San Antonio — When I told a friend in Boston that I was going to visit the Institute of Texan Cultures, I got the natural Yankee response: "I didn't know they had any."
To those unfamiliar with the Lone Star State, Texas and culture sounds as antithetical as Eskimos and opera. The abundance of cultures in this state, however, is undeniable, and this one-of-a-kind "institute" is living proof that Texas, despite its six-shooter and 10-gallon-hat image, may be the most ethnically rich state in the union.
After several hours with Jack Maguire, a crack newspaper columnist who has been director of the institute for the last several years, you would think he was boasting about Ellis Island, not Texas.
"The first Polish settlement in the United States was in Texas. The town of Canyon has more Polish surnames than any other kind. We have two radio stations in the state that broadcast only in the Czech language. They still speak French in the streets of Castroville, and German in Fredericksburg. We had a German schoolteacher down here who designed and flew an airplane 39 years before the Wright brothers. Just outside of San Antonio is a community of Belgian farmers who are the best truck gardeners in the country. No, we're not the cowboys and Indians place most people think," Maguire says.
Where was the melting-pot army when Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett needed it at the Alamo? a needling reporter from the North asks. (The Alamo is a stone's throw from the institute in downtown San Antonio.)
Bowie and Crockett "weren't the only ones at the Alamo by any means," Maguire , a friendly fellow with a deep- throated drawl, responds.
"There were blacks and Irish and Germans, even Mexicans, defending the Alamo. Did you know the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas was a Mexican? The average Texan has no idea of the cultural diversity of this state. Take a look around at the exhibits of these 30 major ethnic groups in Texas. New immigrants are coming into Texas every day. Texas will soon have the second-largest Vietnamese population of any state in the US. Houston has so many East Indians now, they're putting up a Hindu temple."
The Institute of Texan Cultures, a microcosm of that diversity, is much more than a museum; it is a research facility, publishing house, and educational institution devoted to preserving the history, culture, and folklore of the state. It has a paid staff of 105, an annual budget of $2 million, a reference library of 2,000 books, and 35,000 historical photographs. Through its 80 traveling exhibitions, 30 book titles, and films and other audiovisual presentations, the institute reaches half a million students each year, 12 times the enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin. The institute also gives workshops in genealogy, weaving, quilting, and pioneer toymaking, and offers a "traveling trunk" program, in which the institute sends out to schools actual trunks of touchable Texas gear such as wooden puppets, buffalo hides, and flatirons.
"No educational institution in this state has more contact with students than the institute," Maguire says. In addition to educating students, it designs and produces exhibits for the 400 other museums around the state.
Bearing strong resemblance to a concrete bunker the size of three city blocks , the institute was originally designed to be the Texas pavilion at the six-month-long HemisFair, San Antonio's unsuccessful attempt at a world's fair in 1968. It was then-Gov. John Connally's idea to set up a series of exhibits telling the history of the state through its ethnic groups.
When HemisFair closed down, the institute lived on by popular demand, first run by the Texas Tourist Development Agency and later by the University of Texas. In 1978, the state Legislature decided that the institute was so vital as an educational institution that it should stand on its own feet as one of the 14 independent components of the Texas university system.
Wandering through the exhibit hall, a visitor stumbles upon a lavish Lebanese carpet; a pair of silver inlaid Mexican charro spurs; a Sheffield velocipede (often referred to as the "Irish mail," this hand-pumped vehicle was used as a mail car on the train tracks that connected camps of Irish rail workers); President Johnson's domino set and black tooled cowboy boots from the LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas.
There is a reconstructed 19th-century Texas barbershop complete with the red, white, and blue-striped wooden barber pole out front. Inside a sign reads "Haircut 20. On Saturdays 25. Moustache trimmed and waxed 10. If you leave the shop you lose your turn." On a coat tree in the corner hangs the red checked wool jacket of a customer who apparently left the shop and lost his turn.
One of the luxuries of the institute is its scale. Artifacts -- all of which are on loan to the institute -- are not small and behind "Do Not Touch" glass cases. There is a 30-foot Karankawa Indian canoe on the exhibit floor, a full-size stuffed buffalo for petting, a vintage French-Texan carriage, a German "oompah" band stand, and a Japanese rice thresher -- all to lean on, dream on, and take you back to the days when Texas was being settled.
"Know anybody who has a Lebanese peddler's cart they'd like to loan us?" Maguire asks, always snooping around for artifacts to improve the ever-rotating collection which he literally lives with: Maguire and his wife, Pat, who is director of publications, have their apartment on the third floor of the institute.
Moving from ethnic group to ethnic group, one finds the sounds change with the sights: the honky-tonk piano near the cowboy display, the eerie screech of owls near the Indian tepee, and the zesty bounce of a polka band as one passes through the Czech and Polish displays.
According to the institute's research, the first Poles in Texas were some of Napoleon's soldiers, who fled to Texas with some French soldiers in hopes of settling and later rescuing Napoleon, who was imprisoned on the island of St. Helena. Enthusiam for the rescue waned, and the soldiers, bolstered by a new exodus in the 1850s from Silesia (Prussian-occupied Poland), made their way into central Texas, where they established the village of Panna Maria, the oldest Polish settlement in North America. By the turn of the century, there were some 16,000 Poles in Texas, a number that has grown to around a quarter of a million.
Many who equate Texas with oil wells and big bucks will be interested to know that it was an East European, Anthony Lucas (born Antonio Francisco Luchlic, on Yugoslavia's Dalmatian coast), who brought in the first well at the famous Spindletop oil field near Beaumont. In 1901, using a drill he had designed himself, Lucas and his partner, F. M. Guffy, had the first major oil strike in Texas. Spindletop has since become the stereotype of the get-rich-quick gusher.
Had Lucas been as good an investor as he was engineer, he would have deposited his profits with one of Texas' Scots, the first bankers in the state. In all their tartaned glory, Scottish settlers who arrived in Texas became prominent bankers as well as lumber and cattle barons.
Other Scots came to find work as stonecutters. When the Texas Capitol building in Austin burned in 1881, construction began the following year on a structure of tough, pink Texas granite. The state penitentiary board offered the contractor 500 convicts to do the stone work at the quarry and to construct a railroad to the quarry.
A bitter controversy erupted over the use of convict labor, and the local granite cutters' union boycotted the project. To circumvent the boycott, the builder advertised in Aberdeen for Scottish stonemasons, then considered to be the finest in the world. Within months, 62 Scottish immigrants accepted the offer of $4 a day and sailed for Texas to complete the Capitol building.
One of the most bizarre tales at the institute is that of a group of immigrants to Texas in the mid-19th century who encountered bitter prejudice. Not strictly and ethnic group, they were what one might call envoys from Egypt. They were a herd of camels, which Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, brought to the US in 1856 to provide a safe, economical means of transportation for the Army over the rugged semidesert areas of west Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
As late as the outbreak of the Civil War, the beasts of burden were used by the Confederates to pack cotton bales. But the camel experiment was short-lived , largely because it was a one-man effort of Jefferson Davis, who had become the rebel president of the Confederacy, and whose ideas found little favor in the North after the war. The Army, controlled by "horse and mule men," finally sold the camels at auction.
They were later used in parts of Nevada and Arizona. Some just wandered off into the desert. For years afterward, bewildered west Texans would encounter a stray dromedary wandering through the tumbleweed. The "camel experiment" is one of the institute's few stories with a sad ending, and an obvious case of xenophobia on the part of normally hospitable Texans.
Recently, the institute acquired, lock, stock, and apparel, a two-room board-and-batten tenant farmer's house from a cotton plantation in Brazos County. The east Texas structure, built around 1900 and typical of housing used by many black Texans then, now sits as the centerpiece of the Afro-American exhibit. The house, displayed exactly as it was found, is so startlingly authentic, it appears the family just stepped out for a day in the cotton fields. The wallpaper in the bedroom is turn-of-the-century newsprint, and by the bed is a dogeared Bible, a pair of scuffed blue leather shoes, and an old cotton house dress. On Tuesday and Thursdays, a black docent at the institute sits in a rocker on the front porch of the tin-roofed house and tells stories of sharecropping, coon hunting, and the like.
Not far from the buffalo hide Indian tepee is a statue of a pigeon-toed cowboy on a white plaster-of-Paris horse. On his left is a pair of leg-irons, along with one of the early Paterson Colt revolvers, a weapon that achieved its fame as the "Texas Arm" because the weapon transformed any Texas Ranger into the equivalent of five ordinarily armed men. To the cowboy's right rests Ranger Ed Carnal's fiddle, and the blue and gold brocade saddle of Gen. John L. Bullis, "one of Texas' greatest Indian fighters."
"We've tried to depict the cowboy as he was," Maguire says, "not as the glamorous fellow you see on television, who is always the well-dressed gunfighter that courts the girls and doesn't ever smell. The real cowboy was a hardworking guy who stayed on the ranch, didn't go into town often, and didn't make much money."
Nevertheless, the image of Texans conveyed in western movies and television still predominates. "[The television show] 'Dallas' is the modern stereotype of Texans, and like most stereotypes there is some truth to it," Maguire says. "You can go to several ranches in Texas for some kind of a party and there may be more airplanes than automobiles."
"We just had a group from Germany who were all ersatz cowboys. They told us they had a seven-acre plot outside Munich on which they had horses and cows they can rope. They came over here dressed up in their cowboy togs and traveled around for a month trying to get a look at the real thing. We had a group from England who was just like that."
The only "live" cowboy in the institute's exhibit is Andrew Marrou, a volunteer who tends to the full-size 1878 chuck wagon once used during the long cattle drives to Abilene, Kan. Marrou was born on a ranch 125 miles east of San Antonio and was raised with a branding iron and rope in his hands. And while he still wears Western shirts, an Indian arrowhead bolo tie, and an old Stetson hat ("Stetson just went out of business after 103 years, but I've got three of their hats stored away," he says), Andrew Marrou has gone into the real estate business.
"There are a few cowboys left in Texas, but they ride in very dignified jeeps with those enclosed cabs and air conditioning, and soft seats, and radios. Some of them even got television. There weren't very many Texas cowboys in the first place who wore boots and chaps, and set in the saddle six days a week, 'cept maybe on King Ranch," a modest spread of 1.25 million acres, nearly as large as the entire state of Delaware.
"We used to have motley-faced cows, half-breeds, red, white, black cows. Now everybody wants those registered cows that come when you blow a whistle. And you wonder why the price of beef is going up?"
While many visitors sidle up to Marrou's chuck wagon in hopes he'll spin out a few tall Texas tales, they may well be disappointed, because he does nothing but shoot from the hip, exploding the Old West myths. The result is that those visitors who come to this chuck wagon cowboy expecting to discover "What is a Texan?" inevitably find themselves turning to sample the melting pot of Poles, Belgians, Lebanese, Japanese, and countless other cultures that have made Texas. Marrou says, leaning on the chuck wagon and dealing a final blow to the time-honored rugged-cowboy stereotype: "Any of those cowboys would have loved to have had a Radarange in their chuck wagon, but where would they have found a 100 -mile extension cord?"