Preserving a piece of history at the Flying L Guest Ranch

2013-05-16_13-39-52_977On Thursday, May 16th, I had the pleasure of joining the Texas Hill Country Trail for their board meeting at the Flying L Guest Ranch in Bandera.  Buck Shannon, The Flying L’s Entertainment Director, met the group and took us all for a tractor-pulled tour of the Ranch.

The Flying L opened as a 542-acre “dude ranch” in 1946 by owner Jack Lapham, a retired Army Air Corps colonel whose father financed the first two oil wells of what would become Texaco.  Colonel Lapham wanted the ranch to be a Texas getaway for those who loved to fly and who

Guest Villa

Guest Villa

wanted to learn to fly.  An airstrip was built on the ranch for incoming pilots; pilots would check into the Pilot’s Lounge, receive a key to a villa, and then taxi their plane and park in front of their assigned villa.  Among its many high-profile guests were John Wayne, Slim Pickens and Willie Nelson.

Today, the Flying L serves as a resort and conference center, complete with water park and 18-hole golf course.  Although the ranch has many modern amenities, it also has many buildings from its dude ranch days.  The Ranch Villas, which were designed by associates of Frank Lloyd Wright, are still in use.  The Villas were designed to emulate airplanes, with dormer wings at the sides — the dormers were screen-enclosed until guests demanded the comfort of air conditioning.

Pilot's Lounge today

Pilot’s Lounge today

The same architects also designed the Pilot’s Lounge where pilots checked into the ranch and received their villa key.  According to Mr. Shannon, the Pilot’s Lounge had been used for storage for many years; furniture had been piled ceiling-high at one point.  Now, the lounge is being used for small parties and meetings.  However, it needs some major renovations: among the problems facing the structure, the large window leaks and the wood-work needs a lot of care.  Upon preserving the building to its former glory, the ranch plans to rent it out for private gatherings and even host some major events like it did back in the day.  Life magazine covered a story in 1947 of a fashion show in the building hosted by Herbert Marcus, of the department store Neiman-Marcus, headquartered in Dallas.

Pilot's Lounge ca. late 1940's

Pilot’s Lounge ca. late 1940’s

The Flying L has some great ideas for the Lounge upon its renovation.  It hopes to raise much of the money for the project by selling “Pilot Club Memberships” – folks signing up for a membership get their name on the Pilot’s Lounge Wall of Fame located inside the building.  The structure is truly a wonderful piece of history and architecture — it’s great to hear that the Flying L recognizes its importance.

To learn more about the Flying L Guest Ranch and about how you can preserve the Pilot’s Lounge, call 1-800-292-5134 or visit  For information on the Texas Hill Country Trail, visit

Thank you to all the wonderful people at the Flying L for their hospitality!

Villa Finale lends a helping hand at the Texas Governor’s Mansion

The Texas Governor’s Mansion, during the years 1980 to 1982, underwent a major restoration funded by the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion. Walter Mathis was deeply involved with the Friends group and was asked to be on the restoration project committee. At the time, Mathis had already been residing in Villa Finale for thirteen years and was actively restoring other historic structures in the King William neighborhood.

The Mansion project was very special as Mathis got to choose, with the rest of the committee, exceptional American antique furnishings from the best antique dealers in the nation. He also had a hand in choosing drapery and floor coverings, decorative and fine art objects and very likely had a say in the landscape as well.

Mathis was definitely in his element – Texas, a historic house and antiques! And he didn’t have to buy a thing or find room for it in his already-full home!

A letter in the Villa Finale archives, dated March 31st 1983, invites Mathis to the San Antonio Conservation Society Annual Awards Dinner where the Governor’s Mansion received a Special Award for a “restoration that has brought to all Texans a renewal of pride in this symbol of our State’s unique heritage.”

Fast forward to June of this year, when the Governor’s Mansion was finally at the end of a major restoration and renovation, and when I was invited to assist Jane Kartokin, Administrator and Curator of the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion and a member of Villa Finale’s Advisory Council, to reassemble the rooms in this beautiful historic house. I, in turn, invited my colleague Karina Serna, to come and help too. Jane gladly accepted us both, as the job ahead was tremendous!

For four intensive days I transferred myself to Austin where I did everything from dusting and silver polishing to placing furniture and objects in (for example) Sam Houston’s bedroom! Also drank a lot of coffee and folded a lot of packing paper. It was such a rewarding experience working with Jane, Karina (in a setting that was NOT Villa Finale!), the Governor and First Lady’s staff and others who volunteered their time to help. We even had a visit from First Lady Anita Perry, who graciously acknowledged our hard work.

It was most fun seeing the presence of Walter Mathis throughout the house. Many objects that are in Villa Finale’s collection are repeated in the collection owned by the Friends group and displayed in the mansion. When I look at photographs taken after the 1980s restoration, I noted the choices made by Mathis and the committee had not changed at all.

Thoughtful and classic decoration lasts for decades! I encourage everyone to have a tour of this stunning house, now as fresh and lovely as ever! And then, of course, tour Villa Finale!

Thomas H. Mathis: Businessman and pioneer (part two)

Mary Jane Nold Mathis, ca. 1880

The firm of Thomas and John Mathis, known as J. M. and T. H. Mathis, greatly helped the improvement of the Aransas Bay pass between St. Joseph Island and Mustang Island by contributing $5,500 to a project that included widening and deepening.  This also gave access to the deeper water of the Gulf of Mexico from the bay.  Among their many other public improvement projects were the building of bridges, county roads, buildings, and the construction of the Orleans Hotel, to name a few.  In 1880, after over a decade of doing business together, the brothers went their separate ways.

However, Thomas Mathis continued doing business on his own in Rockport.  In addition to his ranching operation – he owned 24,000 acres of land along the Nueces River – his financial contributions led to the Western Union Telegraph company setting up business in Rockport, the construction of the first telephone line in that part of Texas, and the building of the first cold storage meat refrigerating plant in the state.  His success was due in part to his keen sense for business as well as his congenial personality which ingratiated him to the citizens of Rockport.

Thomas H. Mathis’s grave in Rockport.

Although involved in many business affairs, Thomas always remained active in his family’s life.  His first wife, Cora Linda, had died of typhoid just a few months after their marriage.  In 1875, he married Mary Jane Nold of Ketucky, a music teacher who had arrived in Rockport to join her parents in 1874.  The couple had eight children whom, despite being financially secure, were taught the value of hard work by their parents.  One of the Mathis children’s most detested tasks was pulling the weeds from the yard of the family home.  According to family records, the Mathis boys would avoid the work by making numerous trips to have a drink of water.  Father soon caught on to their plan, however, and had a water bucket placed close to their chore area to stop the lollygagging.

Mary Jane Mathis was just as involved in the community as her husband.  She was the organist at Rockport’s Presbyterian Church for 35 years until a broken wrist prompted her retirement.  For 25 years, Mary Jane was also president of a ladies organization called the King’s Daughters – her Rockport chapter did much of the charity work in Aransas County.

Thomas Mathis died on March 19, 1899.  Mary Jane continued to live in the family home in Rockport for the next 25 years after her husband’s passing.  For the last 16 years of her life, she lived in Corpus Christi – a portion of this with her daughter, May Mathis Green and her second husband, Harry Watson.  Mary Jane Nold Mathis died on February 26, 1943 and was buried in the family plot at Rockport next to her husband.

Thomas H. Mathis: Businessman and pioneer

The following is part one of a series of blog posts on the history of the Mathis family.

Thomas H. Mathis

Thomas Mathis, great-grandfather of Walter Nold Mathis, was born in Stewart County, Tennessee on July 14, 1834 to an agricultural family. At 20 years of age, he moved to Southern Arkansas to attend a school overseen by his cousin, Dr. Josiah Thompson Mathis. A couple of years later, Thomas organized his own school in Warren, Arkansas before attending Bethel College in Mishakawa, Indiana.

Thomas H. Mathis

Lured by the prospect of the livestock industry, Thomas moved to Southwest Texas in January, 1859. Together with another cousin, John M. Mathis, he made a moderate profit through the sale of livestock and was well on his way to growing his business until the outbreak of the Civil War. Forced to close his cattle business due to a blockade of Gulf ports imposed by the Union Army, Thomas turned his attention to tobacco. During the Civil War, tobacco was plentiful for men serving on both sides – however, it was very difficult for civilians to obtain and maintain their habit. Thomas was successful in dodging the blockade and importing tobacco from Tennessee and Kentucky thus meeting Texans’ demand for the product. In the fall of 1862, Thomas left his business to join the Confederate Army, serving until the end of the War, after which he returned to the tobacco industry.

In February, 1867, Thomas and John Mathis relocated to Aransas Bay – by joining forces with other local businessmen, the town of Rockport was founded. In their new town, Thomas and John created the firm of J. M. and T. H. Mathis, built a wharf, and chartered a steamboat. This steamboat, the Prince Albert, was the first to enter Aransas Bay for commercial purposes. Only a couple of years later, the Prince Albert was lost at sea – this did not deter the men, however. In August, 1869, the Mathis’s firm convinced the Morgan Lines, the first steamship company in Texas, to run ships out of Rockport. The Morgan Lines had sailed their inaugural vessel, Columbia, in 1837 and had survived the commandeering of their steamships by both armies during the Civil War.

Not only did the Mathis’s firm persuade the Morgan Lines to run ships out of Rockport, they also became agents for the company. This would be a partnership that would take both Thomas and John’s business to bigger and better places for their families and Aransas Bay.

Villa Finale Paintings on loan to San Antonio Museum of Art!

"Casa Ranchera"

The San Antonio Museum of Art has asked to borrow two Theodore Gentilz paintings from the Villa Finale Collection for a show entitled Theodore Gentilz: Mission Life of San Antonio and Northern Mexico which opens on March 2nd and closes May 20th 2012The show is part of an exhibition series called San Antonio Collects, truly a great fit for Walter Mathis and his Villa Finale.  The paintings Man and Pueblo Home, a charming watercolor and Casa Ranchera, oil on canvas, are two great examples of Gentilz’s illustrative style.



"Mexican Man with a Cane Walking Before Pueblo Houses"

Theodore Gentilz, (1819-1906) was an established young painter when he set sail for Texas in 1843, leaving his home in Paris, France, forever.  He was invited to come to Castroville by fellow Frenchman Henri Castro, the founder of that town, but settled in San Antonio where he opened a studio in 1847.  He left as his legacy a rich pictorial account of the people of San Antonio, its environs, and Mexico.  He also worked as a surveyor, creating detailed, illustrated maps of areas surrounding San Antonio and most of northern Mexico.  Many of his paintings of Mexico, like the two on loan, were painted during surveying trips.  All of Villa Finale’s Gentilz collection, eight in total, hangs in the Mathis Sitting Room.

Theodore Gentilz: Mission Life of San Antonio and Northern Mexico, runs from March 2nd through May 20th, 2012.  For more information about the San Antonio Museum of Art’s exhibit, please click here.  You may also contact SAMA directly at (210) 978-8100.  The San Antonio Museum of art is located at 200 West Jones Ave., San Antonio, TX 78215.

Conservation Celebration!

This fall season has been a wonderful time at Villa Finale…the reasons?  We’ve had fifteen objects return from their long summer sojourns in conservators’ studios.  Three Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922) oil paintings and twelve mantel clocks came back to roost in the past two months. 

"Pool on the Guadalupe," before treatment.

The paintings, thanks to a generous grant award from the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation, were cleaned and stabilized.  Through no fault of anyone, just age, they had issues such as actively flaking and lifting paint, discolored varnish, unsuitable or no backing, improperly executed retouching, losses or punctures and overall discoloration. Mark van Gelder of Art Conservation Services of Austin painstakingly handled all of those issues, cleaning inch by inch with cotton swabs, repainting where paint had flaked, tightening the canvas and stabilizing the frame.   Van Gelder conserved on one small painting entitled Valley Near Williams Ranch – Twenty Miles West of Kerrville, which hangs in Villa Finale’s Dining Room, one medium-sized Texas bluebonnet painting and one very large painting entitled Pool on the Guadalupe River. 

Here is where I will be perfectly honest with you, dear reader: previously I did not care for, in the least, Pool on the Guadalupe River.  It was a muddy, dark painting with no depth whatsoever and something or someone had punctured the painting right in the center of the pool.  But when I went to van Gelder’s studio to see the finished product, my jaw hit the floor.  Here before me was a stunning deep river pool, greenish-gray, lined with limestone ledges and stands of fall trees in the background.  It was wonderful! I understood why Onderdonk painted this scene and why Walter Mathis acquired it.  It was a pleasure to behold. 

"Pool on the Guadalupe," after treatment.

So not only do your eyes get a treat at Villa Finale, your ears will too when you hear the chime of our many clocks.  Their repair was another grant funded project, this time from an award from the National Trust’s Historic Sites Fund.  

The clocks add a liveliness and warmth to the house that Mathis enjoyed – the sound and movement of the clocks also give energy and vitality to the current interpretation of the museum.  It goes without saying that the clocks are also an important part of Villa Finale’s decorative arts collection and are inherently valuable.  They date from the mid- to late 1800’s and are primarily French.       

My colleague, Sylvia Gonzalez-Hohenshelt and I put together a little video about the clocks for your viewing pleasure:   CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO

My visit to a Texas civil rights treasure

A little over a week ago I had the pleasure of visiting the former Corpus Christi clinic of Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum and civil rights leader.  The building is now in danger of being lost – however, a group of caring individuals is currently mobilizing to save the structure.  In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I was invited to write about my visit for the National Trust’s blog at  Click here to read the story.

I have included more photographs of my visit here for readers of Villa Finale’s blog.  Now that Villa Finale is a National Trust Historic Site, we want to make people aware of the importance of historic preservation as well as inspire others, much like Walter Mathis did, to become actively involved in the effort.

If you would like to join the preservation movement and the vision of Villa Finale, we invite you to consider a membership to our site which includes a number of benefits.  Click here for more information.

A glimpse in time: The Meusebachs

The Ellis-Meusebach House today.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting  Sarah Reveley, a sixth-generation Texan who is scheduled to speak at the Villa Finale Visitor Center in the fall about the Texas Historical Commission’s efforts to save damaged historical markers and historic buildings throughout Bexar County (click here to see Sarah’s website).  Being lovers of history, she and I began to talk about family heirlooms – this is when she mentioned letters written by her great-aunt Emmy Kailer relating her visit with the Meusebach [Moys-a-bach] family at their home on King William Street.  Of course, this immediately peaked my interest because the Meusebach home is right across the street from Villa Finale and it was one of the first houses purchased and restored by Walter Mathis in the King William neighborhood.

Here’s a little bit of background on the Meusebach family.  Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach, who later adopted the name John O. Meusebach, arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1845 as the new commissioner-general for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas.  In August 1845, John founded the town of Fredericksburg which served as a second stop en route to the Fisher-Miller Land Grant.  At roughly 40 years old, John married 17-year-old Countess Agnes of Corenth with whom he had eleven children: only seven of their children would reach adulthood.  Two of their sons, Otto and Max, lived at the house at 414 King William Street (then numbered 416) in the 1890s. 

A portion of Emmy's original letter to her mother.

Otto Meusebach had purchased the home in 1889 from original owners Smith and Josie Ellis for $2,500 (that’s over $60,000 in today’s values), and he, his wife Martha, sons Kurt, John and daughter Anita all moved in.  Max lived with his brother Otto’s family until about 1892.  By all accounts, the Meusebach brothers were colorful characters, especially around San Antonio’s bars.  If you haven’t had a chance to hear about them, I invite you to listen to the Meusebach house’s audio on our cell phone tour, The King William Homes of Preservationist Walter Mathis

Now let me get back to Sarah Reveley’s great-aunt, Emmy.  (The exact connection between the Kailer family and the Meusebachs is unknown although it is likely Emmy’s father, Eugen Kailer knew the Meusebachs through business connections.  Eugen was once editor of New Braunfel’s Zeitung newspaper.)  Emmy visited the Meusebachs in San Antonio all the way from her home in New Braunfels in September, 1898.  Written entirely in German (thanks to Sarah for sending translations), on September 19 Emmy tells her mother how much she wants it to stop raining so she and Anita Meusebach could go to the theater … one can only imagine how terrible it was to navigate the muddy streets of the city back then!  Emmy’s mother wrote back the next day saying:

How happy I am that you’re doing well and arrived safely!  I’m only a bit scared that you won’t like it here anymore, when you’re being spoiled in San Antonio.  We’ve already shied away from the weather and thought about whether it’s raining where you are.  It’s rained a lot here and the paths and walks are so muddy that one doesn’t think about going out.

Emmy wrote back on September 22nd telling her mother how much she is enjoying going to the theater, even attending matinees with Anita Meusebach, how she plans to buy her little sister Hildegarde a fan (Hilde is Sarah Reveley’s grandmother), and about one of the Meusebach’s chickens singing to her every morning at her window.  It is easy to see the young Emmy’s excitement at being in the “big city” and spending time with the teenaged Anita Meusebach.  It is very sad to think that only two years later in May 1900, 16-year-old Anita would die of peritonitis.  

Peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity, is caused by a bacterial infection and was a common cause of death, especially maternal death, in the 19th century.  Infections spread into the abdominal cavity and were typically associated with poor hygiene – the practice of washing one’s hands was still in its infancy.  Mortality rates fell dramatically after people began practicing good hygiene, especially in the medical field.

Announcement of Anita Meusebach's death, May 1900.

Regardless of the reasons for Anita Meusebach’s death, the tragedy was surely devastating for the family.  In 1902, Otto sold the home on King William Street – he died the following year.  His sons went on to prosper, however.  Kurt became a coal merchant and John went on to be the treasurer of the San Antonio Machine and Supply Company.  Click this link to see an 1880’s photograph of Baron Meusebach’s sons: [Ernst, Otto, and Max Meusebach, sons of John O. Meusebach] :: ITC – General Collection.

A very special THANK YOU to Sarah Reveley for sharing her great-aunt’s letters with Villa Finale.  Emmy Kailer has given us great insight into the Meusebach family and life in late 19th San Antonio.


Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to receive more information on Sarah Reveley’s presentation in the fall and other programs at Villa Finale by sending your email address to

Staying “in tune” – update on our “Music for Your Eyes” tour and more

Walter Mathis's Edison Cylinder Phonograph.

Since its debut last April, our Music for Your Eyes tour has become one of our most popular programs selling out each time it has been offered (click here for tour information).  I am one of the “hosts” for the musical experience as is Meg Nowack, our curator, and Syeira Budd, Villa Finale’s Community Programs Coordinator.  During the past four months, my colleagues and I have enjoyed sharing historic information behind Walter Mathis’s music machines as well as demonstrating these wonderful items. 

Walter Mathis loved music and enjoyed filling his home with its beautiful sounds.  Among the demonstrations on the tour are the circa 1912 Deluxe Model Violano Virtuoso, two Victorian music boxes, an Edison Cylinder Phonograph, and the grand finale of the 1910 Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano – I cannot tell you how many people have left the tour humming or whistling to the piano’s melody!  People on our tours have enjoyed hearing the rich history of the machines and the background information to some of the songs played.  All of the items on the tour are diverse in machinery as well as origin.

Meg demonstrates the reproducing piano.

South Texas as a whole has a wonderful musical history which is influenced by its diverse population.  Once part of Mexico and strongly influenced by Mexican border states, “Tejanos” of the era soon mixed their musical traditions with those of European immigrants.  It isn’t difficult even for the most “untrained ear” to hear the Waltz and Polka influences in Tejano music.  Make sure you check out the “Tejano Explosion” event during Fiesta San Antonio.      

Speaking of European immigrants, German music in Texas can be traced back as early as the 1830s with the arrival of the first settlers here.  The polkas we all associate with the very popular Oktoberfest originated in 19th century Bohemia.  The German version of this genre, also known as “Oompah,” is very identifiable by its use of the tuba, clarinet, trombone and of course, the accordion.  If you would like to get a feel for what the King William neighborhood would have been like during the late 19th century, visit the Beethoven Maennorchor on Pereida Street on First Friday or during one of their Gartenkonzerts – you will not be disappointed!   

One of the music boxes demonstrated on the tour.

Of course, any mention of Texas and music wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Country music.  In Texas, the genre is uniquely influenced by its many immigrants: Spanish, Mexican, French, German and more.  San Antonio has a variety of historic venues where people enjoyed live country music performances during the genre’s golden era including The Majestic Theater, the Empire Theater – where Gene Autry performed – and the Aztec Theatre.  If you would like to take a trip back in time, the Aztec Theatre hosts the San Antonio Rose Live show which is a tribute to classic country music in an equally classic venue.

If you enjoy music, and enjoy little historical tidbits like those I mentioned, make sure you join us on the next Music for Your Eyes tour.  The experience is a treat for your eyes … and ears.

A picture is worth 1,000 words

Dillard R. Fant in front of Villa Finale, ca. 1904.

If you have been following our blog, you may have read a series of posts I wrote in 2009 called “The Perils of 401 King William,” a five-part series relating the story of Villa Finale’s many owners.  It’s fascinating that despite the home’s many high-profile occupants, very few early photographs of the property are known to exist.  Until this week, the earliest photograph our staff had ever seen of the house dated to about 1915 when the property was owned by Eva and Dwight Potter.     

Earlier this week I received an email from Frederick and Patsy White; Patsy is the great-granddaughter of Dillard R. Fant, one of the twelve owners of 401 King William Street.  Fant was a well-known trail boss who is credited with extending the famous Chisholm Trail to Corpus Christi.  His wife, Lucy, daughter of original Texas settlers, was involved in many charitable organizations in San Antonio.  The couple had ten children; Patsy White’s grandmother, Lucille, was number eight.  You can read more about the Fants’ ownership of the house in my original blog post here.

Lucille Fant and James South, ca. 1905.

I personally have been fascinated with the history of Villa Finale’s ownership and have given presentations on the subject, sharing the few photographs we have in a PowerPoint presentation.  You can imagine my excitement when I discovered Frederick and Patsy were kind enough to forward snapshots of the Fant family taken on the property during their ownership … this was a thrill!  My excitement was doubled when Anita South, whose husband is a great-grandson of Dillard Fant, forwarded various snapshots of the family.  It’s amazing how you can read about these people from the past, but it isn’t until you see their images that they really come to life.

On behalf of Villa Finale’s staff, I would like to thank Patsy, Frederick and Anita for helping us with our ongoing research into Villa Finale’s ownership.  Dillard R. Fant and his family are definitely an important part of the home’s long and fascinating history.

Fant family, ca. 1890s.