This is how an article sometimes happens- a writer becomes discombobulated in that bleak, gray-hued time-out-of-time that settles over everything like a shroud after the holidays have stopped making winter fun (have you ever seen that movie The Others with Nicole Kidman? That’s what I’m talking about.)
She’s housebound due to a minor ice storm (for which Texans have prepared as if for a winter in an outbuilding in Siberia) and crippled by a nasty bronchial infection which she feels certain is probably pneumonia or Ebola, but raises her weary head from her sick bed with a sudden dim remembrance of a dreaded obligation about which she has completely forgotten. In duty bound to a cruel editor and with the last scrap of feeble strength she can muster she limps to the computer and, with palsied fingers and Ny-Quil’d breath, taps a few keys and comes up with an old number of the Boerne Star- sometimes one can scrape up some last-minute inspiration from the back issues of the paper, get an idea on what in the world to write about from something that happened back in the way-back.
So the writer- who, I can reveal now, is I, happens to dig up the Boerne Star from February 15, 1940 and notes the double-feature playing at the Cascade Theater, a couple of oaters it sounds like, Pride of the Bluegrass with Edith Fellowes and James McCallion along with The Kansas Terrors starring an outfit known as the Three Mesquiteers, whom one can only hope were the inspiration for the Three Amigos.
The Kendall County Stock Show has just taken place on the 9th, 10th and 11th of February, 1940, the winners are listed, and most of the names are familiar, some of them hauntingly so. Gordon Leesch was twelve years-old in 1940 and took first prize in milk-fed beef cattle, Harold Phillip won second for something called ‘light dry lot’, Robert Cravey pulled a white ribbon for his goat and Edgar Schwarz Jr took the blue ribbon for the ewe he raised. Seidenstickers, Vogts, Roses, Ranzaus and Lemms were represented at the Fairgrounds that weekend nearly eighty years ago now. Looking at old newspapers from your hometown can be an eerie experience, a sad kind of time travel where you, the reader, are in the strange position of knowing something about the people you’re reading about, you know what they could never know- how it will all turn out. In this February 1940, almost two years before the US entered World War II, a fourteen year-old Calvin Behr from Sisterdale took third place for his fine wool lamb. Almost exactly to the day, five years later on February 7th, Calvin was killed in Normandy, on his nineteenth birthday. Gordon Leesch, the twelve year-old boy who took the blue ribbon in the milk-fed cattle group, would be killed while leading a patrol into enemy territory near Songnaedong, North Korea, on September 30, 1952. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart; he was twenty-four years old. Six weeks later the stadium at the high school on Johns Road was named for him, and dedicated to his memory and “to all students of Boerne High School who died in the service of their country.” When I went to middle school there, the dedication plaque was kind of crammed between the band hall and the art building, and I sometimes stopped to read it, again, and to think about it. His parents went to my church. I had been to their home; I’d seen his picture above their mantel. I don’t know where that plaque is today, but I wish I knew. He shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should the fact that there used to be brutal, merciless wars like the one in which he died.
I have no good segue.
So anyway, on page four of this issue of the Boerne Star (issued every Thursday in the land of sunshine, milk and honey), there’s an ad for a 9 food sale going on at HO Adler’s store (“The store of a million articles!” sometimes billed as the store of a thousand articles, possibly when someone realized no one was actually gonna count and call them out on it, but maybe they just changed the slogan when they got some new articles. Phone number 51.) Rayon brassieres are on sale at Frank’s Variety store for five cents down from fifteen, and dish pans down to fifteen cents from a quarter. Now, I know, who better? that times have changed, but still, I’m skeptical about the quality of these bras, for several reasons, not the least of which is that you could pick up three of them for the price of one dish tub. The thing is, in 1940, a certain silhouette had become fashionable, and not to put too fine a point on it (pun sort of intended but not discovered until I wrote it by accident and cracked myself up), one’s bust was supposed to resemble a couple of ice cream cones, pointy side out. Of course, your typical hausfrau or farm wife wouldn’t have dreamed of sallying forth to milk old Blessie at four in the a.m. decked out in a bullet bra lest she gore the poor animal right through the flank, nor would it have been at all safe for her to prepare the requisite ten-course farm dinner with those tatas suspended over the wood stove. And the idea of outfitting every female in the family for two bits must have been fairly attractive in those days of the Great Depression, even if the actual brassieres weren’t, so there you go. Still, in HO Adler’s ad on the same page we find that a box of Oxydol flakes was going for fifty-nine cents, or about the same price as an even dozen bras…I mean, you see what I’m saying, right? When was the last time you purchased twelve whole bras for the price of one thing of Tide pods?
Be that as it may, yes, you could march into Frank’s Variety Store- which I imagine would’ve been a lot like a ‘40s version of our old Bill’s Dollar Store- lay down a handful of pennies and leave with a whole brace of brassieres. Also, San Antonio Public Service Company, who, in those days, still provided all the electric service to Boerne before B-town bought its own plant, ran an ad on the same page touting the brand-new electric Hotpoint Range with measured heat, for a mere $4.95 down and $4.90 a month for Lord-knows-how-many months, but not a lot of people in town or out in the country could afford that kind of luxury. This was the Depression, remember, and the nation and especially the South, wouldn’t pull out of the misery of it’s grip until well into the war years; parts of the South would face economic hardship all the way up into the 1970s. Most households in Boerne proper and virtually every farmhouse in all the nooks and crannies of the county still cooked and heated the homeplace by way of a wood-burning stove, and an electric range would be something to gaze at in the newspaper and dream about, by the light of a kerosene lamp.
The newspaper in those days was a lot of things to the people- in a tiny rural village and especially among those isolated farms and ranches miles from any neighbors, it could be a kind of lifeline, a thin cord connecting a lonely farm family to the rest of the world. In places where there was no electricity- and that was virtually everywhere in the countryside of Kendall County- there could be no news on the radio, and in that communications vacuum the Boerne Star carried news from the rest of the world, from the Nazis in Germany and the war being waged between the mysterious and far, faraway Republic of China and the Empire of Japan to the President’s latest plans to put the country back to work and the food rationing program in war-torn Britain. The Boerne Star also published novels in serial form, a couple of chapters every week, to people whose life could be a monotonous routine of backbreaking work and very little glamour. In February 1940 the Star was running Chapter 10 of The Honorable Uncle Lancy, by Ethel Hueston: “I don’t agree with you.” He lighted a cigarette, looking worldly and sophisticated. “Beauty, you know, is entirely a matter of taste.” One could step out of the real world for a precious few minutes and into the urbane and witty world of the fashionable who sipped Singapore Slings on the roof garden of a highrise in midtown while engaging in a bit of witty repartee.
The newspaper provided homemaking tips, crocheting and sewing patterns- This pinafore apron is so pretty that it really deserves to be called a fashion- a crisp, flattering home fashion! There were columns from the Farm Bureau, advice about deworming your cattle and the latest seeds, and bounties were announced: Kendall County Game and Protective Association will pay to members only, a bounty on Blue Darters, Foxes, Bob Cats, [sic] Wolves and Coyotes. Bring scalps to Jim Campbell for payment in Boerne. For the children, in a world before Saturday morning cartoons or even Little Orphan Annie on the radio, there was the comics page, Lala Palooza and Big Top and S’Matter Pop (“Tut, tut! Don’t Steal Ambrose’s stuff!”). Wedding announcements, obituaries, people selling windmill parts or fruit or used wagon wheels; Mr & Mrs Fritz Herms are the proud parents of a baby boy, born Monday, February 12th. And woven in between all of these items, edged in between the ads for patent cures and the Boerne Bakery (B.R. Craig, Prop. “For Boerne people”), are the everyday events in the lives of the people. Of their neighbors, whether the people next door or the folks on the farm six miles down the road; of the people in their families, their kin, who might live on the other side of the county, but here, delivered every Thursday in the land of sunshine, milk and honey, here you could hear news of them, Oh! Emilie had her baby, a little girl! or Louis look, old Mrs Hall died. A.C. Ebensberger visited his parents Mr. and Mrs. Pat Ebensberger, over the weekend. Mrs. Adele Wendler was hostess to the Royal Neighbors at their regular meeting Monday. Mr. and Mrs. Cleofas Cooke and daughter, of Ozona, spent the week end [sic] with Mr. and Mrs. Sam Norris (I included this one solely for the sake of recording the name Cleofas.) “The much discussed and long waited for picture ‘Gone With the Wind’ is now showing in San Antonio and has attracted a number of the Boerne people.” Imagine that, a barefoot farm girl in a feedsack dress wading through the drippy gray misery of a February farmyard, dreaming of that lavish movie, of Scarlett dancing in the ballroom, Scarlett at the barbeque in her green and white sprigged muslin dress, surrounded by her beaux.
And on this particular day, when I’m coughing like one of Dr Herff’s lungers and blue at the lowering sky and the sleet against the windows, my attention lights upon a tiny little announcement that surely nobody has thought about in nearly fourscore years, something inconsequential and quite possibly even an ad disguised as gossip. It’s headlined “W.D. COMES TO TOWN”, and it’s just another of those little local tidbits, those scraps meant to fill in space between the paid advertisements and the birth announcements. “W.D. (Doc) Wood was in Boerne this week mixing around with his many friends,” it reads. “He operates one of the best service stations on the highway to San Antonio. He also sells cold drinks, beer, groceries and household necessities and invites his friends through the columns of this paper to visit him when they get lonesome and want to leave Boerne.” It just kinda hits the right spot, if you know what I mean. It grabs me for some reason. It makes you wonder- well, it made me wonder, if there was any more to this fella than just a passing mention in the newspaper. See, this Doc Wood, he could’ve just been a guy who owned a service station out in Leon Springs for about six months or so in 1940, who happened to get this plug into the newspaper in an advertising kind of way and who then disappeared forever. He might’ve disappeared into the war. It was the Depression, too- maybe he’d drifted down to these parts looking for something, for some slim chance, and he’d bet it all on this service station, and maybe the thing had folded up and taken his last hope with it. Maybe his tenure running the best service station on the San Antonio highway had been so fleeting that nobody even remembered it except for one oldtimer who’d squint up his eyes and think real hard and then maybe come up with the ghost of a memory.
But maybe not.
It’s kind of exhilarating, plunging into the rabbit hole after a whim, chasing a guy who might be a ghost, who might have lost himself somewhere along the way, on the road from seventy-eight years ago til now. I’ve chased people like that; I have a great-grandmother, whom I never met, but who just suddenly appeared in the world when she was sixteen years old, in 1912. There are some hints and clues, a scrap of paper where she herself seemed to be trying to work out the intricate math of the movements of her own, elusive mother, a prayer card in an old, old family Bible, an obituary cut from a newspaper that mentions all the sorrows and losses the dead woman suffered- but I can’t put my hand on the person I know is there, who existed, but who has been lost to history.
But Doc Wood- turns out, he was never lost at all. Everyone knew him in old Leon Springs, the Leon Springs before I10 cut a swath right through the heart of the little town, the Leon Springs of Rudy Aue’s corner store and the old rock three-room schoolhouse with the “kissing closet” and a wood-burning potbelly stove in each of the rooms. Doc Wood was no drifter, no hard-luck man who blew into town and wafted down the road just as easily, but a father and an uncle and a man who left his mark on that town, and in the cherished memories of the kids who grew up there, kids who are now octogenarians and nonagenarians, children who’ve long grown up and passed away in their own good time.
Leon Springs of 1940 was a little village that had grown up in the middle of nowhere around a stagecoach stop. I promise I will tell the whole, wonderful story of Leon Springs one day soon, because there is so much to tell and I stumbled onto a delightful trove of oral history from the people who grew up there, but for now, just briefly: In 1852, the same year that Boerne was founded up the Fredericksburg road to the northwest, one Max Aue was awarded 640 acres of prime Hill Country land about twenty-five miles from downtown San Antonio for his service as a Texas Ranger. Texas was land-rich but cash poor, and German immigrant Aue, who shared the dream of owning his own place like many of his fellow emigres, took the land. He promptly built the first stagecoach stop- which also became the family home, after Aue’s marriage to Emma Toepperwein in 1857- on what was called the “Jackass” Stage Route stretching from San Antonio to San Diego. It turned out to be a savvy business decision, because Aue’s place was fortuitously located halfway between San Antonio and the soon-to-be-wildly-popular Boerne, which was gaining fame as a health resort and spa, celebrated for its healthful mountain ozone and sparkling pure waters which were promised to cure tuberculins in no time flat- and sometimes they actually did. Anyway, with the popularity of Aue’s horse changing station-slash-rest stop, so conveniently located one day’s travel between the two towns, he went on to build the Settlement Inn in 1879, and ten years later, in 1889, Max’s son Rudolph opened what is described on a certain barbecue joint’s website as “a gas station, garage & grocery store,” although I’m very skeptical about the gas station and garage parts, since they didn’t have cars in 1889. I did warn you that this is the Reader’s Digest version. At any rate, the grocery store part, at least, opened for business in 1889 and locals called the place Rudy’s Corner, which is what my boyfriend and I called it in the late 1970s and early 80s, back in our salad days. Back then it was still a gas station in sort of the middle of nowhere to which we would sometimes ride our bikes in order to get a coke, and to get away from his parents’ house so we could make out, and that memory still makes me smile even though it’s been more than thirty-five years since I’ve laid eyes on him. Maybe because it’s been thirty-five years.
Two years before Rudy Aue opened his place, though, in 1887, the railroad finally came to Leon Springs, soon to go all the way through Boerne and points west, and that event signalled the end of the stagecoach era. The railroad re-named the community Aue Station and killed off Aue’s stagestop business, but the Aue family was nothing if not resourceful, and somebody in the fam had a knack for the game. Over the years, various members of the Aue family would build five saloons around Leon Springs to serve the alcohol-and-fellow-companionship needs of the soldiers at Camp Bullis during the first World War and, as automobiles became more popular, they built a gas station that eventually expanded to include a bar and restaurant.
Though the village of Leon Springs was small and everyone knew everyone else and knew their business, too, paradoxically it was also huge, covering a wide expanse of rolling hill and river bottom, oak trees and cedar and valleys and undergrowth, a kingdom spreading west down Boerne Stage Road and east to Camp Bullis and beyond, to the south encompassing all of what is now the Dominion and to the north as far as Fair Oaks. All those families lived on their various places scattered among those hills, the kids meeting at school and the mothers and fathers in the stores, in the church, in the places in between. They made family excursions to the country dances they held at places like the Three Way Inn and the B29 Inn and in all the little neighboring communities, and the band would play Ten Pretty Girls, they’d play polkas, Put Your Little Foot, The Cotton Eyed Joe, the schottische. During the war the servicemen home on leave would dance in their uniforms with their best girls and everybody looked at them and swelled with love and pride.
And Doc Wood? He and his wife Lillie, like all their kind who’d come to Leon Springs before them in the midst of the Great Depression, they opened their store and gas station right in the heart of that little community, in the midst of their cousins and aunts and uncles, surrounded by Aues and Ashers and Durlers, the Flores and the Neutzes and Moreaus and Fellers, Blanchards and Pattons. They had three kids who grew up going to school in the old rock three-room schoolhouse, WD, LeMoine and Delores, who went to the Presbyterian church, who rode their donkeys and horses to school, who played hookie in the creek, played baseball against the schools in Locke Hill, Helotes and Leon Valley, who ran wild and free. All the cousins and kin bought their gas and groceries from Doc Wood and Lillie, and the kids would straighten up the candy display case in exchange for a penny sweet or two. Doc loaded up his truck up two or three times a week, every time the movies changed, with his own kids, the hired boy from the store and whatever local urchins wanted to see the pictures, and the whole passel of them would drive into Boerne to the Cascade Theater and watch Gene Autry or Roy Rogers or whatever else was featured that week. They would eventually watch Gone With the Wind. They would watch the newsreels right up through the war; they would see the bombs decimating Pearl Harbor, watch the Battle of Guadalcanal. They would watch the world change between the feature and the cartoon short.
I found people even I know, amongst the memories of Doc Wood’s Leon Springs, a lady I used to go to church with when I was young, a(nother) old boyfriend’s mother and father. Gail McDonough of the old rock quarry where all that stuff is now, Fiesta Texas and The Rim- who could have ever looked ahead and dreamt of that, in 1940? The enormous building on the hill that used to be crowned by the old Mountain Top Inn? John O Meusebach used to live where Camp Bullis is now. The Toepperweins, who used to practice their sharp-shooting out behind the three-room schoolhouse, whose Indian silhouettes plinked into tin once adorned the walls of the old Rudy’s Corner, once lived where they eventually built the Dominion. Think of that.
These different colored threads, visible only occasionally when you chance to look when the light is just right, connect us all together, everybody in the world, and especially those of us in a small town. When I was drifting in a coma once, in the warm, dark waters of timelessness in a state between this life and something else, I had this dream that we were all of us traveling down a wide river, each in our little individual boats full of the things we’d packed, and we all kept bumping up against each other, impeding each other, irritating each other, with all our precious, meaningless things tumbling overboard, and I began to perceive a voice that had been calling, all along, trying to urge us all to help one another, to reach out and link hands, because we’re all together, all going the same place. Sometimes I remember that, and I long to become a person who listens.
Doc Wood was found, and it turns out he never was lost, that he was always there, all along. Sometimes down the rabbit hole we stumble across these amazing things- the stories told by a community of children, saved from oblivion because someone thought to write them down and thereby preserve the memory of a man who lived once, and left a mark to say he’d been there. Doc invites his friends to come visit him when they get lonesome- and I bet they did, too.