The Kallison’s storefront, seen here in the 1930s, was a fixture in downtown San Antonio. It catered to ranchers and farmers.

The Jewish Russian harness maker who brought Texas ranching into the 20th century Austin American-Statesman

In the new “The Harness Maker’s Dream,” Nick Kotz writes about his grandfather, Nathan Kallison, a notable San Antonio merchant and rancher.

The story echoes that of many Jewish immigrants at that time. A 17-year-old boy with the skills to turn leather into horse harnesses comes to America in 1890 to escape the Cossacks. But Kallison’s story takes a turn. Within four years, he opens his own store in Chicago’s Jewish West Side. Nine years in, he has moved to San Antonio to open up a store that would cater to ranchers and farmers throughout South Central Texas. Within 20 years, he buys a ranch and the family helps champion the Polled Hereford breed of cattle. He revolutionizes ranching and farming when cattle drives were coming to an end and droughts were common.

The Kallison’s storefront, seen here in the 1930s, was a fixture in downtown San Antonio. It catered to ranchers and farmers.
The Kallison’s storefront, seen here in the 1930s, was a fixture in downtown San Antonio. It catered to ranchers and farmers.

tz, 81, whose legal name is Nathan Kallison Kotz, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for stories about unsanitary conditions in meat-packing plants. He’s also the author of the 2005 book “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America” and the 1989 book “Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics, and the B-1 Bomber.” He and his wife live in Virginia and raise cattle.

On Sunday, Kotz will share the podium with author Margaret Talbot on the topic “In Context: Finding Your Place in History.” Talbot has written “The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century.” Her father, Lyle Talbot, was a Hollywood B-movie actor who worked into his 80s.

Kotz spent the first 12 years of his life living with his mother, Tibe, in the same house as his grandfather and grandmother, Anna. He says he was a smart aleck about history. He would tell his family all about Texas history and world wars, never realizing that his grandparents had lived that history. He never asked them about it.

Nathan Kallison is shown here in 1927 on his ranch, which has become part of the Government Canyon State Natural Area.
Nathan Kallison is shown here in 1927 on his ranch, which has become part of the Government Canyon State Natural Area.

Nathan Kallison is shown here in 1927 on his ranch, which has become part of the Government Canyon State Natural Area.
Nathan Kallison is shown here in 1927 on his ranch, which has become part of the Government Canyon State Natural Area.

Then former Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner Katherine Armstrong suggested that he do a story on Texas ranches, knowing that Kotz had spent time on his grandfather’s ranch, which is now part of Government Canyon State Natural Area, northwest of San Antonio.

He began some initial research and then wrote to as many Kallisons as he could find for additional family information. He was able to discover which city in what is now the Ukraine his family was from and learned that the last Jews in that town were killed after Nazis invaded.

Cousins shared family stories, but Nathan, Anna and their children didn’t keep diaries or business records, and some early family photos weren’t labeled.

Kotz learned how much family research could now be done online. “I couldn’t have done the book without it,” he says.

He found his families’ business transactions in Bexar County, and he discovered on newspaperarchives.com that he could find papers that mentioned his family in the early 20th century, including parties the family attended and mentions of the store. He learned about his grandfather’s ability to adapt to industry change as cars and trucks replaced horses. Nathan Kallison foresaw the cotton bust and used research at Texas A&M to grow wheat and flax in addition to raising cattle.

Kotz also learned about other family members. Anna was a partner in the running of the store and a firm presence on her four children. Uncle Morris took over the running of the store and like his father bought up buildings downtown in what became the Kallison Block. Uncle Perry became a radio personality on KTSA and the voice of Texas ranchers and farmers. His mother became active in social justice projects, and Aunt Pauline also was active in the community.

As much as Kotz’s grandfather adapted and changed with the ranching and farming industry, his uncles got caught behind the times. Perry’s beloved Polled Hereford cattle went from the “it” breed to being out-marketed by Angus. Uncle Morris clung onto the downtown location of Kallison’s while other stores moved to the suburbs. The store eventually closed in 1967 and the cattle sold off that same year.

What Kotz realized is this wasn’t just the story of his family. “When I was doing the book and we were doing the final editing a few months back, I began to see that the larger story was sitting right there,” he says

It was an immigrant story; of making it during tough economic times; of life before, during and after world wars; of the plight of Texas ranchers and farmers, of the suburbanization of a community and the death of downtown; of a growing Jewish community in the South and anti-Semitism. It was a Texas story and an American story. “It was all things I knew, but didn’t know.”

He became in awe of his family members and didn’t like any one of them less.” I came away with appreciation of the shoulders I stand upon and a much, much deeper of the immigrant experience,” he says. “I have an appreciation of what my grandfather did and how I benefited from it.”

By Nicole Villalpando
Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013