San Antonio and the Rise of Chili

As you may or may not have heard, San Antonio and Austin have been involved in what has been called the Texas Taco War.  The “first shot” was fired when the Austin Eater’s website published a story that gave Austin credit as the “home of the breakfast taco.”  For San Antonians, it may as well have been the shot fired at Fort Sumnter because there are several things sacred to the people of this city, among them are its baskeball team, its river and its food.  Mayors from both cities met for a “Taco Summit” in which they both brought 50 tacos from their favorite taco joints.  Personally, I would declare San Antonio the winner of this battle in the Texas Taco War.  The Alamo City’s Mayor Taylor presented tacos made with hand-made tortillas as opposed to the tacos made with store-bought tortillas brought by Austin’s Mayor Adler.

As the Texas Taco War continues – there will be a “taco throwdown” where a chef representing each city will bring their best taco-making skills to the table – it made me think of not only the importance of food to a place and its people, but also of cultural appropriation.  In the past, the people of San Antonio have “accused” Austinites of taking credit for Tex-Mex food made popular here.  Now, this “taking credit” for food isn’t a new phenomenon.  One instance happened several generations ago and it involved chili.

No one can say for sure who “invented” chili, it is most likely a delicious fusion of cultures that came together.  The indigenous people of Mexico and South America, like the Incas and Aztecs, were known to cook dishes mixing meat, herbs and peppers long before the arrival of the Spanish.  For their part, the Spanish had been creating spicy meat dishes with pungent smells in their country long before arriving in Texas.  When the Canary Islanders settled in San Antonio, they devised a way to continue making the dishes they so enjoyed using local spices, onions, garlic, peppers and meats.  And so a cooking tradition came to be!

chili tables

Chili market, San Antonio, ca. 1890s.

Long before Texas joined the Union, groups of women called “Chili Queens” could be found throughout San Antonio’s plazas serving up their own spicy creations and hand-made tortillas to locals and visitors alike.  From dusk until dawn, these women worked hard to serve the hungry masses; and when darkness came, their patrons were more than happy to eat by the faint light of oil lamps.  Many visitors to San Antonio were “charmed” by the young ladies and their savory fare.  Author O. Henry wrote in his story “The Enchanted Kiss” about the city’s Chili Queens.  He wrote, “Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night.”

 

william g tobin

William G. Tobin

Enter William Gerard Tobin, a great-grandfather many times over of Walter Mathis, the last private owner of Villa Finale.  A native of South Carolina, Tobin arrived in San Antonio at age 20 in 1853 and two months later met, fell in love and married Josephine Augusta Smith, daughter of the city’s first American-born mayor John W. Smith and the lastmessenger to leave the Alamo.   In 1855, Tobin was city marshal before joining the Texas Rangers in 1859.  When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army where he was made a captain.  Although Tobin had a long career in law-enforcement and the military, his true calling was in the business world.  In the 1870s, he leased the Vance Building – which had been headquarters of the Confederacy during the war – near the corner of Travis and St. Mary’s Streets.  He turned the building into a hotel he named Vance House (today it is the site of the Gunter Hotel).  However, Tobin’s business ventures didn’t end there.

By this time, Tobin had spent nearly 30 years in San Antonio assimilating and taking in the local culture, including the food.  His wife’s family, who no doubt had some influence in his newly acquired tastes, could trace its roots to the Spanish Canary Islanders that arrived in San Antonio in 1731.  It is no surprise that Tobin took a great liking to Tex-Mex food and was an early supporter of its consumption.  In the 1880s he had a bright idea: to can San Antonio’s famous chili con carne for sale.  In 1881, he negotiated a contract with the United States government to sell his canned chili to the army and navy.  In 1884, he began to organize an aggressive venture with the Range Canning Company located in Fort McKavett, Texas for the manufacture and canning of chili con carne and other “Mexican” delicacies.  Now, this is where the “Americanization” of chili began for understandable business reasons.

Tobin chili labels

Reproduction of Tobin’s Chili-con-Carne labels in Villa Finale’s kitchen.

“Carne” is meat in Spanish.  While beef or pork were the meats of choice for the Chili Queens, Tobin opted to use goat and more than likely, made changes to the recipe and ingredients to better suit the American palate.  While the people of San Antonio welcomed and were used to the many colorful herbs, aromas and higher levels of spiciness, as far as the business, the food had to be attractive to consumers from all over the nation.  On July 28, 1884, just days after Tobin’s dream got off the ground and the manufacturing process began, he died at home never seeing his venture fulfilled.  The development of the project also died with Tobin.

lyman davis

Lyman Davis

It wasn’t until 1893 that the rest of the world was introduced to chili con carne at the San Antonio Chili Stand during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  But it wasn’t until 1921 that an attempt to can chili con carne, by then simply known as “chili”, was reattempted by Lyman Davis of Corsicana, Texas who developed his recipe in the 1890s and sold it to oil workers for .5 cents per bowl from the back of a horse-drawn wagon.  Davis’ early canning machinery was simple, but by 1923 his improved operation was producing 2,000 cans per day.  Davis’ chili became known as Wolf Brand Chili, named after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill … and the rest is chili history!

So while San Antonio and Austin duke it out during the Texas Taco War of 2016, let’s remember the Chili Queens and people like William Gerard Tobin whose interest in filling our tummies with tasty Tex-Mex dishes eventually helped make chili the official Texas State Dish.  “Viva chili con carne!”

Here is a recipe for “Original San Antonio Chili” (from a Chili Queen) taken from the Institute of Texan Cultures research library, with updated changes by the International Chili Society for shopping convenience:

2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup suet
¼ cup pork fat
3 medium-sized onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 quart water
4 ancho chiles
1 serrano chile
6 dried red chiles
1 tablespoon comino seeds, freshly ground
2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
Salt to taste

Place lightly floured beef and pork cubes in with suet and pork fat in heavy chili pot and cook quickly, stirring often. Add onions and garlic and cook until they are tender and limp. Add water to mixture and simmer slowly while preparing chiles. Remove stems and seeds from chiles and chop very finely. Grind chiles in molcajete and add oregano with salt to mixture. Simmer another 2 hours. Remove suet casing and skim off some fat. Never cook frijoles with chiles and meat. Serve as separate dish.

 

Her generosity lives on: Myra Stafford Pryor

myra pryorAmong the many people who owned 401 King William aka Villa Finale were Colonel Ike Pryor and his wife, Myra. The couple purchased the home in 1896 from E. B. Chandler and Thomas H. Franklin who bought the property after it went up for auction in December 1895 following the foreclosure on Edwin Polk. What was interesting about the transaction from Chandler and Franklin to the Polks is that the deed states Myra paid $2,500 in cash upfront “out of her separate money given her by her mother.” This bit always intrigued me and it didn’t make complete sense until I looked further into the life of Ike Pryor.

At the time they purchased the home, Colonel Ike’s career as a cattle merchant was in transition. He and his brother were left penniless after the severe winter of 1886 – 1887 decimated their herd. After losing his livestock, he borrowed $70,000 on his good name to invest in the Texas and Colorado Land and Cattle Company and settled in San Antonio. While he continued to be a respected businessman, there was very little wriggle room financially as far as it came to major purchases, and this is why it makes sense having Myra’s name as the source for the home’s downpayment as clearly stated on the deed. My fascination with Myra Pryor didn’t end with the purchase of the property.

One day while taking a jog along the River Walk, I noticed her name on a plaque by the AT&T Lock and Dam, under Brooklyn Avenue: this is when I knew there was more to her story. Ike Pryor married Myra in 1893 after his first wife, Sarah, passed away. Myra was born in Columbus, Ohio to a well-to-do family. Myra had married once before but was left widowed after the passing of her first husband, George Early, in 1888. She lived with her second husband, Ike, in King William (at what is now Villa Finale) until 1901 when they purchased 100,000 acres in Zavala County, a property they called “77 Ranch.” After the lifting of the blockade of Cuba following the Spanish-American War, Ike made a fortune by shipping cattle on speculation to Havana for “spot sale” (cash for goods delivered on the spot). In 1908, they founded the town of La Pryor, roughly 20 miles south of Uvalde. Ike died in 1937 leaving his fortune primarily to Myra. Myra died in 1943 leaving Frost National Bank as the trustee of her estate valued at $750,000 (over $10 million today) for the purposes of “a trust created for charitable purposes in perpetuity.” It was Myra’s last will that all net income remaining with the Trustee should be used solely for charitable purposes at the Trustee’s discretion.

This last provision and others in Myra’s will and testament were challenged by some of her family members in court. While they won a case in District Court that invalidated the creation of a trust, the Court of Civil Appeals in San Antonio in 1945 reversed that decision upholding her last wish to create the Myra Stafford Pryor Charitable Trust. Today, this Trust has over $25 million in assets and annually gives over $1 million to charities and non-profit organizations. Among the many wonderful initiatives funded by Myra’s generosity are full time tutors and mentors for San Antonio’s underpriviledged youths, funding for trainers for Guide Dogs of Texas, and new state-of-the-art technology for the Mays Business School at Texas A&M. Her legacy in San Antonio lives on!

Villa Finale visits San Antonio’s historic Milam Building

There are many beautiful historic buildings throughout downtown San Antonio.  Many have more history than we realize!  One of those is The Milam Building located at 115 E. Travis in the heart of the city’s business district.  Villa Finale’s staff had the honor of receiving a personal tour from Sam Trevino and Diane Coliz who are part of the building’s staff.

IMG_7681Built in 1928 and designed by architect George Willis, The Milam was not only the tallest brick and concrete-reinforced structure in the United States when it was built, it was also the first air-conditioned commercial high-rise in the world (21 stories).  It was named after Colonel Ben Milam who led 300 volunteers into San Antonio in December 1835 in an attempt to take it from the Mexican army.  According to our guide Sam Trevino, the building was a hub of activity after it opened.  Businesses were found on the ground level, including a barbershop and the Milam Drugstore & Diner (that closed its doors in 2011), and other shops, including a bridal boutique on the basement level.  People from all over the city and tourists would come into the building to get away from the heat and wonder at The Milam’s engineering feat.

The original air conditioning engineer, Willis Carrier, designed a system that steadily delivered just IMG_7629over 300 tons of cooling capacity to all the businesses on the ground and basement levels plus the 750 offices throughout the building.  The temperature throughout was kept at 80 degrees in the summer with 55 percent humidity and in the winter 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity.  Although the system has been updated twice, in 1945 and 1989, one can still see the original footprint in the mechanical room located at the basement level. The basement level also contains an area which the Milam staff would like to one day connect to the River Walk located adjacent to this part of the structure.  Of course, being a historic building, much planning and working with the Historic Design Review Commission is needed to accomplish this construction.

IMG_7675In addition to the milestone in climate control achieved at The Milam, visitors could also marvel at the beautifully hand-carved wood in the lobby which displays a lot of the charm found in business structures in Chicago and New York.  The allure of the lobby is carried through to its elevators and mail-carrying system which can still be seen and remains in use.  One of the highlights of our tour was seeing the incredible view of San Antonio from the roof-top … simply amazing!

Today, The Milam remains a commercial structure – we were told the building is at 72 IMG_7648percent occupancy – it also hosts special events, pop-up shops, art exhibitions and charitable events like the Texas Special Olympics “Over the Edge” event where donors can rappel down the side of the building beginning at the 22nd floor!  (See a video of the event by clicking here.)  Guests are always welcome to visit Lula’s Mexican Cafe (which opened in the summer of 2011 at the original site of the Milam Drugstore & Diner), tour the building, ask about hosting a special event or rent office space with 24-hour access.  While modern office buildings may have amenities not found in historic structures, none can compare to the charm and nostalgia found at places like The Milam!  Next time you’re in downtown San Antonio, walk into the building and experience it for yourself!

A special thanks to Sam Trevino of Milam maintenance and Diane Coliz of Red Star Property Management, Inc. for their hospitality!  For information about rental space within The Milam, visit www.themilambuilding.com or www.redstarproperties.com.  (Photos by Orlando Cortinas)

Happy New Year! Villa Finale announces upcoming programs for 2015

Although the first month of the new year is nearly ending, it’s never too late to wish you all a happy 2015!  Since this is the our first blog post of the year, I would like to take some time to tell everyone a little bit about our programs in February, beginning with our signature Music for Your Eyes tour on Thursday, February 5th!

IMG_5081Now in its fourth year, this specialized tour has been one of our most popular programs.  Not only do guests have an opportunity to see the home in the evening (the tour begins at 6:30pm), they are hosted by two of our paid staff who engage the audience about music, art, humorous anecdotes and so much more.  The staff provides demonstrations of the music machines in the house – not performed during our regular guided tours – ending the tour with a sit-down performance by our 1921 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano located in the home’s Napoleon Parlors.  If you haven’t taken this tour, it is definitely a must!  (The program is repeated several times throughout the year.)

drawing 2Our first family oriented program will be on Saturday, February 7th, Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art.  The Drawing on Experience program began in England as a way for educators in museums, galleries, science centers and teachers to provide a framework for using drawing as a medium for learning from collections and exhibitions — Villa Finale’s curator, Meg Nowack, brought a version of the program here to Villa Finale to share with children and their parents.  The children and parents will get a brief tour of the home after which they will select an object to draw together inside the house!  This is a great bonding experience for kids and parents or even grandparents!

DSC3043copy2webcopy5Finally, we get in a “loving mood” on Friday, February 13th with “Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin.  The intimate concert of popular love songs made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter, to name a few, will take place inside Villa Finale’s Napoleon Parlors.  Mr. Slavin will be accompanied on our 1921 Bechstein-Welte by pianist, Barry Brick.  Guests on this special evening will enjoy appropriate refreshments – we can’t forget the champagne –  prior to the concert and at intermission.  Treat your sweetheart, family member, best friend or treat yourself — many of us are just romantic at heart!  For more information about Ken Slavin, click here.

There is much more to come at Villa Finale, including our popular programs for French Cultures Month in March.  More information about the programs mentioned above is located at the end of this post.  Thank you for your support, and stay tuned for more exciting programs and events in 2015!  (Please call Villa Finale Visitor Services for more information or for admissions at 210-223-9800.  Admissions must be paid in advance.  No refunds or exchanges.  Space is limited for these programs.)

Music for Your Eyes tour – 2/5/15 (6:30pm – 7:30pm)
$20.00 general admission; $15.00 members / students

Drawing on Experience: For the Love of Art – 2/7/15 (10:00am – 11:30am)
$5.00 for one child & parent, $2.50 each additional child, general admission
$4.00 for one child & parent, $2.00 each additional child, members

“Isn’t It Romantic?” at Villa Finale featuring the vocal talents of Ken Slavin – 2/13/15 (6:30pm – 8:00pm; gate opens at 6:00pm)
$27.50 general admission
$25.00 members / students

You can always visit our wesbite www.VillaFinale.org for more information.

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with a Mexican Classic

HHCTX SEAL LogoIn honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Villa Finale will be collaborating with the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas in an outdoor screening of the 1948 Mexican classic, Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca), on Friday, September 12, 2014.  The movie was made during the golden age of Mexican cinema (1936 – 1969).  The films of this time were of high quality due to superior script-writing, directing, film production, originality and on-screen talent.  One of the most famous actors during this period was Pedro Infante, who plays the lead in Los Tres Huastecos.

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Pedro Infante (1917 – 1957)

Born in November 1918 in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, Infante showed great natural talent for music.  He learned to play strings, wind and percussion instruments from his father – a musician – at a very early age and also had a rich singing voice to round out his talents.  His first wife convinced him to move to Mexico City where he could be discovered and in 1943 he made his first recording for Peerless Records; that same year he also had a small part in his first film.  Recognizing his natural acting ability and Infante’s incredible singing voice, it wasn’t long before he was one of the most sought-after performers in Mexico.  Because he came from humble origins, was charismatic and played the “everyday man” in his films, he quickly became a favorite with Mexican audiences.

 

In 1948, Pedro Infante was approached by Ismael Rodriguez, one of Mexico’s top filmakers and directors, to star in Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca).  A comedic / musical drama co-written by Rodriguez, the film’s story involves triplets separated at birth after their mother dies during child birth.  treshuastecosEach of the boys is raised by their individual godfather in different areas of Mexico’s Huasteca region (located along the Gulf of Mexico) and grow up with their own personalities: one is a priest, the other a military man, and the last a rough gambler and bar owner.  The three brothers come together in the hunt for “El Coyote,” a thief and murderer who is terrorizing the region.  In addition to original huapango musical selections included in the soundtrack (huapango music highly influenced today’s Texas conjunto sound), the film features creative special effects (state-of-the-art for that time) as Infante plays all three of the brothers.

 

Blanca_Estela_Pavón

Blanca Estela Pavon (1926 – 1949)

Always up for a career challenge, Infante gladly accepted playing three different characters with their own unique personalities.  His brother, Angel, played Infante’s body double and stand-in for some of the scenes featuring more than one brother.  The film co-starred Blanca Estela Pavon – who played opposite Infante in many of his most memorable films and who was “Mexico’s sweetheart” – as the love interest of one of the brothers.  Comic Fernando Soto – aka Mantequilla (“butter”) – played the hapless sacristan (the keeper of the local church’s sacristy) and four-year-old new-comer, Maria Eugenia Llamas (aka “La Tucita,” diminutive for tuza meaning pocket gopher) played the gambler brother’s daughter.  Llamas steals scene after scene in the film as the little girl being raised as a tomboy with poor manners.  Her pets include a snake and tarantula which she handles very naturally.  Llamas later recalled that director Ismael Rodriguez treated the film shoot as a game so it was very easy for her to act and handle her on-screen pets.

tucita-1---z

Maria Eugenia Llamas “La Tucita” (1944 – 2014)

The film was a hit and received several Ariel award nominations (the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award) including best director, actor, child performer and original screenplay.  It remains one of Infante’s most memorable and best known films.

Sadly, only one year after the release of the film, Blanca Estela Pavon died in a plane crash near the Popocatépetl volcano.  Pavon was only 23 and at the height of her career.  It is said that Infante, who co-starred with Pavon in several films, was inconsolable at the news.  Only eight years later, Pedro Infante also perished in an aerial accident when a B-24 Liberator he was piloting crashed only five minutes after takeoff; he was only 39.  Pavon and Infante are buried in the same cemetary.  Maria Eugenia Llamas, who would be known by her Tres Huestecos character name of La Tucita for the rest of her career, died on August 31, 2014 at the age of 70.

statue-de-pedro-infante-_7546763

One of many Infante statues throughout Mexico.

For many who grew up watching Pedro Infante films thanks to the influence of our parents – myself included – this is one movie that is near and dear to our childhoods.  And for those who are not familiar with Pedro Infante or Mexican films of this era, Los Tres Huastecos is a great movie to get a feeling for the quality of the country’s cinema at this time.  (Note: Pedro Infante’s talent was not lost to people in the United States.  Walter Mathis has an album by Infante in his record collection.  Infante was in talks to make his cross-over debut in the United States prior to his death.)

Come join Villa Finale and the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas for an outdoor screening of this Mexican classic on Friday, September 12th!  Admission is FREE.  Picnics, lawn chairs, blankets and pets on leash are welcome.  The HHCTX will be providing complimentary snacks.  Villa Finale will be having a raffle for free guided tour admissions to the museum.  Gates open at 6:00pm.

 

Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico

Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico

We are also happy to welcome the Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico who will be performing at 6:45pm prior to the film screening.  See you at the movies!

 

What:
Screening of the Mexican Classic Los Tres Huastecos (The Three Men from Huasteca) 1948 – running time: 2 hours
Presented with English subtitles, co-sponsored by Villa Finale and the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas

When: Friday, September 12, 2014

Times:
Gates open at 6:00pm
Leon Valley Ballet Folklorico performance at 6:45pm
Film begins at approximately 7:35pm

Admission:
FREE

For more information, please call Villa Finale Visitor Services at (210) 223-9800.  Click here to learn more about the Hispanic Heritage Center of Texas.

“Wild” Billy Keilman returns home

If you follow us on Facebook, check our website or receive our e-blasts then you know about our October 12th event, Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history!  But just who is Billy Keilman and how does he tie into Villa Finale?

Some time ago, I wrote a five-part blog called The Perils of 401 King William which detailed Villa Finale’s past owners.  Part five touched upon Billy Keilman who owned the house briefly from 1924 – 1925.  Of all the “personalities” who resided in the house, Billy definitely is worthy of his own themed event, even though he didn’t own the home for very long.

billy keilman

From “Action Magazine.” Nov. 1980

William H. Keilman was born on July 9, 1875 the son of pious German immigrants, Rudolph and Eliza Keilman.  As a youth, he was feisty and impulsive – so much so that at a very young age, he ran off to Cuba to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.  Upon returning to San Antonio, he joined the police force.  Standing at well over 6-feet and 225 pounds, Officer Keilman was an imposing figure who gained the respect of many petty criminals throughout the city.  However, his new-found fame as one of the city’s toughest cops was not enough for Billy who yearned to be a businessman.  Around 1910, after allegedly moving in with a red-head girl from “the district,” Billy quit the police force and forged his father’s name on a $5,000 check (over $121,000 today) to buy “The Beauty Saloon” bar and a 15-room house of prostitution – known as a “crib” – located on the corner Matamoros and South Concho Street, in the heart of what was then San Antonio’s red light area.

The issue of prostitution in San Antonio had been settled in 1899 when Mayor Bryan Callaghan successfully convinced the city council that “sin had to be regulated to be profitable.”  An ordinance was passed restricting such businesses to a 10-block downtown area: the “district” roughly encompassed Durango Street to the south (now Chavez), Frio Street to the west, South Santa Rosa to the east and Buena Vista Street to the north.  These “businesses” were under police enforcement, required an annual licensing fee of $500.00 per house and were subject to health inspections.  Fines for non-compliance were strictly enforced.

keilmans-blue-book“The Beauty Saloon” and its adjoining brothel were a hit as the entire San Antonio police force became instant patrons.  Musician friends of Billy’s provided the entertainment while being paid with beer, much of which was donated by the Pearl Brewery after Keilmam personally promised them he would be their largest customer once the business was up and running.  In addition to income from The Beauty Saloon and his “crib,” Billy also published The Blue Book: For Visitors, Tourists and Those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio, Texas.  The 28-page nondescript booklet, available for only 25-cents, provided “safe” saloons for out-of-towners to visit as well as gambling houses, cock-fighting pits, and listed and categorized the best bordellos in town with an A, B or C rating.  Ratings were based on cleanliness, service, and honesty.  Madam Hattie Baxter’s place, for example, was given an “A” in the Blue Book.  Not only did Madam Baxter store her client’s belongings in a secured safe, all items – including untouched wallets – were promptly returned at the end of a “visit” and all patrons received a receipt.

blue book inside

Blue Book interior

By the early 1920s, Billy and his wife, Minnie – a local madam –  had sold the Beauty Saloon and focused most of their resources on the Horn Palace Bar and Cafe which was purchased around 1912.  Reportedly, the business was first located in the south-west part of town near Kelly Field and later moved to 312 East Houston.  The Horn Palace, as it was most commonly known, was meant to be a direct competitor to Albert Friedrich’s Buckhorn Saloon which had opened in 1881.  The Buckhorn promised patrons a shot of whiskey or a beer in exchange for deer antlers.  The Horn Palace, however, boasted a larger collection than the Buckhorn’s of antlers, horns and trophies including “Old Tex,” a world-record holding longhorn steer which had been stuffed and mounted.  By this time, Billy was one of the richest and most influential men in San Antonio; while he had a lot of “friends,” he also made many enemies.

In 1921, a man named Yancy Yeager entered the Horn Palace and keilman blue book adtried to murder Billy by shooting him five times – including once in the head!  Despite a fractured skull – skillfully repaired when a local surgeon implanted a silver plate in Billy’s head – the rough and tough Keilman survived the attack.  During his attacker’s trial, the defence tried to discredit Billy by presenting The Blue Book as evidence of Keilman’s “shadyness.”  Billy denied under oath that he was the author of the scandalous Blue Book, despite the fact that his nameless likeness appeared on the back cover with the caption, “For Information of the Red Light District Ask Me.  MEET ME AT THE BEAUTY SALOON.”  The incident led to the closing of the Horn Palace which was deemed “unsafe” to the community following the attack.  The Buckhorn’s Albert Friedrich purchased the Horn Palace’s collection and this, along with “Old Tex,” can still be seen today at its location on Houston and South Flores Streets.

401 1924 saleThe closing of the Horn Palace had very little effect on Billy’s wealth, however.  In 1924, Billy and Minnie Keilman took part of their wealth to purchase the opulent home at 401 King William Street (then “407” and now Villa Finale).  The Keilmans more than likely purchased the home from Dr. G. E. Gwynn who had bought it in July, 1922.  Prohibition had been enacted in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and thus the “dry movement” spread across the nation, but that did not deter many Americans from getting a drink including the business-minded Keilmans.

Billy and Minnie wasted very little time in making use of their new home’s 6,500 square feet.  Under the leadership of Minnie, the Keilmans operated a brothel in the home and bootlegged liquor from the basement.  Their new venture was known locally as the “Marathon Club.”  Just as it seemed Billy had more lives than a cat, fate finally caught up to him.

keilman death cert 1925

Keilman’s death certificate, 1925

In November 1925, Billy went on a hunting trip with a couple of friends.  It is unclear how an argument began or what the matter of discussion was but it eventually led to a fist fight between Billy and one of his companions.  While it seems that it had been broken up several times, Billy’s luck finally ran out as he was struck in the head with a blunt object and reportedly died instantly marking the end of one of San Antonio’s most infamous characters (in an earlier blog post, we had reported that Billy had died from a gun shot).  The house at 401 King William was inherited by Billy’s son, Rudy, who then gave it to his step-mother, Minnie, who in turn continued operating the Marathon Club after her husband’s death.  In 1967, Minnie’s grandson, James Campbell, who ran a boarding home at the location, sold the house to Walter Mathis and the rest, as they say, is history!

Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history on October 12th sponsored by Alamo Beer, will be a fun remembrance of the home’s most colorful owner and San Antonio’s rough and tumble past.  During the event, people will partake of local beer, learn about home-brewing from San Antonio Cerveceros (Billy would be proud!), dance to jazz music, receive a souvenir mug, and enjoy finger food catered by Liberty Bar to compliment “suds.”  We also encourage everyone to get in the spirit and dress up in their 1920s best!  Prizes will be awarded to the most original costumes including one for the best Billy Keilman look-alike.  As a highlight for the first time, Villa Finale will be opening the basement for the public to view … the event would not be complete without this important room!

For more information about the Blue Book and its various issues, check out the Postcards from San Antonio website.  If you are as fascinated with Billy Keilman as Villa Finale’s staff is, you can take an iTour of the Alamo and old San Antonio hosted by the “ghost” of Billy Keilman.  If you click on the link, note that its authors point out that Villa Finale “does not mention Bill.”  Not only are we mentioning ol’ Bill, he will now have his own event … MEET US AT THE SPEAKEASY!

Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history!  Saturday, October 12, 2013 from 5:30pm – 7:30pm on the grounds of Billy Keilman’s former home at 401 King William Street (now Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens).  Members: $35.00, Non-members $40.00.  Event for 21 and over only.  Call Villa Finale Visitor Services at (210) 223-9800 for reservations or more information.  Major credit cards and personal checks accepted.

The following sources were used as references for this article:
Bowser, David.  West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem and Vice in Old San Antonio.  San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2003.
Bricktop, Jenny.  “The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum: San Antonio, Texas.”  The Butcher’s Floorhttp://butchersfloor.blogspot.com/2006/06/buckhorn-saloon-museum-san-antonio.html
Eckhardt, C.F.  “San Antonio’s Blue Book.”  Texas Escapeshttp://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/San-Antonios-Blue-Book.htm
Kindrick, Sam.  “Profile of a Red Light District King.”  Action Magazine.  November, 1980: 7 – 9, 30.  Print.
Morgan, Lael.  “The San Antonio Blue Book: Proof of a Secret Era.”  The Compass Rose: Special Collections, the University of Texas at Arlington.  Fall 2007: 1 – 3.  Print.
Rogers, Alan W.  “The National Texas Longhorn Museum: The Horn Palace and the Buckhorn.”  The National Texas Longhorn Museumhttp://www.longhornmuseum.com/BuckhornHornPalace.htm

A “saintly” mystery solved

san antonio prior to lampIf you have visited Villa Finale, you most-likely remember seeing the very unique “saint lamp” in the home’s Library.  The piece was not “born” a lamp; in fact, it is a Walter Mathis originale.  As he was known to do with several items in his collection, Mathis altered the item from church relic to a clever piece of home-decor by having a custom-made pedestal wired for use as a lamp.  The statue, which is the centerpiece of this “enlightened” piece, fits perfectly at the base and in fact, itself was not altered in any way, thereby maintaining its integrity other than the addition of a crucifix and timepiece by Mathis.

The “saint lamp” was an item Mathis acquired early on in his collecting endeavors.  In fact, there is an interior photograph (left) of the statue – before its conversion – proudly displayed in his home in Monte Vista, circa 1950s, years before his purchase of Villa Finale in King William.  The home, located at 705 East Mulberry, was razed for the Highway 281 project.

st anthony river walkIn all the years Mathis owned the lamp, he was quick to identify the statue as being that of Saint Anthony of Padua, something that would make perfect sense since San Antonio, Mathis’ hometown, is named after the saint.  (A Spanish expedition arrived here on June 13, 1691, St. Anthony’s feast day.)  However, there has been some question about who the likeness is truly representing, especially since opening the house to tours.  As some have pointed out, St. Anthony is normally depicted holding an open book on which sits the Christ-child, a reference to a vision had by Anthony.  (See photo at left: statue of St. Anthony along the River Walk.)  The statue on the lamp contains none of the symbolism normally associated with St. Anthony.  So who could the figure truly be?  A few people, even some of Villa Finale’s volunteers, have suggested it may be St. Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier (1506 – 1552) was attending the University of Paris where he met Ignatius Loyola.  The pair, along with others, took monastic vows and were the first Jesuits after being ordained in Venice in 1537.  Due to his missionary work throughout Asia, where he converted over 2,000 people, St. Francis Xavier is known as the “Apostle of the Indies.”  Despite his work throughout the continent, he never accomplished his life-long dream of reaching China.  He took ill and died on the island of Shangchuan, less than nine miles from mainland China while waiting for the ship that would take him to his destination.

IMG_2997So how is Francis Xavier depicted in art?  Normally as a young, bearded Jesuit (humble) holding a torch and flame, cross and / or lily.  Other than the beard and Jesuit robe, the statue on the lamp has none of the other symbols, either but the hands, despite missing several digits, show clear indications of having something resting in them at one time (left).  Additionally, Dr. Marion Oettinger, Curator of Latin American Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, identified the saint in question as being Francis Xavier on a recent visit to Villa Finale.

Although Walter Mathis was a great admirer of religious art as well as an avid collector of it, he cannot be faulted for mis-identifying Francis Xavier as St. Anthony of Padua.  With over 8,000 saints, blesseds and venerables recognized by the Catholic Church, many of us would have made the exact same assumption.

Cited: Jones, Alison.  Saints.  New York: W & R Chambers Ltd., 1992