In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the week of March 8 as Women’s History week. Years later, Congress passed a bill declaring March as Women’s History Month. Every year the National Women’s History Project chooses a theme for this month, and 2015’s theme is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” This presents the opportunity to weave women’s stories – individually and collectively – into the essential fabric of our nation’s history.
While it’s fitting that we should honor all women in King William who strive to make the neighborhood a better place to live, this article pays special tribute to those remarkable women who have gone before us.
Written evidence tells us that women played an important part in our neighborhood’s development from the very beginning. Over a hundred years ago, women were major developers, home builders and land owners -- Maria Ygnacia Delgado, Adalina Dane, Lady Bailey and Emma Altgelt to name a few.
Half a century later, but still early in the neighborhood’s renaissance, women joined together in times of crisis. News that the city was planning to build an expressway through the neighborhood in 1953 radicalized the social-minded King William Area Conservation Association (forerunner of the current day King William Association). This earlier neighborhood association, formed in 1947 exclusively of women, included activists such as Margaret Gething, Martha Isbell, Nellie Pancoast, Dorothy Schuchard, Mary Schug, Ilse Griffith and Caroline Elmendorf.
To counter this threat to the neighborhood, the organization petitioned the City Planning Commission for zoning laws to protect homes from encroaching business development. They organized an “Old World Tour of Homes,” and invited the City Planning Commission, State Highway Department officials, the City Board of Adjustment, the Parks Board and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to see what the planned expressway would be destroying. Their fighting spirit is said to have saved the neighborhood.
Margaret Gething lived in her house at 409 East Guenther from 1944 until she died in 1975 at about age 90. (I say “about” as she was very guarded about her true age). She was a gracious Southern lady, the great-granddaughter of an English lord, a debutante, an early Fiesta duchess, Broadway actress (once sharing the stage with Clark Gable in a starring role) and one of San Antonio’s foremost conservationists. She was a principal in the founding of the King William Area Conservation Association in 1947 and served as its first president.
The giant cypress trees along our portion of the San Antonio River are still there largely due to Gething’s efforts. In 1965, she led the successful fight to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Authority from removing those magnificent trees located in the river channel adjoining King William, including the ones behind Margaret’s house across from Blue Star. It’s said that her personal friendship with Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in stopping the bulldozers.
Though not a King William Fair event, Miss Margaret’s House Museum, an amazing collection of Victoriana, is open during Fiesta and on King William Fair day. Ilse Griffith, her close friend, said that Margaret - a flinty, no nonsense lady - would turn over in her grave if she knew that she was being remembered as “Miss Margaret.”
Julia Cauthorn was one of the neighborhood’s more colorful characters. She had a somewhat haughty, imperialistic air about her which earned her the name “The Duchess of King William.” Julia, whom writer Mimi Swartz said looked a little like Gloria Swanson crossed with a pioneer woman, is said to have sold old jewelry and gold coins to buy her house in 1973. It’s the gothic revival, Alfred Giles designed cottage known as the Sartor House at 217 King William.
Julia was a passionate supporter of the local performance arts, and on many Sunday afternoons would host musicales in her home to showcase an up and coming singer, performance group, musician or dancer that had recently caught her fancy. She would set up chairs in her parlor and invite the neighbors in for the performance and serve cake and punch afterwards on her verandah.
Although she was an ardent preservationist and worked tirelessly to restore and preserve homes in King William, she was often at odds with Walter Mathis. Julia’s approach to restoration was somewhat pragmatic and open-minded, whereas Walter was a stickler for authenticity. “If you carry Walter’s philosophy to its logical conclusion,” Julia said, “we ought to all be living in Indian tepees.” Julia died in 2000 at age 82.
Mary Schug and her husband Phil moved to 222 King William from the Mahncke Park area in 1963. Mary was familiar with the neighborhood since her daughters had been attending the Girl Scout day camp just down the street at the Groos house at 335 King William. In a 2002 interview, Mary said she remembered the neighborhood as being a pretty slummy place back then. “The Joske house was a half-way house and the Sartor house across the street from us was a Family Welfare Association office with clients lined up for half a block on distribution days. But by the late 1960s, people were beginning to realize that this neighborhood had a future,” said Mary. “People with families were starting to buy these old houses and fix them up. They were mostly younger folks, many who didn’t have a lot of money, but they had vision and a lot of energy.”
Mary served as president of the King William Area Conservation Association in 1964. That same year, the city was proposing a flood control project which would have essentially turned our part of the river into a cemented channel with no walkways, landscaping or trees. The group drafted a letter to Congressman Henry B. Gonzales protesting the action. “I signed it and sent it off,” said Mary. “I don’t know how much good it did but Henry B. wrote us a nice letter and enclosed a copy of his letter to the city supporting our protest. Soon after that, they backed off that plan.”
In 1968, Mary chaired the first King William Fair. In 1970, she served as president of the board of the King William Association, formed just three years earlier in 1967. Mary died in 2011 at age 93.
Ilse Griffith lived at 422 East Guenther from 1973 until she died in 1999 at age 99. During those years, she took her turn as KWA board president (1974-1976) and served as Fair Chair when she was 75. You might have run into Ilse at Bonham Elementary when you went to vote. She served as our precinct judge for over 20 years until she retired the year before she died. She attended Bonham Elementary and graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1916 with the school’s very first graduating class.
After retiring from Groos Bank, Ilse became an active volunteer with San Antonio Conservation Society, Institute of Texas Cultures and Texas Folklore Society, to name a few. Her interests were varied and far-flung, but history and politics were her two main passions. She held membership in several historical societies.
There are so many more notable King William women who should be honored by name, but that must wait for another article.
- Bill Cogburn
Sources: Gary Cartwright, Texas Monthly; Mimi Swartz, Historic Preservation; KWA Archives