“We Spent the Winter in San Antonio.”

00 san ant

[by Rob Roehm. Originally published Sept. 7, 2013, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

One of the reasons I was so gung-ho about going to WorldCon this year was because it was in San Antonio. Readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m a tad obsessed with visiting county courthouses in Texas, and, up to this point, I hadn’t been to the Bexar County facility. There are reasons for this: I have generally found that the larger the courthouse, the less helpful they are; also, my usual traveling companion (my dad) disdains to drive in populated areas. But, since the Howards had lived briefly in San Antonio and visited on occasion, a stop at the courthouse was required. So, since I’d be traveling solo this time, I figured I’d brave the traffic and see what treasures I could uncover.

I’d originally planned on swinging by the courthouse in the morning, before my first WorldCon panel on Friday; however, I lost half an hour due to construction and the abysmal parking situation downtown, so I abandoned that plan and went to the convention center. During a lull between panels, I decided to take a walk. I asked my fellow Howard-heads if anyone else was interested; only equally-obsessed Patrice Louinet took the bait [that’s him in the photo above].

We walked the five or six blocks to the courthouse, emptied our pockets and walked through the metal detector, only to be told by the guard that everything we were looking for was at the annex across the street. We refilled our pockets and hit the county clerk’s office in the other building.

One good thing about the larger counties is that their land records have been scanned and indexed. A quick name search on the computer will generate a list of all the pertinent documents. I searched for Howards and McClungs while Patrice looked for Ervins. None of the Howards that popped up appeared to be connected to our Howards, but there was one item on W. O. McClung, Bob Howard’s uncle (Dr. Howard’s brother-in-law). The document raises more questions than it answers. Some kind of judgment was rendered against McClung and a few others, but the type of judgment is not mentioned and the clerk couldn’t find any other documents to help us make sense of this one. And it’s always possible that this McClung isn’t our McClung, though they were definitely in the area around that time. Maybe someone will look into it later.

After finishing up with the county clerk, we went down the hall to the district clerk, which is where medical/physicians registries are typically housed. There were at least two reasons for looking into this. In a November 7, 1936 letter to a sister-in-law, Dr. Howard says the following: “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” In Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp reports this:

[O]n January 8, 1910, Dr. Howard presented his credentials at the county seat of Bexar County, giving his home address as Poteet, a few miles from the border. Years later Howard reported that he lived for a time on a ranch in Atascosa County, Texas, near San Antonio. These bare facts are the only records we have of the family’s South Texas adventures.

I already have a copy of the registration mentioned above, but it’s a crappy scan of a photocopy, and I always like to have color photographs of the real thing. Plus, there’s a problem with de Camp’s statement: The January 8, 1910 document was filed by the district clerk of Atascosa County, not Bexar County. Of course, when I went to the county seat of Atascosa County last winter, they couldn’t find a Medical Registry, so maybe, I figured, the book was housed in the larger county’s archives. Anyway, I wanted to have a look at the Medical Register for Bexar County.

With one exception, Clay County, the district clerks’ offices never know that they should have such a volume; Bexar County was no exception. Luckily, the director of archives happened to be in the building and he called over to his office. Someone there located the volume I wanted; unfortunately, the archives collection was clear across town. As Patrice and I walked back to the convention center, in the blazing, humid heat, I tried to decide if I really needed a color photograph of a document I already had a copy of. Obsession won.

01 san ant

Leaving a trail of sweat behind, we arrived at the Bexar County Archives and Training Center—they were expecting us. We drank gallons of water and wiped the sweat off of our bald heads with paper towels while waiting for the book to arrive. The book (above) has seen better days, but its index is still intact, so I turned to the section marked “H,” found Dr. Howard, and went to page 260. I didn’t remember the short list of Dr. Howard’s other registrations at the bottom of the page, but I was so convinced that I already had a copy of this document that I didn’t pay much attention to that. After taking a few photos, we settled back and waited for a taxi—if we’d tried to hike back in the sweltering heat, there’d be nothing left of us but a sweaty smear on the sidewalk.

In the cab, I inspected the digital images a little more thoroughly in my camera’s display window and started to think that maybe this wasn’t the same document that I already had, but we arrived back at the convention center and I put that thought on the back-burner and enjoyed the rest of WorldCon.

DSCN1186

Once I got home, I pulled the image up on my computer and had a better look. Different document. The registration de Camp mentioned was indeed filed on January 8, 1910—but in Atascosa County, not Bexar—and Dr. Howard’s address is listed as Poteet. This document was filed on November 20, 1909, in Bexar County, and Dr. Howard’s address (after crossing out what would have been Holly Springs, in Arkansas) is listed as San Antonio! Plus, at the end of the page is a list of other counties in which Dr. Howard had registered: Palo Pinto (Oran), Gaines (Seminole), and Coke (Bronte). Some of the information here flies in the face of what has been presented in the past. For example, according to notes by de Camp’s partner in DVD, Jane Griffith, Dr. Howard registered at Seminole on the day that the Bexar Co. document has him registering in Coke County—I’ll take a document over someone’s notes any day of the week.

Using this document, and a couple of newspaper articles I found just before going to San Antonio, I’ve put together a more precise timeline for December 1907 to January 1910. To wit:

On December 20, 1907, I. M. Howard of Oran, Palo Pinto County, had his medical certificate recorded with the county. Shortly after doing that, he packed up his wife and almost two-year-old son and headed west. The January 3, 1908 edition of The Enterprise (edited by Hester Howard’s brother, William Vinson Ervin, in Big Spring, Texas), has this:

02 san ant

“Monday” would have been Dec. 30, 1907, and don’t go scrambling for a map to look up “Cran” like I did; there is a Crane, Texas, very close to Big Spring, but as soon as I showed this to Patrice he said it is “of course Oran.” Duh.

The January 24 Enterprise has an update:

03 san ant

The new San Antonio registration has Dr. Howard registering in Gaines Co. on February 3, and we know from a death record that he was there until at least July 24. The same document has him registering over in Coke County on September 14, 1908, and he starts recording births in Bronte at least as early as January 19, 1909. The last birth record I’ve found there with Dr. Howard attending was recorded on August 24, 1909.

I’ve theorized that after leaving Bronte the Howards visited the McClungs in Crystal City and went down the Nueces in the fall of 1909 (look here). Whether they did that then or not, we now know that they were in San Antonio sometime before November 20, 1909. Less than two months later, Dr. Howard registered in Atascosa County, with an address in Poteet. From there, things get pretty sketchy again.

I never did get a picture of the Atascosa County registration.

Down the Nueces

000 nuces

[by Rob Roehm. Originally published Jan. 17, 2013, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

As a child I crossed the South Plains, not in a covered wagon indeed, but in a buggy, in what was about the last big colonization movement in Texas—the settlement of the Great Plains. (I did go down the Nueces in a covered wagon.) I also saw the beginning of the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

After reading the above, from Howard’s newly rediscovered letter to Dime Sports, I got to wondering about a few things. The “South Plains” comment refers to Howard’s time in Gaines County—Seminole, to be precise—in 1908, but the other items are pretty vague. What else did Howard have to say about the Nueces River (pictured above)? The only other mention of the river comes from his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

But the old Texas is gone or is going fast. All the plains are fenced in, where in my childhood I’ve ridden for a hundred miles without seeing a foot of barbed wire. I can’t remember when I’ve heard a coyote. And one of my earliest memories is being lulled to sleep in a covered wagon camped on the Nueces River, by the howling of wolves.

When they built Crystal City twenty years ago in Zavalla county, some forty miles from the Mexican Border, the wolves came howling to the edge of the clearings. The woods were full of wildcats, panthers and javelinas, the lakes were full of fish and alligators. I was back there a couple of years ago and was slightly depressed at the signs of civilization which disfigured the whole country.

Looking at the map that heads this post, it’s pretty clear that anyone going “down the Nueces” would probably stop at Crystal City for supplies and/or human contact. So, if we can figure out when the Howards were in town, we can conclude when they went down the river.

001 nueces

In an undated letter to an unknown recipient, Howard says of Crystal City (seen above) that it’s “a fair-sized town now and growing all the time. I lived there when the first store went up during its earliest boom.” No help with the date there, but in the letter to Clyde Smith that I recently tacked a “circa June 1928” date on, Howard says that he “was here twenty years ago when there was only one store in Crystal City—just beginning to build.” This comment would put his earliest trip to Crystal City in 1908, if I dated the letter correctly. Of course, he could easily be rounding the “twenty years ago” comment up or down. It’s fairly common for people to say “twenty years” when the actual number is nineteen or twenty-one. But there’s still another reference, this one from Howard’s circa August 1931 letter to Lovecraft:

I remember, very faintly, the fall of a meteorite in South Texas, many years ago. I was about four years old at the time, and was at the house of an uncle, in a little town about forty miles from the Mexican Border; a town which had recently sprung up like a mushroom from the wilderness and was still pretty tough. I remember waking suddenly and sitting up in bed, seeing everything bathed in a weird blue light, and hearing a terrific detonation. My uncle—an Indian—had enemies of desperate character, and in the excitement it was thought they had dynamited the house.

The description of the town here matches Howard’s description of Crystal City above, and his “about four” comment indicates that he was there in 1909 or 1910. We also know who that uncle was: William Oscar McClung, the husband of Doc Howard’s sister, Willie. In L. Sprague de Camp’s biography of Howard, he says that “Fanny McClung Adamson [Willie’s daughter] remembers that ‘Uncle Cue,’ as his nieces and nephews called Isaac Howard, was a frequent visitor to Crystal City.” However, in the interview transcript housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Adamson says, “The only time I ever met him [Doc Howard] and knew him, I was sick.” She then describes an episode of chicken pox she had while living at Crystal City with her parents, adding that “We must have moved there in 1908 and it was either 1909 or 1910 when [Doctor Howard] was there.” I’ll leave the frequency of his visits alone for now, but it seems pretty clear that the Howards were in Crystal City sometime in the 1909-10 range. Let’s see if we can narrow that down a bit.

Doctor Howard registered in Seminole on February 3, 1908, and then in Bronte, over in Coke County, on September 14, 1908. His next appearance on paper is his signature on a January 19, 1909 birth record from Bronte. He’s there until at least August 27, 1909, when he signs his last birth record for the county and drops off the radar until November 20, 1909, when he filed for record in San Antonio. He didn’t stay in Bexar County long because in January 1910 he sent a note to the Journal of the Texas State Medical Association changing his address from Bronte to Poteet and  filed for record in Atascosa County, post office address Poteet. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Mrs. W. P. Searcy, November 7, 1936, Dr. Howard says, “I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” Robert Howard turned four in January 1910. So, the question is: What were the Howards doing in the fall of 1909? I’m guessing they were going “down the Nueces” and visiting in Crystal City.

002 nueces

Have another look at the map above. About 150 miles due north of Barksdale, off the map, is a little town in Coke County called Bronte. I speculate that when the Howards left there in the late summer or early fall of 1909, they traveled south and went down the Nueces River in a covered wagon to Crystal City. After visiting the McClungs in the fall of 1909, they continued following the river as it meandered east toward Corpus Christi. After about 80 miles, in McMullen County, they left the river (or perhaps joined the Atascosa River) and went north another 80 miles to winter in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County, where de Camp says Doctor Howard registered on January 8, 1910. The doctor’s letter mentioned above says that the Howards spent “the spring months [of 1910] in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.” After that, they appear to have traveled to Palo Pinto County, far to the north, where they were recorded on the U. S. Census, which was enumerated on May 16, 1910. Again, this is speculation; however, if this isn’t when the river trip occurred, there wasn’t much time left in 1910 for another. On December 20, 1910, the McClungs sold their land in Crystal City (below), practically an entire city block, and headed off to Arkansas.

003 nueces

The Missing Mexico Trip

1928 06-00 REH to HPa 1-web

[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted November 30, 2012 at twogunraconteur.com. This version slightly expanded.]

One of the items found in the collection of Glenn Lord (1931-2011) was a postcard, seen above, from Robert E. Howard (who signed with his X-triple bar brand) to Harold Preece. In the picture, the last words above the doorway, partially obscured by the tree’s branches, are “Piedras Negras,” which is a Mexican town just across the river from Eagle Pass, Texas. This is a picture of the border customs house. The flip-side of the card is below.

1928 06-00 REH to HPa 2-web

With the stamp long gone, and with it some of the post mark, the date is not known. So, when was Robert E. Howard in Eagle Pass and/or Mexico? None of the standard biographical material mentions Mexico much. Howard’s 1934 trip with Truett Vinson—through New Mexico, El Paso, and over the river to Juarez—is about it. Howard’s July 5, 1934 letter to Robert Barlow explains that he has been on “a sojourn in the extreme western part of the State, and into New and Old Mexico.”

Howard also mentions Mexico in at least two letters from 1935: his March 6th letter to Emil Petaja (“As for Old Mexico, I’ve been across the Border a few times but haven’t spent enough time in the south to learn much of the language”); and a circa July letter to H. P. Lovecraft (Santa Fe, New Mexico, is “much like towns I have visited in Old Mexico, with the exception that it is much cleaner and neater”). The above quotes indicate that Howard had been to Mexico on more than one occasion. So what do his pre-1934 letters have to say?

Howard’s earliest trip to Mexico appears to have been in 1924 when the whole family visited the Rio Grande Valley, way down on the Texas-Mexico border. In an illustrated letter/poem from Weslaco dated September 7, 1924, Howard tells his friend Clyde Smith, “I went across the Rio Grande / And viewed the great Tequila land. / The Rio Grande I went across, / It cost just fifty centavos. / There is a bar on every street. / You get quite thirsty in the heat.” Their return was noted in the Cross Plains Review for September 19:

1924 09-19 CPR p05

Another reference to his being in Mexico comes from a January 1932 letter to Lovecraft: “I’m no gambler. I don’t like to risk money I worked hard to get. I was never a very welcome guest in the gambling houses of Mexico, for I was merely a looker-on.” Later that year, circa July 13, 1932, he tells Lovecraft, “My entrails have been insulted with so many damnable concoctions for so many years, that I fear I may have lost the ability to appreciate good liquor—though on my pilgrimages to Mexico I find that knack unimpaired so far.” And on November 2, “I’m in favor of the open saloon; and legalized prize-fights and horse-races, licensed gambling halls and licensed bawdy-houses. I wish I was in Mexico right now.” Howard’s late-December 1933 letter to August Derleth has more:

I’ve drunk only Prima, Budweiser, Pearl, Old Heidelberg, Schlitz, Rheingold, Savoy, Sterling, Blue Ribbon, Fox, Country Club, Atlas Special, Jax, and Superior. None of it was as good as the Sabinas I used to drink in Old Mexico. I understand that company is going to move their brewery to San Antonio, and I hope they do. That was mighty good stuff.

Shortly after his trip with Vinson, circa July 1934, Howard tells Lovecraft that Juarez “was just as dirty and lousy as any border town I ever saw—more so than Piedras Negras, for instance, and swarming with the usual pimps and touts. We drove around awhile, made a brief exploration of what is politely known as ‘the red light district,’ and of course imbibed some.” Around the same time, Howard told Carl Jacobi: “I prefer Piedras Negras, which lies across the river from Eagle Pass, and is somewhat cleaner and more progressive. The main charm about those Mexican towns to most people is, of course, the liquor, and El Paso is now just as wide open as anything south of the Rio Grande.” These are not Howard’s first mentions of Piedras Negras.

His March 2, 1932 letter to Lovecraft has the following: “I don’t know whether they’ve run the Chinese out of Piedras Negras or not. When I was there a few years ago—it’s the town opposite Eagle Pass, Texas—it was largely dominated by Chinese. They owned small irrigated farms along the river, and ran most of the best cabarets and saloons in the town.” And there’s one more mention, but we’ll look at that one a bit later.

1928 06-04 back-web

All of the above indicates that Robert E. Howard was in Piedras Negras at least, as he told Lovecraft, “a few years” before 1932. We need a little more help to pin this down. Luckily, Harold Preece moved around quite a bit in the late 1920s due to his work on the city directory crew. In January 1928, Howard told Tevis Clyde Smith to write to Preece at “905 Main Street, Dallas.” In February, we learn that Preece is “now in Wichita Falls.” A postcard (above) postmarked June 4, 1928 is addressed to Preece at the same Fort Worth address as the Piedras Negras postcard that heads this post. Preece’s July 26, 1928 letter to Clyde Smith is addressed from “202 Provident Bldg. / Waco, Texas,” and mentions a prize fight Preece and Howard “attended together in Ft. Worth.” In October, Preece was back home in Austin. All of this suggests that Preece was living in Fort Worth for a relatively short time in June and possibly July 1928. None of his other surviving letters, nor those of his sister Lenore, nor the surviving envelopes (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) or letters from Robert Howard—none of these suggest another time that Preece was in Fort Worth “a few years” before 1932; however, 1929 is pretty sketchy, with big holes in all of the correspondence, but the Junto mailing list for July and August don’t have him anywhere near Fort Worth, either. So, with 1929 a remote possibility, given all of the above, I date the Piedras Negras postcard to circa June 1928. And that unlocks another little mystery.

In volume 3 of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard is an undated letter to Tevis Clyde Smith that begins, “Not even a movie in this god forsaken town.” That letter has the final reference to Piedras Negras that I mentioned above:

I didn’t see such a hell of a lot of Eagle Pass but I saw Piedras Negras—and the hottest girl I’ve seen in many a day—a skirt in a Mexican whore house away out of the polite section. Also I learned several new vulgarities in Spanish. Some nice looking strumpets in what they name The Reservation across the border and most of them brazen as hell—five dollars [which is 67.64 in 2012 dollars].

Looks like circa June 1928 will work for this one, too. I love it when things come together.

Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso . . .

Aztec Bar 1946 Improved

[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted July 28, 2011 at twogunraconteur.com]

Back in February of 2010, I wrote about my search for the Aztec Bar in El Paso, a bar Howard and Truett Vinson stopped at during one of their trips out west. It seems I’m not the only one interested in the place. Last Saturday I received a letter in the mail from a gentleman who is even more curious about the bar than I am—his grandfather ran the place, and may have even served the pair from Texas their drinks. He was hoping there was more information about the bar in the portion of Howard’s letter that I didn’t quote in my post. His letter gave me an email address, so I sent him the rest of the passage, which, sadly, didn’t have any new information for him. Despite my inability to help, he was kind enough to bother his family for a picture of the bar for me.

The photo above has “46” written on it, but my dad says the cars are from the ’30s. Of course, since no new models came out during World War II, there would have been quite a few 1930’s cars running around in 1946. Anyway, the picture above is certainly closer to what Howard saw than the scene below, from 2010.

2009 REH 161

The Aztec Bar, er . . . Cafe

2009 REH 162

[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted February 22, 2010, at rehtwogunraconteur.com]

I was in Brownwood during my school’s winter break. I’d gone with my dad to tie up a few loose ends from our previous excursions. After crossing most of the “things to do” off our list, we decided to hit the road early, just ahead of some pretty bad weather that was coming in from the north. We spent the first night of our homeward trek in Odessa.

Having shaved a few hours off the trip, the next day we decided to stop in Old El Paso. It was nearing lunchtime, and I could think of nothing better to do than track down “The Aztec Bar” and have a cold one. Why, you ask? In a lengthy letter to Lovecraft, circa July 1934, Howard describes a trip west that he took with Truett Vinson. After visiting the Carlsbad Caverns, Howard and Vinson head for El Paso where they “saw pictures of the Baer-Carnera fight” from June 14, 1934 (below), and then “primed” themselves at, you guessed it, The Aztec Bar.

Baer-Carnera_2a1-530x317

We were still a half hour or so from the city, so Pop suggested that I put my cell phone to use. I pulled out the AAA tour book, found the correct phone number, and called the El Paso Visitors’ Center. “No,” the voice on the other end of the line said, “we don’t have a genealogy library, but there is a Heritage section in the public library.” I got the number and made another call. We were good to go.

We found the library with little trouble; finding a parking spot was another matter. We put an hour’s worth of coins in the closest meter we could find and walked the two blocks to the El Paso Public Library. Once inside, we found our way to the Heritage section. I immediately asked the gentleman at the help desk if they had a city directory from 1934. He asked what I was looking for and, after I explained, he went looking in a cabinet that contained an old-school card system. A few minutes later, he hadn’t found anything, and I repeated my request for a city directory. This time, he led me to a locked section of the library and went inside. A minute later, he returned with the book I’d requested.

Aztec listing

In a matter of moments we found what we were looking for, listed not under “bars” or “taverns”—Prohibition had been repealed in December of ’33—but under “beverages”: 100 San Antonio E. We double checked the address in the street listings and then asked for a 1934 map.

Lucky for us, the library had electronic copies of Sanborn maps. We pulled up the appropriate El Paso map (below) and printed the page that showed 100 E. San Antonio (corner building pictured at the top of this post). We were going to leave so that we could consult our modern map, but when we stopped at the counter to pick up our copy, the gentleman behind the desk gave us directions. It was just a few blocks away. You can type the address into Google Earth and it’ll get you in the right building.

Aztec map

We got back to the car with a couple of minutes left on the parking meter. We checked our modern map anyway, of course, and then followed the librarian’s directions downtown. After navigating the one-way streets, we found a parking spot right in front of 110 E. San Antonio. From there, it was a very short walk back to “The Aztec Bar.” Of course, it’s not a bar anymore. Today, it’s “Sunny’s Accessories” and, man, is it colorful inside.

2009 REH 159

2009 REH 170

Anyway, we took a few pictures of the place, and the old Plaza Hotel that towers nearby, and then hit the road again. We weren’t going to get anything cold to drink there. The downtown area has plenty of old buildings to look at, but I’d recommend visiting in the spring instead of the winter. And it’s always nice to knock another REH location off the list.

2009 REH 164

Or so I thought. It’s never that easy.

Back home, I started sorting through the pile of memorabilia that I’d scored while in Brownwood and, as usual, for every new item that answered one question, it created one or two new questions. Of course, it all started with my dad.

He was browsing around in a newspaper archive and found this:

SHOPPING PLEASURES come with a pleasant lunch or relaxing afternoon drink at the popular AZTEC CAFE, 102 E. San Antonio St. This week there are some special Chinese lunches by a fine Chinese chef for only 35c, besides the good American menus at the same prices. The ever-attractive bar is a popular meeting place for the business men of El Paso.

Aztec Cafe at 102 E. San Antonio? Great. The article above appeared in the El Paso Herald-Post on December 6, 1935, and not sometime in ’34. So, what happened? In 1934 the only listing for “Aztec” is the 100 San Antonio address. 102 is listed as an art shop. I’m guessing that sometime after the 1934 city directory was printed and before the above article was published, The Aztec expanded their business into the adjacent section of the building. This supposition caused me to reexamine the Sanborn map and my photos.

While Sunny’s Accessories is indeed located at 100 E. San Antonio today, based on a comparison of the Sanborn map, my modern pictures, and Google Earth’s satellite images, I’m now pretty sure that in 1934 Sunny’s would be in 102 E. San Antonio. So, the colorful shop I poked my head into was the Aztec Cafe. Oh well, at least I stood in front of The Aztec Bar.