The Big Thicket

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Before the oil boom in 1903 just about a dozen people lived in Saratoga. Where the old oil field was, my Aunt Mat rented a five-room house, took out all the partitions except her room, and turned it into a kitchen and dining room. She got a lot of tents and cots and put them up in front for people to sleep. She ran this place until she was able to save two thousand dollars. Then she built a hotel. The lumber had to be hauled on wagons from four miles on the other side of Kountze. It was built out of longleaf, heart pine. The outside wall was made out of planks that extended the full distance from the ground to the roof and it was 2% stories high. That’s the kind of timber that was here in those days. It cost a thousand dollars to build it and a thousand dollars to furnish it. She had fourteen rooms and could seat thirty in the dining room. She served family style and it was two bits a meal. Room and board was three dollars a week. The train came in at eleven o’clock and left at two. When the salesmen came in on the train—they called them drummers—they had such a short time to see anybody, she let them eat first so they could catch the train at two. Then the roughnecks and everybody else would eat. She had to clean the rooms up two times a day, once for the ones that slept in the daytime, and then for the ones who slept at night.

People managed just any way they could. Some of the houses was built out of pasteboard boxes, and those who couldn’t buy tents even camped out under the pine trees. They weren’t here to stay, just to make money, come for just a while and then leave.

About every other building was a saloon, and somebody got killed nearly every day. I heard my aunt say a lot of times, “Well, if somebody is going to get killed, I wish I could see it.” She was going to buy some groceries for dinner one day and she passed in front of the saloon. As she did, a man ran out right in front of her and somebody in the saloon shot him—and he fell right in front of her! She just stepped over him and went on. She said she didn’t ever want to see anybody else killed.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

This country could get wet! The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Sour Lake is mud. If you got off the boards they used for sidewalks, you’d bog halfway to your knees. It was just a tremendous mud-lolly. One time a tractor was coming down the street pulling a load, during the oil boom, and it started bogging, and went down farther and farther, until finally the top of the tractor was even with the ground, right at the main intersection. The owners built a little barricade out of two-by-fours around the top of it, so nobody would run over it, and left it there from May until July. When the ground got dried out some, they went in there and dug it out, and it ran all right.

The people, of course, they wanted a better living, so some of them started making whiskey after they found out they could dispose of it and make money, ‘cause most all of the people in our settlement either made it, or sold it, or drank it, except my father and my brother and me. Our family didn’t make it, and didn’t sell it, but our neighbors did and we treated them just like we did before.

A quart of whiskey would sell for ten dollars a quart, forty dollars a gallon. Our neighbors told us they could take a hundred pounds of corn chops and fifty pounds of sugar and put it in about a 5O-gallon water barrel and ferment it, and distill it, and get 2’/2 gallons of good corn whiskey. Well, that would be a hundred dollars for one sack of corn chops and fifty pounds of sugar, and just a little trouble; so it was one of the most tempting things anybody ever had to overcome if they needed money to take care of their family.

Three of our neighbors made whiskey—a man and his son and another man. They had the reputation of making the most and the best whiskey, so they made pretty good money out of it. At first he would pass by our house, and we could see the sugar and corn chops in his little mule wagon. The first thing we noticed, he bought a new wagon, and a few months later we heard something come buzzing down the old country road—just a wagon trail is all it was—and it was a shiny Model T Ford, brand new.