June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
A Last Link with the Living Frontier
The Big Thicket is an ecological wonder. This dense forest, sprawling between the Sabine and Trinity rivers in east Texas, constitutes a natural crossroads for plant and animal species from almost every part of the country. No less remarkable is the pioneer way of life that still flourishes where the dwindling generation of settlers’ descendants live in the Thicket’s leafy shadow, just fifty miles from downtown Houston.
When the first pioneers pushed toward Texas in the 1820’s and ’30’s, the Big Thicket was a formidable green barrier, sixty miles thick and one hundred miles long. Most were content to go around. Those who hacked their way through it never forgot the experience. “This day passed through the thickest woods I ever saw,” wrote one exhausted settler in 1835. “It perhaps surpasses any country for brush.”
Indeed it did—and does. “Big Thicket” is actually a misnomer, for its green fastness once harbored all sorts of wilderness terrain: tall groves of virgin pine and cypress; thickly shaded hardwood forests; flower-filled meadows; impenetrable black-water swamps festooned with vines and Spanish moss. Even the Alabama and Coushatta Indians who hunted the Thicket’s deer and bear shunned its deepest reaches, and, except for isolated bands of outlaws and runaway slaves, the settlers who stayed here built their cabins around the tiny towns that sprang up along the fringes of the forest.
The society they spawned was close-knit: perhaps half of the Thicket’s surviving residents are related by blood. Their accents and ways of doing things were those of the southern Appalachians from which they came. Left behind by the westward wave of emigration, the people of the Big Thicket were independent, wary of strangers, and generally law abiding—though law in the formal sense took a long time in coming. Above all, they were self-sufficient. Even the Civil War passed them by: when the call went out for soldiers for the Confederate Army, many took to the woods for the duration.
Over the years the Thicket has changed more than have its people. Lumbermen began to float mammoth pine and cypress logs down its rivers during the 1850’s, and later built sawmills to turn out millions of railroad ties and barrel staves. They felled thousands of acres of ancient trees, and poisoned thousands more so that today only regimented rows of fast-growing commercial pine can survive where hardwood forests had stood since the Ice Age.
And while the Thicket retreated steadily before the logger’s axe, other outsiders made inroads. The turn-of-the-century oil strikes transformed small settlements into boom towns; rice farmers flooded portions of the forest; developers eager to house suburbanites bulldozed still more.
By the early 1970’s, the great forest seemed doomed. Then, through the doggedness of private citizens and conservation groups, some eighty-five thousand acres were set aside as perpetual wilderness.
But saving a fragment of wilderness is easy compared to saving a vanishing way of life. Change is coming fast to the people of the Big Thicket: television beams in jarring images of the outside world; the impatient young drift away to the big towns. More and more it is the old men and women who remain, clinging to their memories and to what is left of their tangled forest home.
Over the last nine years, naturalists Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller have roamed the region, seeking to record the essence of the world of the BigThicket pioneers before it vanishes. From thousands of hours of taped reminiscences they have skillfully assembled a book, Big Thicket Legacy, just published by the University of Texas Press. On the following pages we hear the voices of people whose daily lives are still filled with the sounds and color of the American frontier.
A lot of the Indians came into the Thicket after their meat. They lived at the Indian Village, east of Livingston, and they’d come about twice a year when I was small. They’d generally come in the spring, along in April, and in late September. The main game they wanted was deer, and they knew where all the springs ,and water holes was. There was only one in the bunch that could talk. The men would ride the little ponies and the squaws would walk. If they had babies they’d carry them on their backs in a sack. And quite a lot of poor little dogs came along, so poor you could count the joints in their tails.
Hog grease was what they wanted. And they’d come and line up crossways in our front yard and go to humming, no tune to it, sort of a chant. This was their way of announcing their presence. This was when they’d be on their way to hunt. If we had a dirty potato patch or cotton patch or something, they’d grab the hoes and hoe it out, and they’d do it good. Then my father, we had a smokehouse about twelve by fifty hanging full of cured meat, and my father would give them two or three of the shoulders, and we had lard put up in buckets. He’d give them some of that and a sack of salt, and they’d pull out. This old Indian would say, “You come.” He wanted us to come to his camp, and the only way you would ever find his camp, about every fifty yards he’d hack a bush and just let it fall over, but as a general thing they went pretty straight.
And those old Indians, before they started back, they’d get that deer meat and put it on a scaffold and build a smoke under it in the sun. And the women would watch it while the men would hunt. That venison is all lean meat and it will dry as hard as a piece of wood. They’d put that in a sack and carry it back home. We fixed a lot of it that way. If you want to cook it tomorrow, you throw it in a pan of water tonight, and tomorrow it makes the best hash you ever had almost; it’s mighty nice.
My daddy built our house out of pine, hand-hewed logs, notched and fitted and leveled. The floor was three inches thick and hewed out of logs. The kitchen wasn’t built on to the rest of the house but was connected by a shed. It was built out of round logs, not hewed. The floor was red clay, built up about twelve inches higher than the ground. They’d always have a mudcat chimney, take about a day to build, neighbors help. Women would cook and men built the chimney. I stayed right there till I was twenty years old, when I married and moved to Saratogie, and I’ve been here ever since.
Uncle Bud and Uncle Jim was our closest neighbors, six miles to their house. Uncle Bud hunted a lot. He called me to the gate one morning, said, “Come here, I got a purty for ya.” I went out there and he reached back in his saddle pocket, and he had a little old bear about ten inches long. The old mama bear had one of his dogs hugged up and about to kill it. He run in and jabbed his gun in her mouth and shot her, and the print of her teeth was on each side of his Winchester. She had two little cubs in her bed and he carried ‘em home and raised ‘em. They’d walk on their hind feet and hold up a broom just like somebody.
We raised what we eat, had a garden. Always had a patch o’ corn and sweet potatoes, sugar cane and maybe some peanuts. We’d raise peas and when they’d get dry, ma’d put somethin’ in ‘em to keep the weevils out. Had all kinds of meat: venison, turkey, squirrel. We’d cure bear meat. You can cure it just as good as you can hog meat, and you can season with it, too. You can eat all you want of it and drink the lard, and it won’t make you sick. Now old summer bear, they ain’t fit to eat; they’re pore; they stink. But in the wintertime, they’re big and fat and they’re good. I liked bear meat, but in the summertime, I wanted venison. We could get that any day we wanted it, and turkey too. I loved squirrel just any time, and we eat rabbit in the wintertime.
The people here was very poor and some of them didn’t want to ficht for the Negroes [in the Civil War]. You see the wealthy people here was the only ones who had Negro slaves. So when the war started they said, “Well, I’ll just go out here in the woods and stay.” These people was called jayhawkers. They had everything to eat without worrying about anything—plenty of game and fish. Their people would have corn ground and carry it out to a big forked oak tree right on the edge of a pond and put it in the fork ofthat tree. To keep it from getting wet, they had a doeskin they put over it. The pond to this day is known as Doeskin Pond. They’d cut down a tree and rob it, get all kinds of honey. Where Honey Island is now there was two big pear trees and they taken some plank and built a table between those two trees. They’d put all the honey and deer and stuff that they wanted carried off on this table. Their people would come and get this produce, carry it to Beaumont and sell it, and buy their tobacco or whatever they had to have. They’d take it out to Doeskin Pond and put it up in the tree, or leave it on the table at Honey Island.
The [Confederate] government would send soldiers in here and try to get them out, but they never could get them because they kept guards stationed around and when they’d see them coming, they’d leave their hideout. The soldiers would search everywhere for them and never could find them. They never would go in or out the same way. They never would break a limb off. They wouldn’t leave any sign where they went into their hideout.
They caught a few jayhawkers one time and carried them to Woodville and put them in jail on the courthouse square, and put guards all around there to guard them. Somebody, in order to free the jayhawkers, brought a lot of whiskey and the guards all got drunk. Then someone got a fiddle and started playing. Mr. Warren Collins began a jig and was entertaining everybody, and all the time he was dancing, everyone was leaving, one at a time. When the party was over there was no jayhawkers left and the guards was too drunk to find them.
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.
When I was a boy we would have parties and all meet at some family’s house and play games until late at night. There would always be refreshments. The neighbors lived maybe three miles apart, just dim wagon roads connecting them. Now these parties would be in full swing until twelve or one o’clock, and then everybody would get ready to go home. If the boys had brought the girls to the party they would then walk home with them. This was the best part of the get-together, and it was a most pleasant distance we traveled. If you have never been out in the Big Thicket at night, you don’t know what a dark night can be like. We didn’t know what a flashlight was. We had the old kerosene lantern in those days, but what young man would carry a lantern in one hand while piloting a young lady home with the other? We’d rather take a chance on being caught by a panther or bit by a rattlesnake. Of course this was the courage we had while escorting the young lady home, but when you started back and heard animals in the bushes, and so dark you couldn’t see the ground in front of you, it was something else. Many nights a pack of wolves serenaded me with their lonesome howl, and it would make my hair stand up, give me goose pimples all over.
The Thicket has been my life. I’ve hunted just about every animal in the woods, but it wasn’t just the hunting. I just enjoy being in the woods. There’s hardly a time of the year you won’t find flowers in bloom, and in the spring it’s just a sight when the haws and the sweet bay and magnolias, and berries and jasmine and wild plum and dogwood are in bloom. My favorite is the wild honeysuckle.
I got out of the hospital Friday and took a walk in the woods Saturday, just back of the house here. Of course, I was just about dead when I got back. The doctor told me to stay inside, but I can get a couple of squirrels for dinner without leaving my backyard. They bark at my puppy dog I got tied back there. And I’d be surprised if I couldn’t jump a deer a quarter of a mile from the house. I’m not able to walk that much yet, but my boy’s going to take me to a deer stand in the morning. Doc wouldn’t like it but I don’t think it’ll hurt me. IfI die, I’ll die happy.
COPYRIGHT © 1977 BY THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS