HPL In The News
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Houston Chronicle - November 30, 2012
by Allan Turner
John Ephraim Thomas Milsaps never met a book he didn’t like. In a long life that saw him digging gold in 19th century South Dakota, laying railroad track in Colorado and, most significantly, harvesting souls for the Salvation Army, the Houston-born adventurer amassed a library of some 12,000 volumes.
Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle
A photograph of John Mil-saps is part of an extensive collection donated to the Houston Public Library by the 19th-century world traveler and Salvation Army evangelist.
Titles, ranging from “The Puritans and Queen Elizabeth” to “Fast and Loose in Dixie,” reflected the self-educated Milsaps’ broad interests. But for Milsaps, who died 80 years ago this week at age 80, books were just the beginning.
In a lifetime of travel, the globe-trotting evangelist assembled collections that helped launch some of Houston’s leading cultural institutions. More than 2,300 of his minerals, shells, marine animals, documents and ethnographic specimens are housed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The Houston Public Library’s Metropolitan Research Center archives Milsaps’ books, along with 3,000 pamphlets, autographs, newspapers, photographs, Asian scrolls, bookplates and posters. The collection includes one of the most extensive assemblages of Salvation Army materials in the world.
Despite the titanic role he played in his hometown’s cultural life and the 72-volume handwritten diary that documented the world around him, Milsaps today is something of an enigma. Never married, he apparently has no close living relatives. Only two photographs and an oil painting, all made late in life, feature his white-bearded visage.
“I think he was a very intelligent person, a very observant person,” mused Susan Mitchem, director of the Salvation Army’s national archives center in Alexandria, Va. “Obviously, he was a very creative person. ... His plan to donate his collections to his birth city is a testament to his dedication to Houston.”
Grandfather at Alamo
Despite his obscurity — the painting and a bronze plaque displayed in a library reading room are his only public monuments — Milsaps’ voluminous writings occasionally offer a glimpse of the inner man.
“I am ambitious and want to be rich,” he confessed in his diary, adding that he would dedicate his wealth to providing future Texans with the educational opportunities he had done without.
Milsaps, the grandson of doomed Alamo defender Isaac Millsaps, reached adolescence during the Civil War. While his father fought with the Confederate army, Mil-saps ’ mother scraped out an existence by stitching military clothing. Milsaps assembled rifle cartridges.
With little formal schooling, the youth worked as a mail carrier, traveling photographer and clerk before joining the Dakota gold rush in the 1870s. Luckless as a miner, he strung telegraph cables in Idaho, worked on a Colorado track crew, herded mules, waited tables and finally, at about the age of 30, landed in San Francisco.
Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle
Milsaps left a 72-volume handwritten diary, only one volume of which has been made available online
Came late to religion
It was a hardscrabble existence. Often he was forced to sleep outdoors; sometimes he was on the verge of starvation. Still, he was an avid reader and, inspired by Texas patriot Sam Houston’s gift of encyclopedias to a college library, yearned to make books available to others.
Even when Milsaps had money for food, Metropolitan Research Center Manager Elizabeth Sargent said, he often spent it on books.
In California, Milsaps found religion in the Salvation Army, the English ministry to social outcasts that recently had established itself in America. In 1884, he was commissioned minister in charge of the ministry’s unit in Stockton, Calif.
He also was named editor of the Pacific edition of the Salvation Army’s newspaper, The War Cry. The job gave him access to photographs that he added to his collection.
Milsaps was “a loyal member of the organization,” Mitchem said, and in 1898 he was dispatched to the Philippines.
His diaries contain graphic accounts of that theater of the Spanish-American War. In 1903, he was assigned to evangelize Hawaii. Later still, he headed the Salvation Army’s Chicago antisuicide bureau.
Everywhere he went, he collected. “No more souls to save today,” he confided to his diary, “so I will go to the book store.”
Sargent said Milsaps began corresponding with Julia Ideson, the Houston public library’s first chief, in the opening years of the 20th century. One letter, posted from Honolulu in 1904, about a year after Milsaps gave the fledgling library 4,000 books, breezily greeted the august Ideson as “Dear Lady.”
At first, Milsaps demanded anonymity, specifying his donations be identified only as the “Circle M Collection.” Thousands of the books bear the Milsaps-designed logo rubber-stamped in red ink.
Milsaps returned to Houston after retiring in 1917.
Highlights of Milsaps’ collections include scores of bound volumes of the Salvation Army newspaper printed in cities around the world. While the book collection is eclectic, including a first edition of “Moby Dick” and a copy of Margaret Mead’s 1928 “Coming of Age in Samoa,” it is strong in religion and the American Civil War.
Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle
Laney Dwyer is one of the archivists working to sort and catalog the vast array of items John Milsaps donated to the Houston Public Library, including many Salvation Army posters. Milsaps died 80 years ago this week.
Many of the collection’s pamphlets are concerned with African-American life and the abolition of slavery.
Sargent said her research center is recruiting volunteers to help digitize the collection’s holdings. Thus far, though, only one volume of Milsaps’ diary has been made available online.
Volunteers are needed, too, to help sort through boxes of ephemera that, even after 100 years, have not been completely cataloged.
“We can break items down by categories,” Sargent said. “We know how many boxes we have of bookplates, but we’re not really sure what’s in them.”
Houston Chronicle - March 12, 2012
Houston PBS, library help Mayor Parker explore ancestry