Home for Unwed Mothers

In a plan to redeem prostitutes and “combat the social evil of fallen women” in 1894, the Rev. J. T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae organized the Berachah Rescue Society in Waco. One newspaper account claims he was “driven away [from Waco] by angry fellow Methodist church members who opposed his missionary work with prostitutes.” Regardless of the reason, the Upchurches moved in 1903 to the Dallas slums to continue their mission.

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Portrait photograph of Rev. J.T. Upchurch and his wife, founders of the Berachah Rescue Work library.uta.edu

Sometime in 1903 Mrs. Upchurch’s father donated twenty-seven acres in Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth, and the Upchurches opened the Berachah Industrial Home for homeless, often pregnant girls, from all over Texas and the surrounding states.

Although Upchurch held conservative theological views, his ideas for social reform were liberal for the time. His home, unlike others for unwed mothers, required that children remain with their natural parent and that the mothers learn to care for themselves and their children. He believed that there were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.

Upchurch published The Purity Journal for financial contributors who were primarily Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen. In the journal articles Upchurch wrote of the evils of brothels, saloons, and social corruption. His stories about the slums and the shelter included accounts of redemption and salvation. He also described the work being done at the home and detailed individual case histories. The residents worked in the home’s handkerchief factory, operated the press for the Purity Journal, and maintained the large gardens and orchards. Upchurch required all residents and staff to attend worship services on the premises and to refrain from using the phone on Sundays, eating pork, or consuming coffee, tea, or tobacco.

At the height of the operation in 1928, the home added an additional forty acres and expanded to at least ten buildings including a hospital/clinic, nursery, dormitory and dining room, handkerchief factory, school, auditorium, and barn. The home closed briefly in 1935 and Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie Mae and Reverend Frank Wiese reopened the facility as an orphanage that served until 1942.

Today the property is on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, and the only physical reminder of the history of the site is the cemetery opened in 1904 that contains over eighty graves of unwed mothers, stillborn babies, children who died in measles epidemics, and employees and their children.

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Berachah Home and Cemetery marker, Arlington, TX

Houston: The Second Choice

Houston reigns as the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States, but it hasn’t always enjoyed top billing.

In 1832 brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen came to Texas from New York and joined a group of land speculators.  During the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, the Allen brothers outfitted, at their own expense, a ship to guard the Texas coast and to deliver troops and supplies for the Texas army.  Their operation along the coast offered an opportunity to look for a good site for a protected deep-water port.

Some stories claim that after Texas won independence from Mexico in April 1836, the brothers tried to buy land at Texana, a thriving inland port at the headwaters of the Navidad River located between present Houston and Corpus Christi.  Despite a generous offer, the landowner countered with a demand for double the price.  One of the brothers reportedly became so angry that he climbed on a nearby stump and declared, “Never will this town amount to anything.  I curse it.  You people within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits and other animals inhabiting its streets.”  (Today, Texana rests under an 11,000-acre lake, a recreational reservoir on the Navidad River that is part of Lake Texana State Park.)

Lake Texana State Park

Lake Texana State Park

Soon, the Allen brothers discovered a site on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that wound its way for fifty miles to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  They purchased about 6,500 acres for $9,500 and wisely named the new town for Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas War for Independence and the future president of the republic.  By August 1836 the brothers placed newspaper ads claiming the new town was destined to be the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”  The ads also said that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail to the door of Houston and that the site on the Buffalo Bayou offered a healthy, cool sea breeze.  They did not mention the heat and humidity and that Buffalo Bayou was choked with tree branches and logs.

The Allen brothers had the town laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern parallel to the bayou to accommodate their

Original Plan, 1869 map

Original Plan, 1869 map

future port, sold town lots at a brisk rate, and generously donated property for churches and other public institutions. The first small steamship arrived in January 1837 after a fifteen-mile journey that took three days during which passengers helped clear logs and snags from the channel.  The travelers found a “port city” of twelve inhabitants and one log cabin.

The Allen’s slickest advertising ploy turned out to be their bid to get the government of the new Republic of Texas to relocate in Houston by offering to construct, at their own expense, a capitol and to provide buildings for public officials at a modest rental of $75 a month. It worked.  By the time the government moved to Houston in May 1837, the town boasted a whopping population of 1,500 and 100 houses.

When travelers arriving in Houston found food and accommodations in short supply, the Allen brothers opened their large home, free of charge.  Their accountant estimated the hospitality cost the Allen brothers about $3,000 a year, but the expense brought rich returns.

The brother’s deal to provide the capitol and all the official office space carried the stipulation that if the government moved from Houston, the property reverted to the Allen brothers.  In 1839 the Texas government moved again from the bogs along the coastal prairie to Waterloo, a tiny wilderness town on the edge of Comanche country in Central Texas that was renamed Austin.

With the loss of the capital, Houston plunged into financial turmoil that threatened to bankrupt the city.  Multiple yellow fever epidemics hurt the town’s image along with a growing reputation for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, and prostitution.  In the midst of it all Houston welcomed the Masons, Presbyterians and Episcopalians organized churches, and the town became the seat of county government.   Businessmen invested in the cotton trade, small steamboats ferried supplies to and from the thriving seaport at Galveston and enterprising merchants used ox wagons to haul goods to settlers in the interior and to return with cotton and other farm commodities.jackson

Following years of regular dredging and widening of Buffalo Bayou to accommodate larger ships, the Houston Ship Channel finally opened in 1914, creating a world class waterway that helped Houston become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” just as the Allen brothers advertised in 1837.BuffaloBayouFile:Houston_Ship_Channel

Early-Day Home for Unwed Mothers

In a plan to redeem prostitutes and “combat the social evil of fallen women” in 1894, the Rev. J. T. Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae organized the Berachah Rescue Society in Waco.  One newspaper account claims he was “driven away [from Waco] by angry fellow Methodist church members who opposed his missionary work with prostitutes.”  Regardless of the reason, the Upchurches moved in 1903 to the Dallas slums to continue their “mission.”

Sometime in 1903 Mrs. Upchurch’s father donated twenty-seven acres in Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth and the Upchurches opened the Berachah Industrial Home for homeless, often pregnant, girls from all over Texas and the surrounding states.

Although Upchurch held conservative theological views, his ideas for social reform were liberal for the time.  His home, unlike others for unwed mothers, required that children remain with their natural parent and that the mothers learn to care for themselves and their children.  He believed that there were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.

Upchurch published The Purity Journal for financial contributors who were primarily Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen.  In the journal articles Upchurch wrote of the evils of brothels, saloons, and social corruption.  His stories about the slums and shelters included accounts of redemption and salvation.  He also described the work being done at the home and detailed individual case histories.  The residents worked in the home’s handkerchief factory, operated the press for the Purity Journal, and maintained the large gardens and orchards.  Upchurch required all residents and staff to attend worship services on the premises and to refrain from using the phone on Sundays, eating pork, or consuming coffee, tea, or tobacco.

At the height of the operation in 1928, the home added an additional forty acres and expanded to at least ten buildings including a hospital/clinic, nursery, dormitory and dining room, handkerchief factory, school, auditorium, and barn.  The home closed briefly in 1935 and Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie Mae and Reverend Frank Wiese reopened the facility as an orphanage that served until 1942.

Today the property is on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington and the only physical reminder of the history of the site is the cemetery opened in 1904 that contains over eighty graves of unwed mothers, stillborn babies, children who died in measles epidemics, and employees and their children.

PHILANTHROPIC MADAM

Mystery surrounds Miss Rita’s early life.  Raised in a prosperous, but unnamed Oregon family in the early 1900s, she left home to dance for a time for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before she joined the vaudeville circuit.  During her first, brief marriage, no one knows why she became a prostitute.

When the Great Depression forced the decline of vaudeville theatres, Miss Rita arrived in Beaumont, the oil city enjoying its second petroleum boom.  She probably knew about the vast wealth in the southeast Texas city from her tours with the vaudeville circuit and from Beaumont’s fame as the locale of Spindletop, the first big oil gusher in 1901 that led to the creation of industry giants like Gulf and Texaco.

Miss Rita rented facilities for her trade from Charles Ainsworth, but soon took a liking to his son Nathaniel.  The couple married and Miss Rita took early retirement.  After several years of financially establishing themselves in Beaumont, Rita and Nathaniel purchased Beaumont’s small Shamrock Hotel.

After Nathaniel died in 1946, Miss Rita sold the Shamrock, and purchased the Dixie Hotel in Beaumont’s thriving red light district. (The Dixie is the white building, second from right)  Employing her knowledge of the prostitution business, she tastefully decorated the Dixie and employed a group of attractive, well-mannered women.  Word spread quickly about her discreet, first-rate establishment.  Some reports claim private entrances allowed customers to enter undetected.

Despite ample competition, business thrived at the Dixie and Miss Rita used her increasing wealth and business sense to make large investments in local real estate.  She also raised her children and even sent her daughter away to a Catholic girl’s school.

Miss Rita became known in the community for her generosity.  She funded little-league teams, supported churches, and even sent a priest through seminary.  Some accounts say the police contacted her when people needed financial help after an accident or some other misfortune.  Miss Rita set aside the third floor of the Dixie for old men who had no place to live. While cheap local hotels charged a dollar a night, Miss Rita charged the men only seven dollars a month, which included their meals.

Finally in 1961, vice and corruption in the red light district reached such a level that a five-man committee conducted three-day televised hearings exposing the sale of liquor to minors, narcotics trafficking, and payoffs to city officials as well as prostitution.  The Dixie closed with all the other facilities.

An IRS investigation resulted in a $100,000 tax bill, forcing Miss Rita to sell all her property except her home and the Dixie.  Apparently she continued her prostitution business out of her home until 1976 when failing health forced her to sell the Dixie to the Gulf Sates Utilities Company who donated it to the Beaumont Heritage Society.

The philanthropic madam moved to Houston to live with her daughter and died in 1978.  Miss Rita’s position in Beaumont’s life earned her a story in a pictorial history of Beaumont. The attached painting “Spindletop Viewing Her Gusher,” by Aaron Arion, belongs to Beaumont’s Tyrell Historical Library.