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.)
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.
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!
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.