For central Texas portrait artist Marie Cronin, the year 1926 brought sadness, difficulty and change.
On May 16 she lost her younger and only sister Ida to injuries resulting from boarding a train, and on August 16 cancer claimed the life of her beloved father, "Colonel" Thomas Cronin. It was the loss of her father that brought the most material change for the artist, for she inherited not only his effects and modest personal estate, but also the stock, and the presidency, of a railroad.
The Bartlett Western Railway, as it was known to its customers, was just a little country short line railroad, two streaks of rust that plowed through 23 miles of central Texas black-land cotton. Even on such a small scale, Marie was an unlikely railroad president. She not only was a woman, she was a European-trained professional artist who was at the arc of a prolific career producing portraits of Southern politicians and dignitaries. Marie had no love for railroading herself, but her father saw in his oldest daughter the sort of dynamism and business skills that could carry on his vision of building the Bartlett Western out into a greater system.
Whatever initial resistance Marie may or may not have given after her father's death, she was now the only woman in Texas - perhaps even the whole country - to preside over an entire railroad, and this fact, family members later recalled, she relished very much.
"Mamie" Cronin, as she was known to her family, was born on an unknown date in 1879 in Sedalia, Missouri, while her father Thomas Cronin was employed in supervising the construction of the Missouri Pacific. When her father hired on with the International-Great Northern, she was moved with the family to Palestine, Texas, where she would spend the majority of her youth.
As a child, she did not care for toys, preferring her box of watercolor paints. She painted her first picture, of the family parrot, at the age of five. Her youth was spent painting anything she could find around the house and the yard. Eventually she was able to attend school, taking advantage of all available art courses.
Following high school, she studied art in Chicago, followed by a two-year period of music, art and theater study in New York. While she dedicated a year of study to stage acting, art remained her passion. When it came time to make a choice of serious study, her father said that she should go to Paris, because if she wanted to be an artist, he wanted her to be a good one. Marie already loved Europe, having made a pilgrimage there in 1900, where she was greeted by the Pope at the Vatican in Rome.
Marie spent five years studying art in Paris, under the teaching of instructors Claudio Castelucho and Lucien Simon, who taught at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, and who were well known in the Parisian art circles of the early 20th century. Marie said Castelucho painted "like she felt", and would always credit him with the development of her talent.
After completing her studies, Marie enjoyed her first real success in art by having four paintings make "the line" at the Paris Salon de Nationale. She set up an art studio in the Rue Notre Dame de Champs, and for three years worked to improve her technique. During this time she exhibited her work in the local galleries and received occasional commissions for portraits. The end to this time of joy and prosperity came when the German army was closing in on Paris, and the seat of power was transferred to Bordeaux. Marie continued painting, and left only when her father cabled the American consulate in Paris, insisting that his daughter leave immediately, presumably on one of the last ships out of Le Havre. With the cannon fire audible in the distance, Marie Cronin packed what she could and headed for America.
After a few months working out of a studio on Broadway in New York City, she headed once again for the family's home in Palestine. Once back in the states, Marie's services became more in demand as her reputation for fine portraiture spread. During the next few years she received many of the commissioned portraits that currently hang in the State Capitol Building in Austin, which were mostly completed in her Palestine studio. These portraits include early Texas governors Thomas M. Campbell, O. B. Colquitt, Mr., and Mrs. John Reagan, James Ferguson, Joanna Troutman who designed the Texas Flag, and the last survivor of the Battle of San Jacinto, Colonel Alonzo Steele.
In the mid-1910's Marie's father Colonel Tom Cronin was entering into his 70's, having retired from a life spent as a builder and superintendent of two major Texas railroads, the International-Great Northern and the Houston East & West Texas. While Cronin looked over several small lines near his Palestine home in East Texas, it was the small central Texas short line Bartlett Western that intrigued the old railroad builder. The line was in poor condition and struggling financially, but he saw in it the possibility of a line extending all the way to the Santa Fe at Lampasas and beyond, and thus made profitable as an east-west trunk line between the Santa Fe and the Katy at Bartlett. Cronin would revive the line and make it a permanent fixture on the Texas railroad map.
The sale of the Bartlett Western to Cronin was completed in 1916, and required most of the family's savings. Marie was named vice-president, and it was decided that the entire family would move to Bartlett. The family consisted of father Thomas Cronin, daughters Marie and Ida, Ida's husband William Branagan, and Thomas Wolfe, who was a nephew of Tom Cronin and cousin to Marie and Ida.
The family set up residence on the second floor of a red-brick storefront building on Clark Street just a few feet from the Katy railroad, and just two blocks north of the BW depot. The building was formerly a commercial store and was known locally as "The Bricks" for its red brick construction and tall front. The building was fixed up much like a modern "loft" style apartment: Antique furniture lit by huge, beautiful windows and decorated with enormous paintings by Marie. An iron stairway led to a door on a landing that was illuminated at night by the red and green lenses of a railroad marker lamp. Inside could be heard the singing of mockingbirds that Marie kept as pets.
Marie wanted a studio for painting, and found that the roomy second floor of the BW depot building filled that purpose nicely. For several years she spent most of her time there, where she could work when she wasn't tending to the Bartlett Western. She worked liked this until the time of the railroad's abandonment, when she moved her birds and her paints to the Clark street residence.
Marie's presence in Bartlett caused immediate controversy, albeit private, among the locals. With her flashy and colorful European outfits, large-brimmed Parisian hats, gloves and heavy makeup, Marie exhibited the kind of flare that was common on the Rue de Champs in Paris, but that was neither common nor accepted on Clark Street in Bartlett. To her new neighbors, she appeared somewhat "showy" and eccentric. "She always dressed like she was going to meet the Queen," is how one resident diplomatically put it.
As a woman, Marie possessed a self-assuredness that the people of Bartlett were unaccustomed to. Marie's nephew Ed Cronin, a grandson of Thomas Cronin, recalls, "Marie was a type-A personality. There was a certain dynamism in her, she wasn't bothered by being a woman, she didn't have a hesitancy about "taking the reins." She had a strong voice and when she spoke she dominated the room. She seemed authoritative, she believed what she was saying, and had a wonderful mind from what I understand."
People still recall some of her eccentricities. For instance, she had long desired to become a lawyer, and although she had no legal background, she took the Barr exam many times without success, until she finally gave up on the idea. Eccentric or not, older citizens of Bartlett recall a charming and friendly woman that was kind and generous to everyone, regardless of race or class. It is widely told that she gave her Willys-Graham auto to her chauffeur because he was a family man and needed a new car. Her generosity, friendliness, and openness were regarded by everyone, yet she remained the center of discussion for the rest of her years in Bartlett.
With the death of sister Ida and father Tom Cronin in 1926, and controlling interest in the railroad property conveyed to her, Marie assumed the duties of railroad president while brother-in-law Willie Branagan, Ida's husband, continued on as the line's general manager. Marie handled the bigger business issues, Branagan tended to the daily business of keeping the equipment running and bridges repaired, and cousin Thomas Wolfe, somewhat crippled from an old train accident from his days as a Railway Post Office worker, offered what help he could from a wheelchair. The three remaining family members chose to remain in the red brick building on Clark street, living as one old resident recalled, "as siblings."
During this time in the late 1920's and early 1930's, the railroad was struggling. The frequent floods and subsequent repairs - and time away from painting - gave Marie no deep love for the railroad. Over time the BW drained the family savings, and the patience of its owners. At this point, with cotton traffic falling off in general, and automobiles taking what little freight remained, permission to abandon would probably have been granted, but as Marie's neice Virginia Cronin Lawson recalled later, "Marie was somewhat vain and loved the idea of being a woman president, and for that reason more than anything, did what was necessary to stave off abandonment." The railroad carried on.
During the railroad's lean years she often held painting classes for the area's youth, and as a tireless promoter of the arts, held many open houses for all ages of school children or anyone that wished to visit her studio. While she gained some commissions during this time, much of her output was portraits of the area's children, for which she would pay the child 50 cents per sitting to pose. Many of the paintings that have survived today are of young children that posed during this time.
Debts mounted up on the railroad until Marie decided she finally had enough. She would give up the railroad business and paint full-time. An application to the Interstate Commerce Commission was applied for and granted without protest. The rails were removed over the winter of 1935/1936. After the railroad was abandoned, Marie and Willie Branagan wanted to start a trucking company and in 1937 the "Bartlett Western Trucking Company" was chartered. The company got off the ground with at least one truck, delivering goods to the merchants of Schwertner, Jarrell and Florence along the highway that had helped put her railroad out of business. The trucking company was short lived, however. The giant Southern Pacific, Santa Fe and Katy railroads protested at a formal hearing of the Interstate Commerce Commission that Marie's trucking company posed "unfair competition" to the railroads. The Commission agreed, and Marie, now nearing 60 years of age, retired for good.
Wishing to take a break from the years of the stress of keeping the railroad alive, she set sail for a six-month sojourn to Paris. Marie did not know at the time, but the trip would be the last she would take to her beloved city. Marie was developing a severe cataract condition, and by the time of her death she was nearly blind. Her painting output diminished until finally she stopped altogether.
Despite deeper family roots in Palestine, Houston and in her beloved Paris, Marie remained in Bartlett, never again to travel very far from it. Marie, William Branagan and Thomas Wolfe remained a tight-knit and close family, still sharing the red brick building that had been their home for three decades. Thomas stayed close to home, enjoying a perch on the building's front steps, watching the comings and goings of his neighbors. Marie and William, still with good mobility despite Marie's worsening eye condition, enjoyed a daily walk to the Clark Hotel for a meal, sometimes attending a party with people who knew her in her younger years, or showing off her paintings to those that still stopped by to meet the woman railroad president, or the artist.
As the family never strayed far from each other in life, so it was in death. Cousin Thomas Wolfe passed away on June 8, 1948, followed by William Branagan on June 29, 1951. Perhaps it was the loss of the last of the family that had been so dear to her in life, or perhaps it was her physical inability to pursue her painting, but Marie passed away just a few short weeks later, on July 24, 1951.
Marie was taken to be buried alonside the rest of her family in the Cronin family mausoleum in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Houston. The old red-brick building on Clark Street that for so long was home to Marie and her family was cleared of her paintings and effects, and the Cronin family's last chapter in Bartlett and Texas railroad history brought to a close.
Marie Cronin left us a handful of paintings and a unique place in art, business and Central Texas folklore. She had in her personality the sort of beautiful eccentricity and dynamism that is likely more understood and appreciated in the modern day, than that in which she lived. Eccentric or no, she will certainly be remembered for the traits that made her such a lovable character, that made her a uniquely great Texas woman.
Interviews with Tom Cronin, Ed Cronin, Virginia Lawson, Early A. Limmer.
Unpublished manuscripts and material in the collection of the Cronin family.