Don’t judge a book by its cover. When The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas, first arrived in the office this fall, it didn’t much differentiate itself from the scores of other regional history books that come across my desk. Then I noticed the author’s name: Nick Kotz, a much-lauded (including a Pulitzer) journalist formerly with the Washington Post. Then there were glowing blurbs from the likes of Ken Burns, who called The Harness Maker’s Dream “a wonderfully big story, fully told and realized.” Intrigued, I cracked the book and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a dry non-fiction account, The Harness Maker’s Dream hooked me quickly for a ride through practically the entire 20th century via one hardworking Texas family. Turns out Kotz is the grandson of Nathan Kallison, and nephew of brothers Perry and Morris Kallison. San Antonians may remember the name from the Kallison’s Department Store (the building, crowned by a cowboy, still stands on South Flores), or their pioneering Kallison Ranch. As Kotz demonstrates, the Kallisons had a fascinating story of escaping persecution in Imperialist Russia for the cramped immigrant ghettos of Chicago and of becoming successful Jewish cowboys in San Antonio long before Kinky Friedman popularized the notion. There’s also fortune, stardom, feuds, heartbreak and failures.
The Current spoke with Kotz about how he got the story. Stop by the Twig on Friday or Saturday to learn more during an author talk and signing.
Reading this book might inspire people to look into their own ancestral past. Do you have any advice for the amateur historian about how to learn more about their family history?
That’s one of my hopes of this book. … Lots of people have interest but haven’t pursued it. The obvious place to start is with family photographs, with diaries, with letters, with records and beyond that, anyone with sort of minimum computer skills (mine aren’t very much beyond minimum), can do it. There’s an incredible amounts of information. … You know as a journalist the great thrill when you find something…. And the even greater satisfaction when you’re able to put together little pieces and out of it you get a picture.
From your background as a journalist, what was it like to maintain your journalistic standards and your objectivity, but also be writing about your own family?
You know as a journalist, you constantly need to be on guard about letting your own subjective feelings come into it. I think the most difficult part of that was writing about the hard times and writing about disagreements within the family involving business and other things. Because, I still have lots of cousins in San Antonio, Austin and Houston and in all my writing, I have always tried to be careful to try not to hurt anyone gratuitously. So, I think the most difficult thing was being honest about the family because I didn’t want to hurt anybody.
When you were growing up, how much were you aware of your family’s influence and impact in San Antonio? You moved away fairly young, so how much did you discover in the process of researching and writing the book?
I was aware of the Kallison Ranch because the family went out there every weekend and I had the special privilege of going out there very early in the morning with my grandfather and my uncle Perry. With each one of those people, the uncles, the grandparents, the aunt, and with my own mother, my appreciation of who they were, what kind of character they had what they had done … my information was minimal. I came away from this experience not only with the facts, but with far greater understanding of my mother … She was kind of a phenom, went to the University of Texas when she was 15 and so forth.
In the case of each of the aunts and uncles, a huge appreciation for who they were and what they did in the community.… Whether its my uncle Perry, Aunt Frances, Uncle Morris and his wife Ruth, I didn’t have a clue—as I look back on it now, I so wish that I knew all of this while they were alive, because there was so much I would have wanted to ask them. They were very accomplished people as human beings. That kind of level of appreciation, I certainly didn’t have as a child.
What was your research process like?
I’ve written six books and hundreds of newspaper stories [but] I have never done something that was so totally dependent on the information that is now available via the internet. .... Without the incredible amount of information that has been scanned and put online I couldn’t have written the book.
The Bexar County Clerk’s Office has been a pioneer in scanning records … he has scanned online I think every single property transaction in San Antonio going way back into the 19th century. So that was terrific to use. Before there were telephone books, there was something called a city directory, which told you where people lived and where they worked. I didn’t know there was such a thing. That was an incredible help. Have you ever used newspaperarchive.com? [It’s] spotty around the country, but for the San Antonio newspapers, including ones that no longer exist, it’s all there…. Obviously there were family members and they cooperated, but this was not a family where diaries were kept, where business records were kept, letters. So, I was dependent upon my skills as an investigative reporter to find so much of that detailed information.
Was there anything that you found surprising during your research into your grandfather’s time period and society?
It seems to me that there was more opportunity and less prejudice, particularly for Eastern European immigrants, when they got away from the big cities and they came to Texas and Oklahoma and Wyoming.
I was impressed by the description of this wave of migration that you’re talking about.
I knew virtually nothing of the details of this mass movement of people that took place in a relatively very short period of time, between the 1880s and about 1920, when there was an anti-immigrant feeling right after WWI and they cut it off. I did not know that history and certainly didn’t appreciate it. It’s also made me think and given me some appreciation of just what this country would be like if those waves of Jews, Irish, Italians had not poured into this country in the second half of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century. It’s made a huge difference in what this country’s about in many, many ways.
Did that change your personal perspective on immigration today?
It strengthened my feelings, but I have been an advocate of immigration reform for a long, long time. I have friends who came here as children from Mexico and have gone to school, have gone to college, are in college, who’ve gone into the military. Those people should be citizens of the United States. Even though they came here illegally, again, these are people who contribute to what kind of society we are.
One of the things I found surprising in the book was the somewhat lax immigration standards during the late 1800s when Nathan Kallison immigrated to the United States and how different it is today.
Unless you just come across the Rio Grande River (laughs). I did not realize and learn that until maybe very early in the 20th century, the whole process of naturalization and so forth was done by the states. It took much less to become a citizen.
When I encounter people outside of Texas, they have this perception of Texas and the West. I imagine that a very successful Jewish family known for their ranching skills and who fit into this cowboy mold might run counter to some people’s expectations. Have you encountered any of that?
You got it. ‘What?! Your grandfather became a rancher in Texas?!’ … That very limited understanding of the fact that Jews became farmers, became ranchers. … the fact that people knew so little about this gave me another reason for writing the book.
In your author’s note you say that you also raise cattle, inspired by your uncle Perry. Can you talk a little about that?
My wife and I live on a cattle farm about 45 miles west of Washington D.C. in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. … Perry Kallison and his wife Frances, they were really pioneer conservationists, and I didn’t know much about that. We’re sort of modern day conservationists in the part of Virginia where we live. … It has many similarities to what Perry Kallison was doing in terms of conservation and trying keep land in agriculture and forest and so forth … It’s really kind of a terrible shame for all of us if every piece of land within 50 or 75 miles of the city just becomes endless, sprawling suburbs because there’s not only beautiful land but a lot of history that should be preserved.... I think what would most please my grandfather and my uncles is that the most beautiful part of the Kallison Ranch is now part of the Government Canyon Natural Area.
Author talk and book signing
5-7pm Fri, 3-5pm Sat
The Twig Book Shop
306 Pearl Pkwy, Ste 106