An American Story

‘The Harness Maker’s Dream:’ The Unlikely Ranch King of Texas

In the late 1800s, Nathan Kallison escaped oppression in Ukraine and found refuge in Texas, where he became one of the top cowboys around.

Courtesy Nick Kotz

In the dark of night, Nathan Kallison embraced his widowed mother and, for the last time, slipped away from his village in Czarist Russia. At seventeen, he was heading out alone—first by foot, then oxcart, and finally on a train over 1,300 miles of hostile land—to board a ship in the German port of Bremen. That journey, begun in 1890, would take him over an ocean and halfway across another continent to a future he never could have imagined.

The story, old and often told, is still astonishing: how can people leave home, family, and country behind, risking everything—often staking their very lives—to pursue the American dream? They come to seek adventure, or their fortunes, or like my grandfather Nathan Kallison, to escape oppression, poverty, and prejudice. It is a tale of courage and commitment, daring and determination. Their dreams and successes have shaped who we are. Yet the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free did not always find what they expected in America. An often-quoted Italian immigrant described his experience this way: “I came to America because I heard that the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I learned three things: First, the streets were not paved with gold; second, they were not paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”

I don’t know what “Papa” Nathan or “Goggie” Anna expected of America. Growing up in San Antonio, I knew little about my Kallison grandparents in whose home my mother and I lived for the first twelve years of my life. They were two of 23 million men, women, and children—two million of them Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe—who surged into the United States from 1880 through 1920—and they rarely spoke of their pasts.

Both had immigrated to Chicago from the Ukraine in 1890: seventeen-year-old Nathan from the tiny village of Ladyzhinka; fifteen-year-old Anna Letwin, from the outskirts of Kiev. He paid his own way, joining older brother Jacob who had escaped to the Windy City earlier that year. She traveled with tickets bought by her betrothed, a widowed uncle who needed a maid and mother for his children—not an uncommon arrangement in those days. On meeting the ugly, old man—and faced with a life she would not endure—Anna broke the engagement and sought refuge with distant cousins, working for them as housekeeper and nanny to their three young daughters.

When Nathan and Anna met in 1894, the attraction was instant and mutual. In the old country, matchmakers would have said Nathan was “such a catch!” Smart and strong, he was a skilled leatherworker who worked hard to bring his mother and younger brother to America, a risk-taker who’d just opened his own business in the height of a great depression. In America, Anna became her own matchmaker. Unwilling to trust her future to the whims of fate, the petite, blue-eyed blonde went out of her way on errands to pass Nathan’s harness shop, stopping by to flirt.

Married in 1895, Nathan and Anna lived in a small apartment behind his shop in Chicago’s West Side ghetto. As his business grew, so did their family—with the birth of Morris in 1896 and Pauline, two years later. In the midst of that fierce winter, Anna fell ill, developing a nasty, lingering cough. Terrified of tuberculosis, then a serious scourge of urban life, she longed to escape the city’s poorest confines.

At the close of the 19th century, the Kallison’s journey from poverty to prosperity took an unusual turn. As the automobile made its presence known on the streets of Chicago, Nathan and Anna set out for San Antonio in the young state of Texas, when that “Wild West” city was reinventing itself. There the climate was healthier and the horse was still king.

Just blocks from where the Alamo lay in ruin (at that time, it was used as a warehouse), the Kallisons rented a small one-story wooden building at 124 South Flores Street for both a business and a residence. Nearby, they could hear the bells of the historic San Fernando Cathedral ring in the cathedral’s soaring Gothic bell tower. In 1899, with a three hundred dollar investment, they opened a small saddlery and harness shop.

From the very first, those who came to admire Nathan and his work observed that his wit and his business instincts were as sharp as his knives. He already fit the mold of Texas manhood. Although not exactly the picture of a tall, silent cowboy, he nevertheless lived the essential values that produced that stereotype—honest, fair, and slow to anger. But he would not be cheated. Family lore recalls the time Nathan picked up a shoplifter and threw him out the door.

In those early days, no-nonsense Anna was a full partner in the business. With a backbone of steel, she matched her husband in intelligence, perseverance, and strength of spirit. The friendliness of their first Texas customers surprised and heartened the Kallisons. As newcomers, they feared isolation. They had worried about being able to assimilate into a culture so different from the one they had left behind. But Nathan was a “straight-talker,” a man whose leatherworking skills and language facility drew customers from all of the region’s ethnic backgrounds—especially from its large German population, whose native tongue was similar to the Yiddish Nathan spoke in his youth. Kallison’s soon became a place where farmers and ranchers, as well as city dwellers, liked to congregate.

Immaculately dressed for work in a three-piece suit, white shirt, and necktie, Nathan appeared serious and formal, a staid businessman who inspired confidence. Yet it was the twinkle in his eye as he peered through the small round lenses of his glasses, coupled with an easy smile, which drew repeat customers to his store. Their business prospered, and the family grew with the births of Bertha, in 1902 (affectionately known as “Tibe” meaning “little bird” in Yiddish), and Perry, a year later. The Kallisons moved out of the shop’s back rooms—first into rented houses, then into a home of their own.

In the race to the future, horsepower was losing to gas power, and the city was changing. Nathan knew his business had to change, too. With a healthy loan in 1908, he started an orderly conversion of his shop to a general merchandise and ranching supply store, selling his saddle and harness manufacturing company to one of his principal competitors.

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Kallison’s “Big Old Country” Store became “a meetin’ and greetin’”place for “neighbors.” They offered an intriguing mix of items for sale, from windmills and barbed wire to toys and coffee pots, all with a money-back guarantee they they were the best prices around. Customers became friends and the down-home feeling created lingered long after they left the store.

Nathan Kallison lived by “The Golden Rule.” He did well by doing good. Case in point: compounding misery from the Depression, the most severe hail storm in San Antonio’s history struck in March 1935. In thirteen minutes, it dumped almost a half-foot of two-inch hail on the city splintering shingles, shredding car tops, and destroying roofs. Glass fragments from windows, street lamps, car windshields, and theater marquees littered the streets like confetti.

To help the city rebuild, Kallison’s ordered railroad carloads of building supplies, including a twenty-car order of Texaco roofing. Despite increased demand and decreased supplies, the Kallisons (unlike some other San Antonio merchants who rushed to capitalize on the disaster) did not raise their “rock-bottom” prices.

Eventually this business, which Nathan and Anna launched out of a twenty-by-twenty workspace, became the largest farm and ranch supply store in the Southwest. But Kallison’s store was not their only success.

Nathan found Texas enchanting; the land itself, familiar—like the fields he remembered from home. Some parts were arid, nearly barren, others green and fertile. But owning land had been denied his people in Russia. The notion of a “spread”—the mythical Texas ranch that every Texas cowboy hopes for—fueled his imagination. In America, storeowner Nathan Kallison wanted his own “home on the range.” And he found it.

In 1910, he bought range land outside San Antonio and developed it into the 2,800-acre Kallison Ranch. This land, with cattle grazing, rich with native fauna and flora—deer and doves and bluebonnets blossoming in spring—made South Texas the home of Nathan’s heart. Not only did he treasure the beauty of his Hill Country land, this pioneer rancher had a vision for the unique role it could play in the growth of San Antonio and South Texas.

Unlike the ironfisted czarist regime that stamped out economic opportunity and denied the Kallisons and their fellow Jews the freedom to chart their own destinies, Nathan saw in America a progressive government to be embraced—not feared. A government that would help build farm-to-market roads linking city and country; provide electric power to rural settlers; share knowledge and offer assistance through agricultural extension services to those whose lives and livelihoods were linked to the land.

Nathan learned everything he could about farming and ranching. He replaced his range cattle with Polled Herefords, raising champions that founded herds world-wide. He worked with U.S. Department of Agriculture extension service scientists, turning Kallison Ranch into a living laboratory for experiments in soil conservation, seed improvement, and modern agricultural practices.

Coping with drought and marginal soils was a continual struggle. While Nathan could do nothing about the vagaries of Mother Nature or the inevitable ups and downs in the agricultural market, he had a “safety net”—his thriving store in the heart of the city. Diversification was as beneficial in financial investments as it was in growing crops and raising livestock. Because the Kallisons did not depend solely on income from ranching and farming, they could afford to take risks as they investigated ways to improve agricultural practices. Thus, the family enterprise prevailed and grew during hard times, when ranching and farming in Texas tested the determination of most men and women just to hold on to their land during the Depression years.

In 1934 crops had failed on more than six million acres of Texas farmland.

With the situation growing more desperate by the month, Nathan Kallison made his ranch a haven for homeless rural people who had lost their own land and livelihoods. At one point in the desperate 1930s, as many as twenty displaced families and farm workers at a time found refuge living in tents on the Kallison Ranch. One family even claimed space on the concrete floor at the end of the cattle delousing vat.

One Depression-era family the Kallisons befriended was that of Walter Sachtleben. Years later, his daughter Frances Sachtleben Hoffmann recalled what it was like: “When we got to Nathan Kallison’s ranch, we were starving. We had no place to go. Daddy had lost his land and couldn’t sell his goats. He had to shoot them.” Mr. Kallison was “a strong but also a very gentle man,” Frances said. “Everyone respected him, and called him ‘the Boss.’ He was a fair man with a great sense of honor.”

Nathan Kallison saw the end of the Depression, but not the end of World War II. He passed away in 1944; Anna, in 1959. With their grandparents as role models, Kallison descendants—whose interests and energy encompassed not only retailing and ranching, but also real estate, broadcasting, livestock exhibitions, rodeos, civic affairs, education, and social justice causes—also left a lasting imprint on the region.

Nathan, Anna, and their children all are gone now. But they are remembered. Their legacy lives on through their deeds, the lives they touched, and the land they loved. Today, more than 1,100 of the Kallison Ranch’s most verdant, scenic Hill Country acres have become the vital core of the Government Canyon Wildlife and Natural Area, operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The park not only provides outdoor recreation, but is dedicated to the protection of endangered species and the fragile and endangered water supply for San Antonio and a large area in South Texas. There in the park, bluebonnets still bloom in spring, the deer and the doves flourish in the hills, and Nathan Kallison’s precious land will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.