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Interview with: John T. Jones
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Dates: March 7, 1989
Archive Number: OH 425
JJ: 00:00 The contents of his office were given to the University of Texas Library.
LM: I wonder if they’re processed yet. They’re probably not processed.
JJ: I don’t think they’ll derive much out of them. The last year of his life he took most of the juice out of those papers. (pause) It’s Tuesday. The bank calendar said it’s the 7th.
LM: (chuckles) Okay. Today is Tuesday, March 7, 1989. This is Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mr. John T. Jones for the San Jacinto History Museum Project. Mr. Jones, I’d like to begin the interview by getting just a bit of background information with regard to your uncle and the construction of the monument. Was it a topic that was discussed openly and to any detail with you?
JJ: Not to any great extent. You’ve got to remember this concept of the monument started in the early to mid ‘30s, and at that time I was a freshman in high school. I usually saw my uncle only on family occasions: Christmas when he was in Houston or for a family dinner or something like that I would see him. He was very interested and in fact enthusiastic about the monument and in that regard he did discuss it—none of the real details, mostly just his happiness that it was going through and he helped in getting a WPA grant, which financed most of it. He wanted to get it built, if possible, in time for the Texas Centennial. To tell you the truth, I’ve forgotten whether it was built in time for that or not. I don’t know. Occasionally I would be in the downtown area and be around his office. He was very rarely there. He was in Washington almost exclusively at that time. I did talk to a lot of his friends and coworkers: Mr. Fred Heyne, Russ Beatty, Al Finn, those people—Mr. Finn not as much as Mr. Beatty. He was an architect as well. They were all pretty well wrapped up in the project and thought it would be a good one. Certainly I think everyone liked the design. In fact, I remember talking about that, with the star on top.
LM: When you say everyone—
JJ: Everyone I talked to.
LM: Uh-hunh (affirmative). It was a popular—
JJ: 03:07 It was popular. It naturally would be popular. These were employees of Jesse Jones that I was talking to, and anything he liked was going to be very popular with them. And he certainly liked it. But other than that, I have no great storehouse of knowledge about the concept of it. Before we leave that subject, though, Jesse Jones was impressed with that vista looking down toward the Washington Monument where it’s open in front of it. He liked that. And to the degree that it could be done, I think he tried to influence Mr. Finn into duplicating at least that feel.
LM: The pond, then, in front of the monument, do you think that was an outgrowth of your uncle’s desire to duplicate, in a sense, the Washington Monument?
JJ: I would hope so, but that’s just wishful thinking. I don’t have anything to base it on. I know he did like the vista in Washington. And it’s so similar that it kind of just automatically brings it to your mind.
LM: During the time when the monument was under construction or in the planning stages, do you know if he took an active role in actually examining the plans?
JJ: Certainly. Yes, he did. I don’t know this to the point where I would swear to it, but I would guess and I would bet money that Mr. Finn from time to time would send copies of his plans to Washington, as Jesse Jones was not here. He had done a number of buildings for Mr. Jones, and he knew Jesse Jones’s love for plans. He was crazy about them. He liked to fiddle with them and tinker with them. Sometimes this was good, sometimes probably not quite so good. But he loved the planning stages of a building. After it was built and finished, not so much, but he loved the planning and the construction of a building.
LM: In that regard, there was some controversy about what the object should be at the top of the monument. In fact, some of the early models show a Texan soldier standing on top. Of course what came out was the star. Do you remember any of his thoughts on that?
JJ: No, not at all. I’ve heard since then that there was some controversy about what should be up there. At the time it was under construction, I only heard one side and that was his.
LM: How about Mr. Heyne? How deeply involved was he in the planning of the monument?
JJ: I don’t think very deeply at all. He was primarily Jesse Jones’s trustee, I guess you would call it. He had Jesse Jones’s power of attorney from the time Jesse Jones went to Washington till he died. He was Jesse Jones’s agent, alter ego, whatever you want.
LM: 06:58 The actual idea for building the monument, was it an outgrowth of the celebration of the Texas Revolution? Or was it considered even before that?
JJ: I have no idea. I had always just assumed that it was an idea that had probably been mixing for a long time. But the Texas Centennial, which you had to be here then, that was a big thing. That was what gave it the push, and I think that’s the impetus that got the WPA money to finance the construction. If it had depended on the patriotism of the local individuals, the monument would be substantially smaller, I think.
LM: Can you expand on that a bit? That’s interesting.
JJ: No. I just think it would have been very difficult to raise that kind of money. Everybody was patriotic. I say everybody was patriotic. The group that was interested in the monument certainly were, but I think it would have been difficult to raise enough money to have built that size monument for love of the Battle of San Jacinto in the bottom of the recession. Times were tough.
LM: Obviously it wouldn’t have gotten built if it hadn’t been for his influence.
JJ: Yeah. He generally received credit for getting the money for it.
LM: Did you witness any part of its construction?
JJ: Yes, several times when I was here. We had the old local custom of going for Sunday afternoon drives, and we’d drive down to the battleground and look at it. And if the crowd didn’t look too big, we’d stay and have lunch or a meal at the old San Jacinto Inn. We’d go down and watch them put the steel going up. Later when it was pretty well clad with stone but not open yet, I rode one of the construction elevators up to the top and stood out under the star and was terrified of getting blown off. (chuckles) I got back in the skip as fast as I could. (chuckles)
LM: Did you have any contact with Mr. Finn, Jr, when you were out there? Did you manage to talk to him about the construction or anything associated with it?
JJ: Not that I recall. I knew him, knew who he was, but that’s it.
LM: 10:19 Did you attend the dedication ceremonies?
JJ: I think by that time I had gone off to military school. I don’t believe that I was in Houston for the dedication. I don’t recall it. And I’m sure that if I had been there, I would have recalled it.
LM: Are there any aspects about the monument that you recall that might be of value to anyone doing a study on it now that I haven’t asked you already? I’m not talking about your role on the board, because I will talk to you about that, but just the monument itself. I realize you were very young when all this was going on, and you really weren’t involved in it directly.
JJ: I was involved in it neither directly or indirectly, really. I was just a spectator. No. I can’t think of anything. There was a general local feeling of accomplishment that we had it and were getting it. Everybody was looking forward to it. There was some talk about building a big amusement park down next to it and everything else, but that never did take place.
LM: Oh. There was talk of building an amusement park?
JJ: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: Was that a local enterprise that was considered?
JJ: I just remember the talk. I don’t remember where it originated.
LM: As a spectator, what did you think about it?
JJ: I thought it was fine when I thought about it. I didn’t think about it an awful lot. I was in high school or a freshman in college and had my mind really on other things.
LM: Let’s talk about your role on the board. How did that come about?
JJ: Colonel W.B. Bates called me up and asked me if I would serve. At that time I was president and publisher of the Houston Chronicle and was active in the National Bank of Commerce. This is about the time we were putting Channel 13 on the air, trying to get it together. It was just about that time.
LM: 13:11 This was in the—
JJ: Mid ‘50s.
LM: Mid ‘50s?
JJ: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: What were the major concerns for the board at that time?
JJ: Money, how to keep it patched up, how to stop the leaks up, how to get enough money to pay poor old Dorothy Knepper.
LM: And how was she selected?
JJ: She was there when I came. I presume Colonel Bates and some of their group selected her. Dr. Knepper was a professor at the University of Houston, and Dorothy Knepper had credentials as a historian. Maybe she had had a background of museum docentship or trusteeship or something like that—I don’t know—but she was a professional. She worked very hard at it, and she had very little to work with in the way of money. We could provide her with very little staff. This was before Texas Parks Department was merged with the Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission into Texas Parks & Wildlife. The Parks Department didn’t have any money except that which the legislature appropriated and what they got from licenses and fees. So they got a little bit of money to work with, but at that time they were just pretty well broke. The only moneymaking thing we had down there was the elevator. Most of our discussions revolved around whether we could afford to raise the price of the elevator or not. We made a little bit of money off of the souvenir counter, but it was minimal. It paid for itself plus a little bit.
LM: Were there any other sources of income?
JJ: Very little. State appropriations and what we could make off the monument. We primarily had to do it on what we could make from the monument.
LM; Do you recall at all what the state appropriations were?
LM: 15:38 What were your major expenditures? What were your concerns?
JJ: Salaries and repairs. We spent very little on accessions. We depended almost entirely on gifts and grants for that. Occasionally we would have a grant from a foundation or a wealthy individual or something, but they weren’t big dollars; they were small. We’d have to lobby for a long time to get enough money to patch the roof. Our big concerns really were money and personnel and repairs. Everybody—I say everyone—all had plans what we’d like to do, the sort of things we’d like to do with the monument, but it was very, very difficult to get them achieved. We got it air conditioned, and it was hard to keep the air conditioning running. You almost had to have that to preserve the accessions, especially the manuscripts and stuff that’s made out of fabric. I don’t know. The service on the board, that’s what it was principally concerned with was how to keep the museum operating.
LM: You mentioned several times about the need for repairs. The monument wasn’t that old.
JJ: Leaks. That’s primarily what I’m talking about. The pedestal has a big flat roof. There were some leaks there. There was some dampness, water leakage in some of the basement areas. The tower itself in driving rain, it’s soft stone, and you can get some leaks there. We did not have to start pointing it up at that time. I don’t know whether they’ve had to since then or not, repointing the stone work. That part of it was in good shape.
LM: The leaks were apparently a serious problem for you.
JJ: They were at one time. One year we were very much concerned with some leakage. It wasn’t going on all the time. But after we got air conditioning—it wasn’t originally air conditioned—that’s subject to breakdowns and to repair the compressors and things like that.
LM: Were there any ideas or plans to increase the financial base for the museum in this early period?
JJ: There was discussion of it. We didn’t exactly know how to do it.
LM: Were there any ideas that you recall that were thrown around, even if they didn’t get accepted?
JJ: 19:22 They primarily, as I recall, revolved around how to interest the legislature into appropriating a little bit more money. We saw that as the most realistic way to go about it.
LM: But that wasn’t forthcoming.
JJ: Uh-hunh (negative). That wasn’t really forthcoming until the Parks & Wildlife Department was brought together. And Parks & Wildlife does have money, and that’s the vessel into which— I think there’s a penny off of every cigarette package or half a penny or something that goes to it, and all hunting licenses, fishing licenses, oystering permits, things like that go into it. It has sources for funds, and their funds are allocated. Now, in what proportion, I don’t know, but a portion of their funds are allocated to wildlife, and that’s for restocking, for acquisition of game preserves, trying to breed these turtles back so they start breeding on the beaches again, that sort of business. Another part of it is reserved for public parks and the things that they provide. The Parks & Wildlife Department this year bought the old San Jacinto Inn property next to it, and they’ve incorporated that into San Jacinto State Park. I think that was necessary for them to do it because that battleship slip had rather encroached on the San Jacinto Inn property. But they did that, and they have done a lot of improvements down actually at the monument. The monument has a larger board now and really a more energetic one.
LM: How long did you serve?
JJ: I’ve forgotten. It seemed like a long time. The record would show how long I was on it. Through a couple of presidents. It was a small board. I think the one they have now is much more aggressive. I think they have a little bit more to work with too. The Wortham Foundation has made some substantial grants down there and some of the others. Over the years, Houston Endowment has given some money down there for specific purposes like air conditioning and things like that.
LM: When you were on the board, was there a policy for accessing collections? Did you all—
JJ: What do you mean by a policy?
LM: What types of historical collections would be accepted by the museum?
JJ: The subject came up for discussion quite a bit. In its first days, I think they took almost anything. Later, under Dorothy Knepper’s guidance, we became a little bit more—I won’t say choosy, but a little bit more careful in the accessions that we accepted. We liked for them to have a more direct bearing on the history of the area and the locale here and not just any old copper pot.
LM: 23:45 Given the economic constraints, I would imagine that none of the collections were purchased.
JJ: I think a few small ones—not very much—mostly some old books and manuscripts, things of that nature. We purchased a few. We certainly weren’t competing with the University of Texas or anything like that, but we did buy a few things. I know Mrs. Knepper was always very excited when she was able to do it.
LM: Were there special fundraisers for that sort of activity?
JJ: Yeah. Sometimes if you knew somebody on a foundation, you might go ask them to help you. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But I don’t recall any community-wide efforts or anything like that. One of our biggest drawbacks was the fact that we had no organization at that time for something like this. And a big community-wide effort takes an organization. One or two of the trustees had organizations in back of them, but they had no particular expertise in the fundraising field. I can’t think of a worse fundraising field organization than a law firm.
LM: Was the monument a popular attraction during this period? Did it get enough publicity?
JJ: It certainly got a lot of publicity when it was dedicated and all during the centennial. We had a lot of schoolchildren and things like that going down there, busloads of them. They would go down and ride the elevator, go up and look through the telescope and all that stuff. You could see a lot further then too. There was not quite as much haze in the air.
LM: Were there any divergent views on the board, anything that we could look to for determining how policy was made or just different viewpoints on what the museum should be?
JJ: There were divergent views, yes, but they were primarily very gentlemanly discussions. A lot of them were gentlemanly discussions, and there were conclusions. We were pretty concerned at one time— This has nothing to do with what you asked, but it took us over a year to fund the fixing up of a proper office for Dorothy Knepper. She had a little kind of cubbyhole. We wanted to fix her up with a proper office, and we finally did, but it took a long time. We did have a lot of people coming. There were a lot of papers and things like that that were housed down there, and we had a lot of historians and graduate degree candidates and people like that coming down and working with those. We didn’t have a real good place for them to do it, and we didn’t like for them to take anything away with them, so we had to fix up a little table and some chairs for them to use. All of this was done upstairs.
LM: 28:22 One of the things that I had heard about researchers wanting to use the materials in this early period was they really didn’t have access to it. I don’t know if that was a concern for the board or not. I don’t know.
JJ: It was a concern. We wanted the resources to be available, but we very much wanted to protect them. That’s the reason we wouldn’t let them take them away. We had very little proper space, and a lot of times Mrs. Knepper just wouldn’t let them loose.
LM: That’s what I heard.
LM: Did she sort of have a mandate to hold them back?
JJ: She had a mandate from us to protect what she had.
LM: Okay. That’s interesting.
JJ: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: Were you on the board when the Parks Department finally became involved in supporting the—
JJ: No, uh-hunh (negative). I had gone by then.
LM: During the time that you were on the board, what did you feel was perhaps the major accomplishment of the board in getting the museum on the proper operating basis?
JJ: Keeping it open and operating and gradually building up the attendance a little bit. We would advertise when we could get our ads subsidized or get one of the newspapers to give us some free publicity or something like that or get a little free time on one of the TV stations or radio stations or get some PSA time. We’d get a little bit that way. And of course on holidays and in summers— The attendance is extremely cyclical. It’s pretty high in the summer and in the dead of winter, unless it’s a holiday or something like that, very low.
LM: Let me just turn the tape here.
[end of 425_01] 31:11
LM: [beginning of 425_02] 00:05 Side two. I guess one of the things I’m surprised about is that there was such a difficult time raising money for the monument. It had been a popular undertaking.
JJ: Quite popular. But it requires a pretty good deal of money just to keep it open and operating—to pay the light bill. You have to have a couple of maintenance men, you have to have someone to operate the souvenir counter, you’ve got to have an elevator maintenance contract, had to have a manager, she had to have a secretary, and you needed at least one or two people to work with the accessions and things of that nature. And before you know it, you’ve got a payroll. The utilities—telephone wasn’t too much, but the electricity was quite a bit. We just had a big budget which we had to meet, and our every effort was bent toward keeping that elevator running.
LM: Mechanically did it function well?
JJ: Yeah. It would break down occasionally, but it worked pretty well. The elevator people had a contract with us, and they’d come out and work it over. We were very careful that that elevator should be in good repair at all times. That would be a long drop.
LM: Uh-hunh (affirmative). Oh. We had been talking about collections, and I forgot to ask you about the Hill Collection. Was that acquired while you were on the board there?
JJ: As best to my recollection, it came in in several chunks. Part of it was already there, and there were several other contributions from the Hill family over the years while I was there, and I think there have even been some since I left. They’ve been very dedicated to the monument and museum.
LM: 02:37 Uh-hunh (affirmative). That’s what I’ve heard. Were they approached about donating the collection, or did they voluntarily do this?
JJ: I think one of them was a trustee. I believe it was George. You didn’t have to approach them; they were there.
LM: Yeah, right. Are there any other thoughts you have about your role on the board?
JJ: In fact, George Hill was president part of the time I was there. Any other recollections?
LM: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
JJ: No. We generally met in the Second National Bank building in one of the meeting rooms. Colonel Bates was its chairman, so we met there. Nothing stands out. It was a very small group of, I’d say, very dedicated people, people doing everything they could. I excuse myself from that. I think I was on there primarily because of Jesse Jones’s work in getting the monument originally established; that and the fact that I was publisher of the Chronicle and just the family connection with the project. But the Hills and Colonel Bates were very dedicated to the museum as was Dorothy Knepper. She had more problems and more troubles and everything else than anyone possible, but she worked hard. Sometimes I think she worked against herself, but she worked hard.
LM: How’d she do that, do you think?
JJ: I’d say she put so much of herself into it, sometimes she might have rubbed people the wrong way.
LM: Board members?
JJ: She was a very positive woman.
LM: Rubbed some of the board members the wrong way?
JJ: (chuckles) I won’t go that far, no.
LM: Were you on the board when the decision was made for the placement of the battleship Texas there?
JJ: 05:42 Yes, but I don’t think we had a thing in the world to do with that. The museum didn’t have anything to do with that. I think the park did that.
LM: I meant your reaction to it. Was it something that you thought was positive?
JJ: Oh, it’s fine. Anything to bring people down there, and certainly the battleship brings a lot of people. So I thought it was fine. I’m surprised it floated as long as it did. (chuckles)
LM: Well, sir, if you have nothing more to add at this point, I think we will—
JJ: I’ll only add one thing. Good luck.
LM: Thank you very much. (chuckles) It’s been nice talking with you, and I appreciate the time you’ve given.
JJ: I wish I could have told you more, but frankly, I just wasn’t that tied into it at the inception.
[end of 425_02] 06:44