Immigrant’s life burnished by determination

The old statue of a wiry-bodied cowboy in leather chaps, vest, boots and hat, holding his saddle in his right hand, with six-shooter hanging from his left hip, still stands atop the former Kallison’s store on South Flores Street, just south of the Plaza de Armas.

That image, immortalized on the cover of Nick Kotz’s fascinating new history of the pioneering Russian Jewish merchant-rancher Nathan Kallison and his remarkable family, is an appropriate symbol for the entire Kallison family enterprise, once a dynamic civic presence but now faded from prominence.

Adopted as a teenager by Jacob Kotz, M.D., of Washington, D.C., upon his mother Tibe’s second marriage, Nick Kotz brings to this book the great advantage of being Nathan Kallison’s grandson. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of six other books who has written for the Washington Post and Des Moines Register.

As a result, “The Harness Maker’s Dream” is a richly detailed and movingly told story of the rise and transformation of a family that for over a half century made leading contributions to the development of retail merchandising for regional farm and ranch families, real estate development downtown, cattle ranching in South Texas and local philanthropy.

The book is all the more remarkable for the fact that Kotz candidly admits in an afterword he initially knew little of the family history.

He was extremely fortunate, he writes, to make connections with long-lost relatives via his own Internet research who helped him fill in significant gaps in the family history, even conveying cellphone photos of tombstones found in a family cemetery in Chicago.

Kotz also freely credits Dr. Char Miller, formerly a professor at Trinity University now serving as the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, with suggesting he write this history.

No doubt Miller, well known for his own essays chronicling the development of San Antonio businesses with significant impact upon land and water, would be pleased this book is as much about the development of San Antonio and its rural environs over the first seven decades of the 20th century as it is a history of the Kallison family.

There is no doubt, from the record Kotz lays out, that Nathan Kallison was a force of nature. So, too, was his wife Anna, also a Jewish immigrant whom he met after escaping from czarist persecution in his native Ladyzhinka, Russia, and landing in Chicago with only his knowledge of harness making to help him earn a living.

Kotz very eloquently describes their rapid rise to affluence and prominence in the Temple Beth-El community, and San Antonio civic life, after arriving in San Antonio in 1899 with very little in their pockets.

Kallison created a successful business model with the first store in San Antonio crafting handmade harnesses and saddles.

In telling the story of their business ups and downs, Kotz fleshes out Nathan’s and Anna’s driving personalities, as well as the dramatically varied characters of their children, including Morris, Pauline, Bertha (known as “Tibe”), Perry and Frances.

In recounting this family saga, Kotz can astonish the reader both by his capacity for describing the development of the Jewish community in San Antonio and his candor in revealing the family conflicts and management problems that, after decades of smashing success, tragically brought all the Kallison enterprises to financial ruin in the 1960s amid the rise of suburban shopping centers and big-box stores.

In the midst of that saga, though, Kotz also sketches evocative scenes of street and civic life in early central San Antonio, of life during the Depression and the great drought of the 1950s on the Kallison Ranch, which Nathan and Perry developed (now part of Government Canyon State Natural Area), of Perry’s adventures as a beloved radio show host for many years, of their loyalty to their customers during hard times and the creative advertising techniques they employed to build their business.

Kotz does not shrink, either, from recounting the local social conflicts, including the pecan shellers’ strike of 1938 and the Ku Klux Klan’s burning of a cross in front of the Jorrie family’s furniture store in 1955, which affected the Kallisons, their Jewish friends and the community as a whole.

A treasure trove of wonderful family photographs depicting family members over the decades — at the store, the ranch, in civic activities — and of Kallison properties in their heyday, plus an extensive index, bibliography and footnotes, round out this story.

So, too, do Kotz’s concluding reflections on how the family has been transformed over time: successful, professional descendants.

At a time when many Americans question the value immigrants bring to our country, “The Harness Maker’s Dream” amply demonstrates how such families can thrive, survive apparent failure and continue to enrich our communities.

By Ed Conroy, For the Express-News : November 14, 2013 : Updated: November 15, 2013 4:56pm

Ed Conroy is a San Antonio writer. Reach him at

Nick Kotz discusses and signs copies of “The Harness Maker’s Dream” from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Twig Book Shop at the Pearl Brewery.