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A Small Texas Town on a March Afternoon in 1940

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The following is a guest post by Mary Jane Appel, photo historian and author of the recently published Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy (Liveright, in association with the Library of Congress, 2021).

When Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Russell Lee drove through the small town of San Marcos, Texas on a sunny afternoon in March 1940, a boldly decorated service station caught his eye.

Secondhand tires displayed for sale. San Marcos, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 March.
Secondhand tires displayed for sale. San Marcos, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 March.

Dozens of used tires, neatly arranged in four rows, spread across the top half of the two-story façade and wrapped around both sides, forming a grid of black circles against the building’s white clapboards. New tires ready for purchase—some still wrapped in the manufacturer’s white paper—leaned against each other on the ground, bookended by two Sinclair glass cylinder gas pumps. Another row of paper-wrapped tires hung above, accentuating the symmetry.

In front of one gas pump, an attendant, a young Black man dressed in overalls, stood curbside, ready for his next customer. The station advertised its Firestone merchandise with three colossal signs along the front and smaller placards in the window promising “long mileage” and “non-skid safety,” but the commercially produced advertisements were dwarfed by the proprietor’s creative and resourceful handmade display.

This service station had nothing to do with Lee’s official assignment that day—to document the wool and mohair scouring plant on the outskirts of town. Yet Lee, a white photographer working for an obscure agricultural agency, took out his medium format camera and captured the scene. “Secondhand Tires Displayed for Sale” is just one of 23,000 images he shot between 1936 and 1942 for the now legendary documentary project, which eventually included the Office of War Information (OWI).

I’ve always liked this photograph.

Long before I ever knew much about Lee, or decided to write a book about him, this picture drew me in with its strong sense of graphic design. I wondered if the building still existed. When I had the good fortune to spend a summer in San Marcos some years ago—working with Lee’s personal papers—I searched for this building, hoping to find some remnant of what Lee saw. I never found it, even after driving around San Marcos and comparing Lee’s photograph with the town’s streetscapes. I asked long-time residents if they had any recollections of the building, but no one did.

Portrait of Russell Lee, FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographer. Photo, ca. 1942.

As the years went by, this photograph stayed with me. And as I learned more about Lee, I came to see it as an emblem of both him and his work.

For one, Lee had a soft spot for Texas. A Midwesterner, Lee fell in love with the state on his first visit in 1939 and eventually adopted it as his own. Of the 29 states he visited for the FSA-OWI, he spent the most time—and took the most photographs—in Texas, which he called “one of the best states of all.”

Plus, “Secondhand Tires Displayed for Sale” points to one of his favorite subjects: the small town. Although the FSA documentary project’s official mandate was to record the country’s rural problems and the government’s programs to address them, its director, Roy Stryker, envisioned a comprehensive pictorial record of the United States. Lee shared Stryker’s impulse and made hundreds of pictures of small-town life, including his now famous series of another small Texas town, San Augustine.

In addition, Lee’s photograph shows us his admiration for store displays, which he documented in multiple states. From Louisiana to Washington, Lee pictured store fronts and shop windows, which he once told an interviewer indicated “the way of life in [a] particular community. Actually, it was a window to the community.” Thus, for Lee, these storefront pictures are as much about the proprietors who made them and the customers who saw them as they are about the displays themselves. Because Lee’s photographs—at their core—are always about people.

Sign painter, Sioux City, Iowa. Photo by Russell Lee, 1936 Dec.

Window shoppers and sign on department store window, Mexican district, San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939 March.

Recently I tried again to tease out more information about “Secondhand Tires Displayed for Sale”—not just the location of the building this time, but the identity of the proprietor and the attendant, wondering if they were one and the same. I looked to Lee’s notes for more information, but the FSA had detailed policies about not providing names of subjects in captions, so the lack of names didn’t surprise me.

I studied other primary source materials that weren’t available on my first try so many years ago.

The FSA-OWI collection hadn’t been available online back then, but now I could zoom in on details of this image and alternate views Lee made of the station. These were key. His alternate views show slivers of the surrounding architecture, including a distinctive dome I recognized as the corner of the county courthouse, which situated the service station less than a block off the town square. I looked at contemporaneous telephone directories, where I found only one business that sold both tires and Sinclair petroleum products: J.D. Dickens Service Station, 125 South Guadalupe, just off the town square.

Secondhand tires displayed for sale. San Marcos, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 March. [Note the small dome of the courthouse at far left of photo.]
Courthouse at San Marcos. Texas. Hays County. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 March.

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps show the building and its orientation to the street. And 1940 census records list Joe D. Dickens, age 45, as the proprietor, and his son, Joe, Jr., age 19, as manager. For a split second I thought I’d found the young attendant in Lee’s photograph. Joe, Jr.’s age was about right, but the census describes the Dickens family as white, whereas the station attendant is Black. Unfortunately, like so many figures in FSA photographs, the attendant will likely remain unknown to us, his name lost to history, but his image forever a part of the FSA’s collective portrait of America.

The tire shop is also lost to history. It closed sometime before October 1942, likely a casualty of wartime rubber rationing, instituted earlier that year. The building came down shortly thereafter to make way for the Simon Ford Building, constructed in 1946 and still standing today.

Like Lee’s entire body of work, “Secondhand Tires Displayed for Sale” gives us a sense of him recording his place in history, his intuitive feeling of the disappearing moment, the material traces of a quickly vanishing era. It shows us not only how America looked, but how Lee looked at America.

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Comments (12)

  1. Good job!

    Nice work! Nicely done!

  2. Fascinating! I share your enthusiasm for these photographs and often wonder whether today’s snapshots of life in America will stand the test of time. People take a lot of digital photographs today, but there is no FSA/OWI now to keep them.

  3. A fascinating study – using ‘photographic genealogy’ to delve into the not too distant but largely forgotten past of semi-rural America. Kudos to Kristi Finefield

  4. Wonderful essay Mary Jane, an honest picture of the work of the biographer. Best of luck with the book

  5. In 2010 I went on a seven thousand mile motorcycle trip around the Lower 48, making sure my route took me through Pie Town, Arizona, having long been fascinated with Lee’s work there in 1940.

  6. Loved this post and the subject. I just cataloged a handful of “Pie Town” color photos by Lee (part of our small FSA photographers collection at Duke’s Rubenstein Library), and was drawn by his empathic yet sharp eye, blending the details of personal lives and aesthetic composition. The gas station picture is a masterpiece. Can’t wait to read your book, Mary Jane!

  7. Mary Jane, this is so amazing that you have been able to find out the location and proprietor of this gas and service station!

  8. Lovely post. Congratulations on the book, Mary Jane.

  9. Great work, Mary Jane. Nice to ‘see’ you again, and to see what you’ve been working on.

  10. Congrats Mary Jane, great work!

  11. Such a meticulous researcher—congratulations on this inspired publication.

  12. Across the square is a bar called The Showdown. If you go inside they have the usual collection of old signs, weird objects and bicycles up on the walls for decor, and among all this is the HC Sinclair round baked-enamel sign, or one that is exactly like it! I too have always loved this photo, and was as surprised as you to discover the building was right off the square. A block or so away was the heart of the Black residential district, so I too wondered if it were a black-owned business. Someone had a novel solution for sorting used tires, I wonder who.

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