Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Max and Anna Stool
Jewish Settlers on the Texas Frontier

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

Del Rio started as a small farming village near the Rio Grande in 1868. The population remained under 200 until the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad construction crews arrived in 1881. The GH&SA was wholly owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The passenger service was called “the Sunset Route” and was a popular means for traveling across the country at that time. The rail line was completed in January 1883, creating the southern transcontinental railroad and the means for two of Del Rio’s most prominent citizens to find there way to the city.

Del Rio did not have a sizable Jewish population, though Max Stool was not the first of the faith to settle in Del Rio. J. Friedlander, a very early Del Rio storeowner, sported a Jewish-German name. H.M. Block arrived in San Felipe Del Rio (as the community was once named) in 1874. Block worked in Friedlander’s store. The Hyman Family lived in Del Rio in the early days. (The building constructed for the Hyman Store still stands on Main Street.) San Antonio’s Oppenheimers had a “presence” in town, and the Zlotnicks remained in Del Rio through the 1920s. Max and Anna’s grandson Michael suggested that “They may have had when [Max] came—there were other Jewish families here, but they, most of them left.”1

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Max Stool was one of the 1.3 million “Russian” Jews who left their homes and immigrated to the United States during the years ending one century and beginning another. While the Stools may not have been ethnically Russian since they lived in an area that was once Poland, Russian expansionism and the three partitions of Poland removed both Ukraine and Poland from the map and put the Stul Family under Russian rule. The family name was spelled Ctyl in the Old Country, and spelled Stul in English. It seems that Morris, the first family member to immigrate, began spelling the name Stool once he arrived in America.2

Religious persecution intensified in Russia during the late 1800s with high taxes on kosher foods, bans against Jews living in cities, and the infamous May Laws of 1882. Russian laws effectively prohibited Jews from becoming part of Russia’s economic growth. In sum, “the Russian regime practically forced the Jews to emigrate.”3

Max, the second oldest of eight, traveled to Chicago, a destination second only to New York City for immigrant Jews, and attended pharmacy school shortly before his trek across the Southwestern United States. His destination was the Golden Land of California, and he did finally make it to the West Coast years later during his retirement.4

Max was one of the earlier Stools to immigrate to America, but eventually, the entire family came over. The brothers who were in the U.S. first saved their money and brought their parents, Eva Sharagrodsky and Menasha Stul, (married in 1874), David (another Del Rio settler) and his family, and sister Rachel.

The Stool Family diagram.
Menasha and Eva Stul had eight children; the entire family eventually immigrated to the United States. Four of the sons migrated to Texas and two to Del Rio. Max was the second oldest of the eight and the eldest of the two who resided in Del Rio.

Max’s name is a reflection of the mystery about his early life. His given name was not Max; that much is known. His name was likely Moishe, or Moses. Proving that with documentation will be difficult because the early deed records and store advertisements list him as “M. Stool.” As he settled into Del Rio, records began to show the name “Max.” It seems clear that he had become American.5

Max Stool boarded a west-bound train in 1904 from Chicago for California. His journey took him south, then west, avoiding the Rocky Mountains by traveling across the southern transcontinental route. Max was an avid card player, enjoying card games of all kinds. He found a card game and played away the miles. When the train stopped in Del Rio, Texas, a native Del Rioan, probably one of the early ranchers, invited Max to layover and play cards—for a while. Max stayed nearly fifty years.

Initially, Max had no ties to the growing community, but he saw the promise of a town just beginning to mature and connect to the national economy. Max probably spoke English by the time he arrived in Del Rio. In Europe he had been multi-lingual, speaking Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. “The fact of the matter to survive, economically at least, in that particular part of the world, one had to speak a number of languages.” Having picked up English, he soon learned Spanish from and for his Mexican and Mexican-American friends and customers. He became a peddler, as many immigrant Jews did, carrying a pack of goods on his back. Hard work allowed him to trade up to horse-and-cart selling and, eventually, to leasing and buying real estate and opening his business at a permanent location.

“The Guarantee” is the store most associated with Max Stool. The store opened in 1905 with a name representative of Max’s personal pledge of good quality merchandise. The store would be called a department store today since it carried men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, shoes, and accessories: “usually the better brand names of the day.” Max operated the store until his retirement in 1946. At that time Max’s son William took over management.6 Over the years, Max operated other stores. These tended to be temporary and, perhaps, were intended to keep the storefronts open until he could fill them with lessees.

Max’s most lasting impact on Del Rio was his success at bringing national chain stores and significant downtown architecture to Del Rio. On the 700 block of South Main Street, alongside his own store, Max Stool made it possible for four of the country’s largest companies to establish their local storefronts: Woolworth, Kress, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney.

Max Stool first bought property near the railroad tracks. It was an obvious choice since much of Del Rio’s growth occurred when the railroad arrived.. A few years later, he must have realized that classic retail business offered greater opportunities. His later acquisitions were located away from the railroad reserve and warehouse area and at the center of the community’s business and residential areas.

Stool newspaper ad.
This advertisement in the Val Verde County Herald dates to 1910s. Max’s obituary states that he opened his first store in 1911, while the Guarantee was located on the 700 block of Main St. in the 1920s.

In 1916 Stool bought an important property at the corner of South Main Street and Losoya Street (Lot 1, Block 3, Range 1 of North Del Rio) just a block from courthouse square. In 1922 the investment paid off. Max signed a lease with F.W. Woolworth, “the five and ten pioneer,” to build a structure on that site to Woolworth’s specifications. In exchange Woolworth signed a fifteen-year lease. Only six years into the lease Woolworth contracted to have a two-story extension added to the rear of the building. Max and his wife Anna Stool owned the property until her death in 1934. Woolworth occupied the building through the late 1930s. Later occupants included Morrison’s, Mangle’s, and the current occupant, Toni’s Flower Shop.7

The S.H. Kress & Company five-and-dime store was one of the fixtures of twentieth-century Main Street, America. Samuel Kress was a “pioneer in establishing a company identity by means of a ‘signature storefront.’” Kress stores’ “artistic expression” was not common in retail commercial architecture in that day, but the storefronts became its own advertising—a successful means of creating brand loyalty. That is exactly what the Stools did for Kress in Del Rio.8

Max and Anna Stool built Del Rio’s Kress Building at 720 South Main under a 1926 contract. E.J. Hoffman, the head of the Kress company’s architectural division from 1918 to 1928 designed the building. “Hoffman’s contribution to the development scheme was an elaborate three-story yellow brick store with a heavy cornice rising above the long, low department store adjacent to it.” Construction of the Del Rio Kress Building was completed in 1927.9 Kress closed its doors in Del Rio about 1996, but the structure remains intact and is an important Del Rio landmark in the heart of Del Rio’s Main Street District. While Max did not design it, he built it, and the building still glows in the evening light.

In 1929, Stool constructed the building at 753 South Main Street specifically for Montgomery Ward & Company with the intent of signing a long-term lease. The specifications for the structure included the “Spirit of Progress” icon on the building’s façade above the front door. The icon was based on a seventeen-foot statue that Ward placed on top of his new Chicago headquarters in 1899, and it appeared on company catalogs in the 1930s and appears to have been part of the retail side of the business when Ward began the storefront part of the company. This store opened in 1929 as part of the Ward company’s transition from a strictly mail order business to one that sold product out of storefronts.

The Montgomery Ward Building was built to be thoroughly modern in every aspect. Contract clauses about electricity and sidewalks were detailed and required Stool to make certain that the customers had a clean, safe shopping experience. The completed building was modern and large—three stories tall—and one of Del Rio’s largest. The Ward store closed entirely in 1951 (or early 1952). The building remained occupied over the years, and is currently home to Gabriela’s Clothing Store, whose owner is restoring the structure.

After Max’s wife Anna died (March 26, 1934), Max and the couple’s children signed a partition deed (dated September 4, 1936) dividing Anna’s one-half share of the marriage property. Max Stool kept the Montgomery Ward Building, son Joseph took the Woolworth Building; son William owned the Guarantee Building; daughter Goldie kept the Kress Building property (then inherited the Montgomery Ward Building at Max’s death in 1972).10 Eventually, though, most of these properties were sold, and fortunately, sold to local entrepreneurs who are keeping the buildings occupied and in use.

Having brought three major chains to Del Rio, Max then convinced a fourth chain store to relocate to the same 700 block into a storefront also built by Stool. J.C. Penney’s had opened at another location in Del Rio in the 1920s, but today’s Del Rioans remember the store at the 728 South Main location, between the Kress Building and the Rita Theater. Earlier, an older, wooden structure, the Central Hotel, had stood there, but the site was vacant in 1922 when Max built the brick structure that stands there and remains in use today.11

Max is also responsible, at least in part, for the creation of one of Ciudad Acuña’s longest-lived businesses, Crosby’s Restaurant and Bar. Acuña is Del Rio’s sister city across the Rio Grande in Mexico. The business started in Del Rio as a small café on the property that is now behind the Woolworth Building. During hard times, Max allowed Mrs. Crosby to remain in the property for a token rent payment: coffee or breakfast. The business survived, moved to its present location (which also once included a hotel), and became a border icon.12

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When Max purchased the large lot that would house the Montgomery Ward Building, he also purchased the site for a new home. Lot 1, Block 2, Range 1 of North Del Rio was a strip of land, exactly one-fifth of the area of the Block with storefront property facing east to South Main Street, residential property facing west to Griner Street, and the Madre Canal running alongside the south property line. The purchase gave Max the ability to walk from home to business in minutes. One cannot help but think of a newspaper advertisement, from his early days in business, noting that he gives good prices because, among other things, “My Expenses are light” and “My Habits are not extravagant.” The advertisement locates his business at 618 South Main, a site very near his Pecan Street home where he lived before moving to his permanent residence on Griner.13

Max and Anna “built a two-story home,” presumably the residence at 608 Griner, at the height of his entrepreneurial career, enlarging an existing structure. The couple “filled it with art, fine furniture and a grand piano. It was a home full of vigor. There were always additional people staying.” Anna Stool’s story is similar to Max’s in many ways. She was born in Russia (in Slitz) and “came to America in 1903 to make her home with her parents…in Chicago. It was in that city [with its large Jewish population] that Mr. Stool met her, bringing her to Del Rio as a bride [in 1910].” Her parents, like Max’s, remained in Chicago but two sisters and a brother, like some of Max’s, came to Texas, residing in Hondo, San Antonio, and Crystal City at the time of her death.14

MaxStool-s
Max Stool, from Lone Stars of David.

Del Rio has never been home to Jewish religious services. “We have never had enough Jews in Del Rio to have a house of worship or sanctuary.” The Stool Family wanted to be part of an organized congregation and made great efforts (closing their businesses and traveling entire days) to participate in services. Max and Anna attended Jewish services, religious holidays, and social events in 150-mile distant San Antonio. Max’s grandson, Michael, and his family attended services in the much less distant Eagle Pass where there was a larger Jewish community of slightly more than a dozen adults. Together, Del Rio and Eagle Pass had some ten families with twenty or so adults. They met on the upstairs floor of the Jewish-owned Riskind Store in Eagle Pass.

Despite a lack of obvious, external evidence, neither Max nor Anna Stool lost their Jewish identity. “None of them kept kosher, which, of course, would be very difficult to do here. It’d be impossible to do here.” But it seems that Max and Anna and their family always kept an internal identity that remained in bloom despite desert conditions. “Max and Anna joined both the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in San Antonio. It was a three hundred mile round trip over less than good roads. But they attended every significant Jewish occasion and their two sons had their Bar Mitzvahs there.” Nevertheless, the trips to Eagle Pass and San Antonio and the marriages within the faith—Max’s, the children’s, and the grandchildren’s—offer proof that the family faith never disappeared.15

Max lost Anna in 1934. Max took Anna to New York seeking the best medical care, but it was not enough to prevent her death from leukemia. Anna came to Del Rio and made good impressions of her own. “Forty years later, people would come and mention her to me [grandson Michael], telling me what a wonderful woman she was.” Max himself idolized her and took the loss hard.

[Editor's comment--This image and information was not in the original text.]
MaxStool-s
[I saw this plaque in the front waiting room at the hospital on Bedell Street.]

Max resided in the Griner Street house with Anna until she died, alone during his time as a widower, and with Marion (Block) during the early years of his second marriage. (Marion was from Waco, and there is no known relationship to Del Rio’s Block Family.) Max and Marion sold the home to Paul J. Poag, another prominent Del Rio entrepreneur and owner of the Rita Theater, on March 6, 1946, when Max retired and left Del Rio finally to complete that journey to California.16

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Michael Stool downplays his grandparents’ deeds: “I’d like to say this is a unique, great story, but…. This was replicated a hundred times. There’s really nothing unique in it.”17 Perhaps, but the story of Max and Anna Stool is important to us. The Stools became part of Del Rio’s family. Their passing was front-page news, but the youngest generation of Stools has left Del Rio, and the Stool name is slowly disappearing.

Jacques De La Mota recently moved his law firm into the old Stool Home because of its historic presence in Del Rio’s historic downtown. De La Mota is interested in preserving this part of Del Rio’s history. One-hundred and one years have passed since Max Stool stepped off that train, and the Val Verde County Historical Commission is ready to remember that that chance event resulted in great things for our community.

 

Bibliography—
Walter Block, great-grandson of H.M. Block, to author, May 19, 2004.
“De la Mota and Company, LTD, moves downtown,” Del Rio News-Herald, November 28, 2004, page 7A.
Lucy S. Dawidowicz, On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881-1981, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
Lloyd P. Gartner, “Jewish Migrants en Route from Europe to North America: Traditions and Realities,” in Moses Rischin, (ed.), The Jews of North America, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.
“Kasha, Kugel, and Pinto Beans: One Way Tickets from West Ukraine to West Texas,” Texas Jewish Historical Society, June 1999, pages 10-16.
“Max Stool Dies at 90,” Del Rio News-Herald, March 5, 1972, page A1.
“Mrs. Max Stool Dies At Home In Del Rio Monday,” Del Rio Evening News, March 27, 1934, page A1.
Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
George O. Perkins, “The Early History of Val Verde County,” Sul Ross State College Master’s Thesis, January 1954.
Max Stool, son of David, to author, September 21, 2004.
Michael Stool, grandson of the elder Max, to author, January 31, 2004.
Val Verde County Clerk’s Office. Deed Records.

 

Endnotes--
1 Walter Block (great-grandson of H.M.B.) to DLB, May 19, 2004; Max Stool to DLB, interview, September 21, 2004; Michael Stool to DLB, George O. Perkins, “The Early History of Val Verde County,” pages 130-130a; “Kasha, Kugel, and Pinto Beans: One Way Tickets from West Ukraine to West Texas,” Texas Jewish Historical Society, June 1999, page 11.
2 Lucy S. Dawidowicz, On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881-1981, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, pages 7-12; Moses Rischin, (ed.), The Jews of North America, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, pages 17, 27, 32; Max Stool to DLB, interview, September 21, 2004. 3 Lloyd P. Gartner, “Jewish Migrants en Route from Europe to North America: Traditions and Realities,” in Moses Rischin, (ed.), The Jews of North America, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, page 27.
4 Michael Stool to DLB, interview; “Kasha, Kugel, and Pinto Beans: One Way Tickets from West Ukraine to West Texas,” Texas Jewish Historical Society, June 1999, page 10; Lloyd P. Gartner, “Jewish Migrants en Route from Europe to North America: Traditions and Realities,” in Moses Rischin, (ed.), The Jews of North America, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, page 32.
5 Michael Stool to DLB.
6 Max’s son William operated the Guarantee until 1970 when his son Michael took over. Michael added a gift department offering crystal and wedding gifts such as dinnerware and flatware. Michael ran the store and expanded the floor space into an adjacent building. The family business continued until 2003 when Michael, suffering from declining health, closed what had long since become a local landmark and entrepreneurial tradition. Joseph Stuhl to DLB; Bill Sontag, “The Guarantee closes,” Del Rio News-Herald, August 10, 2003, pages 1, 3. The headline ran above the fold with inch-high letters—indicating the importance of the store, and the shock of the upcoming closure. The next generation of Stools “has not been tempted…to perpetuate” the tradition.
7 1872-1972, A Century of Serving Consumers: The Story of Montgomery Ward, published by Montgomery Ward & Co., Inc., 1972, page 69; VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 52, pages 129+; Vol. 70, pages 4+; Vol. 91, pages 390+; Vol. 377, pages 400+; Vol. 684, pages 424+.
8 Bernice L. Thomas, America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997 (for the National Building Museum), pages vii-5.
9 VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 62, pages 202+; Vol. 68, pages 316+; Vol. 75, pages 261+; VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 62, pages 202+; Thomas, America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy, pages 32-37.
10 VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 91, pages 390+.
11 VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 52, pages 436+; Vol. 91, pages 31+; Vol. 109, pages 252+.
12 Michael Stool to DLB. Esther Crosby was one of the group who saved Dr. John Brinkley’s radio business in a tricky though legal business purchase. When Mexican authorities closed Radio XER, their purchase of the station made it possible to reopen the station as Radio XERA and for Brinkley to continue broadcasting worldwide.
13 VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 34, pages 597+; Michael Stool to DLB; “M. Stool,” Val Verde County Herald, advertisement, no date, no page.
14 “Mrs. Max Stool Dies At Home In Del Rio Monday,” Del Rio Evening News, March 27, 1934, page A1.
15 “Kasha, Kugel, and Pinto Beans,” Texas Jewish Historical Society, June 1999, page 10.
16 VVC, Clerk’s Office, Deed Records, Vol. 74, pages 528+; Vol. 744, pages 891+; “Kasha, Kugel, and Pinto Beans,” Texas Jewish Historical Society, June 1999, page 10.
17 Michael Stool to DLB.