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Texas Tales

published: October 30th 2020
by: Mike Cox

Rules, rules, rules.
    From pre-schoolers to office workers to prison inmates, all Texans have to abide by various rules, not to mention state and federal statutes. That’s not news, but it may be comforting for anyone feeling unduly controlled to know that Texans have faced rules and regulations for centuries.
    The first formal rule-makers in Texas were the Spanish, who not only conquered the New World, they blazed the trail for all future promulgators of bureaucratic do’s and don’ts in what would be-come the Lone Star State.
    Around 1760, a now-unknown Franciscan priest at the Apostolic College for Missionaries in Queretaro, Mexico set down rules for Texas missionaries. The rules, laden with advice, were “meant for a missionary who has never been in charge of a mission and is all alone and does not know whom to consult for advice.” More than two centuries later, Father Benedict Leute-negger translated and annotated those rules. The Old Spanish Mission His-torical Research Library in San Antonio published Leutenegger’s work in 1976 as “Guidelines For A Texas Mission.”
    As the history-minded priest pointed out in his introduction, Spain established its first mission in Texas in 1632. Though frequently abandoning or moving missions, by the time the Spanish lost control of their territory to the new Republic of Mexico in 1824, the Catholic Church had operated a total of 37 missions in Texas.
    At Mission Concepcion in San Antonio, during the 1760s, the missionary and his staff had some 200 Indians in their charge.
    “Dealings and communications between the Indians and the Spaniards are not only allowed but are commanded,” the rules declared. “Nonetheless, the missionary must expel from the mission those Spaniards who come only to take from the Indians all that they can, gambling with them and exchanging trifles for utensils and participating in evil. This cannot be tolerated.”
    Indeed, if a missionary asked someone who had been taking advantage of the Indians to leave the mission and that person returned, the offender would be “tied to a stake and whipped. Thus they learn by experience.”
    While most of the mission rules concerned the way in which religious ritual would be observed, the missionaries had dozens of rules regulating practically every aspect of Indian life, including how much food they received and when, the clothing they wore, the work they were required to do and their freedom of movement.
    Women were both protected and discriminated against. Under Rule No. 21, “The missionary can change the cook when he wants to or alternate cooks by weeks or months, always selecting a man for the job. The employment of wo-men could lead to disorder with single men in the kitchen.”
    An exception to Rule No. 21: “Each week the fiscal [one of the mission’s staffers] appoints a woman who is to make tortillas for the missionary.”
    Another rule covered barbers, who practiced medicine along with their tonsorial skills. “The barber who shaves the missionary is paid as agreed upon,” another rule stated. “An agreement on payment is made for any bleedings or incisions that he is called upon to perform….He may be paid for each job, if the missionary so wishes.”
    Some of the rules come across as arbitrary: “Dur-ing the fiestas at the presidios, it is inexcusable to give permission to the women and children to go and see the bulls. On this day they are given a sum of money to buy what they want.”
    Despite Indian women occasionally having the opportunity to shop, from a modern perspective it is easy to see why the Indians might not cotton to Chris-tian conversion. Judging from all the rules, the missions were not operated much differently than to-day’s minimum security prisons: The Indian in-mates had to do most of the work to sustain the mission but if they behaved, they could get occasional re-wards. The Spanish may have thought they were doing native Texans a favor by introducing them to their religion and culture, but today the mission system does not seem all that far removed from slavery.
    “The submission of inferiors to the superior and subjects to the prelate is indispensable,” another rule reminded the missionaries. “Without it…all would end up in confusion and disorder. The missionary must so conduct himself toward the Indians so that all will show him respect, submission, and obedience. He must punish the disobedient, the rebellious, and the arrogant without losing his usual gentleness, affability, and prudence in governing.”
    Not surprisingly, not all the Indians exposed to mission life opted to stick around: “From time to time the missionary should journey to the coast and bring back the fugitives, who regularly leave the mission trying at the same time to gain some recruits, if possible, so that more conversions are realized and the mission does not come to an end because of lack of natives.”
    And that rule illustrates the fundamental rule of any bureaucracy, then or now -- perpetuate the status quo or suffer budget cuts and shutdowns.
    Ninety minutes out of Austin, the passenger bus slowed as it moved west along Fredericksburg's wide Main Street before lumbering up in front of the three-story Nimitz Hotel.
    The Kerrville Bus Lines coach would be there only briefly, but the driver said we had time to stretch our legs if we wanted. Knowing the trip to Amarillo would take all night, I decided to go into the hotel for a quick cup of coffee. Air hissed from the hydraulics as I stepped off the bus into the chilly December night and walked into the lobby. 
    Back then, I didn't really know anything about the history of the Nimitz. To me, it was just an old hotel that had clearly seen its better days. I got the coffee I wanted, though I don't recall it being particularly fresh. At least it had caffeine, which interested me more than flavor. I was just an eighth grader, albeit somewhat older than my years due to family circumstances.
    Still, this would be the longest ground trip I had ever taken by myself and I was both excited and a little apprehensive. I felt something else that early winter night in 1962, something it took me years to understand.
    I realize now that in reaching the Nimitz I had come to the edge of my familiar territory. We had only traveled 80 miles from the bus station at 4th and Congress in Austin, but Fredericksburg was -- and in some ways  still is -- the last stopping place before the geography and, to some extent the culture, begins to change from Central Texas to West Texas. When that bus pulled away from the Fredericksburg station that night, I was riding into new country, bound for Amarillo by morning to spend Christmas with my dad.
    Of course, I was far from the first person to experience Fredericksburg as a landlocked port of last call. Indeed, from its founding in 1846, nearly another 40 years would pass before any significant settlement occurred be-tween Gillespie County and far-distant El Paso. In mid-19th century Texas, the German settlement on Baron's Creek lay on the raw edge of the frontier. And for years the Nimitz, opened in 1852 with only four rooms to let, stood as the last traditional hotel between Texas and Cali-fornia -- assuming your stagecoach made it past the Comanches and Apaches.
    Minus hostile Indians, bus travel in the early 1960s came about as close as you could get to knowing how it must have been to journey across Texas in a stagecoach. Sure, passenger buses had air-conditioning, relatively soft seats and a bathroom, but it still took forever -- at least compared with automobile travel and certainly with flying -- to get somewhere. The main reason was that back then, bus companies still served small town Texas. Later that night, and into the pre-dawn hours, our bus stopped at Brady, San Angelo, Big Spring, Lub-bock, and Plainview before rolling into Amarillo around daybreak.
    The man who would give the Nimitz its name, Charles H. Nimitz, knew a thing or two about travel. A former sea captain, he came to Fredericksburg in 1855 and purchased the three-year-old hotel. In addition to running and expanding the property, he operated a brewery, saloon and general store at the hotel. By the late 1880s,  having made enough mon-ey to indulge in a bit of whimsy, Nimitz oversaw construction of a new three-story frame addition. The top of the hotel resembled the wheelhouse of a steamship, complete with a flag pole.
    In its prime, the Nimitz saw numerous notable and a few infamous guests, in-cluding future Confed-erate general Robert E. Lee, his later nemesis Ulysses S. Grant, the outlaw Johnny Ringo, writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), sculptress Elisabet Ney and President Ru-therford B. Hayes. In later years, future President Lyndon B. Johnson met with constituents there. Another person who spent a lot of time at the Nimitz was Charles Nimitz's grandson, Chester.
    In 1906, the old ship captain deeded the property to his son -- Chester's father -- and 20 years later the hotel sold to a group of Fredericksburg businessmen. Meanwhile, having inherited his granddad's love of the sea, Chester Nimitz moved up the ranks after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. 
    The hotel's new owners scuttled its distinctive nautical architecture in favor of a three-story brick structure that looked about like most small town hotels of the era. In other words, unimaginative if functional.
    I didn't know any of this when I made that long-ago trip to Amarillo.  Nor did I know when I ventured inside for a cup of coffee that the place was on its last legs. Less than nine months later, on September 16, 1963, Fredericksburg newspaper correspondent Em-ma Petmecky filed a story that began, "For the first time since 1852, there is no desk clerk at the historic Nimitz Hotel. It has ceased taking overnight guests."
    The old hotel still had a few permanent guests, however. And, Mrs. Petmecky reported, "The lobby is still active because a bus station and cafe which operated in conjunction with the hotel are being maintained."
    The article went on to note that "tentative plans" existed to reopen the hotel, but that never happened. At least, the Nimitz never again accommodated overnight guests. The permanent residents moved on, the bus station relocated and the cafe where I'd gotten that cup of joe closed.
    Six years later, in 1968, I returned to the Nimitz as a young newspaper reporter. Thanks to a fund-raising effort that had begun in 1964, with then Gov. John Connally giving the first donation, the Nimitz had taken on a new life as a museum honoring the man who in World War Two oversaw the defeat of the Japanese empire -- Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
    Now, the restored Nimitz and all the new square-footage built to house its many exhibits is daily visited by people from all across the United States and around the world. But, for those whose westward journey will continue from there, the Nimitz and Fredericksburg remain a way point.

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