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Home | Tag Archives: el paso history

Tag Archives: el paso history

Story+Gallery: As City Grows; Facebook Group Keeps El Paso’s Past Alive

El Paso is a city that has seen a lot of change. We’ve grown from just a dusty stop along a wagon trail and railroad to a major metropolitan area.

Ft. Bliss continues to grow, adding new people to the mix of our daily lives. When Juarez became too violent, we opened our collective arms and welcomed in whoever sought refuge from the drug wars and daily shootings. People who once visited El Paso on holiday have decided to come back and make it their home. Growth. And the march of time.

In all this growth, we’ve lost people as well. There are those who have lived here most of their lives, those who have transferred to other bases, or cities. Others, looking for a different way of life have moved. Some chase jobs that we simply don’t have here. Still, others have simply passed away.

We’ve gained new memories, but we’ve begun to lose older memories and histories as well. El Paso history is something that we need to hold on to, that we need to share.

How does a city as big as El Paso share its memories, its histories? Believe it or not, the preservation of our collective history is not so much happening in books and magazines, but on Facebook. Yep, Facebook has become the repository of histories, memories, photos, and more.

Remember in El Paso When is a group that is over 31,000 members strong and growing.

Trying to remember what shops were at Northgate Mall? Need to know who was teaching what math class at H. E. Charles back in 1981? Trying to find someone you once went to school with a million years ago? I can promise you; this is the Facebook group that can help you find the answers.

I first came across them about a year ago. I’ve posted questions about story ideas there, I’ve sought information on our history there. It’s a wealth of knowledge from which we should all learn.

The group was started by Jim Carlton who first came to El Paso back in 1944.   At that time, El Paso had about 99,000 people starched over an area of 1,015 square miles. (To compare, the state of Rhode Island is 1,212 square miles).

When Jim came to El Paso, Biggs Army Air Force Base had already been in operation for two years. A couple of years before he came, the County Coliseum had opened, and the Ysleta-Zaragoza Bridge had been rebuilt. There still wasn’t a drive-in yet, that wouldn’t come for two more years.

Jim graduated from Ysleta High School in 1959, and he even attended Texas Western College, which would later become the University of Texas at El Paso.

When Jim was on holiday in Fort Worth, to visit family, a friend had mentioned a Facebook group called “Remember in Fort Worth When…”

“I went to the site,” said Jim in an email to me, “to see if I could find an old friend I had worked with at a local accounting firm. I found it really interesting, so I thought why not El Paso.”

The site, “Remember in El Paso When…” was born.

“I started the site,” says Jim, “because I love El Paso, the city that raised me. Along with our neighbors in Juarez. El Paso and Juarez were basically one big city when I was going up.”

There was a period, in the Facebook group, when people began to go off topic. It became a bit much, so the ownership of the group was passed on to Barbara Given-Behne.

“She has done a wonderful job of maintaining very high standards for the members,” says Jim of Barbara. And managing a group the size of this one, it’s not easy.  For the last seven years, Barbara has been the Chief Admin of the group.

“What’s exciting about the group,” she says, “is learning all about the colorful past, the history of El Paso.”

Barbara is a fourth-generation El Pasoan who remembers walking downtown, “among our masterpieces build by Trost, and I’d taken this beauty for granted.” she says.

One of the main objectives, I’ve discovered, of the group is to make sure we do not take that history, that past for granted. When we were all younger, for the most part, we ignored the rich history and tradition of our city, and that’s sort of why we see things falling apart all over town.

“Each step I now take, I embrace our history,” said Barbara. “This history should be taught in our schools.”

It should. We should have a part of the year set aside to teach El Paso history. I’m not discounting Texas, United States, or world history. Those are important. But all history, no matter how small, starts on a local level, and it needs to be known.

Barbara and I both have deep roots here in El Paso.  Barbara’s great-grandfather, Adolph Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew, decided to chase the American dream. At the age of sixteen, he came to America with only a dollar to his name.

In the beginning, Adolph would push his cart of wares throughout the United States. Then, after years of hard work, he built his dream, right here in El Paso. Adolph, Barbara’s great-grandfather, opened the Popular Dry Goods Company.

Barbara knows some of my family histories, parts of our families have been intermingling for decades! On one side of my family, I am related to Samuel, Joseph and Solomon Schutz. Solomon was elected as the third mayor of El Paso back in 1880.

The very first job I had, even before working in radio, I worked at the Popular. From the Schwartz family, I learned a lot about business; how to run a business, how to treat your employees and customers. Those lessons served me well with businesses I have owned throughout my life.

But we are not the only ones, Barbara and I, that have stories to tell. There are many stories and histories within the Remember in El Paso When group that need to be shared, and told.  Then there is Rick Duncan, another admin for the group.

Rick is also a fourth-generation El Pasoan, who joined the group eight years ago.

“[It’s] a place to share memories with others growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s,” Rick says. “Even the 80’s!”

Over the last seventy-plus years, Rick has seen El Paso grown. He’s witnessed the changes first hand. So, Like Jim and Barbara, he brings a wealth of personal history to the group.

“Interacting with the members, sharing the past, has reunited me with friends from college, and grade school,” says Rick. “Meeting new friends today that were in the same schools at the same time as me, and telling stories of adventures we all remember, back when life was different, and kids enjoyed running all over town with no worries or parental concern.”

I’ve managed to reconnect with people I’ve known from the past. People I went to school with, people who remember when things were different, when technology, like home computers and video games, were just getting its toe-hold into our daily lives.

There have been times I’ve met people who remember me from my time at KXCR as Steve Young. Others who remember when I had clocks in a show at the Bridge Centre for Contemporary Art.

Others who remember my grandmother and have shared stories of her.  My list could and would go on and on. Then, there are others who have reconnected with their past, or learned bits of history they may not have known.

“I have reconnected with my past, and with a dear psychologist professional who became a great friend of mine from childhood,” says J. Caesar Hashannel-Acosta. “I reconnected with her daughter as my friend has since passed away.”

Caesar also says the group has fortified his belief that history is as important to us as our heritage.

“I’ve learned that there are more people out there, like myself,” he says, “who care and are deeply interested in historic preservation and education.”

His favorite part of the group? “The conversation and reconnection through those fond memories.” Then there are others, like Tom Price.

“Having spent the first half of my eighty years in El Paso,” Tom says, “I find it fascinating when I see comments from others that shared my wonderful life. I find that personal histories are important, just as our country’s history is its backbone.”

Others, like Minerva Cheatum, join the group to learn that history.

“I joined,” says Minerva, “to learn about the history of my place of birth, and to tell the stories of people and things I’ve experienced in my life.”

Minerva grew up in Clint, just east of El Paso. Rosalva Guerra says, “I just love this group and reminiscing the 70’s and 80’s, the Segundo Barrio, and everything else.”

And Ernest Peralta doesn’t want us to forget about the 50’s and 60’s.

“All those guys,” he says,” who had no choice, join the service or get drafted. I remember the draft letter telling you Uncle Same needed you.”

This is our history, our story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent your whole life in El Paso, or recently transferred in from another base, this is you. We all leave our mark on this city and thereby leaving our mark on those we know, and those generations yet to come.

Why not take a trip down memory lane, or come in and share a few stories from the past? You can find the group, Remember in El Paso When via this link. I’ll see you there!

Photo gallery courtesy ‘Remember in El Paso When’

Our Historic Home: Dr. Vilas Had Big Impact on El Paso

Walter Nathaniel Vilas brought big ideas, big names and big events to his adopted home of El Paso in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Dr. Vilas was born on Sept. 11, 1847, in Red Creek, Wayne County, N.Y. He was one of seven children of Dr. Calvin Vilas and Mary Catherine Ford. The family moved from New York to Wisconsin in 1848 when Vilas was 1 year old, and from there to Lake City, Minn., when he was 10.

In 1863, when he was but 16, he enlisted in Company E, Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, and served until the end of the Civil War, achieving the rank of corporal.

He married Mary Ramsdell in 1868, and the couple had three children: Katherine, who married Joe Hixon of Fresno, Calif.; Florence, who married Dr. Herbert E. Stevenson, later an associate of Dr. Vilas; and Walter, who followed his father into the medical profession. Mary died in 1905, and the following year, Dr. Vilas married Lorena C. Matthews of El Paso, who survived him.

Vilas graduated from Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1879. He began his medical practice in Rochester, Minn., where he became a lifetime friend of Dr. William Mayo, father of the famous Mayo brothers, who set up their world-renowned clinic there. Dr. Mayo came to visit Dr. Vilas in El Paso for about 10 days in 1907.

The El Paso Herald of Feb. 2, 1907, reported that Dr. Vilas’ first surgery after leaving medical school was performed on his friend, “a story which Dr. Vilas tells with some gusto yet, telling of his own stage fright in the matter.”

Dr. Vilas came to Ysleta, then the El Paso County seat, in June 1881, as assistant customs collector, and he also set up a medical practice. He moved to El Paso when it became the county seat in 1883. The Vilas family first lived on the corner of Stanton and Rio Grande streets, across from the former Hotel Dieu hospital. They later moved to the corner of Wyoming and Oregon.

He became deeply involved in the activities of the medical profession in El Paso, serving as city and county physician. For his services, the county paid him the handsome sum of $50 per month.

He was president of the El Paso Medical Society in 1903, president of the El Paso Board of Health and was elected secretary-treasurer of the American Anti-Tuberculosis League. He also held the position of surgeon for both the Mexican Central and the Santa Fe railroads. For many years, he was chief of staff, surgeon and professor at Hotel Dieu hospital and school of nursing.

In these positions, he was involved in many interesting activities. He is credited with giving the first diphtheria shots in El Paso and with performing the first appendectomy in the area in 1884.

Dr. Vilas was half of a two-man delegation to the American Anti-Tuberculosis League’s convention in Atlanta in April 1905, where he used a novel approach to win the next year’s meeting for El Paso. Despite having arrived at the close of the convention, Vilas and Zach Cobb pressed the flesh in an effort to meet every physician present, and they distributed 500 sombreros bearing the message “El Paso – Health Belt – 1906.”

As president of the board of health, one of his duties was to inspect the heating and ventilating systems of schools. He began the inspection of milk and diligently enforced other pure food laws. When gunslinger John Wesley Hardin was shot by John Selman, Vilas was one of the physicians assigned to perform the autopsy, which reported that Hardin had been shot in the back.

Dr. Vilas’ duties with the board of health were not performed without some controversy. In 1898, the El Paso Herald declared itself “at odds” with Dr. Vilas’ city board of health, which had asked the newspapers only to use officially sanctioned reports of cases of smallpox in the city. The newspaper refused to agree to this, and it wrote about its difficulty obtaining the official reports from Dr. Vilas. The article also suggested Dr. Vilas was not being fully forthcoming about the full scope of the problem, asking, “Was Dr. Vilas simply misinformed, or — ?”

Dr. Vilas was described as a stocky, handsome man of compelling personality, who left no doubt as to what he meant, and on occasion was known to use profanity to make a point. On one occasion, Dr. Vilas was being admonished by the administrator of Hotel Dieu for his swearing. He answered, “You are right, Sister. I shouldn’t swear but, damn it, something has to be done about those damned nurses!”

Dr. Vilas was involved in many of the city’s social and civic activities. In 1891, he was nominated for the office of mayor by the Republican party, but was defeated by the Democratic candidate, Richard Caples, 735-596. He was commissioned by Texas Gov. Charles Culberson as a major and surgeon in the first Texas Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish-American War, and served for six months.

Upon his return to El Paso, he was asked to help obtain a charter for the Humane Society. This was understandable since, according to his family, he was quite fond of animals and had a number of pets, including a three-legged frog. He was also a charter member of the Pioneers Association of El Paso, which was formed in 1904.

Photos courtesy El Paso County Historical Society

Dr. Vilas also made headlines in 1904 for his shooting skill, when, during the weekly trap shoot at the El Paso Gun Club, he tied expert shooter T.E. Hubby, hitting 23 of his 25 targets. He won a bird dog for his performance in another contest in 1902.

The interest aroused by his inspections of schools as president of the board of health led to the election of Dr. Vilas to the school board, where he served from 1904 until 1909. He was president of the board from September 1907 to April 1909. During this time, he insisted that all teachers be examined for tuberculosis so it couldn’t be passed on to the children. He also demanded that all school doors swing out in case of fire, which is now a standard regulation in all building codes.

Another high point of his tenure as school board president came in 1908. Vilas, presenting diplomas to the graduating class of El Paso High School, made a “touching scene” in handing out the award to one special student who he had long known.

“The stork brought a scrawny, ugly little girl, but the parents thought she was pretty and loved her so much that they named her Florence for the favorite daughter of the physician” who had delivered her, Vilas said. “Now, that old family physician takes the greatest delight in presenting a graduation diploma to his little Florence, and to assure her that he was the first person to see her little face.”

He gave her a kiss and a “hearty embrace” as the “audience applauded between tears and laughter.”

Dr. Vilas revealed his plainspoken manner again when he tendered his resignation as president of the school board in 1908. When a trustee said he should reconsider, Vilas replied, “I don’t. It is against my business; it is against my bread and butter that I have given my time to this board. Now that the schools are over, put someone else in my place.” He later withdrew his resignation, however.

Photos courtesy El Paso County Historical Society

While he was president of the school board, Dr. Vilas pushed for a new school in Mundy Heights, which was growing rapidly. The plan for the building by architects Trost and Trost was selected, along with a statement that the building would be constructed with a $25,000 budget. Thomas R. Francis Construction Company completed the new school in the spring of 1909.

The board voted to name the new school Vilas. After his retirement, a portrait of Dr. Vilas was placed in the new facility, where it remains to this day.

In 1909, Dr. Vilas retired from his medical practice and moved to California.

Although he was too old to enter the service in World War I, he served his country as president of the Stockton draft board until the end of the war.

Dr. Vilas passed away in California at the age of 81 in 1929 and is buried with his family in Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso.

To view previous article in the series, click HERE.

***Article Courtesy  El Paso County Historical Society |   Author: Jon Eckberg – El Paso County Historical Society

The El Paso County Historical Society strives to foster research into the history of the El Paso area, acquire and make available to the public historic materials, and encourage historical writing pertaining to the area and to develop public consciousness of our rich heritage.

The Society is a nonprofit organization, supported by donations from the community.  Learn more at the Society’s Website.

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