History before La Retama
by Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, 2004
The municipal history of Corpus Christi began
when the village incorporated in 1852 and gained recognition from state
legislators. Citizens elected the town's first city council and immediately
became the county seat. These events marked the slow transformation of the
community from an isolated and struggling settlement to a promising city by
the middle of the Progressive Era. A growing entrepreneurial class provided
a new financial and social structure for the emerging market
town by bringing businesses to the area,
increasing trade, and networking with other regions.
Prior to 1852, the fledgling seaside settlement
had grown slowly. In 1845 after the Republic of Texas accepted the terms of
annexation, General Zachary Taylor's troops, numbering almost 4,000
men, occupied the town to defend the area from
Native American and foreign attacks. Later Taylor and his men were
reassigned to the Rio Grande River to protect the state and southern
national border from Mexico. Due to this evacuation which left the town
almost deserted, the First Legislature of the State of Texas repealed the
act which originally had incorporated Corpus Christi on April 25, 1846.
By 1854 Corpus Christi's population reached
1,200, up from 698 county residents in 1850, but devastation was only around
the corner. During that summer a ship docked in the small port
carrying tropical fruit. Within hours, the
citizens who boarded the vessel to buy the produce began showing signs of
yellow fever. Although it is now known that mosquitoes hiding in the fruit
the plague, residents blamed rotted bananas for
their symptoms. A German immigrant, Maria Von Blucher, recorded the effects
of the illness in a letter to her parents in Prussia:
This time you had to wait a
while for news from us.
Unfortunately, illness has
prevented me from writing.
For more than two months now I
have been ill, some of the
time in bed, some of the time
up. At first, I ran a high
temperature, which receded after
a week but left me feeling
extremely weak. Eight days
after that…Mr. Büsse brought me
the news that Dr. Turner and his
eldest daughter had
suddenly died of the yellow fever
during the night. I was
on very friendly terms with the
family, and Dr. Turner was
my doctor! Just as he told me
that, I caught the fever….
Yellow fever appeared in the
streets where the water had no
outlet, thus producing contagious
matter…. The least
exertion revives the fever, I
never shiver or feel chilled
before an attack. I am already
so weakened by this little
bit of writing that I must
By the following January, Blucher still
experienced feverish spells but was among the lucky ones who survived the
dreaded disease. Yet the epidemic had spread, and by the time the yellow
fever subsided, it had claimed the lives of over 300 people, a quarter of
the population. This slowdown in mercantile, social, and population
growth took a toll on Corpus Christi financially. Deaths of
important citizens, like that of Blucher's
doctor, left holes in the already weak community structure. Furthermore,
the shortage of fresh water until the end of the decade hindered the good
and prosperous efforts of local citizens.
Surrounded by saltwater, Corpus Christians found little fresh water for
drinking and washing, both preventive measures in disease control.
Disease was not the only hardship that the
seaside village had to overcome. In 1862 Union naval forces began
blockading its small port from all other Southern states. One resident
wrote about the
difficulties the occupation imposed: “War now
has completely cut us off from all communication with the outer world. Gold
and silver are things known only by names. We have nothing but paper money
that is valid only in the Confederacy. Times are hard for all families.”
The Battle of Corpus Christi took place in August of 1862, and since there
was no obvious defeat, both sides claimed
victory. The area remained blockaded, and by
the time Union troops arrived in the area in 1863, the starving citizens
“offered allegiance in exchange for food and protection….The Union blockade,
severe drought in 1863, and a frigid winter in
1864 brought almost total economic collapse and famine."
By 1866 after the war was over, some economic
promise returned to Corpus Christi. A local woman remembered that seven
merchants, one banker, and a few others set up new businesses that year.
Furthermore, she stated, “Money was plentiful in
those days. Bags of silver and golden eagles were the medium of exchange.
Not paper money for the trader in that time.” However, prosperity was
short-lived, for again in 1867, a banana boat
from Mexico docked in Corpus Christi. With it came the dreaded mosquito and
yellow fever. Before the plague subsided, over 300 lay dead. So many died
that few were left to take care of the sick or dispose of the dead. All
three doctors caught the fever, including Dr. Eli T. Merriman who died of
the disease. Furthermore, most of the city council and
county officials perished. Death tolls were so
massive that timber, earmarked for construction of the new Presbyterian
Church, was commandeered to build coffins. The government quarantined the
town, which began the next year without a municipal government.
By June of 1868, district military commander
General A. D. McCook had filled municipal offices through appointment, but
another obstacle appeared. Efforts to dredge the town’s ship channel
had been under way when the fever struck. Setbacks slowed the work, which
dragged on for years. The lack of a deep-water port forced large ships to
dock offshore and load all cargo into smaller vessels. This limited
access to the town and caused less ship traffic to the coast. Nevertheless,
did not raise the issue again until 1871.
Another setback, raids by Native
Americans, seemed to stop prior to the Civil War, but area
communities, including Corpus Christi, still endured attacks and
robberies by gangs and cattle rustlers. Citizens begged for government
intervention at the state and national levels, but little help came.
In fact, Texans knew the area south of the Nueces River, including
Corpus Christi, as the
“dead line of sheriffs.” Due to disease
and almost unlivable conditions, the town seemed drenched in death. A
contemporary German immigrant saw the town as an ungovernable land,
“[bloodshed was] now so general […that]
four or five murders a week [was] no longer striking. One grows
accustomed to it all and ceases to get excited about events of this
In spite of the obstacles, though, slow
population growth continued and a long awaited economic salvation appeared
on the horizon. By 1870 the local quarantine lifted, and traffic through
Corpus Christi to and from the Rio Grande Valley flourished. The
town’s population reached approximately 2,140, and by 1871 stage lines ran
on a weekly basis. Because of the growing importance of shipping to
the economy, businessmen revived efforts to dredge the ship channel.
In 1874 dredging deepened the channel to
eight feet permitting large ships to pass through. Additionally, the state
legislature introduced a bill incorporating the Corpus Christi and Rio
Railroad, which linked Corpus Christi and
Rio Grande City to San Antonio and Brownsville. Consequently, Corpus
Christi surfaced as a vital exporter of South Texas cattle and sheep.
By "the 1880s packing houses, stockyards, and markets for hides,
tallow, and other cattle by-products flourished." Furthermore, local
sheep produced more wool than in all areas between Nueces County and Mexico
Emigration from other states and
immigration from Mexico, Ireland, and Germany continued to feed the town’s
population, which reached about 3,257 in 1880. More businesses
arrived, and the town
included “three banks, a customhouse,
railroad machine shops, an ice factory, carriage factories, several
hotels, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist
churches, and two
newspapers, the Caller and the Critic.”
The local scene continuously changed, and the area started to see the
signs of prosperity.
In addition to economic change, these
additional business ventures attracted new families to Corpus Christi.
Several formed a social circle that proved essential in the success of
the developing town. Like Dallas in the Gilded Age, Corpus Christi
developed a social hierarchy. Beginning in 1853, a few families, including
the Kings, Klebergs, Driscolls, and Kenedys, established themselves through
agricultural endeavors. Corpus Christi resembled historian Patricia Hill’s
description of contemporary Dallas:
One of the attractions [the
city] held as a destination
was its youth—allowing for the
almost immediate incorporation
into the city’s leadership of new
arrivals who possessed
moderate wealth. Owning county
land or a business in town
proved to be a ticket to civic
involvement. The city’s early
commercial elite consisted of
downtown merchants and
prosperous wheat and cotton
producers who expanded their
interests to include agricultural
services, and building
In Corpus Christi, residents like T. P. Rivera,
a bookstore owner; Perry Doddridge, a merchant and founder of the city’s
first bank; Charles Carroll, a builder and architect; S. W. Rankin, a grocer
and merchant; and G. R. Scott, an attorney, were
among this group of rising entrepreneurs. Many served mayoral terms or as
aldermen for the City of Corpus Christi. Like the business class of
Houston at the time, this connection formed what
sociologist Joe R. Feagin defined as “vigorous commitment to a
laissez-faire, ‘free enterprise’ philosophy—one characterized by an intense
belief in economic growth, private property,
private investment control, private profit, and government action tailored
to business needs."
Additionally, this rising class spawned a
number of social groups from the early 1880s to the late 1890s, none
of which proved lasting. The first recorded social club in Corpus
Christi was the
Myrtle Club, established in 1883. Before its
first anniversary, the Corpus Christi Caller reported that, “Its
membership comprises many of the leading men of the city and county who take
evident pride in its success.” This solely male club formed to study
literature, and soon instituted clubrooms in the Doddridge and Davis Bank
Building. The group started with great enthusiasm, and the club met often.
A store owner sold Myrtle Club Cigars, and members began to make plans
for a library. The club roster included influential early citizens
such as bookstore owner and alderman, T. P. Rivera; banker and
alderman, Perry Doddridge; builder, architect, and alderman, Charles
Carroll; grocer and alderman, George French; physician and photographer, W.
W. McGregor; merchant and grocer, S. W. Rankin; and attorney, G. R. Scott.
Early in 1884 the Myrtle Club began to practice
“Ladies Day,” which allowed women into their clubrooms for four days out of
each month. Interest declined, and by late 1884, the club that had met
“fortnightly,” only gathered semi-annually. Nevertheless, the addition of
women to club activities proved fortuitous because within the next few
months, the Oliver Wendell Holmes Club grew
from the Myrtle Club’s members and their wives.
The Holmes Club, established in early 1885 as a
literary society, flourished through 1887. This group of men and women met
weekly to discuss contemporary and classical literature, poetry, and music.
Eventually, from the members of the Holmes Club, a new organization, the
Fortnightly Circle, which held its first meeting on December 14, 1893,
arose. Among its original members were socially prominent citizens: Mr.
and Mrs. G. R. Scott, Mr. and Mrs. S. W. Rankin, Mr. and Mrs. Kenedy, Dr.
and Mrs. Redmond, Mrs. I. Westervelt, and Mr. G. W. Westervelt.
After some time the members began studying works
by such notables as William Shakespeare and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Unfortunately, the last meeting of the club, a mere six months after the
first on May 25,1894, was recorded with no explanation of its disbanding.
The town’s literary activity seemed to wane for a couple of years. This
trend of unstable social clubs changed in 1897, though, with personal
invitations sent out to select women by Ella Dickinson Scott for the first
meeting of the Woman’s Monday Club.
The simultaneous growth of Corpus Christi’s
social class by the late 1890s and the increase in literary women’s clubs
nationwide combined to provide the ideal environment for the creation of the
Woman’s Monday Club. During the early years of
the town, citizens had to work so hard for individual survival that they
could not expend the effort needed for a cohesive and service-minded
community. Furthermore, before 1870 the small
population an “island community” made up of individuals. Yet as the growth
of the 1870s and 1880s continued, Corpus Christi became more like
communities nationwide: “more people clustered
into smaller spaces, [and] it became harder to isolate the individual.”
There was a need for a centralized power to act for the best interests
of the whole. Unfortunately, the municipal
government of Corpus Christi was not prepared or willing to make this
change. These events marked the beginnings of the Woman’s Monday Club,
and then that of their daughters' club, La
Retama Club of Corpus Christi. Neither appropriate nor viable before, the
leisure literary club of the local social elite soon recognized, often with
the help of the Texas and General Federations, the inability of existing
public services to meet the need of the
The first woman’s social club in Corpus Christi,
the Woman’s Monday Club, held its inaugural meeting on February 15, 1897, at
the home of Ella Dickinson Scott. The charter members present that night
were socialites: Mrs. Fannie B. Southgate, Mrs. Alfred Heaney, Miss
Henrietta Mallory, Mrs. David Hirsch, Mrs. Henderson, Mrs. G. W. Westervelt,
Mrs. Ida Durand Redmond,
Mrs. Ella Dickinson Scott, and Mrs. Christie, a
woman visiting Mrs. Henderson. Like the Texas Federation and its
predecessor, the Fortnightly Circle, the club’s original purpose was
The clubwomen studied subject matter that
included literary classics, history, contemporary social discussions,
science, culture, and social sciences. Each clubwoman provided a lesson
which she researched thoroughly. Finally, the
clubwomen interacted at the club meetings regarding the research. They
discovered that their daily activities, both study and home-related, helped
them become active and responsible members of society as opposed to inactive
In 1899 local, state, and national federations
reported a trend away from an exclusively literary focus. Clubs attending
Sorosis’ convention that year reported, “Library and school work,
scholarships, and many other programs were
[being] initiated at the local level.” That same year the Texas Federation
adopted a new constitution which reflected similar evolution to that of the
Woman’s Monday Club. In order to reflect the
changes that occurred since its first annual meeting a year before, the
Texas Federation’s new constitution [struck] out the limiting word
‘literary’ from the name, which thence forth reads ‘The Texas Federation of
Women’s Clubs’ [and provided] in addition to public libraries, departments
of household economics and sanitary science, reciprocity, education, music,
art, history, literature and lecture, village improvement, and club
each with a standing committee.
That same year the Woman’s Monday Club
simultaneously began federating through the Texas Federation of Women's
Clubs and discussing their first civic effort, the construction of a public
library in Corpus Christi. The Woman’s Monday
Club’s historical studies of Thomas Jefferson’s writings about George
Washington changed to consideration of current events. At the May 1, 1899,
meeting, select members delivered lessons on
topics of contemporary interest. As a result, the meeting’s minutes state
that, Southgate “read a letter relative to public libraries and made a
about the same subject."
It is not surprising that the literary clubwomen
converted their study into early action concerning public education through
schools and libraries. Literary clubs did not have to look far to
see the lack of public access to books and
education. Often, clubwomen amassed personal collections of texts for their
required research. In turn, these collections became the first public
libraries. This change from private to public
was a culmination of multiple issues from various sources. First, in April,
1898, at the Texas Federation’s first annual meeting, the clubwomen present
focused much of their attention on the subject of public and traveling
libraries. Dallas clubwoman and second president of the state federation,
Mrs. J. C. Terrell, presented the resolution that earned her the name,
“Mother of Texas Libraries.” The resolution included, “1. That the
establishment of Public Free Libraries in Texas be adopted as the work of
the Federation. 2. That the president appoint a library committee of five
as a standing committee….” In addition, 11 clubs reported their own
libraries at the meeting.
Another source of fundraising involved financial
grants from Andrew Carnegie, earmarked for construction of free public
libraries. On May 29, Southgate advised ...“that each member
should think the matter over and feel that they
are a committee of one [and] to act as thus.” She took her own advice and
initiated correspondence with Andrew Carnegie regarding funds for a Carnegie
Library in Corpus Christi. Subsequently, the women planned a lawn party for
July 20 to raise funds.
At their meeting on July 28, the club reported a
total of $40 raised by the lawn party. Although, there was $14.75 of
expenses, the women had $26.25 to start their library fund. The additional
responsibility of handling money and keeping up
with expenses required the addition of the new office. The members elected
Hirsch as treasurer. By October of that year, The Corpus Christi Times
reported that, “The Monday Club will meet with Mrs. J. S. McCampbell next
Monday afternoon at 4 p.m.… The programme for the coming season to be
arranged and library work fully discussed.” By February 27, 1900, though,
the minutes report that the club returned collected subscriptions to the
parties that donated to the library work, but that the women “would not give
up on the cause entirely.” The minutes give few details about fundraising
efforts by the Woman’s Monday Club after the lawn party, but club members
and Corpus Christi long remembered their efforts.
A short club history, written in 1936 by then
Monday Club president Mary Eloise Donnell de Garmo, read in part:
Mrs. Fannie Butler Southgate, a
charter member, launched the
movement for a Public Carnegie
Library in 1899. It resulted
in a correspondence with Andrew
Carnegie. Efforts were put
forth to secure the amount
necessary to receive a like
amount from Carnegie. Lawn
parties were held, members
solicited subscriptions from
public-spirited citizens, but
after accumulating the vast sum
of a couple hundred dollars,
the women became discouraged,
returned the subscriptions to
donors, and launched their
efforts in other directions.
The efforts of the club to form a Carnegie
Public Library ended in 1900 without success. The city never saw the
addition of a Carnegie Public Library, but the next year the Woman’s Monday
Club began the project of obtaining books for public school children.
During its first decade and a half, important
civic projects put forth by the Woman’s Monday Club in Corpus Christi
included extensive improvements at Artesian Park; purchase of a
piano for the public schools; establishing a
‘story hour’ for young children; promoting summer concerts for evenings at
Artesian Park; attempting to build a Carnegie Library, and later
co-operating with the La Retama Public Library… [and building the] Ladies
In February of 1905, the Woman’s Monday Club
began a music club. About 35 women enrolled and convened the first meeting
at Ida Redmond’s home on February 17, 1905. Many Woman’s Monday Club
members held dual memberships. In the fall of that same year, Lorine and
Kathleen Jones, daughters of Woman’s Monday Club member, Lou Ella Jones;
Lucille Scott, daughter of Woman’s Monday Club president Ella Scott; and
their friend, Alice Borden, approached their mother’s club hoping to begin
an organization for themselves and their unmarried friends. Its young
members soon named the club La Retama, after a locally indigenous tree that
produces yellow flowers. At their May 14, 1906, meeting, the Woman’s Monday
Club voted to form a literary group for their daughters “adjunct to the
Monday Club.” La Retama, then, joined the Texas Federation at their annual
meeting on November 21, 1906. The young ladies met often to discuss
literature and other study topics, but soon expanded their concerns to civic
reform and municipal support, just like their mothers’ club. La Retama’s
activities included planting trees in honor of Arbor Day in 1908. La Retama
the dreams of Corpus Christi clubwomen when they
opened the doors to the city’s first public library, La Retama Library, in
“Mayors and Council Members” in Miscellaneous Information Notebook at
the reference desk, Local History and Genealogy Room, Corpus Christi
Central Public Library, Corpus Christi, Texas; Briscoe, A Narrative
History, 215-237; Maria von Blucher, Maria von Blucher’s Corpus
Christi: Letters from the South Texas Frontier, 1849-1879, ed. Bruce
Cheeseman (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 38-39;
“Corpus Christi, Texas.” The Handbook of Texas Online; available
Internet; accessed 23 Mar 2004.
U. S. Seventh Census, 1850, Texas, Nueces County, vol. 2 (Bureau
of Census, Washington, D. C., Microfilm copy); Briscoe, City by the
Sea, 154; Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide 1956-57
(Galveston, Texas: A. H. Belo & Company, 1957), 137; Blucher, 38,
88-89; “Corpus Christi, Texas.” The Handbook of
Maria and Felix von Blucher were
among the first pioneers to settle in Corpus Christi, Texas. Highly
regarded and moderately financially successful, the couple came to the
area in 1849 and lived there until their deaths in 1893 and 1879,
respectfully. During this period, Maria maintained consistent
correspondence with her parents in Prussia. These letters are in the
archives at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and are a very rare
glimpse into the early years of Corpus Christi. Maria von Blucher
continues to be regarded as an important part of the area’s history.
Blucher, 90; Briscoe, City by the Sea, 154.
Blucher, 120-121, 129.
Vivienne Heines, Historic Corpus Christi: A Sesquicentennial History
(San Antonio, Texas: Historical Publishing Network, 2002) 13-14;
Mrs. Mary A. Sutherland, The Story of Corpus Christ, ed. Frank B.
Harrison (Houston: Rein and Sons Company, 1916), 32, 137; Briscoe, City
by the Sea, 257, 265.
Briscoe, City by the Sea, 258, 269; “Corpus Christi, Texas.”
The Handbook of Texas Online.
Blucher, 167; Briscoe, City by the Sea, 267, 269; Briscoe, A Narrative
The Nueces County News
(Corpus Christi, Texas) 14 July 1939.
“Corpus Christi, Texas.” The Handbook of Texas Online; Briscoe, City by
the Sea, 268; Texas Almanac, 137.
Texas Almanac, 137;
“Corpus Christi, Texas.” The Handbook of Texas Online; Briscoe,
267-269, 281; Alan Lessoff, “Corpus Christi: A Regional City for South
Texas,” Tombstone 15
Patricia Everidge Hill, Dallas: The Making of an a Modern City
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 1.
Minutes, Vol. C, City of Corpus Christi: City Secretary’s Office, Corpus
Christi City Hall, Corpus Christi, Texas; Minutes, Vol. D, City of
Corpus Christi. The Corpus Christi Caller (Corpus Christi,
Texas) 30 September 1883, 14 October 1883, 4 November 1883, 17 February
1884, 18 May 1884, 30 May 1884, 19 October 1884, 23 November 1884, 15
November 1885, 16 February 1887; Joe R. Feagin, Free Enterprise
City: Houston in Political and Economic Perspective (New Brunswick:
Rutgers University Press, 1988), 108; WMC Minutes item 1.01, 1.
A social club is defined as one in which discussion was fed by a social
atmosphere. This is in lieu of many of the clubs that developed in
Corpus Christi during and before this time for religious or sports
related reasons. The Corpus Christi Caller (Corpus Christi,
Texas) 30 September 1883, 14 October 1883, 4 November 1883, 18 May 1884.
The Myrtle Club membership is a
significant list on those men that Corpus Christians consider very
important to local history. In addition, the list includes many of the
husbands of the members of the Woman’s Monday Club.
Corpus Christi Caller (Corpus Christi, Texas) 17 February 1884,
18 May 1884, 30 May 1884, 19 October 1884, 23 November 1884, 15 November
The last real mention of The
Myrtle Club is in a memoriam article in the Corpus Christi Caller
in January of 1887 on behalf of the death of member John S. Givens and
is signed by “committee” comprised of P. Doddridge, G. R. Scott, G. W.
Westervelt, D. McNeill Turner and Thomas Hickey.
Hill, 1; Minutes, vol. C, City of Corpus Christi: City Secretary’s
Office, Corpus Christi City Hall, Corpus Christi, Texas; Minutes, vol.
D, City of Corpus Christi. The Corpus Christi Caller (Corpus
Christi, Texas) 30 September 1883, 14 October 1883, 4 November 1883, 17
February 1884, 18 May 1884, 30 May 1884, 19 October 1884, 23 November
1884, 15 November 1885, 16 February 1887; Joe R. Feagin, Free
Enterprise City: Houston in Political and Economic Perspective (New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 108; Woman’s Clubs
Collection: Collection 1 Woman’s Monday Club, Special Collection and
Archives, Corpus Christi Public Library, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Hereinafter referred to as WMC. WMC Minutes item 1.01, 1, 24.
Before the discussion of the
Woman’s Monday Club in this thesis, I used the married names of women
only because their husbands usually defined their public presence, and
references to them were by Mrs. so and so. Furthermore, I will, from
this point on when possible, refer to club members by their given
names. When their first names can not be found, I will use Mrs. so and
so. This change in name usage stems from the idea that by inaugurating
and joining the Woman’s Monday Club, the women took a step for
themselves and their community, not just as extensions of their
For discussion of this centralizing trend, see Samuel P. Hays, “Preface
to the Atheneum Edition,” Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency:
The Progressive Movement 1890-1920 (New York: Atheneum Press, 1979);
for more information regarding “island communities,” see Robert H. Wiebe,
A Search for Order: 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967),
McArthur, 76; Christian 25, 28-30.
WMC, item 1.01, 34, 33, 36-37; For descriptions on Carnegie Library
Grants see Robert Sidney Martin, Carnegie Denied: Communities
Rejecting Carnegie Library Construction Grants, 1898-1925, Beta Phi
Mu Monograph Series (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993).
WMC, item 1.01, 38; The Corpus Christi Times 15 October 1899; WMC,
item 1.01, 43.
De Garmo Papers, Box 2: Woman’s Monday Club History; WMC Scrapbook #1
The Corpus Christi Caller (3 March 1944).
WMC item 1.02, 24-25, 86; Christian, 158; for further information
regarding La Retama see Richard Charles Gillespie, “La Retama Public
Library: Its Origin and Development, 1909-1952” (MLS thesis, The
University of Texas, 1953); La Retama Club Papers, Collection and
Archives, Corpus Christi Public Library, Corpus Christi, Texas.