The Merchant of Eagle Pass, Texas

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A couple of weeks ago we shared several of our small collections (link to that blog) with you, but we withheld a couple of them because we felt they merited a more detailed story. One such was the Leonard de Bona Papers, a small box full of 100-year-old correspondence. At first glance it seems a little dry—a pile of receipts and letters spanning just under 20 years. A closer look reveals much more: a story of the tiny border town of Eagle Pass, Texas and its economic connection to a much larger mercantile world.

Leonard de Bona was a businessman in Eagle Pass, Texas, who ran his company, Eagle Pass Hardware and Supply Store of Texas, for nearly 20 years. During that time he sold dry goods and sundries throughout the Rio Grande Valley and nearby Mexico. Look at these receipts above: milk might be a common enough import, but bananas? Several pounds of those ran $13.91 according to this bill, and that was in 1888. Although comparing dollar values across 126 years is difficult at best, that amount would be at the very least several hundred dollars today. Mr. de Bona was a man who could acquire the finer things (if you consider bananas a finer thing, of course.)

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Next up is a leaf of correspondence between de Bona and his long-time supplier, A. B. Frank and Co. of San Antonio, Texas. The item in question this time was sugar. Always in demand, particularly in remote areas of the United States, sugar even more valuable than bananas! It would be nice to discover to whom de Bona was selling train-car loads of the stuff. Perhaps just over the border in Piedras Negras, Mexico? To outlying farmers and ranchers in the Rio Grande valley? It’s also possible that he sold it to the soldiers at Fort Duncan, which had been founded forty years earlier to protect one of the first U.S. settlements on the U.S.-Mexico border. Either way, this is more evidence that de Bona was the man to see for relatively rare commodities.

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When we mentioned “a much larger mercantile world” earlier, we didn’t just mean San Antonio and south Texas. Take a look at this letter from importer Emilio de Stefano in Chicago, Illinois. Written entirely in Italian, it concerns the relationship, both business and personal, between de Stefano and de Bona. De Bona may himself have been an Italian immigrant, although that fact is not clear in these records. De Stefano refers to him here somewhat familiarly as ‘Leonardo,’ but gravesite records list de Bona—and his father’s—name as ‘Leonard.’ Chicago and Italy—de Bona was bringing it in from all over!

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Lastly, we have this letter from one Mr. Wadsworth, an American abroad in Mexico. Unable to acquire necessities such as corn starch, black pepper, and “No. 8 Brogan Shoes,” he was forced to turn to Eagle Pass Hardware and Supply Store of Texas to meet his needs. Whether or not the order was met is impossible to say as documentation is not present in the Papers. Nevertheless, it’s clear that de Bona did in fact coordinate trade across the nearby border.

The Leonard de Bona Papers offer a rare peek into the affairs of a borderlands merchant. Who knows how many such towns sported similar businessmen? It wouldn’t hurt a researcher to answer that question via a further look through our archive. After all, our courteous Reference Staff can always arrange for a look at this collection or any other materials with similar stories to tell.

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Organized Crime and Texas’ Crime Investigating Committee in the 1950s

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In the words of Wichita Falls Mayor and Judge of the Corporate Court, T. Leo Moore, his city had ”bounced” infamous California gangster Mickey Cohen ”out of town” on August 30, 1950.  Later, Texas state officials held a hearing to assess whether or not Cohen had been looking to set up illegal gambling operations during his visit. The gangster had been subpoenaed, but as you can see from the documents above, he kindly explained why he was unable to attend. Soon after these events, in 1953 the Texas Legislature formed its Crime Investigating Committee. The Southwest Collection holds the entirety of their records, which offer an interesting perspective on “organized crime” throughout the state.

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Consisting of nearly 40 pages of summarized evidence and testimony, the Final Report of the Crime Investigating Committee details the large scale of their investigation. Gambling in Houston and Galveston, general vice in Waco and Dallas, and bootlegging in West Texas were among the topics and regions that they examined. In our opinion, the bootlegging side of things was the most interesting because its legacy is still visible in the West Texas (home of the Southwest Collection, incidentally.)

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For example, these minutes of a hearing held in Amarillo, Texas in November 1952 concern, among other things, the activities of alleged Odessa, Texas bootlegger Pinkie Roden. As further examination of the Crime Investigating Committee Records shows, Pinkie was the object of much of their scrutiny. He had constructed a regional crime empire. Elaborate procedures were in place to get booze into the hands of bootleggers, launder the money that rolled in, and protect Pinkie and his associates from reprisals. He was so successful that his stores are still in business today in Odessa, Midland, Lubbock, and elsewhere—albeit legally, now that those areas approach liquor sales more leniently.discs001

With hundreds of pages of evidence, testimony, and hearings to keep track of, surely the stenographers were hard-pressed to keep up. Not so! By the 1950s, sound recording media such as these Soundscriber discs were fairly popular. Although Dictabelt and Soundscribe recordings might now be perceived as of lower fidelity than more recent magnetic tape and LP discs, they are sometimes the only record of very pivotal moments in history (one of the most notable being Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration on Air Force One just after Kennedy’s assassination!) The discs pictured here are a sample of dozens created during the course of the Committee’s statewide proceedings. Transcriptions of their contents are present in our records, but it’s a unique (and very cool) experience to actually hear the events playing out over sixty years ago.

The items shared here represent only a fraction of the entertainment that these records hold. In fact, when combined with our dozens of oral histories with local bootleggers and their families, statewide criminals, and the police and judges who pursued them, the SWC might just have a gold mine of research material about Texas crime. Give our Reference Staff a shout and they will help you get your hands on them!

The Small Collection Rundown, Part I

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While roaming through the Southwest Collection stacks the other day, I noticed something. We have a large number of very small but unique collections. They don’t cover a wide variety of research topics, and as a result they might not always get the attention they deserve. That’s a shame, because they’re informative, interesting, and sometimes a little offbeat. Therefore today, in this blog, at least a handful of them have found their time to shine.

First off, the promised ‘offbeat’ item. Among the papers of Vaughn Monigold lie six buttons (six may seem like a little much, but as an archive we preserve everything.) They celebrate local underground celebrity Prairie Dog Pete, who some claim had a groundhog-like ability to predict the weather. The rest of Monigold’s papers are standard stuff, consisting primarily of photographs of prominent sights in Lubbock and the surrounding region. Our Lubbock Chamber of Commerce Records also mention a bit about Pete, but honestly, this folder full of prairie dog buttons? Surely that should make some researcher’s day.

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The Alpha Lambda Delta Records, 1962-2008, are far more pedestrian than Monigold’s pile of rodent buttons. Alpha Lambda Delta was founded in 1924 at the University of Illinois to recognize academic excellence among freshmen women. The organization became co-educational in the 1970s in response to Title IX, and is still active today, having initiated over 850,000 students among its 260 chapters. All that being said, our collection of their materials is very small, consisting of only 2 boxes and assorted artifacts. In that small space, however, it documents much of the organizational and financial infrastructure of the group both locally and nationally. It also boasts a nearly-complete run of their publication, The Flame, from 1963 onward, the covers of which we’ve provided here.

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The last sampling of our smaller collections comes from our  South Plains Quilters Guild Records. In July of 1976, an all-day quilting bee was held at the Mahon Library in Lubbock, Texas. Area quilt makers brought quilts for display and demonstrated methods of quilt making. The event aroused so much interest that several of those present decided to organize a quilting group. Originally named ‘The Quilting B’s’, in 1978 the group later changed the name to the South Plains Quilters Guild (SPQG). Many of its members competed in local and state competitions, contributing items such as a Hacienda Rose patterned-quilt that took home this ribbon from a Dallas-area event in 1996.

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We have a host of correspondence, financial records, scrapbooks, and photographs of the SPQG’s activities for a span of nearly 40 years. We also have a sizable run of their Year Books, which contain member and event information for each year. I’m going to be honest: before scanning these Year Books, I arranged them in this vaguely quilt-like pattern on purpose.

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We’ve saved the best of the SPQG records for last: actual quilts! Check out the one with the dragon on it. That’s some serious quilting, right there. Although these are only photographs of the organization’s creations, we have a couple of actual quilts carefully preserved among our other textile artifacts.

As always, our Reference Staff can get these collections into your hands if you’d like to give us a visit!

The Last Stop in West Texas for “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide” Exhibit – Midland College in Midland, TX

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Back in October the SWC hosted the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission’s (THGC) thirty-four panel, Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide” exhibit, and it was well received by its visitors. In mid-January it was installed at Midland College’s McCormick Gallery in Midland, Texas, where it will run through the end of February. We feel that this unique exhibit deserves one more mention by us to encourage interested folks to hurry over to Midland and check it out.

In the words of the THGC: “Genocides begin when intolerant and hateful individuals dehumanize others in a society by putting them into separate and unequal classes and deliberately harming them. According to the Genocide Watch organization, genocides and mass murders led to the killing of more than 170 million people, more than the sum of the deaths in all 20th and 21st century wars combined.” Prijedor was put together to educate the public about genocide through the story of the Bosnian city of Prijedor, where between 1992 and 1995 acts of genocide were committed. The exhibit “honors both the memory of the lives lost in the Prijedor genocide and the experiences of the survivors whose stories are told within the 34 panel series.”

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Why is Midland hosting the exhibit? Much like the SWC, the McCormick Gallery has made it their mission is to exhibit, collect, and preserve history, in this case through the medium of art. The Prijedor exhibit aligns closely with those goals, and represents an opportunity to tell a story that for many has been forgotten in the decades since it occurred.

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The SWC hosted the THGC’s quarterly meeting in late October 2013, whereat we were able to speak with the many individuals who made this exhibit possible. They were passionate about their mission to increase awareness of genocide, and talked at length about their many educational programs and events. Perhaps Chaja Verveer, THGC commissioner and a Holocaust survivor, sums it up best: “Our kids need to be taught to recognize and fight bigotry, to stem hatred and prejudice, and learn about living together, embracing diversity.”

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Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission programs include teacher workshops providing guidance in teaching the Holocaust and other genocides, the recording of concentration camp liberator oral histories, and the enhancing of social studies curriculum through requiring the teaching of genocide-related content in school classrooms. For more information regarding Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission programs and Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month (April), please do not hesitate to contact them.

The “Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide” exhibit is open to all. College students, middle and high school students, and educators are particularly encouraged to attend. Note also that the University of Texas at Tyler will host the exhibit in March 2014.

– by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission