San Antonio car dealer, peanut vendor linked by mysterious note on artwork by local painter

Photo of Paula Allen

I recently purchased this etching (?), “The ‘Hot Peanut,’” at a local thrift shop. I was intrigued not only by the subject matter, early Brooklyn Street, but even more so by the note on the back. Lola Mueller (1889-1949) was a respected San Antonio artist known mainly for her watercolors. Ed H. Herpel was listed in the 1940 census as residing at 246 Cloverleaf Ave. in Alamo Heights.

There is another work similar to “The ‘Hot Peanut’” online, “The Hominy Vendor,” seemingly in the same area of San Antonio. I would like to know more about the connection between (Emil) Rasmussen and the Herpels, and did downtown Brooklyn Street ever look like that?

— JoAnn Taylor

Your artwork is a type of print, said art dealer Harry Halff, whose Harry Halff Fine Art Texas gallery handles the work of early Texas painters, noting that “it looks like a lithograph from the image. That would be consistent with the pencil inscription of the title (at) lower left.”

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The typewritten note on the back is dated “San Antonio, Texas/June 15, 1942.” Headed “Mr. and Mrs. Ed H. Herpel,” the message continues as follows:

“Old people live in the past, and it is one of my great pleasures to think of my friends of the past and you as one of them, for you befriended me many times, for which I am grateful to you.

“This scene is familiar to you. It is the work of Lola Mueller.

“Please accept it as a token of your kindness. Your memory will always be a pleasant one to me.”

It’s signed “Emil Rasmussen,” both typed and handwritten.

So why would this scene be familiar to the Herpels? Because that peanut stand is probably the one that belonged to Rasmussen.

According to a story in the San Antonio Light, Dec. 10, 1939, he had operated this small business for six years at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Augusta Street. On his way there, the elderly entrepreneur had immigrated from Denmark, worked on the Panama Canal and was elected mayor of Revere, Minn., before moving to San Antonio to found a tool factory. Below his “red express wagon” is a small oil stove Rasmussen built to keep his wares warm.

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Mueller, an award-winning painter and lithographer who acquired her training at the Witte Museum School of Art and the San Antonio Art Institute, had an affinity for local scenes and characters, especially if they highlighted some vanishing folk custom. Her style is to suggest rather than to reproduce what she saw on the streets of San Antonio. The seated, hat-wearing figure in “The ‘Hot Peanut’” isn’t a photorealistic portrait of Rasmussen, but because of her artwork, we’re still thinking about him.

“Those who have watched Lola Mueller paint say that she does so with rapidity and as if she were always seeing something funny,” says the San Antonio Express, Dec. 17, 1939, noting that she was “not a formally trained artist.” Originally from Atlanta, young Lola Vivian Pace moved here with her parents and eight siblings in the early 1900s. By the 1910 U.S. census and San Antonio city directory, she was a teenage saleswoman at Joske’s department store, married the next year to Frederick Emanuel “Manny” Mueller, a salesman at Washer Bros.

Manny Mueller went on to open his own Alamo Plaza clothing store, and the couple had two children. At midlife, Lola Mueller took adult art classes at the Witte, probably soon after they began in 1933.

Although it was not yet a degree-granting program, the school’s faculty boasted distinguished artists of national and international reputation. Most often cited in articles about her are José Arpa ( discussed here Aug. 20, 2016), Harry Anthony DeYoung, Clare Duer and Henry Lee McFee, all of whom had excellent artistic pedigrees — well-known schools (New York’s Art Students’ League, the Art Institute of Chicago), prestigious commissions (World’s Fair and post-office murals, paintings that hung in the Alamo) and works collected by major museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York).

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If the Herpels had an interest in art, Mueller’s name might have been familiar. As a particularly apt pupil of prominent artists, her work often was featured in student art shows at the Witte and elsewhere. Within a few years of taking her first courses, she was receiving regional recognition such as inclusion in the Texas General Exhibit at the Texas State Fair and the watercolor division of the Southern States Art League’s annual circuit exhibition.

On the national level, Mueller was represented at print-making exhibitions at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and won a first prize from the National Society of Arts and Letters in Chicago.

Her most honored work was “The Hominy Vendor,” a representation of “Sister” Tennie Crockett ( covered here Aug. 27, 2016), who sold fresh hominy and offered Christian ministry from a horse-drawn wagon. As with “The ‘Hot Peanut,’” the human figures pictured are essentially faceless, and the setting is sparsely detailed.

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Mueller’s “ability to retain a mental image of scenes from life about her is apparent in her works,” says an Express story, Jan. 31, 1943, about her one-woman show at the Witte. Judging from the photograph with this story as well as reference works, San Antonio Conservation Foundation librarian Beth Standifird thinks this was probably the east corner of Brooklyn, with part of the house at 304 Brooklyn — the only two-story house at that intersection — at left. A fence and a fire hydrant appear in both your print and the photo, although Mueller may have taken some artistic license with the rest of the scene.

It’s harder to speculate about the friendship between Rasmussen and the Herpels.

Rasmussen, (1865-1947) a bachelor, opened his San Antonio Tool Works in 1910 at 803 S. Alamo St. Over the next 10 years, his machine shop moved three times, and according to a notice in the Light, Feb. 22, 1920, he sold his “entire plant” at 113 Nacional St. to Lone Star Motor Truck and Tractor Co. (covered here June 22, 2008). That was too early a retirement for a man with 27 years to live, so the former toolmaker tried his hand at other roles — watchman at City Public Service, confectioner, restaurant proprietor and several years of no occupation in directories and the 1940 census. Meanwhile, his residence moved almost yearly.

At the same time, Edward H. Herpel (1889-1948) and his wife, Mayme, enjoyed a steadier climb. E.H. Herpel, as he was known, was a pioneer automobile dealer, starting in 1912 with his H&H Repair Shop at 416 Eighth St. and progressing as a salesman and manager at the Universal Car Co., then vice president at Yantis-Herpel. By 1926, he was president of Herpel-Gillespie, a descendant of the original Ford dealership here.

While histories of Herpel-Gillespie don’t name Rasmussen as an employee, the men may have had a business relationship while the older man was still a toolmaker, and the couple may have helped Rasmussen with some of his many moves.

Mueller died in 1949 from complications of Graves’ disease. Her friends and family established a scholarship in her memory that provided art supplies for a student who showed exceptional ability and needed financial aid.

The Witte has four Mueller works in its collection — besides a “Hominy Vendor” greeting card printed with a companion poem, the museum owns the circa-1935 lithograph “Worms for Sale,” an etching with drypoint titled “S.A. River” and a “Chili Stand” greeting card, none of which is currently on display.| Twitter: @sahistorycolumn| Facebook: SanAntoniohistorycolumn