We spent the weekend after Thanksgiving in Johnson City, Texas, where they established the tradition of firing up for the Christmas holidays by covering the Blanco County courthouse with god-knows-how-many hundreds-of-thousands of lights, hanging in strands from the roof edge to the ground and noting the start of the holiday season in the Hill Country with a bang … a round of fireworks at about 7 PM Friday, as soon as it was well-dark. The firework show was lavish – and the three rows of vendor pavilions and the spectators in courthouse square were so close to it that little bits of spent ash from the fireworks sifted down on us. I hadn’t seen anything so splendid, or been so close – practically underneath it all – since a Fourth of July celebration at the Rio Cibolo Ranch in 2009.The trunks of the pecan and oak trees star-scattered on the lawn around the courthouse were strung with lights, and the facades of many establishments around the courthouse square were also lavishly lit up. This whole ‘lighting for Christmas’ kicked off similar displays in other small communities and towns, but Johnson City is still the lead event. The crowds on Friday and Saturday evenings were substantial and in the proper mood for buying. My daughter and I made our expenses Friday evening, so sales on Saturday and Sunday were gravy. Our expenses were more than just the quite reasonable table/booth fee, since Johnson City is slightly more than an hour drive from home. We considered the drive to and from for three days running; two such trips at ten o’clock at night on a relatively unlighted country highway, with drunk drivers, speeding trucks, suicidal deer … and said, ‘oh, hell no.’
The nearest available affordable lodgings turned out to be at the Miller Creek RV Resort, which has three little cabins with a bathroom and functional kitchenette for rent. We booked one for two nights; the cabin porch presented a lovely view of the creek, which we were never to relish, as we were there only to sleep – long and deeply, following ten or twelve hours of active selling. The Miller’s Creek RV Park is a lovely little place, by the way; immaculately groomed and landscaped. It’s not one of those luxury destination RV resorts by any means, but a modest comfortable place, beautifully arranged – they even have a minuscule dog park, in addition to the usual facilities.
I think that the most reassuring part of our experience this last weekend wasn’t entirely due to the satisfactory sales – it was the experience itself. The people in this smallish Hill Country town came together to put on their yearly extravaganza. Volunteers from various local organizations giving it their all; families with children and polite teenagers, lined up in front of the cotton-candy vendor, right next to us. That vendor had the brilliant inspiration to sell his cotton-candy spun around a lighted plastic wand, which made the wad of candy look like clouds with a varicolored lightening-storm going on behind it. (Purchase the wand – get unlimited refills of cotton-candy!)
Any number of those polite teenagers came and bought origami earrings from my daughter, or inveigled their parents to buy them – indeed, there was one particularly engaging teenager who admired the earrings so much that my daughter sighed and gave her the particular pair that she favored, asking only that when Engaging Teenager had the money, to come back and pay for them. The very next night, Engaging Teenager returned with four crumpled dollar bills and four quarters. She confessed to wanting to be a writer and talked at length about what she liked in the way of books, how she kept being distracted by new ideas when writing, and how she was bound and determined to finish a story of hers for her grandmother’s Christmas present – because Gran had asked for just that thing. Engaging Teenager has the very same problem that I did, way back in the early days of my scribbling career; to whit – never being able to finish anything. We talked for a bit about that; reassuring and encouraging Engaging Teenager as an aspiring writer, though I suppose that we will never know if we did her any good. I did give her a copy of Lone Star Sons (autographed with a personal message, of course!), assuring Engaging Teenager that my one YA book venture might be a help in demonstrating the art of short adventure-writing. Such a nice kid – we hope that later teenagery won’t spoil her charm and spirit.
There was the procession of lighted automobiles, trucks, and tractors, some of them towing floats for the lighted parade on Saturday, the marching band and the senior citizen synchronized marching team with their lighted lawn-chairs … it was all very reassuring to me. Small-town America is still here, still confident, still ably conducting their own affairs, neighbor to neighbor – even when the neighbor is only a member of the peripatetic small-business gypsy-market. (I took pictures, using the ‘night’ function on the camera. Alas – none of those pictures came out very well at all.Speaking of gypsy marketing; I bought my Christmas present indulgence for myself; a pair of vintage earrings from one of the other vendors. His family business specialized in vintage and estate jewelry, mostly silver and a large part reclaimed from a smelter in San Antonio. You know – those businesses who buy old silver and gold jewelry; it goes to be melted down. This enterprise has an agreement with the local smelter to let them come in, look over the takings and purchase at cost those items with artistic merit. But my Christmas present for myself wasn’t one of those so rescued; they were from an estate sale. Described as silver – I thought they had a gold wash – and reddish-brown jasper stones; this was a pair of acorn-shaped earrings. I liked them very much, especially as they go with the brown tweed Edwardian walking suit outfit. So – my present for myself.
Oh, and I wore a different vintage outfit every one of the three days. They worked very well for merchandising purposes – and yes, I will do this again. Many times.
We had a lovely time last weekend in Giddings, for the 11th Annual Word Wrangler event, although we skipped getting BBQ from the City Meat Market this time, in favor of taking some pictures of the Giddings Volunteer Fire Department vehicles. This will be for the next Luna City book, wherein Richard, the former celebrity chef, in trying to become a better person and responsible member of the eccentric little community of Luna City, decides to be a volunteer fire fighter … but all that will come next year. For now, we are finishing up the third Luna City book, Luna City 3.1, which should be available very, very soon. This is the volume which will reveal the location of the Mills Treasure, involve Richard in a local drama society presentation, a possible romantic involvement, the resolution of his entanglement with Susannah the Bunny Boiler … and developing a closer friendship with some of the other Lunaites, such as Chris Mayall, Joe Vaughn, and the Walcott family. Oh, and see the eccentric treasure hunter Xavier Gunnison Penn bitten on the rump by an enraged llama … but I don’t want to give away simply everything. The cover was completed this week; the ebook should be ready in the next few days, and the print version available by the end of this month. The writing on the Luna City books goes quite swiftly, in comparison to the historicals, mostly because of the research. Although there is some research necessary for Luna City, the necessary elements are much easier to find, being mostly of a contemporary nature.
Following on the Word Wrangler, my daughter had an art event in San Marcos – with another event this Saturday. This involves her original origami crane earrings. Last weekends’ event went very well; although there were many other artists set up on the courthouse lawn in San Marcos, she had about the most affordable items there. We rather liked the set-up, as the various artists participating had to submit pictures of their art/products, by way of proving that they just weren’t re-selling cheap junk from China but things they had made by hand, themselves. Like many another shopper going to these local craft fairs and markets – it’s kind of disappointing to go and see the same-old, same-old items in booth after booth.
We are working up our schedule of events for this last quarter of the year; between my books, and her paper jewelry, we might very well be doing something every weekend from the end of this month to the week before Christmas: craft fairs and markets in Bastrop, Giddings, Bulverde, Boerne, New Braunfels, Blanco, Johnson City and Goliad are all in the mix – it depends on our own stamina, sales, and the table fees. And that was my week – yours?
(The Luna City Volunteer Fire Department will figure in an upcoming volume of the Chronicles of Luna City … so a little background is in order.)
The Luna City Volunteer Fire Department is Luna City’s oldest and most venerable civic establishment, established in 1878, beating out the Masonic Lodge by a matter of eight months, and the Catholic parish of Saints Margaret and Anthony by a full year. Arthur Wells McAllister designed a building intended to serve as a fire house at the south-east corner of Town Square. The building, now a retail space for several antique and crafters, was the firehouse for thirty years. The distinctive twin double-door entrances meant to facilitate a pair of horse-drawn hose and pumper wagons are still evident in the façade.
Arthur Wells McAllister, being a forward-thinking city planner, naturally made accommodation for every civic service and improvement required by the last quarter of the 19th century. In the days when cooking, heating, and lighting a home depended on wood or coal fires, oil lamps or candles, domestic fires were an all-too-frequent occurrence, and an organized fire-fighting company of some kind was a civic necessity secondary only to a law-enforcement function. A busy man himself, Arthur Wells McAllister presented the task of organizing a fire company to another founding member of Luna City, Madison R. Bodie. Bodie, who had originally been a ranch foreman at Captain Herbert Kling Wyler’s Lazy W, had saved his wages and investment share into a business providing patent cattle feed, grain and hay to his former employer and other local ranchers. A native of San Antonio, Madison Bodie had been an active member of Milam Steam Fire Company #1, and thus had the ideal experience to take on organizing a new civic volunteer firefighting company.
Madison Bodie soon had recruited thirty fit and enthusiastic male volunteers, and attracted the generous support of town merchants. A pair of horse-drawn steam-powered pumps was purchased from the Waterous Engine Works Company, of St. Paul, Minnesota. For many years, community celebrations featured a race between Engine #1 and Engine #2 around the perimeter of Town Square. The two engines faced their first serious fire-fighting challenge in extinguishing a fire at the mansion of Morgan Sheffield – like Arthur McAllister and Madison Bodie, a man who had expected more of Luna City’s prospects than were eventually delivered. Morgan Sheffield, who settled on a small tract of land along the river, slightly to the south of Luna City, had found a natural sulphur hot-spring in the course of building his home. He had entertained hopes of a hotel and curative spa on the site. Work had just barely begun on a bathhouse and hotel, when a lightning strike on the roof of his house during a summer thunderstorm set fire to the roof.
The volunteers, alerted by one of the workmen, raced to the scene, and were successful in extinguishing the fire. In gratitude and as a token of his esteem, Morgan Sheffield had a silver speaking trumpet engraved with the date, the emblem of the company, and presented to Fire Company Chief Bodie. The silver engraved speaking trumpet was a prized symbol of authority, and after it ceased to be a practical tool for directing firefighters, it was displayed in a special glass case in the firehouse.
Eventually, the original firehouse building proved too small and ill-placed to accommodate Luna City’s first fully-motorized ladder and pumper fire trucks, which were purchased in 1920 and 1922. The fire department moved to its present location on West Elm Street, although the present-day fire house is the third building on that site. The first building on the site had to be extensively expanded with the acquisition of larger vehicles in subsequent decades. Embarrassingly, the second firehouse burned to the ground on the 4th of July, 1939, while all vehicles and volunteers were attending to a massive fire in a hay-barn on the Wyler Ranch. Many relics dating from the early years of the LCVFD were lost in that fire, including the silver speaking trumpet, and other artifacts and memorabilia.
The present Luna City VFD building accommodates a multi-purpose fire engine, a tender and a ladder truck, a brush truck for fighting grass and brushfires, a command truck and the ambulance, living quarters for full-time fire fighters, medics. and volunteers on regular shift, a classroom, storage area and wash-rack. There are six full-time paid professional firefighters; the remainder of the eighty-strong force are volunteers; either reserve, in training status or junior members. Junior members must be of high school age, and participate in regular training sessions. They assist with fundraising and educational outreach to the local community, and are considered full-fledged members of the LCVFD after their 18th birthday. Training sessions are held weekly; Wednesday evenings from 6-9 PM.
The Cattleman Hotel – Luna City
(From Texas Highways, 2005)
Among the dozen notable late 19th Century Beaux-Arts style buildings lining Luna City’s historic Town Square is the Cattleman Hotel. Four stories tall, with a mansard-style roof which adds still another story, the exterior is a flamboyant combination of mellow rose-pink Texas granite, with architectural trimmings of imported Carrera marble; window and door surrounds balustrades and pediments creating a notable contrast. The frieze, cornice and projecting modillions were also of Carrera marble, with primary highlights picked out in gold. A large half-circular bay formed the main ground-floor double-door entrance, sheltered with an ornate cast-iron and glass canopy, and extended through the upper floors to the cornice as a series of stacked bay windows with narrow balustrades.
The Cattleman Hotel originally was named the Grand Palazzo Vittoria Hotel; designed and constructed with no expense spared in 1885 by one of Luna City’s original minor investors, an Italian gentleman and entrepreneur of means, Signor Afredo Vittorio di Barreca. At this time, Luna City’s investors had expected the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway would pass through Luna City; Arthur Wells McAllister, the engineer and surveyor who had laid out the town and designed much of the still-extant public buildings, had designed a particularly ornate railway station (which would have been constructed about where the Luna City Police Department and Volunteer Fire department garages are located now). Arthur Wells McAllister also expected Luna City to become the county seat, and accordingly planned a fabulously ornate courthouse to occupy Town Square instead of the pleasant square of oak trees, lawns and flowerbeds which adorn the space today. Signor di Barreca, therefore, designed and outfitted his enterprise in the full confidence that his palatial hotel would become the cynosure of local social life and a refuge for weary travelers; thirty-five guest rooms, including three suites, a gentleman’s smoking room on the second floor, a lavish bar with backbar, etched mirror, glass shelves and fittings made from imported Circassian walnut, a dining room capable of seating a hundred diners at a time, and a ballroom with a stage at one end, suitable for concerts and theatrical performances.
Signor di Barreca, already middle-aged and prosperous through his previous hotel properties in Italy and in the eastern US, was married to a young woman barely half his age, Filomena Gismondi, who had ambitions as an opera singer. Although quite beautiful, vivacious and charming, and with a pleasing singing voice, young Signora Gismodi had neither the drive or luck to continue performing professionally on the opera stage, and it is assumed, gratefully accepted an offer of marriage. Signor di Barreca was, however, indulgent of his young wife, and it is said, had the ballroom and stage included in the design of his establishment so that she could continue giving recitals and concerts.
Alas – as has been related elsewhere, the grand ambitions of all those who invested in the vision of Luna City as a traveler’s mecca, and county seat – were undone by love. Signor di Barreca, like Arthur Wells McAllister, was not unduly cast down by this misfortune, but zestfully turned his energies into carrying on his own vision of his hotel as a destination and show-place for winter visitors to Texas, refugees from the snow-clad north. In this he was successful for some two decades. Shortly after the turn of the last century, he invested in a motor-coach, which made daily journeys between the nearest railroad station in Karnesville and his hotel, emblazed with the name of the Grand Palazzo Vittoria Hotel, bearing visitors to and fro, while advertising his hotel. The di Barrecas were cosmopolitan in their tastes and travels, returning frequently to visit Europe and England during those years, the height of the so-called Belle Époque.
Signor and Signora di Barreca were the parents of one child, a son named after his father, born in 1896. The senior Signor di Barreca passed away while visiting his homeland in 1908, and his widow promptly remarried. The younger Signor Alfredo returned to Texas, and for several years managed the Grand Palazzo in much the same manner as his father had, although with much less ferocious energy. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, he sold the hotel to the then-owner of the Bodie Feed mill, Alexander Bodie, who was then waxing prosperous, and returned posthaste to Italy, where he enlisted in the Italian Army and perished in fighting on the Italio-Austrian front several years later.
Alexander Bodie tasked one of his younger sons, Curtis, with the management of the Grand Palazzo Vittoria. Almost his first act upon taking over was to change the name to “The Cattleman Hotel”, although faint traces of the original name may still be seen, where they were emblazoned in gold letters on the façade over the third-story bay window. Under that name, the hotel continued to prosper through the first three decades of the twentieth century, although not quite on the same flamboyant scale as previously. A number of the rooms were refitted to accommodate in-suite private bathrooms, during this period, although such renovations were halted by the ravages of the Depression, which hit South Texas as hard as anywhere else. Wartime shortages and gas rationing had an effect as well, although there was a slight recovery seen in the late 1940s. Still, postwar prosperity and renewed travel opportunities could not repair twenty years of dwindling demand. Many of the smaller rooms on upper floors were emptied of furnishings and closed off permanently.
The second and third-floor rooms continued in sporadic use, as well as the hotel bar and the ballroom – often used for special receptions, meetings and community events, such as a visit by then vice-President Johnson in 1961. But what demand there was for rooms and special events fell precipitously with the development of Mills Farm ten years later. Mills Farm and VPI had the lock on providing entertainment and hospitality venues; with the added benefit of offering an old-fashioned classic Texas experience updated with every modern convenience. In a modern sense, the Cattleman Hotel was extraneous to needs, and in the centennial year of 1976, Curtis Bodie sold the place to a consortium of the Luna City municipality and the Luna City Historical Association for what amounted to a token payment. It was thought possible for a time to use part of the place as a museum, and indeed, the old main lobby is used to this day as a display space for various local historic relics. According to long-time Luna City Historical Association member, Leticia McAllister, there is no truth to the rumor that Mills Farm’s parent company, Venue Properties, International, attempted to purchase the historic building outright and move it to the present Mills Farm Property – although that rumor was widely circulated at the time, and helped engender a considerable degree of local distrust towards Mills Farm – a distrust that continues to this day. The plan was, as MS McAllister avers in a recent interview with our reporter, presented as using the old grand hotel as an adjunct hotel facility for Mills Farm/VPI, but the terms offered were so insulting, they were rejected after brief and acrimonious consultation.
The municipality and the historical association are able to maintain the ballroom and dining room as an event venue, although the electrical system is not normally equal to the demands which modern-day celebrations put on it. The Historical Association maintains an office in one of the upper floor rooms, and the city government does so with another two rooms. Many of the remaining rooms are used as overflow storage by the city, the Luna City Independent School District and the Historical Association. The three suites are maintained, ready for rent to interested parties, although of late, this mostly means ghost hunters.
Yes – the Cattleman Hotel is widely reputed to be haunted; there are the customary moving lights behind the windows of long-uninhabited rooms, and docents who volunteer at the lobby-area museum often insist that they hear the sounds of male voices, and bottles and glassware rattling in the old bar … a room which is customarily locked. Guests in the three still-used suites have often insisted they detect the odor of pipe tobacco and cigars in the hallway adjacent to the old smoking salon on the second floor – also a room long emptied and locked. There are said to be three main ghosts in the old hotel. None can actually be tied to real people with certainty through historical records – although not from the want of trying on the part of folklorists and ghost-hunters. The first is said to be that of a woman guest – well-bred and traveling alone (possibly to meet her lover?) who killed herself with poison in a guest room on the second floor sometime in the late 1880s. Her spirit is said to be the one who roams the second floor, seeming to search for someone. The top floor, which housed hotel staff in the days when the place had live-in staff, is haunted by the spirit of another woman; a maid or housekeeper who was murdered by a spurned boyfriend; she is reported to manifest by the sounds of an invisible broom, sweeping dust … which is seen moving in brief spurts along the floor. The third ghost is that of a reckless young cowboy, who was robbed of his takings at a not-so-friendly poker game in the livery stable which once stood behind the Cattleman Hotel. It is this ghost who is reportedly responsible for the voices and the noises in the old bar.
The Cattleman Hotel is located at the western side of Luna City’s historic Town Square. Tours of the building may be arranged by contacting the Historical Society, or the office of the Mayor. When not in his office in City Hall, the mayor may be found at his place of business, Abernathy Hardware.