San Antonio, 1883
What does Conrad Hilton have in common with Bosque Del Apache?
Photo Credit: gonorway.com
A few years ago a Texas governor bragged that there’s only one San Antonio. He was wrong. There are two, both founded around the same time. One prospered while the other eventually withered and nearly died. If not for migrating birds at Bosque Del Apache, its old adobe homes and buildings would have been reclaimed by the desert, and the story of one immigrant would have been lost in the dusty pages of history.
Augustus Hilton left Norway’s long winters intending to make his fortune in America. He never could’ve imagined spending his life in a small, dusty village surrounded by Spanish neighbors and bedeviled by Apache raiders.
He spent the first couple of years in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he learned English then fell madly in love with Mary Laufersweiler. Her father, unwilling to part with his daughter, convinced Gus that no job in Fort Dodge would ever pay enough to provide for a wife and children. When Gus left for San Antonio, New Mexico Territory in 1882, Mr. Laufersweiler undoubtedly thought he had seen the last of the pesky young immigrant. Anyway, marriage was out of the question. Her family was staunchly Catholic and the young man was not.
Gus was a big, robust Viking with a handlebar moustache, big hands and feet. At six feet, he towered over his Spanish neighbors. After renting a two-room adobe house he opened a small store in the front room and proceeded to learn Spanish.
San Antonio, 11 miles south of Socorro, was at that time a bustling village. The Santa Fe Railroad arrived two years earlier. Twice a day, trains stopped at the little depot, bringing in supplies for the store, often picking up furs Gus bought from trappers up in the hills.
He had one peculiarity his neighbors never understood. He loved work, seven days a week. Seven o’clock was mid-day in his mind and a 40-hour work week would have shocked him as much as hearing that churches planned to close businesses on Sundays. The copper mines were still active at Carthage just east of town, and on Sunday their employees came in for church and to pick up supplies at Gus’ store.
His spare time was spent writing letters to Mary, concentrating on the beauty of the land and mountains, the sky at sunrise and sunset, and the friendly (Catholic) neighbors. Her letters occasionally mentioned her father’s continuing fear about “that God-forsaken country where Indians still raid.”
Fortunately, Gus never wrote about the time he and six others formed a search party when four local men failed to return from a deer hunt. His party was attacked by Apaches; only he and two others survived. The missing hunters were never found.
Meanwhile, he built a proper store building with a kitchen/parlor combination and a bedroom in the back. Business was so good that he sent to Norway for his young cousin Holm Bursum to help him.
During a casual conversation with the local priest, the topic of romance came up. The priest suggested the young man write Mary’s father, assuring him the children would be reared Catholic. Two months later, a letter arrived from her father expressing relief that Gus had guessed the reason for his reluctance, and he gave permission for the marriage.
On February 22, 1885, the young couple married in Fort Dodge, honeymooned in New Orleans and then came home. Daughter Felice was born the following year, son, Conrad Nicholas Hilton, was born Christmas Day, 1887. Six more children would follow. Fortunately, Gus’s business grew even more rapidly than his family.
Connie, along with his siblings, worked with their father, were educated in local public schools, spoke Spanish as fluently as English and learned to dance at local bailes.
Throughout his life, Connie danced like a pro as long as the musicians played. He was deeply religious and attended mass almost every day of his life.
The hotel business was an accident. In 1919 he attempted to buy a bank in the booming oil town of Cisco, Texas. He stayed with friends because all the hotels were filled with workers from the oil fields. The old Mobley hotel, a derelict, was so busy with shift workers that some rooms changed hands three times a day. After the bank deal fell through he bought the Mobley, and with the money left over he leased or bought other hotels in Texas. Financing always included friends who shared his foresight.
His first high rise hotel was built in Dallas in 1925, the same year he married Mary Barron.
They divorced in 1934, the same year he built the Albuquerque Hilton Hotel, his first hotel outside of Texas.
Their marriage produced three boys, each very different from one another. Nicky, the eldest reveled in his good looks, quick wit and fortune. Once, his father asked why he spent more money on a suit than Connie ever did. The teen replied, “Well, you didn’t have a rich daddy.” He drank to excess, his brief marriage to Elizabeth Taylor ended in divorce and he died at 39. Barron, a year younger, kept meticulous records of every dime spent, married young, and had eight children. Eric also enjoyed money, kept track of expenditures, married and had four children. Both surviving sons rose up through the ranks at Hilton Hotels.
Every man enjoys telling stories of his past and Connie was no different. He told how he got his start, how he almost lost it all during the Depression when he was down to his last thirty cents and his first hotel was about to be foreclosed. One of the bellboys handed over his life savings of $350.00.
Several of his hotels were foreclosed during the Depression but he persuaded the banks to keep him on as manager and as times got better he bought them back one by one. By the late 1940s that bellboy was a millionaire.
In 1942 Connie shocked everyone when he married a second time. The bride was Zsa Zsa Gabor. Her obsession with image and publicity, plus her insatiable spending on jewels, clothing, make-up and other frills of stardom spelled mismatch to everyone but Connie. As a Catholic, he couldn’t take communion and that wounded him to no end. To no one’s surprise, it ended in divorce in early 1947. The marriage produced one child, daughter Constance Francesca Hilton, born March 10, 1947. Tongues wagged at the time and gossip magazines sold out.
(Curiously, his autobiography tells of the marriage to Zsa Zsa and the divorce, but never mentions Franesca. In his will he left her $10,000; a token. Nothing like the amounts he left his most menial employees.)
One of the bankers who financed him on many deals was lifelong friend Sam Young, President of El Paso National Bank, who put a lot of his own money into Connie’s first properties, and the relationship continued until Sam’s death. Their friendship wasn’t always smooth. One meeting lasted for hours while they hammered out details late into the night. Restaurants were closed so they decided to go to Juarez for dinner. The discussion got so heated in the elevator that they threw off their jackets and slugged it out on the deserted sidewalk in front of the bank.
By the 1960s Hilton Hotels were international. He owned or controlled more hotels than any other person or organization in the world. Old friends in New Mexico couldn’t believe he owned hotels from San Francisco’s Drake to Chicago’s Palmer House and New York’s Waldorf Astoria because he never changed.
Once, when seated beside his elderly mother at a grand opening they were served iced vichyssoise. He asked if she liked it. She pointed out that it was just chilled potato soup. He told the story often to remind himself and others of his simple beginnings.
Mary Hilton, his first wife died in 1966 freeing Connie to marry in the Church, but he refrained until 1976 when he married Mary Frances Kelly. He died of natural causes three years later and is buried in Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery, in Dallas, Texas.
San Antonio is a thriving community today whose stores, restaurants and B&Bs cater to tourists from around the world. It’s all thanks to the wildlife preserve at Bosque Del Apache, named for those same Apaches who could have killed August H. Hilton long before Connie was a glimmer in his father’s eye.