A VISIT TO 1910 THROUGH THE
PAGES OF THE ELGIN COURIER
Contributed by Ann Helgeson, Copyright 2/2003
I have just spent two days hunched over a pile of yellowing issues of the Elgin Courier from 1910. I recently joined the Elgin Historical Association and thought that I could contribute to the preservation of Elgin's past by making old issues of the newspaper more accessible to people. I had grand notions of scanning them all into a computer format where they could be read and searched on the Internet. As all grand notions it now looks perhaps a little too grand, but I am exploring possibilities.
But back to 1910. It was like falling through one of those invisible time portals in some historical novels. I'm getting to know all the Carters and Dildys and Rivers and Smiths and Snowdens and Wades. And all these grandparents and great grandparents are walking around, vigorous and ambitious, in our town.
The first issues I read came from August through October. The cotton was coming into town to be weighed and ginned and baled. By early October 6457 square bales had been received. The farmers from New Sweden were reported to be satisfied with the harvest which was yielding 1-3 bales per acre. At 3 o'clock on the last Saturday in October a couple of guys counted the vehicles in town and came to 600, half of them wagons with an average of four cotton pickers on them.
By mid-August Elgin and its trade territory had also shipped 75 train cars of watermelons at roughly $75 a car, which was called "pin money while you wait for cotton to open." It's probably just as well they were shipping off all those melons because back in June the City Council had been obliged to issue an ordinance about melon rinds in the street. Fines of $1-5 could be issued for throwing rinds and "all business houses along streets shall provide a box or barrel in which to provide for the deposit of the melon rinds."
If you were in the market for land you could buy 171 acres (125 in cultivation) a five-room house with barns, well etc for $2,700. At the end of July another farm for sale 4 miles south of Elgin (price $4250) gives us a glimpse into what was being grown and how:
35 acres in cotton
25 in corn
6 in peanuts
1 ½ in cane
3-4 in ribbon cane
1 in sweet potatoes
6 head of cattle
6 head hogs
4 turning plows
1 mower and rake
1 four room house
Automobiles were just appearing on Elgin's streets and the first fatality was duly noted: Judge C. W. Webb's pug dog. Someone had just bought a "bran new" Hudson 20 and driven it "overland" from San Antonio to the amazement of all. There were Hupmobiles, Studebakers, a Chalmer Detroit, a Cadillac, Overlands, a Columbus, a Maxwell and a Buick in the parade on San Jacinto Day. Farmers were beginning to complain that drivers didn't use their rear driving lights at night.
Arc lights were being installed on Main Street, the Elgin Light and Power Company having just begun business. One article in August reported that they were "now furnishing day and night current for fans, motors and lights." Mr. Diesch, the president and manager was said to be an experienced electrician. How high-tech that occupation must have sounded. A word like "current" could be dropped into a conversation the way we talk about megabytes and web servers. In the weeks before the power went on parents were urged to warn their children of the dangers of loose wires. Notice how they mention fans before lights. A couple of issues back I noted that the Majestic theatre had purchased 1000 Palmetto fans for the use of their patrons.
In June the Majestic showed the great drama Drink, the story of two female rivals for the favor of a drunkard. It was advertised as "two big reels of pictures and full of interest and excitement." A new motion picture theatre was opening up in 1910 also and a contest was being held to name it. Amateur productions as well as travelling professionals were at the Bassist Opera House. In June a benefit production (for the Baptist parsonage fund) of "The Merry Cobbler" was enacted "without a bobble" by local people to great acclaim. Tickets were 35-50 cents. "The play has gained a strong hold upon theatre goers by the simplicity of its story and the strong undercurrent of heart interest mingled with comedy low and high…The various Thespians richly deserved the applause manifested many times during the evening." R.B.Morrison, in the character of the villain was "the best thing that has ever been on an Elgin stage, amateur or professional." Ada Scarborough, who was later that summer to win the popularity poll held at the Majestic Theatre, provided some of the "heart interest" in the role of Carlotta. The Opera House also saw the first San Jacinto Day ball at which young ladies appeared in the latest fashions, described by the Courier in great detail, and everyone danced to the music of Besserer's orchestra from Austin until the small hours.
Much entertainment and leisure time was spent in visiting friends and family in town and in the surrounding communities. Every week the Courier ran columns and columns of who went where, who stopped by the Courier office and who was visiting who and from where. There were columns from surrounding communities with similar tidbits and the readers of the time could probably guess from them who was courting whom, and who was included and excluded from various social groupings. These columns had alliterative names and anonymous correspondents: McDade Mutterings (by XXX); Schiller Snap Shots (sometimes Schnapp Schotts by White Boy); Woodalia Warblings (White Panther); Young's Prairie Yelps (Part of It); Kimbro Runner (Plough Boy); Type News (Someone); Owens Prairie (Redneck); the Butler News (Busy Boys.)
The summer was full of barbecues and concerts by such as the Liberty Boys Band of Lund, in great demand and very accomplished. It was an election year and candidates spoke at all these events. Cone Johnson, a Democrat aspiring to be governor, was everywhere: at a concert at the skating rink, at the big barbecue in May at Coupland that was said to have practically emptied the town on that Saturday. Little seems to have changed in politics. The Courier editor wondered "Why is it that all the candidates for governor are so corrupt and guilty of so much meanness? Read in the campaign 'dope' and speeches, so far, we fail to find where any of them accuse another of a single good deed or anything but impure motives. Strange that some 'good' man don't get in the race."
Religious revivals were popular, especially during the time after the cotton was laid in. Sid Williams, "one of the most prominent evangelists in the South and a leading factor in the Baptist denomination" was here for three weeks, preaching at the skating rink because none of the churches had space big enough for the crowds. The Presbyterians and probably others cancelled their Sunday services and encouraged all to hear Williams. While the revival was going on the Majestic Theatre took its moving picture machine and showed their pictures in Bastrop. Even the "42" club cancelled their regular Tuesday card games.
There were public lectures and speeches in these days before radio and television. In order "to create more interest in our schools" and "to bring before us all ideas and thoughts that are well worth considering and applying" two local worthies offered $25 in gold to the winner of an essay/elocution competition held in June. The theme was "My Duty as a Citizen as applied to any vocation that may be selected by the applicants." A good crowd was in attendance at the Methodist Church and papers were read by Miss Mary Moore, James Carter, Lancelot Clopton, Miss Mary Lou Carter and Wade Owens. The last named, who chose law as his vocation, was the winner. He spoke of the evils of disregarding the morality of the cases he would hear and of the need to resist the desire for notoriety. He lauded principles of honesty, temperance ("the quickest way to ruin is by way of the wine cup") and public spiritedness. In 1998 when we look forward to a new high school building it is interesting to read that the cornerstone of the "new school" was laid in July 1910. The Masons provided a suitable ceremony for this event.
And of course there was baseball. The season opener was on San Jacinto day against Bastrop (Elgin 6 Bastrop 2). It was preceded by a parade of automobiles over a two mile route to the ball park. When the electricity came on that summer the scoreboard was operated electrically. The Elgin B-lose (what does this name mean?) played teams from Taylor (the Central Texas champions that year), Bastrop, Cameron, Del Valle, Waco, McDade, Santone, Rockdale and Southwestern University. One June week the B-lose lost 2 out of 3 at Cameron, partly because pitcher Charley Carter went to Taylor overland to catch the L&GN, but got there just as the train was pulling out. Still in one game "for nine snappy innings Elgin played Cameron to a 2-2 standstill. In Elgin's half of the tenth inning she jumped on the ball good and heavy and scored seven runs before Cameron could stop them." The pitcher was John Davis, who had lost the first game 5-3. It was noted that Jess Baker tried to buy a pitcher, but couldn't.
Almost all the people in this world of the Elgin Courier are Anglos. The Courier in those days was a white folk's paper and Hispanic and African Americans only occasionally burst onto the page, and usually connected with some sort of disturbance. The Mexicans celebrated the 100th Mexican Independence day in October 1910 on vacant lots on S. Colorado Street. (Avenue C) Here is what the Courier reported: "As bad as the Mexican is lauded to be, this celebration passed off as quietly as could be expected; not one arrest was made that we heard of." There was one shoot out between the police and two black brothers. A most telling report was of "a stray negro found dead in a creek near Hills Prairie."
Miss Mary Rivers got front page space for her letters home during a trip to Washington D.C. where she attended Chevy Chase College. She took the steamer "Comus" from New Orleans and wrote vividly of the ship being called upon to rescue passengers from a burning sister ship off "Cape Cannaveral." Odd to think about a girl from Elgin watching this fire at sea at two o'clock in the morning in the very waters where the shuttle Challenger fell three quarters of a century later. The next week she described New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty (which hadn't been there 25 years yet), Coney Island, and Brighton Beach (now full of ex-Soviet emigres; the USSR has been and gone since 1910).
Of course the advertisements were just as engrossing as the articles. Garrett's Pharmacy extols "A Habit That Pays" (shopping at their store). All over the papers there are ads and articles about miracle tonics: Nyal's Liquid Liver Regulator, Ayer's Hair Vigor, Dr King's New Discovery, Dr. Cox's Barbed Wire Liniment (guaranteed to heal without leaving a blemish), Electric Bitters (always prove a godsend to women who want health, beauty and friends), Doan's Kidney Pills.
Cottolene ("Shorten your food - Lengthen your life") was aggressively advertised and endlessly contrasted to the evils of lard. "It is made from pure health-giving cotton seed and packed in air-tight tin pails and never exposed to store dirt, dust and contaminating odors." Porcelain Enameled Bathtubs, like the one I have in my 1909 house, are on sale by R.A. Carl, The Tinner, for $20. There are fashion plates, although advertisements are mostly for dress patterns and fabrics. The Rivers family enterprises seem to sell and trade in almost everything. Dr. J.P Tingle has the most modern dental equipment, including a self-cleaning cuspidore.
1910 was a time of transition when Elgin was changing from a dusty country town to a modern twentieth century city. Everyone, and especially the Courier's editor, talked of new businesses and improvements - what we call economic development and infrastructure today. Elgin now had electricity, telephones and a water system. The new street sprinkler owned and operated by Clyde Owens was "one of the best additions to the city in a long time." A new ordinance prohibited livestock from roaming free in the city. There was a new steam laundry, four brick firms and "enough clay around this town to wall this old state in from the world." There was intense speculation on what the 1910 census would show about Elgin's population.
Halley's comet came and went and Elgin continued to grow. "Comet parties are all the rage now," said the Courier, "Catch us getting up at four o'clock to see the brute. We'll wait til it shows in the west after supper."
Careful as I was with this precious legacy of the past the floor of my study is littered with little scraps of brittle yellow newsprint. I was reading some of the Historical Association's duplicate copies, but I suspect the other set (sadly incomplete) is in a roughly similar condition. Something must be done, and quickly, to preserve the detail of daily life in over a century of life in Elgin.
It's been a great two days visiting Elgin in 1910. I was up until 2 last night and will probably be up late again. All in all perusing the old newspapers has had a similar effect to Chamberlain's Liver Tablets: it braces up the nerves, prevents despondency and invigorates the whole system.
October 21, 1998