I began this series last August in an effort to educate myself a little more about the world of Margaret Edythe Young and although I have heard the complaint that there is a little too much Galveston and not quite enough of the Galveston Artist in these entries I finish them with a better understanding of the island that was her world and hope that my reader’s have found them helpful in picturing – to paraphrase the bard – This happy breed of people, this little world, This precious stone set in a silver sea. And so to the conclusion of this series.
By 1920 the First World War had seen most combat operations end with the Armistice of 1918. The men who had fought in the war were getting on with the business of being reintegrated into the society. That included Margaret’s brother John who, as a Lt. Colonel in the Coastal Artillery Command, had been sent to the San Antonio caucus of April 1919 where he had been selected as a delegate to the St. Louis caucus that founded the American Legion. But if the War had ended you could not tell it on the Galveston waterfront – there was both a hot war raging from St. Petersburg to Sevastopol to Vladivostok that had to be supplied and there was the massive relief effort for a devastated Europe that the United States had undertaken. The Port of Galveston was able to close for Christmas Day in 1920 for the first time since 1916 but other than that it was all hands on deck for the other 365 days [it was a leap year]. In a move absolutely uncharacteristic of her father the firm took out its first, last and only paid advertisement in the Directory – we can only surmise that it was done while he was in Washington buying more tug boats from the government at surplus prices.
By 1920 the preferred means of travel to Houston would have still been a train or the Interurban but because of the new and growing port at Houston – which actually started with the new Humble Oil Company refinery which opened in 1919 at Baytown [at the site of the old Confederate shipyard where the cotton clads which won the day at the 1863 Battle of Galveston had been fitted out] – there were passable roads, most of them made of crushed mud shells, and cars and trucks regularly made the trip.
David Buick, along with engineers Walter Marr and Eugene Richard, invented the valve-in-head engine, which became the strongest and most reliable engine as soon as it hit the market. But Buick Motor Company still ran into financial difficulties, and was bailed out by William Durant who had gone to the 1905 New York Auto Show, and before they had even built 40 vehicles, had sold over 1,000 at the show alone. By 1908 Buick produced 8,820 cars, the most of any auto manufacturer that year which helped Durant create a holding company named General Motors. Within 18 months, Durant had acquired a large stake in 30 different auto manufacturers and parts suppliers, including Cadillac , Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and AC Spark Plug. With so many purchases by 1910, General Motors was under financial hardships, and Durant lost control of GM. Durant and Louis Chevrolet, a very successful race car driver, created the Chevrolet company in 1911, and by 1915 Durant was able to take control of GM once again when he hired Walter Chrysler to run the Buick division who went on to build larger and more expensive cars, with doors and smoother lines and introduced a six cylinder engine along with the self-starter and a full electrical system – and took his severance package to found the Chrysler Corporation.
Models all the way from the early Buick 10 through the new sedans were always several steps up from the Ford’s Tin Lizzie and even though the 1918 Chevrolet introduced the Series D – a V8-powered model in four-passenger roadster and five-passenger tourer models – Buick retained its supremacy through most of the 1920’s as the car for the man who couldn’t yet afford a Cadillac but was more prosperous than your average Ford owner. The Bettencourts traversed the island and went visiting on the mainland in their 1914 Buick. The interesting thing about the advertisements may not be the primacy of location [top right] of the Buick ad but the fact that the following two ads are from saddle and harness makers who are transitioning from the days of horse and buggy. The other thing we notice is that the advertisement for the tire company is now for a business that exclusively sells tires – you no longer bought them with fishing tackle and shotgun shells.
Although not much has been made of it another dramatic change in the automotive industry was the introduction of the storage battery. In early cars starting was achieved by physically cranking the motor – this required a certain amount of physical strength and excluded a number of people from the automotive pool – lighting was accomplished by the same kerosene lamps that had been used for a century and there was no need for a power source for the radio, which had yet to be invented. All of these things would change by 1920 and the advent of automotive electronics would mean that the relatively new invention of the telephone could be used to call help for the dead battery – the latest headache of their rapidly improving lives.
And the batteries were not the only things that needed repair. Although there was Firestone, Saxet, Keystone, Speedway and Batavia tires to name just a few their most common denominator was that they were all MAYPOP! tires – i.e.; they may pop at any time – and Southern Tire & Repair Company probably sold more than a few Kelly Springfield, Norwalk and Portage tires with their offer of free tire service. While the cars were simple enough to work on by our standards they were complex and daunting for the average owner requiring the expert mechanics of Leo David’s shop to keep the uninitiated from doing more harm than good especially in keeping their oil changed and their suspensions lubricated. Recently our son wrote us from his sojourn in Africa about coming across a panel banger – the term they still use to describe an auto repair shop – and we suspect that Schmidt Brothers, blacksmiths by trade, fit that description to perfection. I remember the story of Laureene Young driving her Packard across the causeway and meeting a farmer’s cow by accident. In the days before insurance her father conceded to the farmer that it was the most valuable cow in the state of Texas and wrote him a check. It is an everlasting tribute to Packard that all it needed was a panel banger to be roadworthy again.
A high demand for cotton during World War I had stimulated production and had increased the business of the compresses and the port at Galveston but a drop in prices after the war led many to abandon farming altogether and move to the cities. While the port was busy there was the need for both commercial hotels for business travellers as well as residential hotels that took the overflow of single men who were working and could not find accommodation in a rooming house. There were also residential hotels for single women who had found clerical positions and who would have neither desired nor have been permitted to live in an establishment that served men. Even Millie Dillmount and Miss Dorothy Brown stayed at the Priscilla Hotel and there is nothing to suggest that Mrs. Ella Jordan of the Palmetto Hotel bore any resemblance to their house-mother Mrs. Meers.
The beach was still the great draw and although the Galvez may have been the grand dame of the seawall and its boulevard there were a plethora of budget accommodations available for the tourists who arrived on the train or via the interurban. While there was no such thing as two weeks vacation every year for most workers there were the summer school holidays and many families saw mother and children packed off to the shore where Galveston was an average 10 degrees cooler than Houston while fathers stayed home and worked joining the family from Saturday evening to Sunday evening and enjoying a vacation of sorts of their own the other six days of the week.
You can only spend so many hours on the beach without being burnt to a crisp. The electric pavilion and riding the trolley to other attractions – even going to the Rosenberg Library for a new stack of books once a week – could only entertain so much. Probably no trip to the island was complete without riding the excursion boat Galvez at least once. Cruising the port and seeing everything from the sailing skiffs that darted from the farms around the bay to supply the island’s kitchens to the latest of the great naval dreadnoughts like the USS Texas that made courtesy calls when coaling [it was not converted to an oil burner until 1925] had to be a marvelous spectacle for parent a child alike.
Galveston and New Orleans have a long history together not only as competitors but also as cities that share many cultural ties. When a vacant store located on Canal Street in New Orleans was converted into its first movie theater on the 26th of June 1896 Galveston could not be far behind. The USS Texas was christened on May 18, 1912 and a new camera took what was thought to be the first motion pictures of a United States Navy ship-launching and with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 the moving pictures were off and running. Even with primitive air conditioning the lure of a cool place to while away a sweltering afternoon or evening must have made places like to Fortuna irresistible.
Today the last stop for many a tourist at Boston’s Logan airport is to get lobster’s packed to bring home – assuming you can still get them through security. The Galveston of 1920 was no different. Getting ready to board the Interurban for the ride home you could pack up on fish, shrimp and oysters to take back to Houston – points further north probably carries a risk of ptomaine poisoning which was something very real that people actually died of then.
You may have noticed the absence of advertisements for beverages in this post – particularly the kind that, used in moderation, reconstitute body and soul. In 1909 Monsignor James Martin Kirwin organized the Home Protective League, which succeeded in removing saloons from residential areas of Galveston. The league lobbied in the state legislature for a law empowering cities to restrict saloons. Adding an ecumenical twist to the proceedings in 1913 Texas sent John Morris Sheppard to the United States Senate and this pious Methodist gas bag managed to finagle what would become the 18th Amendment – prohibition – through the Congress and it took effect on the 17th of January 1920 and Americans could not drink legally again until 1933.
Prohibition – except for the initial ratification – happens outside of our timeline and even though its impact on Galveston was significant we will not discuss it here. Although Margaret Edythe Young certainly would not have been aware of the direction of the larger forces that shaped her world she basically lived in a brief window between the South regaining large parts of its freedom and joining the American dynamo that was the early twentieth century through the transition of a Southern Democrat [Wilson] betraying the South and the nation and starting us down the path to the nanny state. At the same time what she was aware of were the timeless values of her Church and her very Irish family and an island city that provided a home to them all – she knew what was important!