The Year 1922: A Time of Triumph and Trial for the Old Spanish Trail

The Texas Story Project.

This is a map of the OST highway and its tributaries from St. Augustine, Fla to San Diego, Cal. Map is illustrated in OST colors and symbols. Important cities are labeled in red, unknown year, SC17, 01_25_27, Old Spanish Trail Association Records, St. Mary's University-San Antonio, Texas, Special Collections, Louis J. Blume Library

When Old Spanish Trail Managing Director, Harral Ayres, left San Antonio, Texas on January 2, 1922 on a business trip to the Old Spanish Trail’s (OST) eastern states and Washington D.C., he could not have imagined both the remarkable success and incredible trials the new year would bring him and his Association. In just a few short months incompetence and malpractice in San Antonio, then the headquarters of a national organization known as the Old Spanish Trail Association, would threaten the future of one of the largest public works projects in the nation: a coast to coast automobile highway.

The Old Spanish Trail Association was organized in Mobile, Alabama in December 1915 with the purpose to, “encourage and promote the building and maintenance of a continuous, improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.” This coast to coast highway would be called The Old Spanish Trail (or OST). The planned highway from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California was intended to spur economic development in the US borderlands by attracting Northern tourists to the route by romanticizing the Borderlands’ colonial heritage. In 1919, The Old Spanish Trail Association moved its headquarters to San Antonio, Texas.

San Antonio was an ideal city to serve as the Old Spanish Trail Association's national headquarters. It was not only part of the route for the Old Spanish Trail, but it was in fact the halfway point between the Old Spanish Trail’s terminuses. Furthermore, San Antonio had an appropriate historical background to serve as headquarters for an organization that sought to romanticize the Spanish Colonial period. The city traces its founding to 1718 and the construction of the Spanish fort (presidio) San Antonio de Bexar and mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo). By January 1922, San Antonio had been firmly established as the Old Spanish Trail Association’s headquarters for just over two years, and with Ayres’ business trip the Association’s work was about to enter a new and crucial stage.

The first leg of his trip took Harral Ayres to the OST’s Eastern states: Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana. Ayres spent his time in these states organizing and galvanizing OST work. As he explained in a memorandum on the Eastern situation dated September 1, 1922, “Instead of a bunch of solicitors eating up money, I taught the Chambers of Commerce, the auto clubs, Rotary, Kiwanis, Civitan, Optimists and others, that this highway was their highway and if they wanted the work to go on they must see that the people financed it.” And finance the work they did. In fact, not only did the OST eastern states agree to finance OST construction in their states, they also agreed to pay the expenses incurred during the next leg of Ayres’ trip: his journey to Washington D.C.

Ayres spent June and July in Washington D.C. mobilizing political support for OST work. His efforts in the capital culminated in the Washington Declarations, which were signed by legislators from all eight OST states and declared that “This highway (The Old Spanish Trail) is one of the basic trunk lines of the United States system and anything that can be done to hasten its completion will be a service of national importance.” The Washington Declarations gave OST work the national recognition it needed to make the Association's dream of a coast-to-coast highway a material reality. With the OST eastern states organized and behind the work and national recognition achieved through the Washington Declarations, the Old Spanish Trail Association had made decisive strides towards achieving its desired end. However, back in San Antonio events were unfolding that would endanger the future of the Association’s work and threaten San Antonio’s future as OST headquarters.

In Ayers' absence from San Antonio, malpractice and incompetence threatened OST Association headquarters at the Gunter Hotel. The main culprits s were the Old Spanish Trail Association’s president, Dr. Fred B. Johnston and OST Headquarters' Office Manager, Dave E. Colp. In Ayres’ absence they willfully ignored agreed upon by-laws and procedures laid out in the Old Spanish Trail Constitution, left many people unpaid for their services, and made a plethora of questionable decisions.

One unconstitutional action that President Johnston and Dave E. Colp conspired together in was their takeover of OST finances. In order to take control of OST finances, in early March Johnston and Colp discontinued deposits at the OST Association’s legally adopted bank and instead deposited all funds into the Commonwealth Bank of San Antonio, subject to the signature of President Johnston only. This arrangement essentially gave him and his co-conspirator control of all funds that came into their possession.  This was in violation of the OST constitution and by-laws which stipulated that deposits required the signature of the Association’s President, Treasurer, and since the 1919 convention, the Managing Director. With OST finances in the hands of just two men, “waste and personal exploitation commenced.”

In addition to creating waste and exploitation, Johnston and Colp’s “usurpation” also demonstrated their incompetence. One example of this was their failure to pay rent for the headquarters’ offices at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. A later investigation into the OST Association’s finances during the period of Ayres’ absence revealed that over a period of ten months, only four months’ rent was paid to the Gunter Hotel. Furthermore, rent was not the only expense left unpaid by the Association during Johnston and Colp’s “usurpation.” In fact, there were also a number of merchants who printed OST history booklets, membership emblems, and office stationery who remained unpaid for their services. Even OST route markers, those individuals tasked with properly marking the highway with signage, were not spared the difficulty of being unpaid for their work. One man who helped mark the Brownsville (Texas) Division was not paid for his work despite the significant funds received as a result of his efforts. The conditions described above, which were fostered by President Johnston and Dave E. Colp during Ayres’ absence from San Antonio, created widespread consternation among OST members in Texas and registered on Harral Ayres who was still engaged in OST business in the East.

The first inkling Ayres had that conditions at headquarters were unusual came in early March while he was still engaged in the OST’s Eastern states. While there he began to notice unauthorized changes made to OST letterheads received from San Antonio. One of the most concerning changes to the letterhead to Ayres was the apparent promotion of Miss Alberta Huey to the position of Secretary to the President and whose name and title now appeared on the letterhead ahead of other more prominent names. Neither the promotion nor the letterhead changes, had been agreed upon by Ayres and both actions upset him greatly and made him wary of personnel at headquarters.

As suspicion of misconduct in San Antonio mounted, Ayres decided to set up OST offices in Mobile, Alabama which was, “something I have never had to do in the past.”  Ayres also made sure that all funds from OST Eastern stateswere kept in the East and thus firmly out of the reach of the San Antonio office. As March gave way to April, Ayres’ concerns about misconduct continued to grow, especially after he received a telegram from Colp requesting he send him $250 to cover a rent payment for the headquarters’ office space at the Gunter Hotel. Ayres fulfilled Colp’s request with his own money despite his misgivings and voiced his displeasure. He and President Johnston had been engaged in a heated correspondence since March, each man questioning the actions and intentions of the other. However, there was little Harral Ayres could do about the situation in San Antonio until he returned from his trip; only then could he sort out the mess.

When Ayres finally did return to San Antonio on August 7th, he found headquarters in, “a condition of gross carelessness and waste and the confidence of Texas and the West abused.” It fell to Ayres to begin to set things right. Just ten days after his return, he appointed a committee of five businessmen to investigate OST business practices and financial accounts. This committee was called the OST Finance Committee. It was given the power to make recommendations based on their investigation’s conclusions, and President Johnston agreed to abide by the Committee’s recommendations. Over the next month the committee’s investigation revealed much of what has been described above: improper business practices, exploitation, and questionable choices. When the Finance Committee was finally able to present its findings to the OST Advisory Board on October 17th, they recommended that President Johnston resign from his position, but Johnston refused to do so.

Since Johnston would not go, Ayres and the OST Finance Committee devised a way to get the powers of the presidential office out of his hands. They created the OST Executive Committee made up of the members of the OST Finance Committee and Harral Ayres and which would be vested with the administrative powers of the President of the OST Association. However, Johnston was able to retain his office of President. If Ayres and his colleagues couldn’t remove President Johnston, they could certainly tame him. As for Dave E. Colp, Ayres recommend that he too, “get out” saying in a report to Texas members that, “personal exploitation must stop and the protective and constructive policies must be restored.”

The year 1922 was both a challenging and fruitful year for Harral Ayres and the Old Spanish Trail Association. Ayres’ work in Washington D.C. put the Old Spanish Trail Highway “on the map” by ensuring federal recognition and thus federal funding and bolstered community support for OST highway construction. However, 1922 also presented Ayres’ and the OST Association with some its greatest challenges. The confidence of OST members in Texas and further West had been severely abused by men at headquarters in San Antonio. It is clear that even after the investigation into OST business practices and finances concluded, much work still remained in order to restore the trust OST members once had in the Association’s leadership. The men in San Antonio had threatened not just the city’s place at the head of a national association, but also the work of that association itself. San Antonio had become derelict in its duty to the other towns and cities along the Old Spanish Trail, especially in Texas and the west.  Nevertheless, as 1922 passed away the Old Spanish Trail Association had weathered the worst of its storms to date and by 1923 was poised to continue its work building an ocean-to-ocean highway.

Christopher Hohman is a junior History Major and Public History Graduate student at St. Mary’s University. He is an undergraduate research assistant who has helped digitize the Old Spanish Trail Collection at St. Mary’s University and is the receipt of the Brother Thayer History Department Award Scholarship. He is currently in the process of creating a COVID19 digital exhibit for St. Mary’s University. 


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