by Michael Corcoran
His newborn daughter had him up at 4am again and after he put her down, Charles Attal knew he couldn’t go back to sleep, so he got dressed and walked the mile down the hill to Zilker Park. This was late September 2008 and the park’s Great Lawn was in the process of being transformed into the setting for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which would fill the park with 75,000 fans for three days the next week.
Since Attal books the festival as a partner at C3 Presents, you can imagine the amusement it brought to the overnight security team to see their boss standing in the field in the pre-dawn hours with a hose in his hand, watering the grass. Attal returned almost every morning for a week.
“Hand-watering is therapeutic,” says Attal today. Zilker Park has been a special place for him since he was a little boy and his uncles and their uncles would sleep there the nights before Easter and the Fourth of July to claim a section of picnic tables for the large, clannish Lebanese family.
“I’ve seen so much of the Austin I knew disappear,” laments Attal, “so knowing that Zilker Park will always be here was reassuring.”
It wasn’t until a few months later that he discovered his family’s deeper connection to Austin’s jewel. Attal’s great grandfather, Shikrey Joseph, was one of the brothers sent by their schoolteacher father from a mountain village in Lebanon to Austin in the 1880s and ’90s to avoid being drafted by the Turkish army during the years of rule by the Ottoman Empire. The first sibling to arrive was a 14-year-old Cater Joseph (b. 1867), followed soon after by John and Isaac, then Shikrey and Nahoum.
Attal knew all that. Because of the Joseph family’s rich influence in Austin – in the areas of fashion, real estate, entertainment, retail, and politics – the story of their humble roots is well-known. Yet not until Austin attorney Philip Joseph, Cater’s grandson, researched and printed out an 18-page history of the family, did Attal learn that their first relative to arrive was taken in and mentored by Andrew Jackson Zilker, a self-made millionaire in the ice business who bought Barton Springs and the surrounding 350 acres in 1901.
Philip Joseph found that information in a 1976 paper by retired schoolteacher Jeanette Fleishmeier, which is kept at the Austin History Center. Fleishmeier based her history on 1975 interviews with three of Cater Joseph’s 10 children: Eddie Joseph, Jennie Emmett, and Cecilia Norton. Their father told them that, besides giving him a place to stay, Zilker taught him math and bookkeeping and helped him with his English.
Fleishmeier’s account retraces the journey of a kid who, like so many, had his name shortened at Ellis Island. His real name was Cater Joseph Cater (perhaps spelled “Khater”) and he was from a family of Maronite Catholics in the mountain village of Roumieh. After some time in New York City, his sponsor, Dajeeb Dieb, arranged Cater’s travel by ship to Galveston. From there, he took a train to Hempstead and then walked the final 111 miles to Austin with only a bag of “silver” that turned out to be worthless.
Perhaps A.J. Zilker saw a bit of himself in the hardworking Joseph, who bought wares in town, packed them on his burro, and traveled as far as Johnson City to sell them to farmers and ranchers. When his brothers arrived in Austin, they worked together as peddlers until saving up enough money to open mercantile stores and fruit stands, initially on East First, then Congress Avenue, and finally on East Sixth Street.
Zilker was born in New Albany, Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River. As a cabin boy, he read Henderson Yoakum’s History of Texas and dreamed of making his fortune on the new frontier. At 18, he worked on a riverboat to New Orleans and eventually made it to Austin by ox cart and on foot in 1876.
A year earlier, the first drum of ammonia for the manufacture of ice made it to Austin from Galveston. Michael Paggi opened the city’s first ice house at Barton Springs, which had been discovered in 1837 by William Barton. Zilker was fascinated by artificial ice and got an entry-level job in a new plant at the end of Colorado Street to see how it was made. A few weeks later, he was the engineer and before the end of the year, he was leasing the plant, which he renamed Lone Star Ice Works.
Austin residents were skeptical that man-made ice would work, so Zilker staged a demonstration on Congress Avenue, with chunks of lake ice on one side and artificial ice on the other. The lake ice melted before the Lone Star ice and Zilker soon had more customers than one ice house – with a maximum output of 1,000 pounds a day – could handle. He soon opened ice plants all over Central Texas and also became Austin’s first Coca-Cola bottler.
Zilker and his wife, the former Ida Pecht, who grew up in Austin’s Germantown neighborhood (Red River between Seventh and 12th Streets), built a two-story house at the corner of Second and San Jacinto, in what was then called the 10th Ward. Cater Joseph and his brothers lived together in a red brick house just a block away, at what is now the site of the Four Seasons Hotel. They opened a confectionery in the front of the house and lived in the back.
“Lebanese are the direct descendants of the Phoenicians,” says Charles Attal’s father, “Lucky,” a noted antique dealer and appraiser in town for almost 50 years. “They’re the merchants of the world, building ships from the cedars of Lebanon. It’s in our blood.”
Land and liquor were the main areas of business for the proud new Americans (Cater Joseph became a citizen in 1900). After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, there were more than 20 liquor stores on East Sixth and Red River, and the majority were owned by Lebanese families. Twin brothers Theodore and Arthur Jabour opened a package store on East Sixth that served as the foundation for the Twin Liquors empire of almost 70 stores in Central Texas today.
Charles Attal’s grandfather Wolfred, whose father Augustus immigrated from Tripoli in the 1890s, sold booze out of the A&A Drug store he owned with his brother Gus. It was across the street from the Jabours’ concern, which caused serious price wars.
“But they were still friends at the end of the day,” laughs Lucky Attal. “That was just business.”
With the tight-knit Lebanese community in Austin, family was always the most important thing.
“We were always all together on holidays, weddings, and funerals,” he says.
Lucky’s mother Martha cooked a feast every day at the Hyde Park home she shared with husband Wolfred Attal. On special occasions, members of other Lebanese families – the Hages, Ferrises, Dacys, Zegubs – would drop by for a taste of the old country: cabbage rolls, grape leaves, tabbouleh salad, shawarma, and hummus. Martha Attal, whose mother died of a bladder infection when Martha was about 10, learned her trade from her stepmother Jenny, who married Shikrey when she was 15 and spoke only Arabic in the house.
“We were very proud of our Lebanese heritage, but we were Americans,” says Lucky.
The extended family was rich with the entrepreneurial spirit, especially Cater’s son Eddie Joseph, who owned two movie theatres on East Sixth – the Yank and the Iris – plus a string of drive-in movie theatres, a bowling alley, Campus Men’s shop, and tons of property in town. His home was at 1700 San Gabriel.
Eddie’s brother Harry Joseph also had his hand in many ventures, starting Centennial Liquors, running the Schoonerville hamburger joint (which became El Patio in 1954, opened by Shikrey’s son Paul), and buying two blocks of property on Guadalupe Street from the 2900 block north. Harry was close friends with Jamal Antone, who headed the Lebanese Federation from his Port Arthur import business. When Jamal’s son Clifford needed help relocating his blues club from Sixth Street where the building was to be torn down – and after a brief foray in North Austin – Harry went across the street and convinced the owner at 2915 Guadalupe Street to rent to Antone’s.
A Lebanese family, the Hages, owned the building and the land where the Armadillo World Headquarters put Austin on the national music map from 1970 to 1980. M.K. Hage Jr., whose sister Lee was married to Houston super lawyer and University of Texas
benefactor Joe Jamail, built the Medical Park Towers in the Sixties, so when a long-haired Eddie Wilson signed the lease for the Armadillo (at $500 a month) he did so in Hage Jr.’s plush office in the Towers. Hage Jr. wasn’t the most popular Austinite when he sold the land at 525 Barton Springs Road to a developer and the Armadillo was torn down in 1981 to make way for an office building.
The Josephs received their greatest measure of national recognition in the Sixties when Joseph’s Men Shop at 217 Congress Avenue, owned by Cater’s sons Ernest and Philip Joseph, became known for supplying President Lyndon Johnson his custom-made Stetsons (Silver Belly Open Road model). President Johnson’s father, S.E. Johnson Jr., patronized that same block of Congress Avenue 50 years earlier to stock up on supplies at the Joseph Brothers’ Merchantile.
As vice president, Johnson ordered a pair of hats from Joseph’s for John and Jackie Kennedy, which he planned to give them in Austin the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. The names of the president and first lady were embossed on the inside bands. The Secret Service came by in early December to pick up the most somber of keepsakes.
Lucky Attal and Catherine Burke, of Irish descent, were married on Nov. 23, 1963. There had been so much planning that the date couldn’t be rescheduled, but since flights out of Texas had been canceled the day after the assassination, they spent their honeymoon in the comfort of family.
Wolfred Charles Attal, born in 1967, was always known as Charles, but on a Pony League baseball team trip to Oklahoma with the Manchaca all-star team, he was teased by teammates after the announcer said, “Stepping to the plate is number four, Wolfred Attal.” Years later, when music agents discovered Attal’s real name, they started calling the 2005 winner of the Bill Graham Promoter of the Year award “Wolfie,” but Attal took the jibe as a source of pride. Some called his grandfather Wolfie, too.
More than half a century earlier, Andrew Zilker had planned to build a mansion at Barton Springs, but when his wife Ida fell ill in 1912 and died soon after, he abandoned the plan and stayed at the house on Second and San Jacinto. In 1918, he transferred the deed for 42.51 acres, which included Barton Springs Pool, to the city with the stipulation that it would donate $100,000 to the Austin school board. He also maintained a right of way to the Springs so his livestock could drink the water.
“We felt that it would be wrong for this beautiful spot to be owned by any individual and that it ought to belong to all the people of Austin,” Zilker said at the time.
He donated 300 more acres, including the land where ACL Fest takes place, to the city, which agreed to pay another $200,000 to the school board in 1932. A few weeks before his death in 1934 at age 78, the great man gave the city a third parcel, where Austin High School now sits.
The Zilker home was put up for sale in 1944 and bought by Eddie Joseph for an undisclosed sum. He tore down the old Victorian house and put an office building in its place to house three businesses: General Hotel Supply, Meyer-Blanke Dairy Supply, and Armstrong Automotive Supply.
C3 Presents, the concert promotion business Charles Attal founded with Charlie Jones and Charlie Walker, had its first offices across the street from that property.
Right next door from where Attal’s great grandfather Shikrey sold fruit when he first arrived in America.