BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Harness Makers’s Dream’

THE HARNESS MAKER’S DREAM: NATHAN KALLISON AND THE RISE OF SOUTH TEXAS
By Nick Kotz
TCU Press, $25.95, 307 pages

Jewish ranchers, Jewish cowboys — in Texas? OK, Jewish cowboys did exist, but it would be a stretch to exaggerate their number. However, in the late 19th century and through most of the 20th century, there were definitely Jewish ranches, small, medium and large, in Texas, as this intriguing book illustrates.

In 1890, 17-year-old Nathan Kallison kissed his mother goodbye and left the Ukrainian village of Ladyzhinka just steps ahead of the anti-Semitic purges of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. “Nathan,” writes the author, “was but one of nearly two million Jews who, over a forty year period, escaped from relentless deprivation within their small settlements, towns, and cities within the vast confines of the Pale of Russia, and poured into tenements in New York, Philadelphia, and shtetl-like ghetto communities in Chicago, where Nathan first found his way. His survival there gave way to adventure, however, and he took a road less traveled.”

Although Nathan knew no English, he was more fortunate than many others because he had a trade — harness-making. But it was also his grit and determination that set him on the successful path that led him out of the Midwest and down a dusty trail in South Texas to the growing city of San Antonio. After working for someone else in Chicago for four years, Nathan opened his own shop, and it was there, as he looked out from his workbench each morning, that he noticed Anna Letwin, the comely young woman who would become his bride and the mother of their four children.

Worried for the safety of their family in the increasingly unhealthy Chicago ghetto, Nathan and Anna took an exploratory trip out West, only to be disappointed by Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz. Just as they were about to return to Chicago, “the Kallisons met an older Jewish couple at their hotel. ‘You should come to South Texas,’ they urged. ‘San Antonio is much more civilized. There’s a synagogue, the weather is mild, and there are more horses than people.’”

Soon the enterprising Kallisons were on their way, in more ways than one. By the time he’d been in America for 15 years, Nathan had a well-established harness-making business, but he also had an eye for opportunity. He noticed that when farmers and ranchers came to him in downtown San Antonio for saddles and harnesses, their wives would go shopping for all their other family needs, from clothes to furniture and appliances. The seed for what grew into Kallison’s Big Country Store and, later, the Kallison Ranch, was planted, and it grew quickly and thrived.

The years 1914 to 1917 brought war, and then peace, and finally prosperity, to both San Antonio and the Kallisons. The boom years of the 1920s were ended by the stock market crash of 1929, and then came the Great Depression, but the family was able to weather both of these disasters because Nathan had wisely seen the need to diversify. By this point, Nathan and Anna and all four of their children were involved in and committed to the community, from their temple to the schools and the other businesses. The Russian immigrants and their children were all solid citizens of their adopted city and state.

When Nathan died in 1944, his sons Morris and Perry had more than carried on his legacy. Morris, older, stuffier and a bit stuck on himself, was now a real estate mogul and downtown booster, whereas the gentler Perry was devoted to the store. An easy, outgoing man, Perry became an institution in Southwest Texas as a result of his radio broadcasts from the store at 7 each morning as “the Old Trader,” the folksy dispenser of community news, homespun advice and, most of all, agricultural and cattle-breeding tips. By 1965, after he had done 9,346 broadcasts, it was the longest, continuously broadcast radio program in the world.

“Perry Kallison became more than a rising radio star with a merchandising magnet. Throughout the rest of his life, he would translate Nathan Kallison’s personal values into his own existential acts. He would be widely regarded with admiration as a steadfast, stalwart Texan — a trusted leader, and one of the best-known and most respected citizens in Texas.”

That’s how the book’s author, Nick Kotz, describes his Uncle Perry, his mother Tibe Kallison’s older brother. It is not until the end of this charming and informative book that Mr. Kotz lets the reader in on the family secret that he is one of the Kallison family (his last name came from his mother’s second husband). A prize-winning author who has earned, among many of American journalism’s top awards, a Pulitzer for national reporting, Mr. Kotz has written a number of investigative and historical books.

Given that he is writing about his own ancestors, Mr. Kotz is surprisingly candid about the later, far-less-happy years of the extended Kallison family and its many business ventures. Morris refused to leave downtown San Antonio and kept borrowing and building in a quickly emptying area, and while Perry saw the handwriting on the Wal-Mart, it was too late to do much about it.

The store closed, the ranch was sold and the prize Polled Hereford bulls and other cattle auctioned off. The heirs squabbled over fair shares of the money that was left, and the result was some permanent rents in the family fabric. That part of the saga is hardly unique, but as told by an insider who writes very well, it is uncommonly interesting.

In the end, it is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who come in for praise equal to that given Nathan and Anna: “[They] are carrying on the ancient Jewish tradition of educating their children and of caring for those less fortunate, contributing to the wider world because they are blessed to have benefited from Nathan Kallison’s vision.” Good family, good book.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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