By Don McAlavy: Freedom columnist
Conrad Hilton was born on Christmas day in 1887, in San Antonio, New Mexico. His father, Augustus “Gus,” was born in Norway and arrived in New Mexico by way of Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1882. His mother, Mary Laufersweiler, also from Fort Dodge, married Gus on Lincoln’s birthday in 1885. Conrad was the second of eight children and the oldest boy.
It would not be accurate to say that the Conrad Hilton story is one of rags-to-riches. There were never any rags. Gus Hilton was quite a successful businessman in his own right. A merchant and trader, he operated the only general store in San Antonio, and he dealt in wool, furs, and coal mining speculation. In 1904, Gus sold his mining interests for $110,000 which made him one of the richer folks in New Mexico. By 1907, most of the money was gone as a result of the bank panic of the same year.
But Gus was never broke, as Conrad said — only bent.
Conrad Hilton’s education covered a lot of bases. In 1899 he attended the Gross Military Institute in Albuquerque. The following year he attended the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. The year after that he was sent to St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe where he made his first communion. After that he spent two additional years at NMMI. Conrad also attended school in Long Beach, Calif., during the time when Gus was“rich.” By 1907, he was back in New Mexico attending the School of Mines in Socorro.
Legend has it, especially among Texans, that Conrad Hilton bought his first hotel in Cisco, Texas, in 1919. It is true that the Mobely Hotel in Cisco was the first one he bought, but it was not his first hotel experience. After the panic of 1907, the Hilton’s were on hard times, but only from a cash-flow point of view. They had many other assets, and one of them was their house in San Antonio.
By the time he was 21, Conrad was the manager of his father’s store. Young Conrad wanted to try many new things with the business, but his father, somewhat more conservative in his approach, did not concur. Gus also promised Conrad a partnership in the business, and that seemed slow in coming. Besides, Conrad recognized the business was his father’s, and he wanted something of his own.
The first thing Conrad did to strike out on his own was to run for the new State Legislature in 1912 at the age of 24. The effort did not improve his relationship with his father. Gus thought Conrad should stay home anyway, by a vote of 1,821 to 1,578, and became the youngest member of New Mexico’s first legislature.
Here is what Hilton said about the first New Mexico State Legislature: “I knew real frustration from red tape and muddling, disgust at under-the counter deals, and complete futility when I saw good bills, my own and others, defeated through self-interest, laziness or cumbersome procedure.”
This marked the end of Conrad’s political career.