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Friday, June 8, 2012

Free State of Galveston

 Free State of Galveston (sometimes referred to as the Republic of Galveston Island) was a whimsical name given to the island city of Galveston in the U.S. state of Texas during the early-to-mid-20th century. Today, the term is sometimes used to describe the culture and history of that era. This free-wheeling period reached its peak during the Prohibition and Depression eras but continued well past the end of World War II.

During the Roaring Twenties, Galveston Island emerged as a popular resort town, attracting celebrities from around the country. Gambling, illegal liquor, and other vice-oriented businesses were a major part of tourism. The Free State moniker embodied a belief held by many locals that Galveston was beyond what they perceived were repressive mores and laws of Texas and the United States. Two major figures of the era were the organized-crime bosses Sam and Rosario Maceo, who ran the chief casinos and clubs on the island and were heavily involved in the government and the tourism industry. The success of vice on the island, despite being illegal, was enabled by lax attitudes in the society and the government, both on the island and in the county. In one of the more famous examples of this, a state committee, investigating gambling at the famed Balinese Room, was told by the local sheriff that he had not raided the establishment because it was a "private club" and because he was not a "member".

Much of this period represented a high point in Galveston's economy. It is sometimes referred to as the "open era" or the "wide-open era" because the business owners and the community made little effort to hide the illegal vice activities. The tourist industry spawned by the illegal businesses helped to offset Galveston's decline as a commercial and shipping center following a devastating hurricane in 1900. However, crackdowns against gambling and prostitution in Texas during the mid-20th century made these businesses increasingly difficult to sustain. By the 1950s, this era of Galveston's history had ended.


Like much of the country, and particularly Texas, Galveston boomed in the 1920s. Even the Great Depression did not stop Galveston's run of prosperity. Despite the financial ruin that faced much of the country during the Depression, not a single Galveston bank failed and unemployment was almost unheard of.Key business sectors in Galveston during the Free State era were casinos and prostitution, in addition to many legitimate businesses. During much of the period, the vice industries provided the majority of employment. Two families held particular prominence on the island during this era: the Moodys controlled the largest legitimate interests, and the Maceos controlled the largest criminal enterprises. Both families were wealthy with business empires that extended beyond the island.
Legitimate businesses
A stately white hotel building with a red-tile roof is seen from the end of a jetty extending from the beach.
The Hotel Galvez

As the island rebuilt from the 1900 storm, legitimate business interests attempted to expand the economy by rebuilding tourism and further diversifying from shipping. Important non-entertainment businesses included insurance, hotels, banks, shipping, and commercial fishing. The medical and nursing schools, as well as the hospitals of the University of Texas Medical Branch were a stable sector on the island throughout the 20th century.The Moody family built one of the largest hotel empires in the U.S., and their American National Insurance Company (ANICO) was so successful that it actually grew—tremendously—during the Depression.
In the entertainment sector various ploys were used to attract tourists. In 1920 an annual beauty contest, named the Pageant of Pulchritude in 1926, was started in Galveston by C.E. Barfield, manager of a local amusement park owned by the Maceos. The contest was part of Splash Day, the kick-off of the summer tourist season each year, and became the first international beauty contest, attracting participants from England, Russia, Turkey, and many other nations until its demise in 1932. This contest is said to have served as a model for the modern Miss America pageant and others.At its height the pageant tripled the island's population the weekend it ran. Even after the international contest's closing, Splash Day was revived in various forms and continued to attract tourists. Other annual events included an extravagant Mardi Gras celebration in spring
Much of Galveston's success as a tourist destination was the result of E. Sid Holliday, who became the publicity and convention director of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce in 1925 and later became its head. The Chamber helped promote the legitimate face of Galveston's tourism and business community (though it cooperated heavily with the criminal enterprises). Legitimate amusements such as a giant Ferris wheel and a roller coaster, in addition to the beaches and up-scale shopping districts (notably the Strand) drew visitors, including those less interested in the city's illegal attractions.One of the most spectacular efforts by the Chamber, though not one of the city's greatest successes, was the Pleasure Pier (originally known as the Brantly Harris Recreational Pier). This huge pier (later converted to the Flagship Hotel), built in the 1940s and used by the military until the end of the war, featured restaurants, rides, and an amphitheater.

A significant contributor to the economy up through the 1940s was the military.Fort Crockett, the Army Air Base at Scholes Field, the Navy Section Base on Pelican Island, Camp Wallace and the blimp base at Hitchcock all helped pump money into the local economy, as did military shipments at the port and shipbuilding. The soldiers and sailors were a steady stream of customers for area businesses.
Vice businesses
A long building built on a narrow pier extending out from the beach to the ocean.
The Balinese Room, once the premier restaurant and casino of the wide-open era

Casinos offering illegal gambling and drinking were the largest tourist draws on the island. Though the Maceos operated the island's biggest casinos, they generally were very tolerant of competing clubs and casinos, provided their owners understood and respected the Maceos' authority. By the 1930s Seawall Boulevard was filled with lavish casinos; other areas of town also had pockets of gambling. The red-light district, centered on Postoffice Street and kept entirely separate from the nightclubs and other entertainment venues, was so successful that the island for a time had the highest concentration of prostitutes in the world. The financial success of these vice industries attracted mobsters such as New York's Albert Anastasia and Chicago's Al Capone, who tried to enter Galveston's market without success. Capone's enforcer Frank Nitti, in fact, had been a former partner of the Galveston Downtown Gang leader Jack Nounes before the Maceo era.

Galveston became a major port of entry for illegal liquor from Mexico and Canada,shipped through the Caribbean and distributed from the island throughout Texas and to other destinations. Galveston became the primary supplier for Houston, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis and Omaha. This traffic helped to offset the gradual loss of shipping traffic in the cotton and sulfur trade.

The major legitimate businesses on the island, such as banking and hotels, were able to thrive in large part because of the illegal activities. Though many of these business leaders steered clear of direct involvement in the business affairs of the Maceos and the gangs, their relationships were hardly antagonistic. Some, such as financier, hotelier, and insurance executive William Lewis Moody, Jr., actually welcomed illegal gambling because it brought tourists who filled up his hotels. He was even known to make loans to the Maceos' syndicate.

The Free State economy was not confined simply to the island but extended through much of Galveston County. Throughout the county there were substantial casino operations developed by the Fertitta, Salvato and Maceo families, including the casino districts in Kemah (featuring the Chili Bowl and White House casinos among others) and Dickinson (featuring the Silver Moon and the Dickinson Social Club).Houstonians often humorously referred to the Galveston County line as the "Maceo-Dickinson line" (a pun referring to the Mason-Dixon line).

The vice activities on the island and in the county were not unique in Texas. San Antonio had perhaps the second most infamous red-light district in the early 20th century and most major cities in the state had significant vice activities at least until mid-century. During the Open Era Galveston's vice industries dominated, while most other areas of the state were at times forced to crack down on vice due to public pressure.
A large red-brick building with an archway at the entrance.
The State Theater (now called the Grand Opera House), a major vaudeville stage of the era

The city's permissive attitude was not confined to gangs, politicians and elite businessmen. The citizenry in general took pride in the traditional Galveston approach to freedom. A notable example of this occurred at a political rally where one candidate openly blasted the "hoodlums" running illegal activities. His opponent then addressed the crowd as "my fellow hoodlums", which helped guarantee his victory in the election. Even decades later in 1993 when Vic C. Maceo, cousin of Sam and Rose, opened fire on a local who he believed owed him money, the incident was viewed by many in the community with nostalgia recalling the Free State era.

Though other parts of Texas and the United States sometimes tolerated prostitution, gambling and violations of liquor laws (e.g. Dallas is said to have had 27 casinos and numerous brothels during World War II), these communities usually at least made a pretense of trying to enforce vice laws. In Galveston, vice was conducted openly; according to a 1993 Texas Monthly article by author Gary Cartwright, "Galveston's red-light district may have been the only one in the country that thrived with the blessings of both city hall and the Catholic church.
High society in the city regularly attracted some of the biggest names in the entertainment business, from Frank Sinatra to Phil Harris. The clubs were regularly visited by famous Houstonians such as Howard Hughes, Diamond Jim West, and Glenn McCarthy.“     Galveston's red-light district may have been the only one in the country that thrived with the blessings of both city hall and the Catholic church.     ”

—Gary Cartwright, Texas Monthly (June 1993)

Galveston's attitudes toward race were at times unique in the region. The strict segregationalist attitudes prevalent in many parts of the U.S. were not always as stark in Galveston's society as in some other parts of Texas. One of the most striking examples of this was the gradual establishment of biracial labor unions of waterfront workers beginning in the 19th century, although eventually this alliance fell victim to segregationist influence. Racist ideology was always an ever-present factor in the city, however, as evinced by the name of the group which ran the Mardi Gras, the Kotton Karnival Kids (KKK, the same initials as the Ku Klux Klan).

The city had numerous venues for the arts, including the State Theater (today the Grand Opera House), which featured vaudeville acts in addition to motion pictures. Less formally, entertainment could be found at the Balinese Room, Hollywood Dinner Club, and other clubs featuring musical performances by major entertainers. Additionally for many years the city held free concerts on the beach by major orchestras and other performers. The entertainment venues regularly attracted some of the biggest names in the entertainment business, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Guy Lombardo, Jack Benny, Gene Autry, Phil Silvers, Jane Russell, George Burns, Duke Ellington, and Bob Hope.

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