Legends, Mystery & Romance

   I love a good mystery, and a dash of romance just makes it better, right?

Rose Window

   The iconic Rose Window at Mission San Jose in San Antonio is one of the most famous windows in the world. Along with other features of five Spanish missions in the area, it is listed as one of the details that distinguish it as the first World UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.

   Sculptor Pedro Huizar carved the quatrefoil shape entangled with the images of pomegranates, said to symbolize fertility, in 1775. Yet the ten foot tall, six-foot wide window sits only about four and a half feet above ground level. And its position in the sacristy wall (where windows were traditionally plain) and the purpose of steps leading up from the interior remain a mystery.

   But what intrigues most visitors who come especially to see this ornately carved window are the legends behind it.

   One version of its creation says that Huizar’s sweetheart Rosa either died or disappeared in a shipwreck on her way from Spain to be reunited with him in Texas.

   Another that he carved the window in the throws of despair after the woman who he came overseas to make a fortune to win, betrayed him.

   Yet another story relates that Huizar carved the masterpiece after falling in love with a wealthy woman whose family shunned him.

   Which version is true? Perhaps one…or none of them. The tales most likely took shape during a period of romanticism after the 1870s in order to attract tourists.

   But does it really matter? Sometimes the legends can be more intriguing than cold, hard facts.

   Whatever its origin, the Rose Window has become one of the most recognized architectural features in the Southwest. Miniature replications of the window can be seen in several buildings in downtown San Antonio, and there’s even a massive version at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Beaumont.

   Which version of the story would you prefer to be true?

Travel Out Loud

   I’ve ALWAYS been excited about traveling. Can you guess which one is me? Yep! Even at age six I had trouble controlling my enthusiasm for exploring.

     This is a photo of me with my mother (whose red hair I inherited, but not her demure nature) and my beautiful big sister (who I’m sure more than once has wondered if we are really from the same gene pool), on a visit to the Franklin Mountains State Park in west Texas. Dad was usually the one behind the camera, as that was one of his hobbies.

     Whether it’s playing tourist in your hometown or discovering new places, travel is full of surprises. The love of these discoveries is why I’m going to be sharing more places around Texas, old and new, to give you a peek at some of the fun to be found out there . . . and hopefully inspire you to take a trip or two to see it for yourself.

     I’ll be visiting small towns and big cities, locations close to home and on the far side of the state, historic hotels and unusual B&Bs, classic soda shops and Victorian cemeteries . . . just to start things off.

     It’s a wide open state with so much to see, so let’s fill up the tank and hit the road!

     What are your favorite Texas destinations, and what do you like to do there?

Secret Compartments

     Imagine finding the original house deed of your Victorian home, or perhaps love letters from over 100 years ago. It’s possible you’ve been walking by them on a daily basis.

     Newel posts, or the large post ending a staircase, are structurally meant to keep the rest of a staircase safely anchored, but sometimes they keep secrets as well.

Newel Post at the Carr Mansion, Galveston, Texas

     In the last half of the 19th century, machinery had advanced to make the popular “new style” of broad posts on a lathe, often leaving an empty space in the middle. It’s the hollow posts that have lent themselves to the folklore of secret hiding places.

     Before the cap of a hollow newel post was attached (or removed later), some owners rolled up their house deeds, original plans or other mementos and placed them in the void before it was closed. The item most often found is a coin, placed inside for good luck.

     The lady of the house was, of course, aware of this hidden space as it was most likely one of the few places not easily accessible by her servants, children or spouse on a daily basis. There are many family stories of love letters from previous relationships or loved ones off at war, or documents that might reveal some tawdry detail from the owners past being found years later in a newel post.

     Though most of these stories are probably the stuff of family legends, enough have been true to keep the intrigue alive.

Amity Button

     Another feature of a newel post cap sharp eyes might spy is a small round “button”  carved of ivory, whale bone or mother of pearl sometimes inlaid in the newel cap. These are called mortgage buttons or amity buttons, and signified their was no lien on the property – a point of pride for the homeowners. Not as mysterious perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

     So the next time you tour a grand home with a large newel post anchoring the staircase, ask your guide if anyone has peeked inside. There might be a story there.

Following a Galvestonian to a Fateful Act

“Jumped headlong from a window of the Confederate Home…”

The line made me gasp out loud.

  To back up a little, I was in search for background information about Christian Henry Thieme before a recent trip to Austin to locate his grave.

  The Galvestonian was born in Germany in 1827, immigrated to Texas in 1860 and was a member of th e Catholic church He enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 34, once telling an interviewer that he had been “a private in Company B, in Cook’s heavy artillery. My first captain was Coura, and first major was Cook.”

  I knew that he and his wife Elizabeth had a family of three daughters, and they all had survived the 1900 Storm. Yet at some point, Christian ended up in the Confederate Men’s Home (for disabled veterans) in Austin.

  During the 1900 Storm, Christian and Elizabeth lived with their daughter Selma Nelson and her family at 710 Church Street. Although they didn’t lose any family members in the tragedy, they were sure to have witnessed grievous sights.

  The traumatic events caused him to become mentally unbalanced, forcing his family to send him to the home in Austin the following April.

  Suffering from rheumatism and old wounds far from home, he was dealt an additional blow when his wife died in November. She is buried in Galveston’s Oleander Cemetery, but her marker has been lost to time.

  I thought I may have found all available information about him, and then came the discovery of a newspaper account of his death on June 23, 1910.

  “Christian Thieme, an aged Confederate soldier, killed himself today by jumping headlong from a window of the Confederate Home. Thieme became mentally unbalanced at the time of the Galveston storm. Melancholia caused him to talk constantly of killing himself. Formerly an express man at Galveston, he lost all his property in the tidal wave and was force to come to the Confederate Home. None of his relatives can be located.”

  

  Stunning. And infuriating…because his family still lived in Galveston and couldn’t have been too difficult to locate.

  So I went to visit him and find his marker.

   It stands in a sea of military markers in Confederate Field at the Texas State Cemetery, with his last name misspelled as “Thiemer.” Gleaming white as if wanting someone to remember his story.

  And now he has had at least one visitor from home.

Texas State Cemetery, Confederate Field, Section 1 (F), Row B, No. 18.

 

At His Wife’s Gravesite

 

Many gravestones don’t begin to tell the story of a life or death, just listing the barest of facts. But every so often I see one that illustrates a chapter of the life (or end of life in this case) that ensures the marker was created just for this specific individual. These are the type I wish every grave had, to help us appreciate the person memorialized.

This spectacular carving portrays a father holding a young child in his arms and standing at his wife’s gravesite. I’ve never seen one like it in person.

Even with over 150 years of weathering, the details are astounding. He holds a top hat in his left hand and his child in his right. The drapes of the child’s dressing gown hang down behind it’s father’s arm. Facial features of the man are still somewhat discernible, and his wife’s grave is marked with a headstone and footstone. One knows immediately that he has been left alone to care for their small child.

It marks the resting place of Clarissa Wells Collins in Austin’s historic Oakwood Cemetery.

Clarissa, a native New Yorker, married Travis County constable  and farmer Thomas C. Collins in January 1856, when she was 30 years old.

They were blessed with a daughter, who they named Clarissa Ann (“Annie”), in July 1860 but just four months later Clarissa passed away.

On Halloween 1864 Adelaide “Addie” Swisher, Clarissa’s sister who had married James Monroe Swisher at her sister’s home in 1857, died as well presumably from postpartum complications. Her name is listed on Tom’s gravestone, along with the name “Little Lillie,” their three year old daughter who died the same year.

The following year Tom enlisted in the military and was stationed in Austin.

He joined his wife in death in April 1871.

Their young child, who is referred to in documentation alternately as Annie or Clara, ended up being raised by her aunt Ann Marie Wells in Brooklyn far from where her parents were laid to rest. She lived the rest of her life on the east coast, and I wonder if she ever came to visit their graves and stood before this stone. It’s doubtful.

So much sadness in such a short time.

But Tom’s love, and grief, is immortalized here in marble and encourages those who pass by to learn their story.

I came to Oakwood specifically to look for this marker, and made an additional discovery that made my day.

As I was photographing it, I looked at the bottom right corner and found the signature of the carver… Allen & Company Marbleworks of Galveston. Especially thrilling, since Allen owned the state’s first marbleworks, founded in Galveston in 1852 on Center Street between Strand and Mechanic. His business has now been owned by the Ott family for five generations.

The gravestone had traveled a long way to come here.

I love a good connection to Galveston history, and somehow seem to find them wherever I go.



UPCOMING CEMETERY TOUR

I’ve been getting quite a few requests  to do more cemetery history tours in Galveston in the past couple of months. So…..

I’ve scheduled a tour through Eventbrite to make it easier for individuals to sign up!

This is the cemetery tour that has been featured on “Texas Country Reporter,” “Texas Chronicles,” the local news, magazines and newspapers. I’m ready to show you that the true stories from the past really can be stranger than fiction!

We’ll meet in the Historic Broadway Cemetery District, where I’ll introduce you to some of Galveston’s past citizens, from heroes to villains, notorious to noteworthy. We’ll focus on Trinity Cemetery, where’s something here for everyone: stunning artwork, hidden symbolism, Civil War history, surprising trivia and even one resident ghost.

Follow this link to purchase your tickets, or to find out more details about the tour:

https://bit.ly/2uFLmDg

See you at the cemetery!

 

Tiny Home, Large Family!

I almost passed this adorable home by since I was on my way to an appointment earlier this week, but had to turn around to take its photo to share with you!

John Jacob and Wilhelmina “Mina” (Miller)  Theobald built this Galveston cottage at 1605 Winnie in 1892, after they had been married 14 years. It’s a bit mind-boggling that something that seems so small and quaint in comparis

on to surrounding homes actually survived the 1900 Storm.

It must have been a lively household, with four bedrooms and eight children!

Daughter Mary Elizabeth married Otto F. Lossow in the home in Oct. 1910.

Daughter Susie married Oscar Milton Scales there in 1913. For the next few years, she ran her cut flower business out of her parents home (probably because they had the luxury of a home phone). She took orders for a wide variety of cuttings for the grand homes and special occasions of her customers, including Easter lilies, hydrangeas, callas, geraniums, larkspur. coleus, roses and more.

Her two other sisters Julie and Alice never seemed to have married, but Julia became one of the first female attorneys employed by Galveston County. There were four sons as well: George, Louis, August and Charles (who was also an attorney for the county).

John owned a large carriage and blacksmith shop on Mechanic, and built many types of specialty conveyances for locals and customers in other cities. He also had a staff of ferries (trained in the horseshoeing trade) and blacksmiths. 

Mina hosted meetings of Galveston’s Young Women’s Embroidery Club at her home.

It sounds like their home was filled with beauty and joy. What a wonderful legacy.

Would you attempt to raise such a large family in this relatively small home?

Pointing the Way

When I give cemetery tours or workshops I get a lot of questions about the symbolism of different hand portrayals on gravestones.

An index finger pointing up symbolizes the hope of heaven. Knowing this causes some raised eyebrows when visitors spot any markers with a downward pointing finger.

Not to worry…it doesn’t mean the person is going ‘in the other direction!’ It just represents God reaching down for the soul (or an unexpected death).

Phew! There now, don’t you feel better?

Wounded at San Jacinto – Died at Galveston

I wanted to write a post for Memorial Day that tells the story of someone with Galveston ties who gave their life in battle. The challenge was that there are so very many stories to tell. In the Broadway Cemetery complex alone there are veterans from every war from 1812 forward. Of course, not all of them lost their life in the service, and many of those who did have stories that are well-known.

So I decided to go with a little more obscure story with Galveston ties that many locals may not have heard.

When people visit the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, they usually visit the impressive star-topped monument and possibly the USS Battleship Texas. But are you aware there are actually TWO cemeteries on the grounds?

The most visible of the two is close to the battleship, and known as San Jacinto Battlefield Cemetery. It is where the handful of Texans killed in the battle were buried near the Texan Army camp. Buried there are Dr. William Junius Motley, Sgt. Thomas Patton Fowle, Lt. George A. Lamb, Lt. John C. Hale and privates Lemuel Stockton Blakey, Mathias Cooper, Ashley R. Stevens, Benjamin Rice Brigham and Olwyn Trask.

A monument called the Brigham Monument was erected at the gravesite in 1881.

Taking the time to read the lengthy inscriptions, the word “Galveston” (of course) caught my eye.

“Olwyn J. Trask…died on Galveston Island… of wounds …received at the San Jacinto Battlefield…”

This is how it begins, folks. I see something like this and I’m off, down the rabbit hole of research. Olwyn’s story took me on a complicated journey that involved his family, his unlikely demise, and even the beginnings of Baylor University. But here, I’ll just concentrate on his story.

Olwyn Trask’s sister Frances was a brilliant educator in Texas. By some accounts Olwyn, a recent college graduate, was sent to Texas during the Revolution by their family in Massachusetts to bring her home. Because he arrived in the Spring of 1835, however, it is more likely that he came to join her and their cousins (the Dix family) to seek out business prospects.

Soon after spirited 21-year-old reached Galveston though, he impulsively joined the Texas Army to fight for independence from Mexico.

He became a member of Captain William H. Smith’s Cavalry Company, after General Sam Houston himself witnessed his horsemanship skills in lassoing a young mustang.

On April 20, 1836, the day preceding the famous Battle of San Jacinto, he was one of 80 men under Colonel Sherman who skirmished against the Mexican Army. Only two men in the Texan ranks were wounded, but Olwyn’s were mortal.

Dr. N. D. Labadie

Nicholas Descomps Labadie was an assistant surgeon in the Second Regiment Volunteers under Anson Jones, and treated Trask when he arrived back at camp. The conditions were primitive, and resources limited.

Olwyn was transported to Galveston on a boat with Texan President Burnet and others, where he was to receive further treatment.

The following extract of a letter from New Orleans furnishes details of Olwyn’s fate:

“I called on General Houston yesterday, to ascertain particulars relative to Olwyn J. Trask; he says that he lies dangerously wounded at the Fort at Galveston Island. His thigh was broken in a charge made by 80 of our calvary on about 250 Mexicans, on the 20thof April, in which he behaved most gallantly. He fell from his horse when the ball struck him, but was almost instantly seen again supporting himself on one leg by his horse and had the satisfaction to kill the man who shot him. This was confirmed by one of the aids of General Houston, then present, who remarked that he was in a position to see the whole of it. He said that after Olwyn had laid the man dead at his feet, he sprang on his horse again, in the midst of the enemy’s cavalry, his own corps having retired and immediately urging him to his utmost speed, cutting his way through the ranks, and brandishing his sword at everything that opposed him, when, as the Aid remarked, they seemed to open for him to pass, and he entered the camp with his leg swinging like the pendulum of a clock.”

Olwyn’s thigh bone had been shattered. It was generally believed among those present that if he had received expert medical attention from the start he might have lived. The makeshift facilities are blamed for his demise about three weeks after the battle.

Upon his death he was buried with his comrades “with all the honors that could have been paid to the Commander in Chief; all the troops were under arms, and the officers of the Navy joined in the procession and minute guns were fired during its progress to the place of burial.”

Olwyn J. Trask’s name and gallantry were so revered in his home state of Massachusetts that young men went so far as to legally change their name to his.

In the years that followed, a community cemetery grew around these graves, but now part of the 10-acre site is partially covered by a parking lot for the battleship.

Brigham Monument at San Jacinto

The deed records of Harris County shows that on November 2, 1837, Frances J. S. Trask, Olwyn’s sister, was living at Independence, Washington County, Texas and was on that day appointed representative of Israel Trask of Massachusetts, who was heir to the property of his deceased son. She was awarded the 640 acres of land due Trask’s services at San Jacinto, and used some of it to build a school. This school was the root of what would eventually grow into Baylor University.

Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to remember this young man,

and so many others, who have given their lives fighting for their beliefs and country.

 

 

Galveston’s Tie to Britain

Happy Royal Wedding Day!

Galveston and its port have long had a prosperous working relationship with Britain.


Arthur Thomas Lynn (1812-1888), who was described as remarkably handsome, came to Galveston from England while Texas was still a republic. He was appointed consul general for Great Britain in 1850, and was a beloved member of the community for the rest of his life.

This wonderful cabinet card photo of his grave marker was taken by local photographer Justus Zahn (1847-1918), and appears in my book “Galveston’s Broadway Cemeteries.” The marker is still visible and in Galveston’s Trinity Episcopal Cemetery.