The MacGregor sisters and the mystery of Minera, Texas

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Anna MacGregor, Helen MacGregor, and Mary MacGregor (second, third, and fifth from left), in front of Minera, Texas post office, early 1900s.

So you remember this photo from this entry a couple months back on the MacGregor sisters, right? These were my great-grandmother Mary and her sisters; Mary would eventually marry into the Jameson family. The sisters and their parents lived in Laredo, Texas, on the Mexico border. And, as I figured out from studying the photo above closely, a couple of the sisters sometimes visited a nearby coal mining town called Minera,Texas. When you click on the photo and view it at full size you can just make out the name of the town on the sign to the right.

I didn’t know why the girls were in Minera. In the photo albums I have, which I believe belonged to Anna and Mary, there are several photos taken there. Here’s another one:

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Anna MacGregor, second from left, Minera, Texas. Others in photo not known, though the man to right of Anna may have come from nearby Fort McIntosh. (He also looks like he could be the young man in the previous photo)

I had the vague notion that the girls and their friends went there on occasional jaunts, based on pictures like the one below, where the place seems like a playground to them.

But I’ve found enough bits and pieces to make me wonder if one or both of the girls lived at Minera. Or at least stayed there sometimes, in order to teach school.

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Anna at far left, Mary far right.

The key piece of information comes from Helen, the third oldest of the MacGregor sisters (after Anna and Mary). Helen’s papers include a brief autobiographical account of her childhood and teaching career, in which she mentions spending four years after college teaching at the school at Dolores, another small mining town outside of Laredo.

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Dolores Mine (image from Google Books)

In the 1910 census, all the sisters were living at home: Helen was 17 and still a student, but Mary, 20, and Anna, 22, were listed as public school teachers. Going by the clothing, the photos don’t appear to be taken later than 1910, and could have been a few years earlier. If Helen taught school at Dolores during her early twenties, isn’t it possible that one or both of her sisters did the same thing, a few years earlier, in Minera?

I went back to those old photo albums and found these:

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Those look like students all right!

I forgot these were in one of the albums.  I hadn’t photographed every picture in there—I’d mostly been looking at the snapshots of the sisters, taking cameraphone pictures of them so I could get a closer look and make out who was who. But that meant I’d stopped looking in the albums and was missing the wider context.

In the same album pages are more pictures of what could be Minera:

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Minera no longer exists. A 1940s article called The Life and Times of Minera, Texasapparently written by a descendant of one of the mine supervisors, seems to be the most detailed account of the place. It says that Minera was 25 miles from Laredo at the end of a branch railroad line, and that the trip took the better part of a day (in 1895 at least). The article mentions that the superintendent and his wife lived in a “comfortable, roomy stone house” with a broad, flat roof, and that the wife’s presence “made it agreeable for two young ladies to come out from Laredo and conduct a school for the children of the miners.”

A number of the photos that appear alongside the mine pictures show a stone house with a flat roof. Could it be the superintendent’s house? It doesn’t seem to be the MacGregor place (which had a shadier yard and was more clearly in town, with the Laredo post office building visible across the street.)

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Anna (I think, at far right) and friends on roof of mystery building. Fits description of Minera supervisor’s house, the roof of which was said to have been used as an observation deck to see across to the Mexico side of the Rio Grande.

Anna shows up most often in the photos; not sure if that means they were her pictures, perhaps recording her experience at the mine. My theory is that one or both of the sisters and possibly other young women lived at the supervisor’s house during the school year as guest-boarders under the watch of the supervisor’s wife. Helen, on the other hand, describes the Dolores mine as being near her home—it was a shorter distance, closer to ten miles—and by the time she would have been old enough to teach (1911 or so?) the trains were likely faster. Another possibility is that the sisters frequently visited a friend who taught at Minera, but the number of photos—and the fact that Anna and Mary were listed on the census as teachers at around the same time—makes me think otherwise.

Anna, who would later travel to in the Philippines and have her wedding there, strikes me as the adventurous one, the sort who would get a kick out of teaching in a mining camp. According to The Life and Times of Minera, in the early days (before 1900), dances were held in the schoolhouse every Saturday night, “which generally ended in a tequila-inspired brawl during early dawn. On Sundays they held cock-fights, and every payday nearly everybody got drunk at the cantina.” Nice! In the later years, though, the residents were ordered “to refrain from sticking knives into each other at Saturday night bailies in the schoolhouse.” Oh well, Anna and Mary look like they could make their own fun.

Minera was abandoned around 1915 after flooding in the mine shafts forced the mining operations to move further inland from the river. It’s listed as a ghost town in some guides. Somehow it still shows up on Google maps. Dolores isn’t marked, but the maps I found show it was in the area in the right-hand corner of the page, beneath Highway 255.
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The Life and Times ends with a last look from 1945:

“…the old stone walls of the superintendent’s house furnish a shelter to countless bats … The well-preserved cement floors are barely discernible beneath the blown dry earth that is gradually covering them over, and in another generation there probably will be no witness remaining who remembers the gayety and excitement that once was Minera, Texas…”

UPDATE:  A number of newspaper items confirm that indeed Anna and Mary taught school at Minera.

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The New York City years (Part 1) with bonus House & Edie mystery!

Way back in late 2012 I promised to post my photos from New York, where I’d visited places where the Jamesons and MacGregors (well, Margaret at least) had lived in the 1930s and 40s. So here’s 244 E. 48th Street in Manhattan. The building shows up in a photo album that belonged to (my great-great uncle) House Jameson and his wife. Edith:

2016-02-20 21.51.53 But since there are almost no notes or captions the album (shakes fist at ancestors ) I didn’t know this was the 48th Street place until I went there myself, using an address that I’d found for House in the 1930 census. And as it happened, it looked almost exactly the same:

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Obviously this was an ideal location for House and Edie, who were both performing in Broadway plays on a regular basis at the time (and House’s radio career might have started by then too).

But apparently, for a time, House’s brother and his family lived in the building too. Here’s the 1930 listing for all four of them—Malcolm and Mary (my great-grandparents), 13 year-old Vida, and 11 year-old Mac, my grandfather.

recordWhich is why the row of buildings across the street from the 244 building looked so familiar:

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Malcolm (my great-grandfather) and his mother-in-law, Anna Jones MacGregor (who must have been visiting)

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Mary (my great-grandmother), her daughter Vida, her sister Anna, and her mother.

The family posted for several photos at this spot. When I visited this street, I noticed  those ornaments between the windows on the top story of one of the buildings across the street, and they helped me confirm I was in the right place. Cool, huh?

According to the census record, Malcolm was working as a salesman for International Correspondence Schools at the time. He had retired from the Navy just a few years before for health reasons, and after working various jobs in Texas (I think), perhaps it seemed a good idea to join his younger brother in the city. I also found a brief mention of this time in a journal written in the 1990s by my grandmother (Mac’s wife), who said that Malcolm and Mary had originally come to New York with plans to open a Mexican restaurant. Really?

House had been in the city after graduating from Columbia in the late 1920s (except for the times he toured with theater companies around the US and Australia). I’ve found a couple of other Manhattan addresses for House, but in at least one case the entire block had been razed for office buildings. This block on East 48th is relatively unchanged, although the 244 building has since been rehabbed into a single-family home that sold for over four million dollars a few years ago. (It originally listed for $12M!) But at the time the Jamesons lived there the building had several units, with Malcolm and Mary and the kids in one apartment and House and Edie in another. At least that’s what it seems when you go by the 1930 Census, which visited Malcolm’s place one day, and House’s place a few weeks later.

Which brings me to the little mystery about House and Edie that arose from reading their census record! See below. (I know, it’s hard to read. You can look here, too. And here, and here.)

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You’ll notice that Edie is listed as head of household, and House is a “roomer.” Interesting! But weren’t they married to each other by then? We thought so, but the census lists “Edith Brown Taliaferro” as married and House as single. Oh my. Of course census records get stuff wrong all the time, and it’s possible that the census-taker didn’t know how else to list two people with two different last names (which House and Edie had for professional reasons) living in the same place. Or perhaps the place had been Edie’s first and her name was on the lease. (She was ten years older than House, after all.) Or maybe House and Edie were having a bit of fun with the census-taker. At any rate it makes me realize that we don’t seem to have a record or even a date for when House and Edie got hitched. Edie’s Wikipedia page says she married House in 1912, but that would have been when House was ten, so let’s assume that was wrong. Perhaps Edie married someone in 1912…maybe that’s where the odd “Brown” in her name in the census record (which I’ve never seen anywhere else) comes from. But I guess I’ll have to add House and Edie’s marriage record/date to the list of things I need to look for.

Stay tuned for more New York photos (at some point), including one photo—the only one I’ve ever found!—that shows Edie with other Jameson family members. And I bet you want to see more House and Edie, too, don’t you?

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The house in Austin: mystery solved

You may remember that I was a little obsessed with this house in Austin, where the Jameson family lived at the turn of the century:I knew that it wasn’t standing anymore but aside from another old photo which I’d found at the Austin History Center’s website, I couldn’t find out a thing about it. The history center has a number of historic building files and lets you search their archives by street address, but nothing came up for 1108 Colorado Street. There was a file, though, for 1104 Colorado, but the contents weren’t online. I was beginning to suspect that it was the file I was looking for, and when I finally emailed a librarian at the history center and showed him the old photo, he explained that at some point, a few years after my great-great grandparents moved out, the house had been moved down the block on logs.

I ordered photocopies of the house file contents, which included photos and ownership records. Sadly, there are no photos showing the actual house-moving, because how awesome would that have looked? But there was a copy of the photo above, showing the Jamesons, with their names listed on the reverse and everything. And then photos of the house at different angles:

Not sure when the above photo was taken, or whether the house was in its original or moved location (moved, I think). The diagram below seems to indicate that the one-story wing on the back was added later. Does that mean the house originally had just two big rooms on the first floor, and two on the second? What was it like when the Jamesons lived there?

(The little drawings of the bannister finial and the light fixture are a nice touch.)

The house, built in 1852, has come to be known as the Haynie-Cook House. Dr. Samuel Garner Haynie, who had been the mayor of Austin in 1850 and 1851 (and again  in ’63 and ’64), commissioned Abner Cook, a prominent Texas architect who worked on the interior of the 1852-3 state capitol and later built the Texas Governor’s Mansion, to build a residence on some land he owned across from the Capitol grounds.

Prior to that, Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston had lived on the property, in a cottage Haynie had built around 1850. It’s possible he also lived for a short time in this new house Cook was building, as Joe Lee Jameson believed, even though it was being built for Haynie. Confused? I know I am. Suffice it to say Albert Sidney Johnston had at least been around.

The place cost between $7500 and $9000 to build, making it one of the most expensive houses in Austin. It turns out the Haynie family lived in the house for only a short time—if at all—before selling it to Abner Cook due to financial difficulties. So Cook moved into the house that he’d built and lived there with his family the rest of his life, with his widow remaining there until 1885. After that, the house was bought by another former Austin mayor, Leander Brown.

From there the ownership records get a little murky because they refer to lots, not house addresses—all I can tell is that the place passed through the hands of a few more people, described in the historical summary as real estate banker types, who may or may not have lived there. The occupancy record, compiled from old Austin directories, doesn’t list the Jameson family at all, although it shows a window of time from 1897 to 1902 in which “Not Sansom or Nalle” lived there—Sansoms being the residents previous to 1897, and Nalle as the owner in 1903. This corresponds roughly to when the Jamesons lived there. So while my great-great-grandparents appear by name in the oldest photo of the house in the history file, they never owned the place, and for some reason their residency was never reflected in the city directory.

I have a theory as to how the Jamesons wound up living there.  I can’t help but wonder if the house was something of a white elephant throughout its existence, starting with the original owner who couldn’t afford the place. Certainly it was considered an important house, but by the end of the 1800s, nearly fifty years after it had been built, would it have been considered outdated, perhaps difficult to heat, an impressive but impractical showplace? The well-to-do in Austin could build fashionable Victorians with more modern features (like kitchens and servants’ rooms, instead of outbuildings dating back to the slavery era), and the Haynie-Cook house may not have been able to serve the needs of an established wealthy family. But for the small family of a rising young bureaucrat who had been an aide in the newly elected governor’s campaign, and who had recently relocated from staff quarters in an asylum downstate, the house could have been a step up, and no doubt the location across from the Capitol building would have suited them well. Whoever owned the house at the time would have likely had influential connections to Texas politics; giving Joe Lee Jameson and his family the opportunity to live there could have been a reward for service and loyalty to the current administration. Perhaps also the Jamesons, or whoever arranged for them to live there, were doing the owners a favor by keeping the place occupied and maintained. In the letter Joe Lee wrote about the house, he seems to be proud of the history of the place but there’s no indication that any of it belongs to him.

About a decade after the family vacated the house (moving to Beaumont), the house was moved down the block by a new owner, and the owner’s sister, Fanny Andrews (aka “Miss Fanny”) opened a gift store on the first floor called “Ye Qualitye Shoppe” and then eventually moved in upstairs.

Miss Fanny (or is it Miss Fannye?) seemed to be a fixture in Austin—a longtime resident and one of the first women to attend UT.  She even had her own biography, a booklet of interviews she gave to a local historian in the late fifties, and I found a used copy for cheap in hopes that it would have another picture of the house. Sure enough, there was this photo from the 50s:

By this time the house had clearly seen better days. By Miss Fanny’s account, the place wasn’t in such great shape either back around 1910, after her brother had bought the house because “it was too good a house to waste” and moved it down the block to the lot he owned. “The house was terrible,” she was quoted as saying in her biography. “The colors in the house were terrible. One bedroom was red, one green, the west bathroom was red.” Miss Fanny fixed up the place and then opened the shop, which she ran for more than forty years until it closed in 1953. The house was demolished the same year as part of developments to the Capitol area.

Today the Westgate Tower at 1122 Colorado, completed in 1966, stands in its place.

I visited Austin this past April and one of the first things I did was to visit the historical marker for the house that stands in front of the building:

Despite all the development, I could still see the land ridge that ran beneath the whole block. And when I turned around and looked across the street, I could see what the view must have been from the front porch of the house at the time the Jamesons lived there. Except for the trees, it wouldn’t have been much different—the Capitol and the surrounding grounds.

For extra credit web fun:

This has been the deepest historical research I’ve done so far on a family history topic. It started with that one photo, and I suppose that image represents an anchor for me, a point in time that makes me want to find out more about everything that led up to it and everything that came after. That photo was meant to convey that the family had arrived; I have to wonder what it—and the house—meant to them after tragedy struck there not long afterwards. It’s one of those things I guess I’ll never know.