The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by Nick Kotz (2013) in a raffle at an archives conference a few years ago and it finally made its way up to the top of my reading stack.
If you've been in downtown San Antonio you might have seen the Kallison's Western Wear cowboy on top of an old building on South Flores street (he's also on the cover of the book). This book tells the story of how the Kallison's got to San Antonio, how they grew a small harness making shop into a South Texas empire, and how they worked both within and outside of the Jewish community in the city to extend their influence and help their fellow Texans.
Nathan Kallison escaped the Czar's anti-Semitic edicts and murderous Cossacks in 19th century Ukraine to join his brother in Chicago. Ultimately all three Kallison brothers and their elderly mother were able to make the crossing. Nathan worked hard to build a successful harness-making business, a trade he had learned as a young boy, and soon caught the eye of another Jewish immigrant from Russia the really rather demanding Anna Lewtin. The two married, had a son and daughter, and worked hard. Ultimately, though, the crowds, dirt, and potential of tuberculosis in Chicago did not agree with Anna. They randomly met a couple while traveling who encouraged them to settle in San Antonio and, although they had never been to Texas, they decided to give it a shot. Nathan opened another harness and saddle shop, which was a great success in a Texas still dominated by ranches and where the automobile had not yet made many inroads. The book follows the Kallison's as the store expands, their family grows, they move into nicer and nicer houses, and they really become part of San Antonio's social scene. Nathan buys a ranch outside of town so that he can test some of the recommendations from the newly established extension office and uses that as a way to help Texas ranchers and farmers and to expand their reliance on his store. Eventually, under the leadership of Nathan's sons, the store grows into a downtown behemoth selling everything from hats to jewelry to washing machines and farm equipment and one of the sons, Perry, becomes the host of a very popular daily radio program, the Trading Post.
While the story of the Kallison family is interesting, the real selling point for me was using that family's story as a jumping board for a history of San Antonio and Texas in the first half of the 20th century. Kotz (who is the son of Nathan's younger daughter, Tibe) is a professional journalist who didn't know much about his family history until he starting digging in to research this book. The reader benefits from the context that Kotz provides, particularly in the areas of Jewish life in Texas and the impact of the dust bowl and the world wars on San Antonio and the Kallison family.
The book is very nicely illustrated with a combination of family pictures and historic shots of Ukraine, Chicago, and San Antonio. The bibliography and footnotes are also rewarding, although I was a little frustrated with the lack of personal reflection from Kotz on his family. There is a brief author's note at the end that talks about his memories of his grandfather and his childhood in San Antonio, but reading an author writing about himself in the third person (particularly when going over particularly emotional and intense family events) is a little uncomfortable for me, although understandable given his journalistic background.
I wasn't sure how into this book I'd be, but with a scope that moves beyond harness-making, the ranch, and the story of a single family, I'd recommend this one to anyone with an interest in San Antonio or Jewish life in Texas. Nicely written, well researched, and excellently illustrated, this one is worth a spot in your reading pile.