Last week, we got a call from Southern Methodist University (SMU) about verifying whether some photos they had in their collections credited to one Francis F. Parker were also attributable to a Francis W. Parker listed on our website. The search for the answer to this question demonstrates how history is not only investigative, but can also yield information one may not have ever thought of.
When Bill Hooten, one of our volunteers, stopped by the Historical Society last Tuesday, he told me about this conundrum. He asked me if I would conduct a search of Francis Parker in our resources to determine if Francis F. was Francis W. To be sure, a Francis Parker did live in El Paso in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the El Paso County Historical Society website, he was our first resident photographer. He had a house built on what is now the corner of Mesa and Mills. It was eventually razed and became the Hotel Vendome and later the Hotel Orndorff. (It is now known as the Hotel Cortez, and as my grandmother used to remind me, is the site where she saw JFK when he visited in 1963.) Parker moved to El Paso from L.A. around 1881 and remained until around 1910.
With the little information I had (namely that Parker was a photographer and was in El Paso around 1910) I began my search in our library of city directories. The old, withering books, which disintegrate in your hand no matter how carefully you handle them, can tell you who lived (or lives) where and that person’s occupation.
Sure enough, Francis Parker can be found in directories dating back to 1882. But no Francis F. or Francis W. Simply Francis. And Francis, according to other directories, was a photographer. I also searched through our quarterly journal, Password, for an answer but only found the information on the Parker House.
With that, I continued my search on the Texas Portal of History website. This is a great resource for people looking for digitized copies of photos, maps, and newspapers related to Texas history. I found Francis Parker in several newspapers. But again, only Francis.
Our collection of obituaries did not yield any pertinent information, nor did a search through a family ancestry site. On the site, Francis can be found. But it appears his parents did not bestow upon him a middle name or initial.
Lastly, I looked at the digitized photos SMU posted online, as well as hard copies of the Parker photos were have in our archives. Francis Parker is credited as Francis or F.
The mystery of Francis F. remains a mystery to us. Why SMU has him listed as Francis F. and we have him listed as Francis W. is unclear. Nevertheless, I came across information I do not know I would have otherwise. For example, according to Betsy Hagans in her article “Mama De’s Vision” in Password, the site of the Parker house and the hotel later established on the site became symbols of El Paso’s growth after the arrival of the railroad in 1881. She writes, “Almost overnight it became a bustling town in which many pioneers saw potential for growth and prosperity. One such visionary was Mrs. Charles DeGroff…Acting on her confidence in El Paso’s future, she sold her hotel in Tucson, purchased the Vendome, and assumed its management together with her husband and assisted by her son Burt Orndorff.” Hagan further notes that the hotel was considered “first-class” and contained one of the first elevators in El Paso. The hotel underwent many changes over the decades and was renamed the Hotel Cortez in 1935 after the Spanish conquistador. Hagan states, “They [the judges who were part of a renaming committee] felt that the name complimented the décor and architectural theme of the handosme building which contained “Castillian balconies and casement windows.”
Thus, though we were unable to solve our mystery, at least for now, I gained insight into aspects of El Paso history that have only broadened my interest in a city I really do not know though I have lived here for 25 years. Likewise, the search made me think about downtown revitalization, the subject of one of the next blog entries.
Using inquiry, primary and secondary sources, and online tools I glanced at a world that existed long before I was born and one that influences our downtown today.
Robert Diaz — Research Volunteer at the El Paso County Historical Society