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The country was heady with prosperity. The music was effervescent. Romance reigned. Skirts went from long to short, and stockings were rolled down partway in a risky break with Mom’s Victorian mores. Women dared to wear makeup and bob their hair. Men donned raccoon coats, even in Texas.
Cars had running boards. With Prohibition came speakeasies, bootleggers and illegal, sometimes lethal, homemade hooch.
Inside a diamond drawn in bright white chalk lines on hard-packed dirt, a brilliant field of green took center stage as baseball, that most glorious and pastoral of all American games, became a national passion.
Yet isolationism also gripped America as farm boys returned hardened men after fighting the Germans in World War I. The Ku Klux Klan rode. People of German heritage were tarred and feathered. Prominent businessmen were taken from their homes and businesses and badly beaten. Many towns banned speaking foreign languages.
In Brenham, Texas, the whole mess was eventually settled in the mid-1920s in what can only be described as a downright friendly compromise. The town threw a $6,000 Reconciliation Barbecue, with all sides invited to call a halt to the bloodshed.
In exchange for the Klan’s standing down, German businessmen, preachers and teachers in town agreed not to publicly speak, preach or teach in their native tongue. But it was likely the groaning tables heaped with Texas barbecue, German potato salad, coleslaw, peach cobbler and Brenham Creameries ice cream that sealed the deal. Who could possibly fight over a plate of slow-smoked meat and (what would later become) Blue Bell ice cream?
Browse through photos taken by F.C. Winkelmann of Brenham and residents of Washington County during the Roaring Twenties, and you’ll find a micro-picture of America flickering there like a silent picture show.
Dr. W.F. “Boy” Hasskarl Jr. was a kid in 1920s Brenham. Born in 1917, folks around here still call him “Dr. Boy,” since his dad, Dr. W.F. Hasskarl Sr., traveled Washington County on horseback tending to the sick for miles around from about 1910 until cars made horse travel obsolete. Boy would often go with him and open the farm gates for his dad.
“My dad had a special saddle made with saddlebags designed to carry his surgical instruments and medicines,” said Dr. Boy. The saddle is now on display at the Brenham Heritage Museum.
Both Dr. Boy and his father graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Dr. Boy accepted a fellowship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic, but he returned, and he and his father practiced medicine in Brenham their entire careers. Dr. Hasskarl Sr., Dr. Boy and Dr. Thomas Giddings founded the medical clinic in town.
Recalling the tumultuous Twenties when the Klan rode against German immigrants, Dr. Boy said, “Dad, being a doctor, was upset that German men in Brenham who were patients of his were getting beaten by the Klan, and he publicly spoke out about it. There was a lot of intimidation going on. Shortly afterward, Dad got a call one night to come help a sick wife of a guy who lived out in the country. When Dad got close to the farm, a set of car lights suddenly flashed on him and someone fired a shot just over his head. Dad said he didn’t think they meant to kill him, just shut him up.”
A German printer was threatened in his downtown shop by KKK leaders and told to quit publishing the newspaper. The printer responded by throwing one Klansman through a plate-glass window.
It was a good thing that cooler heads finally prevailed, a compromise was reached, and the Reconciliation Bar- becue was held. Dr. Boy’s own grandfather, a local Lutheran minister, was among those who agreed not to preach every other Sunday in German as he had in the past. Some 10,000 people came in from all over Washington County to attend the grand feed.
Dr. Boy is 90 now. He still drives, plays golf three times a week and visits hospice patients as a volunteer. He’s been a Brenham mayor, chamber of commerce president, and involved in UT boards and committees for many years. He also has a passion for preserving the town’s past, and his local history columns for the Brenham Banner Press have been published in a booklet titled “Remembering Brenham.”
You can’t walk more than a couple steps anywhere in Brenham without someone stopping to chat and shake hands with Dr. Boy. If you tag after him for a few days, you realize that 90 is actually pretty young by Brenham standards. Take his good friend, Hester Smith Lockett. She’s 103. She was a flapper in tiny Brenham during the Twenties. “I was flappin’ all over the place,” she quipped.
Twenty-eight bars and two breweries were in business in Brenham by the early 1900s. When Prohibition came along, the bars were shuttered but the parties, poker playing, dancing and good times continued to roll behind closed doors.
In 1923, Hester Smith was a senior in high school when the town’s fire truck came rushing up, its bell furiously ringing, to her family’s breathtaking plantation home. The young men of the town came forth in suits and ties to serenade her below her balcony. It was the traditional way to inform a young woman that she had been selected Maifest Queen.
The honor inspired weeks of activity, from having a local seamstress create an elaborate gown to helping fashion paper flowers for the queen’s float to presiding over 15 couples in her “Court of Jewels” to attending all the Maifest activities. Maifest, a German festival celebrating the joys of spring and children, was and still is the largest annual celebration in Brenham.
Miss Hester married her Maifest King, Reese Lockett, after high school. A rough and tumble cowboy who walked with a bowed leg from a bronc injury, Reese was one of the early founders of the much-heralded Salt Grass Trail Ride to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the annual ode to livestock and fine horseflesh.
He was a hard man to love, let alone tame. Dr. Boy said when Reese grew old and had to go into a nursing home, he spent his days in his wheelchair herding the old people around him like startled cattle into the dining room.
Reese is gone now, but a private little smile plays across Miss Hester’s face when his name is mentioned. Reese and Hester raised two children, ran a clothing store in Brenham, and Reese went on to serve as mayor for 28 years. Asked once whether she ever considered divorcing the hard-headed cowboy, Miss Hester said, “No, but I did think about killing him a time or two.”
Dr. Boy tells a great story about Miss Hester, who now lives in a local retirement home. A salesman visited her one day but got nowhere with his attempts to sell her his product. He finally fished for flattery, asking her what criteria she would have for selecting her next marital prospect.
Miss Hester shot him a sideways look. “It’s a simple numerical formula: 85, 95, 105,” she replied. “He has to have at least $85 million, minimum 95 years old, and running a 105-degree fever.”
An orderly backdrop to the colorful characters and conflicts that confounded Brenham in the 1920s could be found on the crisp, manicured ball fields. Baseball became a popular pastime, the ballpark a place to “pack up all your cares and woes.” The Winkelmann family, who ran the photo studio in Brenham for nearly 100 years and whose glass-plate photographs grace this article, were big into playing and coaching baseball.
Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige and his team played an exhibition game in Brenham that drew record attendance, where he threw his signature 90-mph fastballs and sat a spell between innings in a special rocking chair. In the 1930s, Brenham became home to a semipro team, the Sun Oilers, which offered a cleat up for many talented local athletes to become major league players, coaches and trainers.
Brenham High School became a hotbed for the sport and won a dizzying number of state championships. Even today, Texas sportswriters can’t wax poetic about Texas baseball tradition without mentioning Brenham.
The era of high hopes, wild excesses and long, languid afternoons in the bleachers would be swept away with the stock market crash of 1929. But throughout the tumultuous Twenties in Brenham, bootlegging, baseball and barbecue held sway.
Shannon Lowry is a freelance writer based in Austin and the author of books on Alaskan lighthouses and photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis’ travels among Alaska’s Native American people.
Historic photos accompanying this story except those noted are from the Winkelmann Photograph collection, The Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. The Winkelmann Studio operated in Brenham for two generations.