In 1896 Texas would do something it had never done before and would not do again for another half century – it voted for the Republican Party presidential candidate, William McKinley. As with later votes for Eisenhower and Reagan it was a vote for prosperity and stability and while state and local government remained firmly in the hands of the Democrats [who were by and large so conservative that they made today’s Republicans look like a bunch of pinko fellow travellers]. McKinley’s victory and subsequent reelection ushered in the 20th century as an age of prosperity – as a “modern” age – and did more to reunite the north and South in common cause than any of his post war predecessors. And Galveston was no exception.
It was not yet the age of the horseless carriage but there were a number of thriving livery stables on the island. If you had a telephone – the Young family residence number was 633 – you could summon a carriage with a careful driver at any hour of the day or night. If you had your own coachman the stables carried a full line of carriages, buggies and phaetons for sale. If you merely wished to keep or stable your horse they provided that service as well.
One of the more somber aspects of the business is that they also served as undertakers and embalmers and by now Americans had turned death into a full-blown pageant that could either be called worthy of the ancient world or be decried as ghoulish and barbaric. Metallic caskets and ceremonial burial robes were the order of the day and in an age where the infant mortality rate was 135 deaths for every 1,000 live births their offer of a child’s white hearse and harness with white horses filled a regrettable need.
But Galveston’s real preoccupation was with business. Not only were the banks and brokers prospering but every need of the shipping industry was creating jobs. Building barrels for molasses, oil, liquor and seafood was a booming business. And many of the goods being put on fast trains to the interior had to be iced and that ice was produced in a factories on the island that served both the shipping and home markets – until 1916 [and wouldn’t be commonplace until well into the 1920’s]. Anthony Louis Bettencourt, Margaret Edythe Young’s husband, graduated from Ball High School in 1905 and went directly to a job as a cashier at an ice factory which would have been a coveted position in those days.
But even clerking was becoming more mechanized in this age. The typewriter had been around in the United States since at least 1868 and Thomas Alva Edison had built an electric model as early as 1872 but most clerical work was still done by hand and high marks in penmanship could go a long way to securing a job and low ones could consign you to a life of manual labor. Just as there were over 200 manufacturers of home refrigerators by the 1920’s there were numerous typewriters on the market by the 1890’s.
Most of these manufacturers have gone the way of the merger and acquisition, bought out by their larger competitors in the name of efficiency and costs savings, leaving us to pick between a mere handful of choices – the poorer for it. While it is surely easier to trademark and market the NBI [nothing but initials] than the Blickensderfer the later was the state of the art for its day. It was smaller, lighter and cheaper than any other machine on the market with only 250 parts compared to ,2500 parts for its competitor. Featuring a moveable type wheel that predated the selectric by three-quarters of a century and an improvement on the qwerty keyboard layout it was a five-pound portable secretary without the intrusion of email.
Not all of the improvements were small ones. The Deep Water Committee had succeeded in 1888 with help from the owner of the Galveston Daily News, A. H. Belo, and successful merchants Kempner and Moody their efforts to see to the passage the Galveston Harbor Bill. The $6,200,000 appropriation paid for the deepening of the harbor to twenty-two feet and construction of five miles of protective jetties to keep it open. When George Sealy became head of the wharf company a large grain elevator was built to attract the growing export business and handle it as a bulk, rather than bagged, commodity. Galveston was the world’s foremost cotton port and the fifth most important port in the United States.
Of course all of this required oil. It may not have been the staple of automotive travel yet but the internal combustion engine was replacing horsepower – literally – and even overtaking the cumbersome donkey boilers used along the waterfront to power stevedoring operations. The car and axle grease reference in the ad above was for rail cars and wagon axles but almost everything that had moving parts required constant manual lubrication and on board the ships the deck departments were soon outnumbered by stokers and oilers in the “black gang” – the engine room crew.
The increase in wealth expressed itself in numerous ways. There was at once a call for greater education and greater social occasions and these met in happy confluence at the Goldbeck College – a musical conservatory that taught classes all the way from kindergarten through normal school [teacher’s college], that had its own military band in an age that idolized John Philip Sousa, and that acted as a hiring hall for musicians before they had a union.
Although Dr. Goldbeck never lived in Galveston – he was a German composer who lived principally in New York but who had founded a conservatory in Boston from which the various colleges bearing his name served as an outlet for his three Graduating Courses, instructive works for piano, voice, and violoncello, comprising six volumes; and his Encyclopaedia of Musical Education. While Dr. Goldbeck may not have tickled the ivories in Galveston his local supervisor, Mrs. Annie L. Palmer, was very well-known having been the superintendent of the Evangelistic department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. We find her identified with the college specifically in a notice printed in the Galveston Daily News of the 21st of April 1895 advising: Mrs. Annie L. Palmer, supervisor of the Goldbeck colleges, will conduct a practical normal course for teachers’ and pupils’ classes in technical training at Galveston, Tex., June 17th through July 23rd. The Goldbeck method now, so universally adopted by many of the leading teachers and colleges will be used in this course. For any Information and terms, address Mrs. Annie L. Palmer, Goldbeck College of Music, 3033 Pine St., St. Louis, Mo.
There used to be a number of venues in Galveston that were popular with both the locals and tourists as recreational areas. One of the largest of these was the lagoon which was south of what would become Seawall Blvd. and covered an area from the east beach to what is now Apffel Park Road. At the other end of the island what appears to be a large lake near Moody Gardens is just a bay formed by Offat’s bayou but in between these two were small bayous and ponds and where Spoor Field and Lasker Park stand today was Woolam’s Lake where oyster roasts and music and beer and boating were enjoyed while the strictest order was always maintained!
One of the features of the “lake” was a bicycle race track and probably everybody under the age of forty who could afford one either owned or rented a bicycle and the same applied to everybody over the age of forty who could remain upright on one. And the prices ranged from $30 to $125 which translates to either very expensive or exorbitant based on the wages of the day.
In what can only be called a triumph of marketing the dread disease and the xenophobia about Asians was forgotten and from Syracuse, NY came the Yellow Fellow, manufactured by E. C. Stearns Company who employed 2,000 people and produced 500 bicycles a day. At that time, Stearns was the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world and bicycles were so popular that streetcar earnings declined. Coming in men’s and ladies styles the company produced a one-seater, two-seater tandems, triplets and sextets. Stearns would eventually go the way of the Blickensderfer when over 75 individual manufacturers would be consolidated into the American Bicycle Company but not before they had converted nearly the entire nation into lusting for speed on rubber tires.
Not all of the islanders looking for relaxation stayed on the island but for those who did not want to venture too far there was High Island. The Bolivar side of the bay was a very different place in those days. On the one hand there was a thriving community of farmers and fishermen who regularily brought produce to the big island. On the other hand there was no intracoastal waterway with barges loaded with everything under the sun making runs from Brownsville to Florida and all points between.
All the way at the eastern edge of Galveston county is High Island which is actually a salt dome that rises 38 feet above sea level and is the highest natural point between Mobile, Alabama and the Yucutan Peninsula and what was completed there in 1896 was the Gulf-Interstate Railway that ran from Port Bolivar to Beaumont. To provide passenger business for this new line and to capitalize on the mineral springs – whose curative value was promoted by one George E. Smith – the Sea View Hotel was built with daily excursions to the beach as well as hunting and fishing expeditions.
We shudder at the thought of what water from natural springs flowing off a salt dome must have tasted like but there seem to be a rule of inverse proportion between the drinkability of the water and its curative powers. Not only were these springs credited with being able to cure the common cold but they were believed to be efficaicious in treatment of indigestion, stomach, liver, kidney and nervous diseases, rheumatism, diseases of the blood, wasting and many other kindred complaints. We are unaware of any cures having been attributed to any waters but I know that Margaret Edythe Young’s sister, Laureene, was going to Marlin as late as the 1970’s for the hot baths that gave her some relief from her arthritis.
Today there are all sorts of opportunities to cruise the harbor from the paddle wheel steamer Colonel from Moody Gardens to the Bolivar Ferry which is the best free boat ride in the State of Texas. While there were steam launches is common use these required a licensed engineer – in an effort to prevent amateurs from blowing up boilers – which made them more expensive to operate. The naptha engine was an external combustion steam engine that heated the water that created the steam that drove the cylinder in a single pass AND provided sufficient lubrication for the engine. In the transition from solid to liquid fuels these were remarkable and considering that they were self starting and avoided dead center problems it is only their relative inefficiency that caused them to be replaced by internal combustion engines.
The time honored tradition of American politics was that the sitting president did not campaign for reelection. This task was left to the vice-presidential candidate and by 1900 as the new century dawned Theodore Roosevelt would resemble nothing so much as a circus hitched to a tornado as he stormed the country advocating – successfully – for McKinley. But as we draw the curtain on 1896 the country has a new president, peace and tranquility and an almost unshakable optimism in a better tomorrow. What a wonderful time it must have been.