Situated in the South Texas borderlands some fifty miles west of Corpus Christi, San Diego was a thriving town already a hundred years old at the turn of the twentieth century. With a population that was 90 percent Mexican or Mexican American and 10 percent Anglo, the bicultural community was the seat of Duval County and a prosperous town of lumberyards, banks, mercantile stores, and cotton gins, which also supplied the needs of area ranchers and farmers. Though Anglos dominated its economic and political life, San Diego was culturally Mexican, and Mexican Americans as well as Anglos built successful businesses and made fortunes.
This collection of nearly one hundred photographs from the estate of amateur photographer William Hoffman captures the cosmopolitan town of San Diego at a vibrant moment in its history between 1898 and 1909. Grouped into the categories women and their jobs, local homes, men and their businesses, children at school and church, families and friends, and entertainment about town, the photos offer an immediate visual understanding of the cultural and economic life of the community, enhanced by detailed captions that identify the subjects and circumstances of the photos. An introductory historical chapter constitutes the first published history of Duval County, which was one of the most important areas of South Texas in the early twentieth century.
There is a stone house at the corner of Mier Street and Dix Avenue in San Diego, a South Texas town of about five thousand residents between Laredo to the west, on the U.S.-Mexican border, and Corpus Christi to the east, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico. The house was built in 1921 for the growing family of William Klettus Hoffman, the youngest son of Charles and Sophie Hoffman. At the back of the house are concrete steps leading down to a basement door. Years ago, the family filled the basement with piles of deer horns and discarded horse and cattle tack. Against a back wall sat a long-forgotten wooden crate filled with photographic negatives, many of them on glass plates.
After William, better known as Willie, built the stone house for his family, he went back to his rooms at the Bodet house where he grew up and got the crate, but left behind his darkroom lamps and other photographic paraphernalia. He took the crate and put it in the basement of the new stone house and forgot about it. Willie's children, Rosemary, Bill, and Margaret, remembered asking their mother, Winnie, about the crate, and she replied, "They're just pictures Papa took before we were married."
Over the years, the wooden Winchester ammunition crate remained in the cellar, the negative plates getting damp and moldy. Many broke as boxes were stacked on top of the crate. Willie died in 1957 at age 75, and Winnie moved to San Antonio to be closer to their youngest daughter, Rosemary. The stone house in San Diego sat vacant, and the crate remained in the basement.
Fifteen years later, Mrs. Hoffman sold the house and removed all the contents. What to do with the crate of glass negatives and a small box of film negatives? Rosemary's husband, Glen Skaggs, said, "We can't just throw it away." So they moved the crate to their garage in San Antonio to sit for another fifteen years.
In 1988, Rosemary and Glen donated some of the glass negatives and the small box of film negatives to the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and they gave the crate with the remaining glass plates to photo archivist Tom Shelton at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio. Tom asked about the images, but Rosemary and Glen Skaggs knew only that Willie Hoffman took them before he got married.
Shelton studied the images in the negatives and determined that they were taken in San Diego, Texas, between 1898 and 1909. Every image was badly damaged, but Shelton carefully handled the plates as he catalogued each image. Eventually prints were made from the glass plates. He then placed each plate into an archival folder, packed the folders into a box, and placed it in a cool storage area to preserve them. He even saved the wooden crate. More years passed, and even with Shelton's efforts, the negatives showed more deterioration. He later expressed his concerns to his colleagues at the Institute:
Something really needs to be done with these negatives before the images deteriorate more. The images aren't going to last forever.
Gosh, they don't look so bad to me. The faces of the people are wonderful. Let's select some of the clearest images and make them into a book.
But we don't know anything about the buildings and people in the pictures. Surely someone will remember something.
But everyone is DEAD. These were taken over ninety-five years ago.
So the negatives went back into storage, and more months passed.
It is time. We really have to do something or the images will be completely gone. I'll do the research and see if anyone remembers anything about the people and the buildings.
And so the research began. One of the authors of this volume, Sara Massey, an educational specialist at the Institute, made phone calls and began making the 133-mile drive from San Antonio to San Diego. People did remember isolated details and facts. Family members looked at the photographs, and stories emerged along with more photographs and numerous postcards of buildings in San Diego. When we learned about the beginnings of Duval County and the village of San Diego, we soon realized that the Hoffmans came as early pioneers and, through marriage, were interconnected with many of the other Anglo families of the area. And as the amount of information grew, so did the Hoffman collection of photographs.
The 6 glass plates donated to the Witte Museum in San Antonio were borrowed and studied. The 13 glass negative plates with single images that the Institute held had similar subject matter and were taken in the same time period as the 115 double-image plates also held by the Institute, so prints were made and added to the collection. Then we learned about the small box of film negatives that Willie Hoffman's daughter and son-in-law had donated to the Witte Museum. So the Witte archivist went back to the storage room hunting for "a small box" and found approximately 153 cellulose film negatives and 6 prints mounted and sealed under glass. The film negatives were extremely fragile; many were stuck to the labeled envelopes in which they were stored. Approximately 60 prints were made from the cellulose film negatives. In all, 310 photographs were retrieved from the glass plates and the negatives, and residents of San Diego added 120 more images of family members and town buildings to the Hoffman Collection, now housed jointly at the Witte Museum and the Institute of Texan Cultures.
The photographs made from the various negatives tell the story of a South Texas town at the turn of the century, and from the interviews and primary sources emerged the story of families who influenced the growth of Duval County, which now has a population of more than thirteen thousand. San Diego sits just inside the Duval County line next to Jim Wells County. The Hoffman Collection is unique because of its inclusiveness of Mexican families and businesses and the comprehensive intermingling of two cultures. For the first time a collection shows the range of the socioeconomic status, from the poor to the wealthy, of both the Mexican and Anglo cultures. Rarely have so many early photographic images of one small Southwestern settlement been available for study. Thus, the Institute of Texan Cultures is pleased to present the story of the early Mexican and Anglo pioneers of Duval County and the photographs of San Diego, Texas, that were saved for more than a century.