This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Even though a governor once introduced him as a native son, Conrad Nicholson Hilton was born at San Antonio, New Mexico not San Antonio, Texas on Christmas Day 1887. But like so many naturalized Texans, he got here just as soon as he could.
When Hilton stepped off the train at Cisco in 1919 at the peak of the post-World War I oil boom, he was looking for a bank to buy. The ex-lieutenant found one to his liking and wired the absentee owner to let him know that he was prepared to meet his asking price. Hilton called the whole thing off, however, after the banker got greedy and tried to squeeze an extra $5,000 out of him.
Next on the weary traveler’s agenda was a good night’s sleep, and right across the street from the telegraph office was a two-story hotel called the Mobley. He was elbowing his way through the jam-packed lobby, when the desk clerk shouted, “Full up!”
A gray-headed bouncer, who was herding the surly crowd out the front door, spied Hilton propped against a pillar. “Sorry, fella, but we don’t allow loitering in the lobby. Come back in eight hours when we turn this lot loose.”
After the kind of day he had had, Hilton was ready to give the man a piece of his mind when the offhand remark finally registered. “You mean you let them sleep eight hours and then get a complete turnover?”
“That’s the idea,” the proprietor answered with a strong dose of sarcasm. “Three times every 24 hours, day in and day out. Every nickel I’ve got is sunk in this glorified boarding house when I ought to be out there in the oilfield making real money.”
That conversation changed Connie Hilton’s life, despite the fact that his innkeeping experience was limited to the drummers his father had allowed to bed down in the family general store. Money changed hands, papers were signed and he was in the hotel business.
Hilton had a full house around the clock. He and L.M. Drown, his trusted right-hand man, took turns catnapping in the office because they even rented their own beds.
“The Mobley in Cisco, my first love, was a great lady,” Hilton reminisced in his 1957 autobiography Be My Guest.” Very early in his new career, he developed the two cardinal principles that guided him the rest of his extraordinarily successful life.
Grasping the essential fact that “the profit was in beds,” Hilton brought in “carpenters to close the dining room and split it with partitions, just enough space for a bed and a dresser.” He also cut the main desk in half and installed a newsstand. “I decided then and there that the trick to packing a box is to pack a full box.”
Hilton’s second concept concerned employee morale. “I know something else that would make us a better hotel,” he told Drown. “Esprit de corps.”
To show what he meant, Hilton assembled the staff for a pep talk. “You’re the only ones who can give smiling service. Clean rooms, spotless halls, plenty of fresh soap and linen. Ninety per cent of the Mobley’s reputation is in your hands. You get steady jobs, good money and pay raises if Cisco means the Mobley to travelers.”
Hilton left the Mobley in Drown’s capable hands, recruited a “working partner” by the name of Major Jay C. Powers and set about forging the second link in his chain. Powers found the Melba, a 68-room bargain with a Fort Worth address, which his boss called “our dowdiest dowager.”
But elbow grease and fresh paint worked wonders, and the Melba was packing them in by the time Hilton discovered a diamond in the rough in downtown Dallas. Connie ran the 200-room Waldorf until Bill Irwin, his best army buddy, arrived from California.
Powers called from Fort Worth one day with news that he had uncovered a second promising property and a well-heeled backer to boot. The Terminal proved to be another money-maker, but D.E. Soderman was trouble with a capital T.
A couple of drinks transformed the mild-mannered investor into a paranoid maniac. He made life miserable for poor Powers accusing him of stealing his money and his wife.
Soderman walked into the Big D Waldorf in April 1922 and summoned his imaginary nemesis to the lobby on the house phone. When the elevator doors opened, he shot Jay C. Powers in the head killing him instantly. A misguided jury took pity on the homicidal drunk and gave him five years on a reduced charge of manslaughter.
A million-dollar dream came true in August 1925 with the splashy opening of the Dallas Hilton. Four years later, Abilene, Waco, San Angelo and Lubbock had one, too. The El Paso Hilton, eighth link in the Texas chain, welcomed its first guest three weeks before the stock market crashed in 1929.
Conrad Hilton nearly went under during the Depression but survived to play host to the world. Before his death in 1979, he owned 188 hotels in 38 states and 54 more around the globe.
And it all started with the Mobley in Cisco, Texas.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.