South San Antonio, Tx – A story almost unwritten

Around 2010, a reporter from The San Antonio Express News contacted Mrs. Frank (Jency) Runnels, (my mother-in-law), requesting an interview in the hopes of writing a story about old South San Antonio. Because Mrs. Runnels was the oldest resident living in the area (age 98 at that time) and also the resident who had lived in the area the longest, naturally, she could have provided a wealth of information. The reporter made the mistake, however, of addressing Mrs. Runnels as such, i.e., “the oldest resident in South San.” Taking exception to that characterization, and to the chagrin of her family members, Mrs. Runnels hung up on the unsuspecting reporter. Alas, no such story was written.
However, I was privileged to have been able to document many stories that Jency Runnels, who was born in July of 1912 and died in April of 2014, related of growing up and living in old South San for 90 years! So, the point of this article is not to write about the lady herself; rather, to write about the community as it was in her youth and as it became later.
South San Antonio, once an incorporated city, is located about five miles southwest of downtown San Antonio. Around the year 1916, a Charles Fowler promoted this area as a town site. A post office was established in 1919, and the population at that time had reached approximately 700. South San Antonio was a station on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, and in the 1920s and ’30s, nearby Duncan Field brought in a lot of employees, many of whom lived in the area. By 1930, the suburban center – not including many of South San’s residents who lived and farmed rural – had a population of some 3,800. The township was incorporated into San Antonio in 1944.
The McMurrey family, of which Jency was the older of two girls, settled in South San Antonio in 1924, relocating there from Charlotte, where farming had proved inadequate for raising a family. The McMurreys purchased a new, three-room house a block off of Main Avenue (later to be renamed Dwight and even later, Southcross). This attractive, modest home had a formal living and dining room, a kitchen with a walk-in pantry, one bedroom, and a porch. The girls slept on a double bed on the porch, which had a back door and screens with a tarp that pulled down in cold or bad weather. Between the porch and bedroom was a tiny bathroom.
House lots were much larger in those days with only a smattering of houses on any given block off the main street. As such, most people had gardens and livestock. Accordingly, Mr. McMurrey kept two milk cows on his property. Interestingly, when each McMurrey girl married, their father sold a cow to purchase a piano as a wedding gift.
The school facility in the 1920s was a three-story, brick building named Fleming. It consisted of 12 rooms and 11, then 12 grades. The school was down the road from the McMurrey’s house, and the children walked to school. Jency, at age 12, enrolled in the sixth grade. She graduated in 1930, attended Mary Hardin Baylor, then returned to the same building to teach.
During that era, when families wanted to travel into San Antonio, they were able to do so via a trolley that went along Frio City Road and turned around at the intersections of Quintana Rd. and Bynum to head back. This trolley system was replaced by the bus system in the late 1920s. Mrs. Runnels said that she rode the bus to work at downtown Kress’s while in high school. (She made $1.50 a day and spent .25 a day for the bus ride.)
Main Street was the center of activity. The Easley Bros. “Red & White Grocery” was a family-owned business that operated in the community for some 25 years. Union State Bank was established and became a center of business activity. A movie theater, an important part of the community, was at the corner of Quintana Rd and Bynum. Such stars as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown, etc., could be seen on the big screen for a dime.
At the corner of Main and Quintana Rd was a large Texaco dealership. During the war, this corner became the busiest one in San Antonio on Friday afternoons because employees of the Humble Refinery, Kelly Field, and the railroad all came into this area to cash their checks and do business at the bank. Around the corner on Quintana was a car dealership known as Fred Miller Motors. Fred, who dealt in Chrysler products, had come in from Crystal City. The USO was at the corner of Dwight and Quintana roads. This facility was later turned over to the community as a recreation center – a focal point for young people then.
South San continued to prosper. During the fifties, there was a barbershop and Dicky’s Drug Store. There was the MP Café. Across from the bank was Easley’s Butcher Shop, and above stairs was the Kelly Masonic Lodge – one of the largest in SA because it had so many military memberships – and Eastern Star. The VFW Hall was on the other side of the street. There was a Piggly Wiggly store on the northwest corner of Creighton and Main Ave. Hondo resident Rudy Rios was the produce manager there.

A football program from 1947 featuring San Antonio businesses.

On the other corner there was a Baptist church which eventually merged with another Baptist church to form South San Baptist Church, located up the street on Main Ave. When the church vacated its building, a business was established there called Academy Store. That was the company’s second store; the first one was located on South Flores and Nogalitos and was called Army Surplus Academy. It is reported that these stores are the first two of the now nation-wide chain, Academy.
At one time, there was a round-about where the three streets of Nogalitos, Zarzamora – which was a dirt road – and New Laredo Hwy met. Some businesses in the area used the word “Circle” as part of their names, like Circle Cleaners, which closed this past year after having been in operation by the Lozano family since before WWII.
As with most small town communities, perhaps more so than today, religion was an integral part of South San Antonio. From east to west on or near Main Ave were a Catholic Church, a Baptist Church, a Church of Christ, an Assembly of God Church, and a Methodist Church. The religious community was very supportive of the young people and hosted many diversions for them. In the 60s, scores of servicemen attended South San Baptist Church, and every Sunday night, dozens of them were baptized.
At the northeast corner of SW Military Dr and Bynum was Arbor Beach. There was an artesian reservoir there, complete with a diving board, where area folks went to swim. It was made for the Belgium farmers who lived in the area. It is said that a canal ran along Military Dr to Somerset Rd for the Belgium farmers to irrigate out of. In those days, Military Drive was a gravel road. Children of the Belgium farmers recall swimming in the reservoir at the lunch break after a morning’s work in the vegetable fields and flower gardens. There were also Japanese farmers in the area. The families of Yamaguchi, Verstuyft, Persyn, and Lassere name just a few.
The Humble Refinery – with a camp located on Quintana Rd – and the Missouri/Pacific Railroad were other important places of employment. In 1937, the “Round House” of the railroad facility burned. Subsequently, in 1948, the railroad shops moved to Palestine, and the refinery moved to Baytown in 1950; so, Kelly Field then became the main source of work.
One block east of the intersection of Quintana Rd and Main Ave was the entrance to East Kelly, so named in honor of 2nd Lieutenant George Edward Maurice Kelly. The story goes that Lt. Kelly crashed his plane while attempting to land on an inadequate runway at Fort Sam Houston in May of 1911.
Subsequently, in November of 1916, the site of present day Port San Antonio (formerly Kelly Field) was chosen for a new aviation airfield. The site was adjacent to the Southern Pacific Railroad, providing it with easy access by road and rail. Established in 1917 as one of the 32 air service training camps after the US’ entry into WWI, the site was called the South San Antonio Aviation Camp during WWI. Following the end of the war, Kelly was one of the few aviation repair depots that remained opened.
In 1925, Kelly Field #1 – as this facility was referred to – was renamed Duncan Field. The Advanced Flying School was formed at Kelly Field #2 in 1922 where student pilots mastered the advanced skills needed for flying during wartime. By 1942, Kelly and Duncan fields were united under the sole name of Kelly Field, whose primary functions became that of maintenance and supply. Flying training moved elsewhere.
Another military site was Camp Normoyle, established during WWI and located across the railroad at the northeast corner of Kelly Field. Much of the land taken was previously a dairy farm. In 1920, the base served as an army vocational school. It was a quartermaster ordnance and engine-replacement depot for Kelly Field during WWII, eventually merging into Kelly Field in 1944.
Meanwhile, construction on Lackland AFB, originally part of Kelly Field, began in June of 1941. This base was created to train aviation cadets before sending them to primary flight schools for pilot training. As a result of the Korean War, training populations soared, and tent cities were erected on the hillside between Kelly and Lackland – today called Security Hill. Hundreds and hundreds of tents were sprawled along the hillside. These were soon replaced by “I dormitories” to house recruits.
Needless to say, Kelly Field provided many jobs for South San residents. According to Tom White, SS graduate of 1953, “Skies were black with airplanes flying over during the war. Train load after train load of G.I.s shipped out on rail lines that cut north of Camp Normoyle and East Kelly.” Mr. White also recalls that during WWII, large scrap iron drives were held on the grounds in front of the junior high school located beside the high school. A strong, close-knit community which was very supportive of the war effort, folks saved everything worth saving, such as newspapers and magazines. Boys and girls went house to house collecting these and sold them by the pound.
South San has a history of athletic successes in basketball and baseball. It had to begin somewhere. In its infancy, the school had a new athletic program and a football coach, but it had no basketball coach or gym. The boys who were interested in playing basketball would go to practice at a hanger at East Kelly. A coach and new gym were needed. A Dr. Wright, who was a chiropractor and South San school board member, put up the money for a gym to be built. He was friends with businessman Jim Runnels, who owned a Red and White grocery store on Nogalitos, and who knew of South San’s need for a basketball coach.
So, Jim called his nephew, Frank Carson Runnels, a Stephen F. Austin graduate who was in his first couple of years of coaching at Martin’s Mill in East Texas, to come for an interview. Subsequently, Frank Carson Runnels, father to James Franklin Runnels and my father-in-law, began the basketball program at South San High School in 1935. He also established the longest-running basketball tournament in the state: The South San Basketball Invitational Tournament, begun in 1939.
South San’s basketball program went on to enjoy many years of successes under such other coaches as Jim Heiser and J.A. Littleton, with teams going to Regionals in the 50s and State in the 60s, winning State in 1961.
Baseball also became renowned. It was begun by Jim Heiser who organized the Little League, the high school team, and the American Legion Team. American Legion baseball was a big thing in South San. Teams from all over the city came to play on Sunday afternoons. Many of the players went on to become major league players, such as Gary Bell and Joe Horlan from Burbank and Mel Corbo from Jefferson. The field was called Burris Field; the right field had no fence, and the barrier in the right field was the old Fleming three-story school house.
Under Cliff Gustafson, who took over in 1954, baseball continued to flourish. South San won seven State Championships during the years of 1958-67. In 1968, Gustafson moved on to become a very successful baseball coach at the University of Texas.
One memorable but sad day in South San was June 6, 1951, when a C-97 Strato freighter was on a training mission and one of its engines failed. The plane struck several utility poles, hitting high-voltage power lines, and exploded, killing all crew members. The crash happened near the location of present-day South San High School
Eventually, South San Antonio melded into the big city. Folks who live there today still take pride it, their community, but those who grew up there when it was a small town with families of diverse backgrounds savor those memories of its unique, intimate culture.