Shell Game

I don’t much like the Common Grackle. Sure, it has a lyrical Latin handle (Quiscalus quiscula), and the male’s plumage is a sharp-looking purple-black iridescence, but those qualities simply mask this truth: These birds are loud-mouthed boors. Their call–a grating, ascending squeak–is bad enough when played solo. When they roost with their homies in a tree, the cacophony is unnerving. For some reason they especially like San Antonio’s Riverwalk, and congregate along its banks in such large numbers that in the past park rangers fired starter’s pistols to make them take flight. They should have used live ammunition.

Then again, had they all been gunned down, they wouldn’t have been able to teach me the value of a cracked nut. Early one wind-swept and cold December morning, I tracked a grackle as it swooped down to the ground, deftly grasped a pecan in its beak, and soared back up to a nearby mesquite. It paused, then took off, threading its way between a magnolia and live oak bent before a stiff breeze. As it flew over the street, it dropped its cargo just moments before a car approached. The Volvo station wagon failed to do its business–or rather the task I imagined the grackle had in mind for it–but I took the hint: I brought my heel down on the pecan, and pivoted, before sauntering up the road toward the sunrise.

It didn’t dawn on me until later what I had witnessed. But I began to sense its import as I looped around our pecan-studded neighborhood. Everywhere that morning I spied Inca and mourning doves–and grackles, too–pecking away at ground nut fragments littering the streets. They weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the free meal. Nutmeg, our aging golden retriever, who has a sharp nose for pecans, was lapping up that morning’s spread. People too were grazing, slowly moving along the gutters and beneath the leafless trees, bending down to scoop up handfuls of the smooth, brown casings; their pockets, like a squirrel’s cheeks, were bulging. The previous evening’s norther, which had hurled down this bounty, had provided a rich diet for all, a vivid reflection of the complex weave binding together streetscape and landscape, flora and fauna, humanity and nature. As any grackle might testify, the pecan is integral to the identity of south Texas.

That’s long been true. Some of the first words recorded about the region spoke of the nut’s centrality in human affairs. Cabeza de Vaca, who wandered as a captive throughout the southern portions of the state between 1528 and 1536, spoke of the numerous groves he encountered along its many rivers. It was to the Guadalupe, which Cabeza called the “river of nuts,” that his captors annually migrated to harvest the nutritious meat. Their food preparation was simple–the Indians ground up the nuts “with a kind of small grain”–but the result must have satisfied:”this is the subsistence of the people two months in the year without any other thing.”

The seasonal diet of later Spanish colonizers may have been a touch more varied, but they too delighted in breaking open the thin brown shell. As they devoured its contents, they found, as did Father Espinosa in 1709, that these colonial nuts were “more tasty and palatable than those of Castile.” In that brag lay a message: The missionaries were becoming quite comfortable in the New World, this New Spain. And that spelled bad news for the indigenous residents. Many were struck down by imported diseases or converted (often forcibly) to a new religion, and absorbed into a more settled agricultural economy. Their loss was the Spaniards’ gain: The winnowing away of the Payaya and Tonkawa, the Semomam, Saracuam, and Anxau, and other bands of hunter/gatherers, opened the way for astute colonials to head for the woods and market the autumn pecan harvest. They gathered well, according to evidence that historian Frank de la Teja of Southwest Texas State University has unearthed. In 1791, Antonio Baca left San Antonio for nearby provinces there to sell sixteen mules loaded down with pecans. So brisk was the trade, so closely identified was it with this northern frontier outpost, that pecans were dubbed “San Antonio nuts.”

That connection remained tight even as the small, pre-industrial village slowly evolved into a bustling American city by the mid-nineteenth century. European and American travelers into the region made note of the substantial trade in pecans. One who regularly trafficked in them was Reading Black, a founder of Uvalde. With his home and store sited directly beside the busy road between San Antonio and more western settlements, Black had his fingers in a lot of pies. On December 20, 1854, a wagon rolled in from San Antonio and he “bought a load of pecans for $1.12 per bush[el]”; within hours he had traded some of this commodity with a nearby Tonkawa settlement, and purchased shirts from a passing trader. For him and many others, pecans were just another form of exchange. They became some people’s daily bread, especially during the tumultuous years immediately following the Civil War. An 1871 report noted that but “for the industry of nut gathering, the people of some localities must have starved for lack of remunerative labor. Hundreds of both white and colored people go out with horses and wagons to gather these nuts.” In hard times, the newest humans in Texas reenacted an ancient ritual.

But reliance on native habits (and trees) would disappear by the end of the nineteenth century, when commerce in pecans became more formal and substantial. In 1880, Mexican-American teamsters hauled an estimated 1.25 million pounds of pecans into San Antonio, which were then shipped by rail to pecan fanciers across the nation. By 1919, Bexar County alone produced more 370,000 pounds of pecans, a close second to Llano County, in a state that led that nation. The numbers suggest that the indigenous tree had come under sustained cultivation, a mark of the pacification of the South Texas landscape. That transformation couldn’t come too soon, according to Victoria farmer George Tyng, who bemoaned: “no more costly mistakes have I made than in trying to follow nature in raising pecans. Every agricultural success has been achieved by overcoming nature’s efforts to defeat it.” The triumph he desired was manifest in contemporary experiments in seedling orchards, new techniques in pruning and grafting, as well as advances in asexual propagation. These increased the productive capacity of and capital investment in the new groves, which, by the end of the century, triggered a speculative frenzy. In the classic pattern of boom-bust cycles that periodically rocked the American economy, investors anted up in the pecan game, not, an observer decried, for “the profits they anticipated out of this crop, but through the money they could make selling the orchards.” Get-rich schemes abounded and fortunes were made just as fast as they were lost, all of which testified that pecans had become big bidness.

It became bigger still, oddly enough, in the Great Depression. This was especially true in San Antonio, where two forces converged in the mid-twenties that in time would change the industry and trigger a memorable protest against horrific working conditions and political paternalism. The disruptive power of the Mexican Revolution sent thousands fleeing across the border in search of sanctuary. Those who made it to the Alamo City found instead a purgatory in the making. Settling on the city’s West and South Sides, finding shelter in any number of “corrals” and shacks that had no running water or other utilities, they lived in a pestilential environment, endured the pressures of a rising population density, and struggled to find work. Their very large numbers made matters worse: The overabundance of unskilled, cheap labor depressed wages already sinking in response to the early stages of the Depression.

This economic and social catastrophe had a curious impact on the pecan industry. Because wages were so low, shelling corporations in San Antonio (but nowhere else) tossed aside their mechanized shelling equipment and shifted to hand labor. Leading this regressive move was the city’s Southern Pecan Shelling Company, which Joe Freeman and Louis Seligmann founded in 1926 with $50,000. It rapidly dominated the market, Julia Blackwelder argues in Women of the Depression (1984), because its reliance on hand labor drastically cut its overhead, and was thus “an inducement to expansion of the industry.” Cheaper and more profitable still was its subsequent innovation, the contract system of shelling, in which the corporation supplied the pecans “to individuals or families, who were paid $0.06 to $0.08 a pound to shell the nuts at home.” Even that skimpy scale did not hold up. By the late 1930s, hand labor was getting a mere $0.04 a pound. Southern, meanwhile, was raking it in. In 1930 it generated $700,000 in sales, a figure that more than quadrupled by 1936. To justify this stunning discrepancy between plummeting wages and soaring profits, a San Antonio operator struck a paternalistic note: “If [shellers] have $5.00 they stay out and spend it,” George Azar asserted. “You can’t make a Mexican work a whole week if they have money enough to live on.”

It must have come as something of a shock to him when a mass of these idlers rose up in 1934 and 1935, and more forcefully in 1938, and tried to shut down the companies to which they apparently owed so much. These strikes, and the emergence of their electric leader, Emma Tenayuca, have been much and well recounted. Her magnetism, the shellers’ determination, the Southern’s intransigence, the police department’s belligerence–these gave birth to a tension in which the lines of political power and social prejudice in San Antonio were vividly manifest, and, if only momentarily, disputed.

The moment passed all too quickly. Stricter enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act by 1940 boosted wages, but Southern and other companies simply reconverted to shelling machines, drastically cutting the workforce, from a peak of 10,000 to 800 in a matter of months. Reduced, too, was the young woman who had done so much to publicize the pecan worker’s plight. An avowed Communist, Tenayuca was harassed and arrested, and later red-baited out of town.

Her death in the summer of 1999 marked an apotheosis of sorts: Her reputation thoroughly burnished, she received a hero’s funeral service in San Fernando Cathedral. During it, there was a procession of gifts to honor her contributions to the community. “A simple basket of pecans,” Jan Jarboe Russell reported in the Observer (August 20, 1999), “stirred the most emotion.” Its affective appeal was tied to its sacramental quality, the basket a communion offering. In making the profane sacred, this simple memento inverted the narration of oppression once associated with the nut and the brutal industry it had sustained. Through Tenayuca, the pecan and a people had been liberated.

Not all accept this construction. In early November 1999, in response to a reporter’s query about the infamy attached to his grandfather’s involvement in the Southern Pecan Shelling Company, Julius Seligmann III told the Express-News he had, “nothing to be embarrassed about.” Arguing that many workers preferred hand labor and resisted mechanization of the industry, he concluded that the strike, and by extension, Tenayuca, did not represent their real interests. “All I can say is I know there were 12,000 damn people there who were pretty damn happy to be there when they were working.” His unreconstructed vision, and that with which it competes, is an important reminder of how thoroughly the past can be integrated into the present even as it is being redefined by the present. Perhaps the best way to comprehend the complications such integration can pose in the history of San Antonio, a mid-sized bird once reminded me, is by cracking open a pecan.

Contributing Writer Char Miller teaches at Trinity University and is editor of a forthcoming anthology on the environmental history of San Antonio.

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Published at 12:00 am CST