“Spiritual Weekend” Featuring Three Historic Properties in October

If you have been following Villa Finale’s events and programs, then you are probably aware that we will be hosting our second seance in 2018. But this year it’s more than just one night, it’s an entire weekend for those who are interested in spiritualism and the mystery behind historic homes. Our “spiritual weekend” – Friday, October 12 and Saturday, October 13 – will feature two seances and a pendulum workshop at three different historic homes in the King William neighborhood, each with its own stories of loss and sadness.

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“Hello From the Other Side” seance at Villa Finale, 2017.

The weekend begins on Friday, October 12th at Villa Finale with night one of “Hello From the Other Side: 75 Years of Spiritualism and a Live Seance.” Seance-goers will be treated to light refreshments and bar drinks themed to the evening’s occasion before being led into the house for the main event being presented by the duo of Austin Seance. Built in 1876 and remodeled at least four different times, Villa Finale has seen its share of people come and go throughout its 142-year history. Those of us who were in the house during last year’s seance “heard” footsteps in the rooms directly above us and on the main staircase. Could these sounds have been figments of our imagination? Or maybe it was the Polk family who lost the house through foreclosure in 1895 and have never really left? Could it have been Billy Keilman who owned the home and ran a brothel and speakeasy here in the mid 1920s, and was murdered off-site during his tenure? Perhaps it was one of Keilman’s disgruntled customers? We may never find out!

Otto

Otto Meusebach, ca. 1890s.

On Saturday, October 13 at 2:00pm, the weekend’s activities continue with “Pendulums: A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit” being held at Villa Finale’s Meusebach House, located across the street at 414 King William Street. Participants will learn about the history of pendulums and how to make and use them. Pendulums are simple devices that have long been used to communicate with spirits, and folks will get a chance to do just that at this historic house. Built in 1886 by Smith and Josie Ellis, the couple sold the house to Otto Carl and Martha Meusebach in 1889. Otto and his brother, Max who lived in the house briefly in the 1890s, were sons of German pioneer John O. Meusebach, founder of Fredericksburg. Both Otto and Max were known for participating in raucous saloon brawls throughout town. On November 4, 1900, the Meusebach’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Anita, died in the house after days of being ill with peritonitis. As was the custom at the time, Anita’s funeral was held in the Meusebach home. Does the spirit of Anita remain in her family’s home? Or do the rough and tough souls of Otto and Max refuse to rest? Participants at the pendulum workshop may find out!

Johanna Steves undated

Johanna Steves, undated. Courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

The last of the weekend’s activities happens later on Saturday evening with seance number two being held at the Edward Steves Homestead located one block from Villa Finale and the Meusebach house. Edward and Johanna Steves built their home in 1876 following the success of their lumber company. Just like Villa Finale and the Meusebach house, the Steves home has also seen its share of sorrow. Following Edward’s death in 1890, family members talk about Johanna sleeping in the hallway outside of the master bedroom during her period of mourning. But Johanna was a tough German woman who, despite being under 5-feet tall, was master of her home and lived there for forty years following her husband’s death. Although she baked cookies for the neighborhood kids and allowed them to swim in her pool, Johanna expected her pool cleared for her own private swim as soon as she rang a bell from her back porch.

 

Johanna died in 1930 within two weeks of her beloved son Ernest’s death. Ernest, who was the youngest, had been admitted to the hospital to get his appendix removed but, as was not too uncommon at the time, didn’t survive the procedure. Newspapers speculated Johanna died of a “broken heart” but, certainly, being 90 years old also didn’t make coping with the sorrow any easier. Like Anita Meusebach, Johanna’s casket lay in state in her home, right in front of the formal parlor’s bay window. During night two of the seance, will Johanna announce her private swim by ringing her bell? Will laughter from neighborhood children of bygone days be heard again? Join us and find out!

You can purchase each of the three events of Villa Finale’s “spiritual weekend” separately: “Hello From the Other Side” seance night one at Villa Finale ($55.00 per person), “Pendulums: A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit” at the Meusebach House ($10.00 per person), or the “Hello From the Other Side” seance night two at the Steves Homestead ($55.00 per person). If choosing just one is difficult, you can participate in all three with the “spiritual weekend bundle”: $100.00 for a chance to see “who” says “hello” from the spirit world in each of these fascinating historic homes! Come experience it for yourself.

Seance nights include light refreshments and alcoholic beverages. Seances are for audiences 18 and older only. Space is limited for all three. Click on the links below to purchase admissions or call (210) 223-9800 during business hours for tickets or more information.

Seance nights one and two and “spiritual bundle”

Workshop only – “Pendulums:  A Workshop for the Mind and Spirit”

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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!

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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.

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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.