I Heart Denton

Harry Houdini — The Most Sensational Entertainment Ever Offered in Denton.

HarryHoudini1899 I knew that the great magician, Harry Houdini (born in 1874 as Erik Weisz, in Hungary), had been featured at the State Fair of Texas in 1924. According to Bartee Haile, Texas was a regular stop in Houdini’s travels. However, I was delightfully surprised to find, when I opened my very own copy of C. A. Bridges’ History of Denton, Texas, from Its Beginning to 1960, that Houdini was a prominent visitor to Denton in the 1920s. Who would have thought that this tiny town could attract “The Master Wizard of Magic?” The population back then was less than 8,000 and probably most of those could barely make ends meet.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bridges did no more than mention Houdini’s name. Searching on-line, I couldn’t find any record of Denton associated with Houdini. In frustration, I decided I had to go to the library and browse through back issues of the newspaper. That could take forever. I mentioned his visit to my friend, Laura Douglas (who is a Super-Hero Librarian at the Emily Fowler Public Library). Before I could gather my notebooks and head out to the library, she had found the information I sought!

I know you can’t read this advertisement at this size, so click it to enlarge it. It was in the Denton Record Chronicle on October 15th, 1924 to promote Houdini’s performance at the “C.I.A. Auditorium.” “C.I.A.” didn’t stand for “Central Intelligence Agency,” but for “College of Industrial Arts.” However, I suppose you could say that was an “Intelligence Agency.” The C.I.A. later became Texas Woman’s University.

Houdini advertisement. 1924 Denton Record Chronicle

“The Most Sensational Entertainment Ever Offered in Denton?” Well, it better have been, with ticket prices ranging from 75₵ to $1.50. That was pretty doggone pricey in those days. During that time period, you could take $1.50 and feed your family! Think about this for a minute: You could have bought a loaf of bread (10₵), a dozen eggs (47₵), a pound of coffee (57₵), and a pound of cheese (38₵) and still had 8₵ left over. Add 2₵ and you could go to a moving picture show! If you planned to take the spouse and all four kids to see Houdini, and sit in premium seats, you were looking to spend the week’s grocery money.

Still, the evening was well attended, according to an article on October 18th, 1924. Laura sent me that, as well, but the print is unreadable on-line. I transcribed it for you just as it was written. Please keep in mind that the run-on sentences and atrocious grammar are not mine … at least not what is in the quote block.

Denton Record-Chronicle. Saturday. October 18, 1924

Houdini, noted magician and mystifier, entertained a large crowd in the College of Industrial Arts auditorium Friday evening with legerdemain and a lecture-demonstration in exposing what he termed the “hokus pokus” of so-called spiritualistic mediums.

He opened his program, with a short lecture in which he stated that he did not say there is not such a thing as spiritualism, but declared that in 30 years of investigation and association with some of the greatest mediums of the world he had never been convinced that the dead could be communicated with. Every demonstration he had seen given by mediums, among them the most noted the world has over seen, he has solved, he said, convincing him they were fakes.

He gave demonstrations to show how trick tables were used by the mediums and other devices of deception that had been employed to bewilder even men of broad education and experience. These demonstrations were given with A. O. Calhoun, Dr. P. Lipscomb, and Theron J. Fouts on the stage for several, and T. P. Cobb for one.

In one demonstration he sat on one side of a table with Dr. Lipscomb on the other, with Lipscomb holding both his hands and with his feet on Houdini’s feet, in which Houdini rang a bell and used other noise-making devices which were on the floor. This was by the simple process of slipping one foot out of his shoe and manipulating the noise instruments with his toes. He explained that all the seances are held in dark rooms.

He also produced writing on slates and told how the paraffin hands, of which much has been said in spiritualistic circles recently, were made.

In the early days, Houdini was a “professional medium,” he explained, and gave several instances of some of his “revelations,” pointing out how information was secured and other preparations made for the demonstrations. One notable instance was a demonstration he gave on board a ship in which the late Theodore Roosevelt was mystified. He explained how he secured advance information in order to answer a question Roosevelt asked, and how by the use of carbon paper he secured a copy of the question.

He branded mediums as fakes and declared that all of the seance demonstrations were “hokus pokus,” those taking part being divided into two classes — the deluder and the deluded. A great many persons are honest in their belief that communication with the dead has been established, however, he admitted.

One of his most mystifying legerdemain demonstrations was the threading of four packages of needles in his mouth, first placing the needles in his mouth and then a long strand of thread, pulling out the thread which had been run through the eyes of the needles. This was done in the presence of the committee of Denton citizens.

The feat which drew the greatest applause, however, was in extricating himself from a regulation strait jacket, which was carefully strapped on him by Sheriff W. M. Swinney and S. R. Taylor. This is one of the feats which first brought fame to Houdini.

Two moving picture films were shown, one of which depicted Houdini freeing himself from a strait jacket while suspended by his feet from the cornice of the city hall in St. Louis, and the other showed him jumping from one airplane to another in midair for a movie stunt and the collision of the two planes shortly afterward.

At the close of the performance Houdini invited questions regarding spiritualism, several of which were asked and answered.

I have some journalist friends who will cringe reading that article. I don’t know, because I wasn’t around back then, but it sounds like the show was a bit of snoozer. I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend my $1.50 to see a self-important, middle-aged man cavorting around a stage in his underwear and spouting off with long-winded speeches.

Ramone Novarro and Alice Terry in The Arab 1924Instead, I would have bought that coffee (57₵), a pound of bacon (47₵), and treated myself to a showing of “The Arab” over at the Dreamland Theater (one of the theaters on Elm Street, which was showing that flick the next week). It featured the Mexican heartthrob Ramone Novarro (be still, my heart) and Alice Terry. Although I am sure it was melodramatic, it would have been much more enjoyable to me than Houdini.

Still, I’m sure that an appearance by Harry Houdini was the talk of the town in 1924, which makes it surprising to me that these days few people know of it. I’m just thankful that Laura found the newspaper articles, because even Mike Cochran, a local historian who loves collecting quirky information like this, had not heard of Houdini’s visit.

Harry Houdini was in Denton in 1924, and he escaped with $1,000 for his “sensational” performance. That was the best magic trick of the evening.

Corn-Kits. Manna from Denton.

Morrison Mill DentonAs I drove my friend around Denton, she turned to me and said, “Shelly, I have to ask … what areCorn Kits‘?” She was reading the large sign that dominates the south east side of the downtown area atop the Morrison Milling Plant. If y’all have been to Denton, you couldn’t miss it. The big red letters scream against the sky line, “MORRISON’S CORN-KITS.”

I screeched the car to a halt, as my jaw dropped and hit the steering wheel. “Do whut?” I asked incredulously. Then, I remembered that this poor gal was from Alaska and was unfamiliar with some of our culinary delights here in Texas.

For the uninformed, let me tell you: Corn Kits is the name of a pre-packaged corn-bread mix from right here in Denton, Texas. In the 1950s and 1960s, Corn-Kits were a staple of most pantries in this part of Texas. A package of them was the only “recipe” my Momma ever used to make her cornbread or hush puppies. Momma worked all day as a secretary for my Dad … well, actually she practically ran his company. When she got home, she didn’t have a lot of energy left to spend cooking meals for four kids. Like many women of her day, she relied on those pre-packaged meals, because they were fast, cheap, and easy. And, actually Corn Kits make a decent cornbread.

Momma often served “Mexican Cornbread,” which was an odd “cornbread pie” filled with cheese, ground beef, onion, and canned corn. No, it wasn’t all that good, but it’s what she put on the table. I’m not sure why that dish was called “Mexican” cornbread, because I’m pretty sure that no self-respecting Mexican person ever let this concoction pass their lips! I had at first intended to find an on-line recipe and link it here, but Mexican cornbread doesn’t deserve that much effort.

Who am I kidding? My Momma never learned to cook in the first place. If she had she would have realized that making delicious cornbread from scratch is almost as easy as opening that package; you still have to add egg and measure milk so it doesn’t save that much time.

Alliance Flour Mill ad 1890Those Corn-Kits are still manufactured in Denton at the Morrison Mill, which has loomed over the town since 1886 (one of several mills that were in operation in Denton at that time). Originally the plant was called the “Alliance Mill,” and was formed by the local Farmer’s Alliance. I know you can’t read that ad on the left, but click it and it will enlarge. It’s from Denton’s 1890 Business Directory. As you can see, they were pretty darned proud of their flour … with good reason! In 1888, the Alliance Mill entered their “Peacemaker” patented flour in the Texas State Fair at Dallas and won the first premium award. They continued to win with that patent for ten consecutive years … and then were barred from further competition with it! I guess the judges figured that someone else should get a shot at the prizes.

Historic Morrison Mill

In 1936, E. W. Morrison bought the mill and changed the name to “Morrison Milling Company.” As you can see from the 1954 photo above, he was still banking on that Peacemaker Flour. I’m not sure when they changed the sign atop the building and added “Corn-Kits” to the name, but it’s been there for quite a long time. At one time the sign was neon and the bright red letters illuminated the night sky. I don’t know whether the price of electricity or the cost of maintaining the neon caused them to stop turning on the lights, but I miss them.

As for those Corn-Kits, they are still available on store shelves, but evidently not in Alaska. I’m going to have to package some and mail them off to my friend, Barbara. When she visited, she fell in love with all things “Denton” and even blogged about “Dentoning.” She needs some Corn-Kits, so that she can make a pan of cornbread or a batch of hushpuppies … and if she says she doesn’t know what “hushpuppies” are, then there is no hope for her at all.

Morrison Mill picture: Carruth Studio. Morrison Milling Company, Photograph, ca. 1954; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth12425/ : accessed March 07, 2014), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.
Advertisement: 1890 Denton Business Review and Directory, Book, May 1890; digital images, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth21919/ : accessed March 07, 2014), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.

The Cave at Grapevine Lake

overlooking Denton Creek

We stood at the mouth of the cave looking out across Denton Creek and imagined what it looked like in the 1800s. My heart pounded as I thought of hiding in that cave and seeing pursuers on horseback loping across the prairie. There would have been no escape; to the top of the cliff above was another 25 feet with no footholds … and scrambling down the hillside would have dropped you right in the lap of your enemy.

I wrote about the cave and some of it’s fascinating history many years ago. Descendants of Robert Dolford “Bob” Jones, a man who was born a slave but became one of the wealthiest landowners in this neck of the woods, said that it had been used as part of the Underground Railroad. Other rumors indicated that Sam Bass, a notorious outlaw who frequented these parts had used that cave as a hideout.

I knew those stories, but never thought I would have the opportunity to see the cave. I’m told now that friends in High School partied at the cave on the lake (but, there is another on a different shore, and that might be the one they meant). I feel deprived because I never got invited to those parties!

Last month I received an e-mail from a man who had read my post about this particular cave. Stuart told me that he and his daughter had been to the cave … and that he could tell me how to get there!

With my friend, Laura Douglas (who is a Superhero Librarian/history buff), and her inquisitive son, Jacob, an adventure began.

Laura and Jacob

We wandered a path down to the lake with no idea what we might find. We weren’t even sure we would find the cave, because our map wasn’t interactive. What we found along our walk would have been worth the trip. There were hidey-holes for critters, wonderful rock formations, lovely views of the lake, and more. Jacob found, according to his mother’s count, “8 golf balls, 3 tennis balls, one golden shell, one fossil, two pieces of turtle shell, one unidentified piece of rusted bent metal, and an awesome fishing lure.” In truth, we also found fascinating fish heads, but I wouldn’t let Jacob take them home in my car. As Laura said, though, “Take a boy and you will always find treasure.”

It seemed like we had walked forever, scanning the hills and hoping to see it. Just when we were about to give up hope, we rounded a bend and voilà. We had reached our destination.

Sam Bass Cave

Jacob quickly climbed those slippery slopes and reached the mouth of the cave, with Laura and I right behind him … going much more slowly.

Jacob climbing to cave

Jacob at the cave

The cave was not deep at all, and I confess that Laura and I didn’t climb inside to explore further. We stood there in awe, hearing in our mind’s ear the echoes of the past.

cave interior

It was enough for us to just look inside and let our imaginations soar as we wondered what those walls would tell us, if they could talk. Actually, some of the walls were trying to tell us something.

cave graffiti

Over the years, visitors have carved messages into the rocks and defaced it (unless you see the beauty in it … then you can call it “art” if you choose). This, however, shows you exactly why I am not going to describe how to get there. I don’t want to see the cave further defaced; it needs to be preserved.

Did Sam Bass hide in this cave? Was it used for the Underground Railroad? I don’t know that those questions can be answered; I couldn’t see that Sam had signed his name on the wall. All I know is that it is a beauty of nature, and I’m glad that this cave is nestled far away from the beaten path.