The Shirley Hotel
by Donald H. Dyal
That it can be said, even thought, that any collection of stories about Texas A&M that doesn't include student life merits more than a polite nod flirts with - nay, waltzes in the sweaty embrace of - heresy. Students, past and present, are the sine qua non of Texas A&M. That is true, and, it is hoped, always will be. But an oft-ignored role in shaping the destiny and progress of any educational institution is also played by the faculty. These pedagogical stalwarts also lived at A&M and in the years before World War I, those lives centered around the Shirley Hotel and its associated Faculty Club.
At the turn of the century, what later became Texas A&M University was more desolate than quaint or picturesque. A new faculty member arriving in the first decades of this century would have stepped off the Houston and Texas Central train at the west entrance to campus - then the main entrance. Once the dust and smoke subsided, the new faculty member would have first seen the flag pole and Old Main; the latter an imposing old pile of bricks, which would burn in 1912, incinerating, among other things, the college library. Boots kicking dust, the sun sparing nothing - the physical features of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas were markedly different than those known today. Dust or glutinous, clinging mud (sometimes, incredibly, both), no paved streets, students living in tent cities, a few scrubby little trees and outhouses seemed to be the predominant first impression of early visitors. It was interesting, if you had been very bad and wanted to see what the afterlife would be like.
From 1906 until World War I, A&M reveled in a growth mode spurred by the original endowment, the Hatch Act of 1888, and new funds provided by the Adams Act of 1906 and the Nelson Act of 1907. The College burst with new energy, new students (who had to live in tents because of a dearth of dormitory space) and significantly, new faculty. These eager young men signed on for the magnificent salary of $600 and the limitations resulting from insufficient housing for faculty. Housing options did not exist in Bryan - down a rutted dirt trail five miles away. On a salary of $600 with no ready transportation, it might as well have been 50 miles. This shortage of affordable faculty housing prompted some startling initiatives. The old Bachelor Hall Club, an earlier faculty club, was rechartered as the A. and M. College Club and petitioned the College for permission to build a hotel and boarding house on the campus. The hotel would alleviate the housing shortage and serve as a social and entertainment nucleus for faculty members and guests on campus. The name of the new facility was chosen with a drawing from names submitted by club members. Little Shirley Lomax, the daughter of Professor John A. Lomax of the English Department, was the lucky name and thus was born the Shirley Hotel. The Shirley itself, a large frame structure with a classic columned front, was built in 1906 and owned and operated as a private corporation by faculty members until 1922 at which time the Faculty Club disbanded. The Shirley was not only privately owned, but privately constructed. Faculty members and cadets worked together to build the hotel, primarily out of a need to shave construction costs. While the quality of labor may not have been optimal, the price was right and a handsome and functional building resulted.
The ground floor consisted of a large lobby or entrance hall, a big dining room (which doubled as a dance floor for bachelor members on Saturday nights), and a commodious kitchen. Upstairs, several rooms and apartments served as living quarters for bachelors as well as married faculty members. Dr. and Mrs. J.O. Morgan lived upstairs in 1912 until other faculty housing became available, and Coach Charlie Moran lived upstairs with his family for a time. The Shirley Annex added yet more housing for faculty in 1910. Located just north of the hotel, it provided additional accommodations for around 50 bachelors.
The meals in the Shirley received general praise. Mrs. Charles B. Stilwell and her daughter, Mrs. Asa J. Neff commanded the kitchen. Cadets served as waiters. The cuisine differed from what one would find in a late 20th century establishment. For one thing, Mrs. Stilwell would brook no criticism from the faculty - either of the fare or the service - and this despite the presiding presence of such local luminaries as Robert Franklin Smith, Charles Puryear, Chaplain Isaac Alexander, and others. Staple foods ruled at the table; the faculty was disinclined to explore gastronomic frontiers. Slabs of locally-churned butter graced the tables in lieu of the present-day tasteless vegetable oil replicas. Quantity was more prized than quality, and the carnage of the faculty's plates spoke more eloquently to Mrs. Stilwell than a mumbled "thank you."
The Club invested heavily in its own interests. Oscar M. Ball presided during this period and the Executive Committee met regularly to discuss the affairs of the group. Committees organized themselves to do maintenance, establish rules and polices, and to govern the Club and the Shirley. Skimming through the minutes of the Executive Committee reveals insights into a vanished world.
For example, in 1906, horsepower amounted to nothing more complex than four legs, one nose bag, and exhaust emissions that worked wonders for the vegetable patch. Today, the horse is a luxury - an object of leisure. In 1906, the horse represented expense, backwardness, and filth. Liberal-thinking individuals thought in terms of automobiles. That era's automobiles, however, had all the excitement and style of today's washing machines. But to the young bachelors at the Shirley, the auto was a marvel of forward-thinking. Driving an auto the five miles into Bryan transformed its occupants into instant chugging, rattling adventurers. The automobile was a guaranteed crowd-pulling status symbol, which would instantly convert faculty swains into the objects of cautious "Huzzah!" by more than one of the Bryan beauties. All of this despite the fact that early 20th-century cars rode like a rock slide, steered with bicep-building effort, and exhibited about as much technological sophistication as breakfast cereal. Compared to the Club's horse and buggy, however, the automobile was social and motive progress. As the Club's automobile report relates: "The automobile is up-to-date. The horse is a back number." While isolated at a college whose image, at that time, bordered on invisibility, the faculty was not an assemblage of leftover Luddites from the 19th century baying hysterically at change - rather they were progressive, forward-thinking men who longed for improvement.
Lest too much be made of the effort to obtain a club automobile, note rule number seven of the tentative rules for using the auto: "Whenever a member is fined for running over pedestrians, the amount shall be assessed against the Club, as a whole." Certainly a provocative rule that conjures up disturbing mental images. Motoring on rutted cowpaths (or down the railroad line - another popular auto route) dodging cows, chickens, lumbering wagons, trains, caroming off trees and withal flattening a pedestrian or two, would seem an experience akin to the Baja 1000 in the Twilight Zone. Strong men quaver at the notion of such travel. Mothers clutch their children. Prayer beads are fingered. Visions of smoking wrecks, mangled chickens and poor unfortunates with "Goodyear" indelibly impressed diagonally across their bodies flash through mortal minds. It all seems a little reminiscent of the last race scene from On the Beach.
The Faculty Club's plan to purchase an automobile for travel to Bryan was a great idea, but it was slain decisively by two realities: the purchase price of $2,500 lay beyond the resources of a club whose members' individual salaries averaged less than half of the purchase price and secondly, 1910 saw the construction of an interurban line from Bryan to the College. The trolley tracks ran down the street in front of the Shirley and at the Bryan terminus, right downtown. One-way fare was 10 cents; round trip 15 cents. No automobile could compete with those prices.
The Club also attempted to police its members hygienically as well. The minutes reflect the purchase of cuspidors for the Shirley (one for the bathroom, also) and stern resolutions about hosing out the tub, keeping the rooms tidy, and admonishments to the faculty about not wandering about the halls in shirt tails. A particularly intriguing committee received a charge to deliberate and then decide "what articles could be left in the bathroom." Unfortunately, after a diligent search, that committee's report seems to not have survived.
In the years after 1906, the number of faculty members and instructors grew significantly. Many, if not most of them, were very young - not much older than the students they taught. Some had left home or other institutions, choking on prudence and rectitude, clawing their collars for air. The Shirley and the Annex often presented a demeanor not unlike an undergraduate dormitory. The professorate was a small, intimate group - everyone knew everyone else and there seemed to be few concerns about creeping adulthood among these instructors. Much of the young faculty's friskiness was owed to what a tax accountant might discreetly call a liquidity problem - that is, they had no money. In the days before television erased imagination, entertainment was a matter of invention. In one archival reminiscence, Marmaduke Thornton described his early chemical research - an attempt at replicating a "concentrated extract of [skunk] ammunition." While not completely successful, his experiments raised quite a stink on campus in 1911. The experimentation ceased, however, when some students found out about it, took the potion and "put it to some very uncomfortable usage." Not all pranks were done with such bracing ingenuity, however. For example, many of the younger faculty members' wardrobes were based on scripture: "Take no thought for what ye shall wear..." Most young faculty members only had two pairs of pants - the one at the laundry and the one they were wearing. It was thought to be great sport to steal a man's pants just before class or a dance. These cheerful sadists did other, more nefarious deeds, also. In the Fall of 1912, the faculty put together an intramural football team. With it they challenged the cadet companies to a series of games on the drill field. Excited students eagerly accepted; they thought it would be a good way to get even for some of the grades they had received. What the students did not know, however, was that the faculty team had some ringers; an All-American from Cornell, an All-Missouri Valley from Iowa, an All-Southern from South Carolina. In other words, the faculty team (there were 11 of them) was experienced in football. Company C, the first cadet company team challenged, swaggered onto the drill field muttering imprecations about the professors. By the end of the game, 15 men from Company C were in the hospital. The faculty 11 were unscathed. The faculty next played the band team. Same business. Some of the students who were still ambulatory began to get wise and the faculty team languished with no takers.
The search for entertainment took other bizarre twists that strike modern Aggies as ill-conceived, at best. While the older bachelors would relax after supper with a congenial game of bridge (which they called whist), the younger professors needed something that released oceans of adrenaline. They found it in boxing. Boxing today is broken down into classes: Light Flyweight, Flyweight, Bantamweight, Featherweight, Lightweight, Light Welterweight, Welterweight, Light Middleweight, Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, and Heavyweight. These sorts of gradations based upon size - therefore "fairness" - are more than common; they are baked into modern living. Not so with earlier generations. Such elaborate distinctions would seem sissy to many of our forebears.
Just about every night in the years before World War I, the faculty organized a boxing match either outside or in the Shirley Annex. There were some memorable bouts - like the time some non-boxer challenged Ed Hanlan. The fight was over after one punch; but Hanlan's opponent did regain consciousness in time for his morning lab the next day. One memorable fight occurred when Don Griswold, professor of animal husbandry, hit Cy (C.M.) Evans on the chin and knocked him over a trunk against the wall. Evans, out cold and tightly wedged between the trunk and wall, could not be rescued until his colleagues took part of the wall apart. Another frolic was to get Coach Charlie Moran mad. Moran was only an average boxer, but aggressive. Apparently, it was more than a little amusing to "wrap one around [Moran's] ear and then to watch him blow a fuse."
While Faculty fisticuffs undoubtedly seem a little radical today, it probably diminished certain departmental rivalries and pointless turf battles. For that reason alone it might be interesting to revive the practice - except that the idea of modern-day faculty pulling some of these stunts is no more likely than pigs nesting in palm trees (to paraphrase Phil Llewellin).
Without a doubt the most popular form of entertainment among the bachelors was the dances at the Shirley Hotel. From 1906 until 1912, almost every Saturday night found some form of orchestra in the Shirley providing music for a dance. The dances continued after 1912 but in the new gymnasium - built by donated labor and money from students and faculty (there seemed to be a lot of that going on then). Orchestras cost money, and the faculty would pass the hat to get enough to hire the musicians. When money was tight, the bachelors hired a fiddle player from Harry Jerkin's saloon in Bryan for $5. He was popular not only for his reasonable price and musical ability, but "Duke" Thornton said the musician also had the advantage of a big right foot, which he loudly thumped while playing; it took the place of a drum and helped the dancers keep time while they danced.
The pranks and other general assaults on the public decency that peppered daily life were conspicuously absent from the dances. For lonely bachelors, these dances were serious business. A bachelor might have a date with a Bryan girl for the dance, but all the dances were program dances. That is, the men and the women would obtain dance cards and fill in the names of partners. Some of these survive in the Archives. Good dancers and otherwise popular beaux filled their program cards in short order. But some of the faculty - especially those who looked like sturdy flannel-wrapped cedars potted in brogans - had serious vacancies in their program cards.
The bachelors with dates would walk the five miles into Bryan, pick up their young women, walk them down to the trolley line, and take the trolley out to the Shirley. At 11:30 p.m. when the dance ended, they would find their dates again, take them back to Bryan on the trolley, walk them home, and then walk another five miles back to campus, arriving about 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Sounds arduous to late 20th century ears, but as one faculty member from the period expressed it: "After having danced with a beautiful lady, you could walk 10 miles."
Some administrative histories are really not about the institution at all; instead, the author used paper as marble, wielded pen like chisel, and erected a monument to the institution. It is important to remember that Texas A&M University was populated from the beginning and throughout its history with humans and especially with male humans (even the stenographers were male) who had personalities, foibles, and who devised their own entertainment, found cures for their own boredom, and engineered progress with the means at hand.
Reprinted from Keepsake no. 19, Friends of the Sterling C. Evans Library, 1990