Herman Weisner: The Untold History of a Historian Part I

Part One 

Within the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) is the Rio Grande Historical Collections (RGHC).  Researchers know that these primary sources to Southern New Mexico history are boxed on the metal shelves on the third floor.  The late and great Herman Weisner was not only a researcher of these collections, but he was also a donor to them. His collection (Ms0249, Herman B. Weisner papers) is one of the most often used and cited collections we offer to researchers. Through an interview with Hermans son, Craig Weisner, and research on various genealogy and newspaper sites, I share the story of Herman Weisner. 

Man with a cane standing next to woman holding a handbag

Herman Weisner with friend and fellow historian Eve Ball, 1980. (Ms0249, Herman B. Weisner papers)

One would think with the knowledge Weisner possessed of the Lincoln County War, Albert B. Fall, Mescalero Indians, the town of Organ, New Mexico, Sheriff Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, that he was personally involved in these situations. To be personally involved and personally invested is a fine line, and Herman Bascom Weisner probably did not know how to sit on the fence when it came to the subjects he researched and wrote. He authored many articles for historical publications such as True West Magazine, Rio Grande History (a former RGHC Publication), and other historical periodicals. His only published book,  The Politics of Justice: A.B. Fall and the Teapot Dome Scandal, A New Perspective., is a staple in New Mexico history book collections. 

Herman was not a native New Mexican, but New Mexico claims him as her own. He was born September 28, 1921, in WinstonSalem, North Carolina. He died January 13, 2003, and rests in the Santa Fe National Cemetery among other veterans and heroes of New Mexico. 

Herman started his early life during the¬†Great Depression.¬†The Great Depression had an enormous effect on the people¬†of North¬†Carolina.‚ÄĮ Many¬†households¬†were without jobs and unable to buy food.‚ÄĮ‚ÄĮBy the time¬†Herman¬†was nine years old, his father,¬†Fred,¬†had left the home. His¬†25-year-old¬†mother,¬†Blanche Hicks Weisner,¬†was left to raise two young boys¬†alone. She survived the depression by working as a wrapper in a meatpacking company.¬†Her cousin,¬†also employed working as a machinist at a nearby hosiery¬†mill,¬†was¬†living with her, as well as her mother, Agusta Hicks. The latter¬†assisted with¬†the¬†care of Herman and his older brother, Howell.¬†¬†

The¬†Great Depression¬†also affected¬†the education system.‚ÄĮ In 1934,¬†the¬†already poorly underfunded black schools and the rural schools¬†in North Carolina¬†felt the effects the most.‚ÄĮ These were hard times for schools and families. Herman dropped out of school to help support the family after completing the sixth grade. He eventually went on to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps¬†(CCC).¬†Directed by Army officers and foresters, the CCC was¬†an introduction to¬†a¬†semi-military discipline.¬†The CCC enlisted¬†mostly¬†unskilled men between the ages of 18 and 25, for a minimum of six months.¬†The men¬†generally came¬†from families on government¬†assistance.¬†Each man¬†received $30 per month for his services in addition to room and board at the camp. The men were required to send¬†income¬†support home to their families of at least $22- $25 a month. Some corpsmen received supplemental basic and vocational¬†training¬†while they served. Illiterate men learned to read and write.¬†The camp may be¬†where Herman developed his interest in reading and¬†writing.¬†Halfway into¬†World War¬†II,¬†Herman and a friend traveled to¬†a¬†Coast Guard¬†recruiting¬†office.¬†His mother¬†sent him on his way with two large cans of beans;¬†it took a week to reach the office¬†on¬†foot. By the time they arrived,¬†they were both too thin to meet the¬†weight¬†requirements. Not one to lose¬†fresh¬†recruits, the recruiting officer stuffed them with bananas.¬†

By the third day, Herman had eaten enough bananas to meet the requirement, but his friend did not and had to walk home alone while Herman enlisted and eventually made his way to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  

Herman deployed at various times from the top of Alaska to southern California and at least once to Hawaii. While in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 1942, he married 21-year-old Augusta Cathline Kay Rustanius. Kay was a decedent of the Haida Nation Raven/Bear clan. She lived in Ketchikan and worked in a cannery. Kay and Herman shared the grief of growing up without a father. The Ketchikan Chronicle reported that Margaret Rustanius and her three daughters (Marguerite, Augusta, and Helen) had returned from Seattle on the steamer Victoria with the body of Julius Rustanius. The 48-year-old fisherman and laborer had died in Seattle the previous week of a heart ailment. The Rustanius sisters well recognized for their hunting, trapping, and fishing skills supported the family.  Helen and Marguerite later became bush pilots.  The Ketchikan Museums virtual exhibit highlights their pioneering roles as pilots.   In 1965, Helen made an emergency landing on Annette Island Lake. She died from exposure, and the lake now bears her name, Helen Todd. 

Craig shared a¬†story¬†about¬†his father, Herman¬†that proved his attention to detail and responsibility. While¬†Herman was¬†on MP guard duty on a¬†pier, a¬†single small fishing boat came in with a¬†fisherman on board.¬†Taking his responsibility seriously for the safety of others,¬†Herman had¬†asked the other military¬†personnel assigned to the pier¬†about¬†the fisherman,¬†and what¬†was¬†he doing around a military pier? They said, “He’s OK;¬†that’s China Charlie.”¬†¬†Apparently,¬†they got free fish from¬†the fisherman¬†who¬†always¬†appeared¬†to be¬†outgoing and friendly.¬†Herman and¬†another MP took “China Charlie” to headquarters for questioning. It turns out Charlie was¬†a¬†Japanese¬†officer who was spying on military operations and taking¬†information¬†back¬†to a waiting sub when he went “fishing.”¬†

One of the¬†stories¬†Herman did¬†not¬†share¬†often¬†was¬†how he received his leg injury. Craig explains that he knew¬†few¬†details¬†about the¬†damage¬†except that Herman received¬†it¬†from being blown off a powered Coast Guard¬†barge. However, a¬†WWII¬†hospital¬†admission¬†card¬†shows¬†Herman Weisner was admitted to a hospital in Italy¬†in October 1943¬†with¬†a¬†contusion to his left thigh.¬†The causative agent listed¬†was¬†Bombing¬†in line of duty.¬†¬†Herman would use the assistance of a cane for the rest of his life. Those who knew¬†Herman well were familiar with¬†what he referred to as¬†his “Stick of Knowledge.”¬†Photos¬†of him in¬†ASC¬†collections show him¬†in his later years¬†with his wallet attached to a chain in the pocket of his zippered¬†one-piece¬†jumpsuit and his hand gripping the Stick of Knowledge.¬†

Black and white image of a man standing in front of a seaplane

Herman beside the little seaplane he flies.” January 1948, Ketchikan, Alaska (Ms0249, Herman B. Weisner papers)

During and after the war, Herman flew a Patrol Bomber aircraft, an amphibious seaplane.¬†He delivered supplies and mail to and from Ketchikan.¬†Although already mustered¬†out of the Coast Guard, he was¬†still required¬†to respond to draft registration.¬†A¬†1945 Registration for the¬†Draft Statement of Service card states¬†that¬†John¬†Erwick¬†employed him.¬†Erwick¬†is another name in Ketchikan history.¬†¬†To make¬†short¬†of a¬†long¬†story, they were Norwegian immigrants who owned a¬†supply¬†store and extended credit during the winter.¬†The fisherman would¬†‚Äúsettle¬†up‚Ä̬†in the spring and summer months with the¬†Erwicks.¬†

When the war ended, Herman and Kay moved to Apple Gate, a rural area outside of Medford, Oregon. They lived in a oneroom log cabin with no utilities, no heat, and no running water. Herman worked as a lumberjack with a friend he had met in the Coast Guard. When the war injury to his leg was bothersome, he would drive the 1929 Dodge lumber truck to the mill. There he would fulfill many tasks, including those of the camp cook.  As he was known to do in his later years, Herman would let his mischievous side out from time to time. One morning at the campsite, while having breakfast, a discussion about disposing of old dynamite ensued. Everyone agreed, dynamite would harmlessly burn and would not explode if placed in a fire. Later that evening, Herman walked into the gathering room with a stick of dynamite and said, Let’s see if its true he threw it into the potbelly stove.  Onlookers watched with amusement, then horror, and finally immediately cleared the room.  Only Herman could get away with pranking the tired and hungry lumberjacks with a piece of an old broom handle that he had painted red earlier in the day! 

While he was still enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve, Herman and Kay packed up their three children and moved to Silver Springs, Maryland. He worked as a guard for the National Institute of Health for a short time. They lived in a small Masonite camper trailer that contained a stove and small refrigerator, but no inside plumbing. They shared a common bathroom, shower facilities, and water faucets with others in the trailer park. Then in 1955, Herman and Kay moved the family to Organ, New Mexico. The drier climate was appealing to them because their oldest child, Kent, had been misdiagnosed with tuberculosis. The guard force of White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) employed Herman. 

Sepia tone image of home made of rock with wooden barrells in front

Bentley House where Weisners lived in 1955. (Ms0249, Herman B. Weisner papers)

Their search for a home near WSMR led them to a oneroom rock apartment built in the late 1800s. The unit was one of four in a complex, each equipped with electricity and a kerosene heater, with no running water. A weekly bath was a walk outside to the bathroom with a tin tub hidden behind a blanket, and ten feet away was the outhouse. Besides the four apartments, the complex boasted storage buildings, coops filled with chickens, quail and pheasants, a post office, and a store operated by Ann Bentley, the widow of Louis Bentley.  This complex is where Herman fell down the rabbit hole of history and research. 

Many thanks to my friend,¬†Michal Ryan,¬†for¬†making the introduction to¬†Craig Weisner of Williamsburg, New Mexico.¬†Craig’s memories¬†of his father¬†added¬†to¬†the details¬†of¬†my research¬†findings and helped¬†create¬†part one of the¬†untold¬†history of Herman Weisner.¬†

Part two of this post will follow up with Hermans life in New Mexico, his work at WSMR, and his contribution to discoveries in New Mexico history. See  Herman Weisner: The Untold History of a Historian Part II


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