome me with open arms like a faithful old friend, had all but disappeared.” He goes on, “It involved the loss of my youthful innocence that was embodied by my hometown. Sure, most of the old buildings were still there and still fostered fond memories; nonetheless, I was beginning to realize that my real connection to Benavides had been through the love and vitality of the relationships I had forged with my friends and family. Sadly, most of these people were no longer around. A lot of my friends had relocated to other communities in search of employment, and many of my relatives had either moved or passed away.”

That struck a note with me. I can totally relate to this scene and feeling. I no longer have any living relatives and only a handful of friends in San Diego. But, that was not the only chord that Coronado struck in me. He mentions enjoying a “concoction” of “Coca Cola and a bag of peanuts.” I still have that concoction every time I travel. He recalls his weekly visits to the Rita movie theater as I do of the Rialto in San Diego. He recalls bicycle trips to La Mota Creek. My adventures were to the San Diego Creek where we explored the “Rocky Mountains” and the “Grand Canyon.” He recalls crashing his bicycle; my experience was with a friend’s motorcycle that I took without his permission.

And the memories continued to flow while I read the book. They were sometimes the same as his, sometimes slightly different, but the joy of remembering no doubt was the same. You do not have to be from Benavides to enjoy Cuellar’s book; I am not from Benavides but I could instantly and easily relate to his stories. More importantly they brought out a rush of memories from my childhood in San Diego.


Coronado's Garage: Coming of Age Stories of Bygone Days in Rural South Texas” is available from Amazon in both Kindle and paperback editions.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dallas newspaper poked fun at Duval County but local politicians got last laugh

The infamous Box 13 that gave Lyndon Johnson victory in the 1948 senatorial election.
Photo provided by Tommy Molina from the "T.H. Molina Photo Collection.
While serious accusations were whirling around in 1948 over allegations of voter fraud in Duval and Jim Wells Counties, the Dallas Morning News found time and space in its newspaper columns to poke fun at the situation. The News, in keeping with the times showed a total lack of sensitivity.

In its Oct. 19, 1948, issue the News reported “No Joy in Seven Sisters Because Papa Returned.” The newspaper said a Texas citizen of “Mexican ancestry . . . of course his name was Pedro” was crying uncontrollably on a street corner in the town of Seven Sisters because his father, who had been dead six years, had come back to life to vote in the recent election. His inconsiderate father, Pedro told his friend Miguel, had not come to visit after casting his vote. Mark McGhee relayed the story to the News. The newspaper did not report what McGhee, a Fort Worth attorney and former Texas Adjutant General, was doing in the streets of Seven Sisters. In my lifetime, I have not known Seven Sisters as a town with streets but perhaps that was the case on Oct. 19, 1948 when I was nine days from being born.

A few days later, the News reported that they were looking for empty ballot boxes in Jim Wells County for use in the General Election. All the county’s boxes were impounded. Duval County, “experienced in election challenges,” the News reported, offered to help with 20 boxes. Kleberg County offered another four but Jim Wells election officials said that was not enough. “Got any ballot boxes around you’re not using?” asked the Dallas newspaper mockingly.

The News was not laughing for long. In order to provide Jim Wells County the needed election boxes, Duval County Democratic Party Chairman Campbell King volunteered some of Duval County’s boxes. “Sure,” said assistant county clerk Francisco Aleman, who added the county had recently purchased some new shiny aluminum boxes. He directed courthouse janitor Epifanio Betancourt to go get the boxes from the basement. Betancourt emptied the ballot boxes, including the new ones with ballots from the controversial Aug. 28 primary runoff, and burned the ballots.

The News, of course was livid over the development. It was a sure sign of Duval County shenanigans. After all, this was not the first time the county had destroyed records in the midst of an investigation over an election. In 1919, the News reported, Duval County Democratic Chairman Juan Trevino destroyed ballots needed by the State Senate investigating the reelection of State Senator Archie Parr. In 1948, it was the United States Senate investigating.

The News sheepishly admitted, however, that the janitor burned the Duval County ballots the day before the Senate called for an investigation. Moreover, King indicated that they were scheduled to be destroyed on Oct. 28 (my birth date), 60 days after the election, since no one had contested the election. It seems, much to the News’ dismay, that Duval County was not the only Texas County to burn ballots before the required 60-day waiting period. Navarro County, home of Governor Beauford Jester and the State Democratic Party Chairman, burned its ballots. The Navarro County janitor that burned its ballots said the county always burned ballots before an upcoming election in order to have boxes available. Navarro County, incidentally, had given its votes to Coke Stevenson in the Senatorial runoff by a 2 to 1 margin.

Since the Jim Wells election officials had reported the ballot box for Box 13 stolen and the Duval County ballots had gone up in a puff of smoke, the investigations of the 1948 Senatorial election were snuffed as well. Lyndon Johnson went on to serve as United States Senator, Vice-President and President. Duval County politics, however, would continue on a rocky road for years to come.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dallas newspaper's report of Duval voters’ near unanimous support of Johnson a tad jaded

LBJ with friends in front of helicopter he used to campaign during the 1948 campaign. 
From T. H. Molina Photo Collection.
Former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson’s Duval County drubbing at the hands of Congressman Lyndon Johnson in 1948 did not go unnoticed by the former governor. He lashed out at the “bloc” and “machine” voting practiced by “Latin Americans” in Duval and surrounding counties. His friends at the Dallas Morning News editorial page were quick to chime in on his behalf.

In a Sept. 1, 1948 editorial entitled "Stevenson ‘Slur’ At Duval County" the News took exception with Johnson’s characterization of Stevenson’s complaints as a “slur” against the electorate of Texas. Johnson noted that Stevenson had not complained the four previous elections when he had received the overwhelming support of Duval County. Moreover, he did not hear complaints from Stevenson on boxes that he carried 100 percent in the King Ranch or by margins of 8 to 1 in the ritzy River Oaks section of Houston.

The News pointed out that Duval County had only 4,679 voters with paid poll taxes. Of these, Johnson received 4,622 and Stevenson 40. This meant only 17 registered voters stayed home. How could this be in a county full of Spanish-speaking illiterates, the News asked. Duval County ranked 253 out of 254 Texas counties in “median school years” for its residents. The turnout rate was above the state and national average.

The News’ editorial intoned “…we have a truly ‘peculiar position in Texas politics’ where a county of largely Spanish-speaking population and a minimum educational qualifications think with such apparent unanimity of opinion at the polls and exercise the right to vote on a basis far above the average for the state or for the United States. It is the ‘peculiar habit’ sometimes referred to as machine politics and bossism.”

The following day, in an editorial proclaiming Stevenson the winner by a “bad margin,” the News called for measures to reduce “to a minimum the possibility of herding ignorant voters to the polls to vote at the will of a political boss.” These measures included “proper use and count of absentee ballots” and a “restriction on campaign expenditures.” These issues should sound familiar to present-day voters.

Several days later, on Sept. 6, 1948, the News saw a need to defend its first editorial in light of criticism readers directed at them concerning the hypocrisy in that these “bloc” counties had supported Stevenson in prior elections. The News defended its position by noting that those elections had not been close and the bloc votes had made no difference. In the 1948 senatorial election, the bloc votes could “override the majority of the non-bloc-voting people of Texas” and decide the winner. This could result with Duval County electing its own United States Senator.

The News called for an investigation of the Duval County bloc vote in order to inject “fear” on the county’s voters or else the “integrity of the Texas ballot” would be lost.

In a prescient piece of writing, the News pointed out that “County election officials have been known to disenfranchise their counties by not making the official return. It is of the utmost importance…that every box should be properly reported and properly counted.”

The importance of this last statement would be an understatement. The real story was yet to unfold.

Monday, November 3, 2014

El Patron & The Bootlegger is a good addition to Duval book library collection

San Diego native Raul “Paul” Ramirez penned the book “El Patron & The Bootlegger” in 2011, which I had the pleasure to read recently. The book follows the life of “a trustworthy Mexican immigrant…befriended by a corrupt yet philanthropic Anglo Don from South Texas where both men find the American Dream and friendship has a price after the Don fakes his own death, leaving behind the secrets of a political and criminal dynasty that gave a predominant senator the presidency.”

The story is written as fiction, and Ramirez points out “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” While that may be the author’s position, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Duval County history can easily match the fictitious characters with real persons that shaped the story of the county’s recent past.

Marciano Campos, the Mexican immigrant bootlegger, arrives in the United States and as is quickly ensnared into the illicit liquor trade during prohibition. He brings to life the conditions of Mexican immigrants during the 1930s. A time of course that predates considerably, not only in time but also in circumstance, the immigrant story of today. But, Marciano’s story is not atypical of what many men in the area experienced at that time.

The story also captures important aspects of the county and area’s history, including the prohibition era when Duval County served as a transit point for tequileros who came across the Rio Grande and rumrunners up north. This is a period of Duval’s history that has never been told, and while El Patron & The Bootlegger is a fictitious account it nonetheless presents an interesting accounting of this time.

The tale also presents a good account of the political patronage that the Parr machine developed to perfection. The Parr story of course is well known so there is little new or surprising even in a fictional account. There are many names and references that a Duval County reader will easily connect to real people, places or events. “George” Weston is the political boss or EL Patron of De Valle County and is married to a woman named “Thelma.” Later “George” marries “Eva” Garcia. Later, the Freedmen Party organizes to do battle with EL Patron.

Perhaps it is a Freudian slip, but the chapter title that introduces the Freedmen Party is labeled “The Freedom Party,” which of course was the real challenger to the Parr Party. There are also some references that are historically misplaced. For example, at one point an IRS agent “informs George of his rights.” The incident occurred in the 1930s and the requirement to read a person his rights did not come about until 1966 when the "Miranda rights" was made law following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona.

The book was adapted from a screenplay of the same name that Ramirez wrote first. That is one thing this reader found somewhat distracting. A screenplay basically “directs” or tells actors and others what they are to say, and in what setting. That approach is somewhat distracting in a novel where the reader hopes to discover these things for himself from the narrative and the dialogue. 

Still, El Patron & The Bootlegger is a good read for any Duval County history aficionado; one that I was glad to add to my collection of Duval County books. The book is available in hard copy or for your Kindle at amazon.com and at BarnesandNoble.com