BY NORMAN ROZEFF
Turn of the 20th Century Lower Rio Grande Valley land speculators were always on the lookout for ways to publicize the area and thereby attract prospective buyers. Connecting the “Magic” Valley with a well-known celebrity was a sure-fired way to generate interest.
So it was that Mission area land developers, John Conway and James Hoit together with major Valley land owner Lon C. Hill of Harlingen were to entice country-wide known politician and orator, William Jennings Bryan, to visit the region.
Bryan was no stranger to Texas. When, at age 36 which was one year over the minimum required, he had been nominated for president in 1896 by the Democrat Party, he received the endorsement and support of former Texas governor James Hogg as well as Texas political kingmaker “Colonel” Edward M. House of Austin. They would again support him in his 1900 run.
The populist Bryan was characterized as being a young David “ out to slay the moneyed Goliaths, the northeastern bankers and hard moneymen who kept the farmers perpetually in debt”. After his loss to Republican William McKinley, Bryan remained popular in the Midwest and the solid Democratic South. Positioning himself for another run at the presidency in 1900, Bryan knew that Texas support was critical in regaining the Democratic nomination. This, and the mild winters, is likely the reason that he moved to Austin in 1899 where he resided into April.
It was during this period when a very amusing incident took place. Austin writer, David Latimer in the April 2014 Texas Coop Magazine summarizes the matter as follows:
“Whether a hoax served up for the newspapers or an elaborate practical joke on one of the country’s most famous politicians, the scene must have been something to behold. A hunting party of 100 men on horseback and 50 barking dogs set out from Austin to the hills — or “mountains,” as the newspaper tells it—west of the city on December 27, 1899, trailing a panther.
The guest of honor was William Jennings Bryan, who planned to secure the Democratic Party nomination for another run at the presidency. Former Gov. James Hogg led the hunters, his nearly 300 pounds astride a white horse, blowing away on his hunting horn as they headed into the rough country of scrub oak and prickly pear that lay between Austin and the little community of Oak Hill.
The day after the expedition, the Austin Daily Statesman reported under the headline, The Big Panther Hunt: “They returned … with a live panther in their possession, having captured the same during the day. The … sport was reported as being quite lively throughout.”
Although the article hints that the prey was something less than a ferocious wild beast that had been “cooped up” and released as the hunters approached, the description of the hunt remains epic:
“The dogs took his trail at once, and after two hours rambling through heavy undergrowth and many acres of prickly pear came upon the panther, who had been forced to take refuge in a small tree. The dogs at once attacked him and during the melee several of them were knocked down … After about an hour’s skirmishing between the dogs and panther it was decided to attempt to capture the panther alive, and this was done by means of roping, and the beast was brought back to town in captivity.”
That might have been the end of the story, except as the years went by more details emerged. Bryan returned to Austin in March 1916, after losing the 1900 and 1908 presidential elections, to lecture at the University of Texas. The Austin American chose the occasion to recall the panther hunt with the added detail that the animal had been kept in a cage at a Congress Avenue saloon, where it was returned after the hunt.
Then, 24 years after the event and on the eve of yet another visit by Bryan, a letter appeared in the February 1, 1924, edition of the Austin American. The letter, written to Bryan by one of the hunt organizers, finally let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. The truth was that the entire incident was an elaborate, Texas-sized snipe hunt:
“After about a five-mile chase the dogs treed the panther and you all came up under the tree. There, upon a high limb, crouched the animal. Somebody, who was not in on the practical joke of which you were the principal victim, suggested that the cat be shot. Gov. Hogg and Weed objected however.
“Presently, you remember, that Gov. Hogg insisted in showing you some scenery nearby and led you away. When you came back the panther was gone.”
For the third time, Bryan received the Democratic presidential nomination in 1908 and again lost the election in a rematch with McKinley and his running mate Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York. The improvement in the economy together with the American victory in the Spanish-American War helped the Republicans to win a decisive victory, “while Bryan’s anti-imperialist stance and continued support for bimetallism attracted only limited support.”
Amberson, in her book I Would Rather Sleep in Texas, had this to relate about a Bryan visit to the Valley:
“In April 1909, the renowned orator William Jennings Bryan responded to the invitation of land prospector John Conway by visiting Brownsville. Escorted by R. N. Magill and Frank W. Rabb, Bryan drove through the south Texas Gardens, an orchard and farm planted for the specific purpose of demonstrating just what could be grown in the region and was shown experimental plantings.
“He visited Margaret and James B. McAllen’s home to see their garden, replete with Easter and Bermuda lilies and other tropical plants. With his political supporters Judge and Mrs. James B. Wells and Mrs. C. B. San Roman, he visited Point Isabel. The “great commoner” gave a two-and-a-half speech at the Brownsville courthouse entitled “Prince of Peace,” choosing to speak on an ecumenical topic rather than a political one. He spoke on the totality of God, the human mind, and youths who questioned oaths.
“It was as a speaker that Bryan excelled. Called “the silver-tongued orator,” William Jennings Bryan is usually considered to be one of the world’s greatest orators. He could speak without shouting to thousands in the out-of-doors without any means of amplification and be heard clearly. In the 1896 presidential campaign, he traveled 18,000 miles, made over 2,500 speeches, and sometimes spoke as many as twenty-five times in a single day.”
“When land prospectors learned that Bryan had a bid pending on land near Mission, he was so besieged by other offers that he sought refuge across the river until the deal was completed. Afterward, his regular visits were celebrated occasions.”
Since Bryan had several times been nominated by Democrats to run for the presidency on its ticket his visits to the Valley were highly welcomed as they provided publicity to the developing region and its land promoters. South Texas political boss Jim Wells had directed the Bryan’s Valley campaign for the presidency in 1908 and had contributed generously to it. After Bryan’s defeat, Wells was asked to make arrangements for the Great Commoner, who, wanting only a rest after his strenuous campaign, he was advised that “it is not necessary to have a meeting there merely to please me for I can go several days without making a speech.”
Wells gave a dinner party and then arranged a land purchase in Hidalgo County for his distinguished guest. Bryan’s purchase of 120 acres in the La Lomita Tract from John Conway was consummated by deed on January 14, 1909 (Other sources list 160 and even 240 acres of Texas land owned by Bryan.).
In 1909, to avoid the bitter winters in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bryan built his home in Mission. In April of that year he and his wife looked for a site for the house. He had plans to put out a 800 to 1400 trees of orange, grapefruit, lemon, olive, almond, English walnut and pecan to be irrigated from a nearby canal. He had contacted a nursery to plant the trees and care for them for a year. So enthused was he that he wrote his supporter, Governor John Osborne of Wyoming, and invited him to join him in building a winter home in Mission.
He had written, “Why don’t you buy a little piece near us and do the same thing so that we can have the pleasure of visiting together each winter?” In another letter, after noting all the property improvement he had made and plan to make, he commented “you will see that there are local advantages in this particular place.”
To Bryan, Mission, Texas would make an ideal winter home for the Osbornes and, more importantly, they would be close to the Bryans. “It would delight us to have you near, for as we get old we will have more time for companionship than we have had during the last twelve years.”