Shanghai Pierce, Cattleman Extraordinaire

It was unusual for a cattleman to come to Texas as a stowaway on a ship. But that is exactly how 19-year-old Abel Head Pierce made his way to Port Lavaca in 1854. Discovered when the ship reached the high seas, he earned his passage by mopping the deck and hauling cargo at

Abel Head Pierce

ports-of-call along the six-month journey.

Soon after landing with only the clothes on his back and seventy-five cents in the pocket of his too-short britches, Pierce met William Bradford Grimes, “the most important cattleman in the region.” Grimes hired the greenhorn to split rails, apparently thinking the six-foot-four giant with the booming Yankee accent needed to learn some lessons about the cattle business. Immediately Pierce informed his new employer that he wanted to be paid at the end of the year in cows and calves because he planned to go into the cattle business.

Pierce set about his work on the ranch with industry, rising early, and quickly taking on other responsibilities. In his eagerness to prepare for his future as a cattleman, Pierce hired a blacksmith to forge his own brand and then proudly showed the “AP” to Grimes. Chris Emmett in his delightful book, Shanghai Pierce: A Fair Likeness, says at the end of the year when time came for payment, Grimes “cut four old cows and three scrawny calves from the run of range cattle. . . .” As winter set it, the cows died, leaving Pierce with only the calves to show for a year of work. Grimes bragged that he gave Pierce his “first degree in the cattle business.”

The origin of the moniker “Shanghai,” claims an unclear pedigree. Glorying in his self-appointed image as a storyteller and entertainer, he relished an audience whether gathered around a campfire among cowboys or in later years among dignitaries. At times he alluded to school days in Rhode Island when “Shanghai” was a fighting word. Then he claimed it became a “brand of distinction.” He said, “I do not have time to fight everybody who wants to fight me. If I take that much time off I will not have time to take their money away from them.” His nephew said in later years that he “looked so much like the long-necked, long-legged rooster from Shanghai that they named him after his counterpart.” Chris Emmett tells another version, usually whispered, “came because he ‘shanghaied’ so many people out of their property.” He often made fun of his size by claiming he was born in Rhode Island, but the state got too small for him. When he lay down, his head landed in the lap of somebody in Massachusetts and his feet bothered someone in Connecticut.

Shanghai did not leave Grimes’ employ when Grimes cheated him out of his first year’s pay. Instead, he stayed on to work for the richest cattlemen in South Texas. Shanghai rounded up mavericks and branded them for Grimes at $1 a head. He told a fellow cowboy at the end of the year, “I’m damn glad he [Grimes] didn’t ask me whose branding iron I used this year.” That spelled the beginning of Shanghai Pierce’s cattle acquisitions.

At the end of the Civil War, when some of the men bragged about their accomplishments and tried to tease Shanghai about being the regimental butcher, he boasted: “By God, Sir; I was all the same as a major general: always in the rear in advance, always in the lead on retreat.”

After the war, when the only profit from beef lay in hides and tallow (the carcasses were fed to the hogs or thrown away), he went into the slaughter business. Finally, Shanghai Pierce became one of the first to drive a herd along the Chisholm Trail to market in Abilene, Kansas. He quickly proved to be a cunning and able businessman, eventually acquiring up to 35,000 head of cattle and 250,000 south Texas acres.

In 1881, when the railroad came through his land, Shanghai dreamed of Pierce’s Station becoming the county seat. He did not get his wish, but he discovered another interest. He wrote the railroad asking that two cars of lumber be deadheaded at Pierce because: “I am pioneering in another matter. I am trying to introduce religion into the community.” He ordered pews and a pulpit. Shanghai proudly showed the new facility to all visitors. One gentleman asked, “Colonel Pierce, do you belong to that church?” “Hell, no!” Pierce shouted. “The church belongs to me.”

Shanghai believed ticks caused fever in cattle and, after touring Europe, he decided Brahman cattle were immune to ticks because “’Bremmers’ sweated and the ticks fell off, and the cattle got fat thereafter.” After his death in 1900, his estate and another rancher, Thomas O’Connor, undertook the importation of Brahmans, the beginning of a new cattle industry for Texas.

During Shanghai’s European tour, the fine statuary caught his attention, and upon his return, he commissioned a marble statue of himself created by sculptor Frank Teich. They agreed on the payment of the $2,250 commission only if Shanghai felt satisfied that the statue represented a fair likeness of himself. As workmen placed the life-size marble statue atop a ten-foot granite pilaster, mounted on another ten-foot piece of gray granite, Pierce sat with a friend watching the finishing touches. A small black boy approached the statue and after walking round and round the figure and looking again and again at Shanghai, the boy said, “Mr. Shanghai, that sure does look like you up there.”

“Ugh, by God.” Shanghai snorted. “I’ll take it.”

Shanghai Pierce died on December 26, 1900, from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried beneath his massive likeness.

Teich likeness of Shanghai Pierce

Pompeiian Villa in Texas

Peristyle, Pompeiian Villa

The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur, is a replica of a first-century Roman villa complete with a deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. The unusual structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas

The Pompeiian Villa, Port Arthur

Historical Marker for its unusual design and because its heyday symbolizes an era of Texas history filled with surprising twists and turns.

The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition. As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions. Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast. The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.

Stilwell believed his inland harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and would sit at the terminus of a much more profitable route for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than following the 1,400-mile trek to the East Coast.

A “hunch” also kept Stilwell from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston. Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks. Stilwell modestly named the new site Port Arthur. To allow access to ocean-going vessels he began the arduous task of digging a canal along Sabine Lake that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.

Port Arthur, protected inland harbor

Three wealthy investors––John “Bet A Million” Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company––joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. After delays and mishaps, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached its terminus. Apparently, Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.

The ambitious businessmen that had taken over Stilwell’s dream, decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for winter cottages. Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion. Ellwood spent $50,000 building the Pompeiian Villa and then sold it to

John “Bet A Million” Gates home in Port Arthur

Hopkins, who wanted the lavish home for his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ family arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas winters. They refused to step from their carriage.

Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

On January 10, 1901, Spindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur. The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Spindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.

The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand. James Hopkins rented his beautiful house to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil. Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for ten percent of the stock in one of the new oil businesses called the Texas Company. Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years. When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen––starting up and going broke overnight. Perhaps Craig didn’t listen to his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.

The Bell With A Past

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

The bell sitting on a brick platform next to the United Methodist church building in Port Lavaca has a colorful past. Originally, it belonged to the Indianola Methodist Church about nine miles down the coast from Port Lavaca, but a hurricane in 1875 destroyed much of the thriving seaport and most of the church buildings. Although Indianola continued as a port city, the Methodists never rebuilt. In 1886 another horrible storm and subsequent fire turned Indianola into a ghost town.

That 1886 storm also caused major damage forty miles inland to the Victoria Methodist Church. After the congregation completed repairs to their building, they sent a group of men down to Indianola to retrieve “the finest bell in Texas” from the wrecked Methodist Church.

Melinda Harris, a tiny black woman, the only surviving member of the destroyed church still living in the abandoned town, met the men and told them that the bell belonged to her and they couldn’t have it. They returned to Victoria empty-handed.

Meantime, Melinda Harris moved up the coast to Port Lavaca and when the Methodists built a new building, she gave the old Indianola bell to the congregation. Old timers remembered her as Aunt Malindy, owner of a white boarding house. She went about town wearing a starched white apron and sat on the back row at the Methodist church every Sunday morning.

The Frontier Times reprinted a story written in 1925 by Rev. M.A. Dunn in which he says that when he arrived to serve the Port Lavaca church in 1901, a little black woman named Malinda Harris came to him wanting to pay to have the church painted. When the work was completed and he went to collect the payment, Aunt Malindy drew thirteen ten-dollar bills from an old Bible. He said the money was so stiff that he thought of Noah’s Ark. Then, he realized that those bills had been gathered from the floodwater after the Indianola storm and pressed dry because they stood up like cardboards.

When Malinda Harris died in 1914 she left her property consisting of one-half lot worth two-hundred-fifty dollars and personal property worth twenty-five to the church.

The bell story continues: The Methodist congregation outgrew its site and moved in 1958 to a new location. The sales agreement called for the congregation to take the church bell. However, the new facility didn’t have a sanctuary, only a fellowship hall and classrooms. The bell was left behind and forgotten.

L.E. Gross did not forget. He said he was a country boy and never got to enjoy a church bell until he had moved to Port Lavaca. He nagged his men’s Sunday school class until they raised the money to hire a crane and move the bell to the new church site where it was placed on the ground and covered with a tarpaulin.

In 1975, when the church built a sanctuary L.E. Gross remembered that bell. Again, he nagged his men’s class until they raised the money to repair the old bell and build a brick stand on which to mount it. Until his death, L.E. Gross rang that church bell before every worship service.

Rev. Dunn wrote in his article: “Today, if you are in Port Lavaca, and hear the Methodist Church bell ring, you will hear the bell that survived the storms of Indianola both 1875 and 1886. It will tell you that the workmen are buried, but the Church of God still survives.”

The Crash at Crush

If you are traveling north on I-35 about fourteen miles beyond Waco, start watching on your right for a historical marker tucked against the barbed wire fence. Don’t bother to stop, because there is nothing to see unless you want to read the marker. Had you been there on

Texas Historical Marker tells the story of the Crash at Crush.

Texas Historical Marker tells the story of the Crash at Crush.

September 15, 1896, you would have seen plenty.

William Crush

William Crush

William George Crush, the general passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, conjured up a rip-roaring publicity stunt to generate revenue. Katy officials agreed that promoting a train wreck between two old locomotives would stir a lot of interest and bring in revenue through the sale of $2 round-trip tickets to the event.

Crush sent out circulars and bulletins throughout the summer advertising the “Monster Crash.” Newspapers all over Texas and the surrounding states ran daily crash progress reports. Katy workers laid four miles of special track, built a grandstand for “honored guests,” converted a borrowed Ringling Brothers circus tent into a restaurant, and laid out a broad carnival midway lined with medicine shows, refreshment stands, and game booths. They even built a depot with a 2,100 foot-long passenger platform and a sign on the end of building modestly announcing to visitors that they had arrived at Crush, Texas.

At daybreak, the first of thirty-three fully loaded excursions trains arrived, some so crowded that passengers rode on the roofs of the cars. Many others came by wagon and on horseback. They picnicked; listened to political speeches at the three speakers’ platforms; and surged around the bandstand and special platform for reporters.

By 5:00 P.M., before an estimated crowd of more than 40,000, old engine No. 999, painted bright green and No. 1001 painted a brilliant red, faced each other and then backed for 3.5 miles in opposite directions. William George Crush, mounted on a handsome white horse and wearing a white suit, removed his white hat, held it high above his head, and then whipped it down as the signal to start engines. The crowd screamed as trains––whistles blaring––began barreling down the steep inclines toward the valley below, picking up speed as they churned forward. Both engineers tied the throttles wide open and jumped to safety. The cars trailing each engine bore brilliantly colored advertisements and waving streamers.

When the locomotives met in a shuddering, grinding clash both boilers exploded sending lethal missiles of metal and wood flying in all directions. Two men and a woman were killed and at least six received injuries including Waco’s most prominent photographer who was blinded.

Photographer J.C. Deane shot this photo just before he was blinded by flying debris.

Photographer J.C. Deane shot this photo just before he was blinded by flying debris.

William George Crush lost his job that night. And Katy rehired him the following day because the publicity wasn’t as  bad as expected. The railroad paid damage claims with cash and lifetime rail passes. Souvenir hunters cleaned the site by carrying off pieces of the tragedy.

Ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who had performed in the area, probably witnessed the crash because he memorialized it in his march “Great Crush Collision.”

Now, you won’t need to stop to read the historical marker. Just slow down and imagine what it must have looked like in that field so many years ago.

Rachel Whitfield, Free Woman

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more. How did an uneducated black woman survive after the Civil War? I found Rachel’s story, which was written by her granddaughter Lela Jackson, included in Women in Early Texas.

In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel and the children were placed together on the auction block. Washington McLaughlin purchased the family, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart. They settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and at times whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes in compliance with the law that required slaves to carry a pass any time they left the owner’s property. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Sometime during the Civil War, soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south. One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” He said nothing until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you. I can do without you.”

The slaves stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the San Gabriel River, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts. The owner of a stray cow gave the family permission to keep the milk in exchange for raising the calf for its owner. They kept milk, butter, and cream fresh by storing it in a bucket lowered into a well. With the change of seasons, they moved about, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums. They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons heated on a fire log in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached, and used for the lining.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter Demmie prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.

Lela Jackson writes that her grandmother, who lived until she was ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

The Train to Crystal City

A book written by Jan Jarboe Russell and published in 2015 by Scribner relates a chapter in Texas history that I have just discovered. I believe it deserves special attention at this time when our country is again roiling in fear of immigrants. The arrest and internment of Japanese

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Americans during World War II has been well-documented, but nothing until now has been published about the program to arrest and repatriate to their country of origin German, Japanese, and Italian families.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the arrest and incarceration of Japanese, Germans, and Italians who were declared “enemy aliens.” Our country also orchestrated and financed the removal of thousands of these same families from thirteen Latin American countries. They were brought to the internment camp in Texas.

In her book, The Train To Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, Jan Russell documents the lives, the fierce patriotism, and the resilience of some of the 6,000 civilians held in the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility. The vast majority were loyal to America. They were forced out of their homes, lost their businesses, and were never charged with any crime. The men were allowed to have their families join them in prison if they agreed to take part in a repatriation program with Germany and Japan. Although their children were born in this country, they were exchanged for other Americans––soldiers, diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and physicians––who were being detained behind enemy lines in Germany and Japan.

The wives and children, wearing family ID tags around their necks, were shipped on trains with the curtains drawn to Crystal City, to rejoin their husbands and fathers in the dusty South Texas town that boasted the friendly moniker, “Spinach

Spinach Capital of the World

Spinach Capital of the World

Capital of the World.”

The 290-acre camp was enclosed by a ten-foot high barbed-wire fence, anchored by six towers manned by guards with long rifles. Men on horseback patrolled the perimeter, and the night searchlights were visible thirty miles away across the border in Mexico.

Fear of the foreigners, many of whom were in the process of becoming American citizens, resulted in mob attacks on businesses of Japanese on the West Coast and Germans on the East Coast. Newspaper columnists argued for American’s safety over civil rights. Politicians and military officials pressured FDR to act against these civilians. Finally, in 1944 the Supreme Court in a six to three ruling legalized the detention. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that the need to protect against espionage outweighed individual rights.

Russell conducted interviews with over fifty survivors, used private diaries and journals, obtained access to FBI files and camp administration records to paint a picture of a place where most of the internees did not understand why they were

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

being held but continued to maintain hope for their release. The camp was organized into ethnic communities with two-family cottages. They could choose to send their children to Japanese, German, or the federal (American) school where the students would learn English. The inmates were allowed to run their own communities, organize churches, a library, a hospital, barber shops and beauty parlors. In the summer of 1943 German internees dredged an existing reservoir to build a combination swimming pool and reservoir for irrigating the camp’s vegetable gardens. Despite the semblance of freedom, each morning they had to line up for roll call and their mail was censored. Even though they were not charged with a crime, the length of their internment was indefinite.

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Russell chronicles the story of two teenage girls––a German and a Japanese––whose families were finally exchanged, sent back to the devastation of Germany right after the Battle of the Bulge and to Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima. She relates the story of their determination to survive and to eventually return to the United States.

Today, all five hundred buildings are gone. The site belongs to the local school district and is noted by a memorial on the foundation of one of the cottages and a nearby Texas Historical Marker.

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp