|SAN ANTONIO, February 16 - The tale is almost too good to be true. In 1890, a Jewish teenager, Nathan Kallison, fled the oppressive Czarist regime in Russia, sought a better life in the United States, and ended up in San Antonio.
With no experience whatsoever with the region’s hardscrabble farm and ranch economy, he and his progeny remade themselves to such an extent that their family name became synonymous with the local industry. Kallison’s, the legendary store that fronted on South Flores Street, was the source of a steady stream of implements, gear, and clothing to those working hard across the coastal plains and the Edwards Plateau. Like the “Trading Post,” son Perry Kallison’s daily radio show that was a staple on KTSA for many years, this enterprise helped knit together those who lived in Poteet, Kerrville, or Three Rivers, on the coast, in the hills, or down in the valley. For many rural Texans, Kallison’s was part of their family.
Given this centrality, it is striking that until now no one has written about their history and impact. And that fact only makes The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas, just published by TCU Press, at once long overdue and well worth the wait.
One other surprise – its author is himself a Kallison and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. This helps explains why Nick Kotz has written a penetrating and graceful three-generation memoir of his family’s life and activism in South Texas and why his new book offers an insider’s guide with an outsider’s perspective. Melding the biographical and the social, Kotz helps his readers appreciate two reciprocal relationships: how the family’s experience illuminates the history of modern San Antonio and its agricultural hinterland and how this wider context in turn shaped the Kallisons’ aspirations and opportunities.
The linguistic journey from Yiddish to y’all, like the physical migration from a tiny village in the Ukraine to the Alamo City, began when Nathan, a harness-maker by trade, made the long journey by foot to Bremen, Germany; there, he boarded the S.S. Werra bound for New York. Once in the New World, he hurried west to Chicago to meet up with his older brother and a cousin who had made the same trek earlier. Like them, he worked hard, and saved well, ultimately funding the flight of his mother and younger brother.
The decision to move to San Antonio, which Nathan made with his new wife Anna, was based in part on the fact it was not Chicago. It was also framed by the prospects young, ambitious couple believed would open up for a harness maker in the still animal-powered region. Over time, that proved true.
True too is that this hardworking pair began to branch out from their original shop, expanding into general merchandise that met the varied needs of local ranchers and farmers. The arrival of the horseless carriage made this shift a logical business strategy, but so did the shifting demands of the clientele. Customers may not always be right but when they seek a service you do not yet provide it makes sense to secure it for them.
That’s how Kallison’s came to sell leather goods and farm equipment, and jeans, hats, boots, and tires, a growing trade to led to its expansion into adjacent storefronts; soon enough, Kallison operated on a full block on South Flores.
Kotz does a wonderful job of spinning this narrative of immigrants made good. As rich is his close focus on the evolution of the second and third generations’ civic and political engagements, their relations with the local Jewish community, and their innovative ventures in commerce and ranching. In so doing, he explains what steps they took to seize their opportunities. Yet he has a sharp eye on the wide social context, teasing out how others – neighbors, friends, rivals – were building or failing to build their futures. The Harness Maker’s Dream is thus an intimate portrait of the domestic life and economic activity of the fast-growing city and makes a persuasive case for paying attention to the dense intertwining of the personal and public.
Not that Nick Kotz understood this as a young man. Even though he lived with Nathan and Anna and spent lots of weekends on the family’s ranch, “my reality was the San Antonio lives of the grandparents I loved – Texans.” It never occurred to him to ask about their experiences before they settled in South Texas: “I knew far more about Sam Houston and his victory in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico than about how my own grandparents had escaped a different revolution in Russia.”
That gap in his knowledge is no longer exists, as is demonstrated in this richly documented, and loving testament to his family’s intriguingly complex history. The Harness Maker’s Dream is also a record of how a diligent journalist, by asking lots of questions, listening to countless stories, and sifting through reams of documents, gets at the truth.
Char Miller is W.M. Keck Professor of Pomona College, and author most recently of On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest and co-author of Death Valley National Park: A History. The website for the book Miller has reviewed is: http://www.prs.tcu.edu/book-pages/kotz_harness_makers_dream.asp