Martín De León, raised in Spanish Mexico to a wealthy, aristocratic family with ancestral ties to Spain, left his home in Monterrey in his early twenties to embark on a career as a merchant/trader. In the early 1800s, after several trips into Texas, De León began buying land and establishing ranching operations along the Aransas and Guadalupe rivers. In 1824, he established the town of Nuestra Señora Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria and helped 41 Mexican families settle the area around it. Until Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836, De León’s Colony was the only predominantly Mexican colony in the state. The town’s economy, based primarily on agriculture and cattle, prospered and grew as large numbers of immigrants from Germany, Poland, England and Alsace arrived at the nearby port in Indianola between 1840 and 1860. Many of them stopped in Victoria, found it to their liking, and built their new lives there. The town’s population grew to nearly 2,000 by 1860 – nearly one quarter of them slaves who had accompanied settlers from the southern United States.
Following the Civil War, tracks for the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad were re-laid between Port Lavaca and Victoria by the federal government as part of Reconstruction. That line merged with the financially-more-stable Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway in 1871. Railroads, river navigation and all-weather roads helped the city of Victoria become a regional commercial center for the county’s farmers and ranchers. In 1866, five Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament from Lyon, France established new convent at the home of Father Augustine Gardet, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Victoria, and a year later opened a new school named the Convent School with 55 students. The school was renamed the Academy of Nazareth in 1880 and the Nazareth Academy in 1921.
John Milton Brownson moved to Victoria in 1866 after serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He opened a grocery store that year, going on to open Victoria’s first bank in 1867. Brownson’s Bank went through several name changes before becoming the First National Bank of Victoria in 1889. He remained one of the city’s most prominent citizens until his death in 1906. Brownson’s wife donated land to the Victoria school district and the Brownson School was built in 1910 as a “free public school” according to school board minutes. First occupied in 1911, it was attended by students in grades one, two and three. A brass plaque above the front door cast by sculptor Pompeo Coppini bears Brownson’s likeness.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Victoria Independent School District, hired architect Jules Leffland to design a high school for colored students. Leffland immigrated to Texas in 1886 from his native Usserød, Denmark. In 1901, local contractor Bailey Mills built the new, wood-framed building on a lot next to the thirty-three year old Victoria Freedmen’s School. When the new Victoria Colored School (top) was completed, the older building was converted to housing for the school’s teachers. Frederick W. Gross, the school’s first principal managed a faculty of eight teachers and the school was renamed F. W. Gross High School in 1923.
Jules Leffland also designed another notable school building in Victoria – the Nazareth Academy, built in 1904. Leffland combined Spanish and Mission Revival architectural styles with historical references from Europe. The brick and stucco building, its entry topped by a three-tier octagonal lantern, is considered his most unusual and creative design.
REFERENCE: Robert W. Shook, “VICTORIA, TX (VICTORIA COUNTY),” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hdv01), accessed October 29, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
LOCATION: Victoria, centrally located in Victoria County at the convergence of U.S. highways 59, 77, and 87.