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.