THE BIG THICKET OF TEXAS

A Texas historical marker on FM 770, a few miles east of Saratoga in deep East Texas, credits Lancelot “Lance” Rosier with being one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, a sprawling wonderland of biodiversity so unique that UNESCO designated the region a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

A self-taught naturalist, Lance Rosier was born and grew up in the heart of the Big Thicket. As a child he roamed the forest, grew familiar with every trail; he knew every baygall (shallow, stagnant water), and the name of every plant. An avid reader of botanical publications, he became the foremost authority on the flora of the Big Thicket.  Rosier served as a guide for Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory, botanists in the 1930s who authored the Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket, the “Bible” of those wishing to preserve the area.

Lance Rosier, “Mr. Big Thicket”

Original Big Thicket covering much of Southeast Texas

The Big Thicket has always presented a challenge to those who wanted to exploit its riches and to men like Rosier who worked to preserve its unique character. As early as the 17th Century, when Texas was part of the Spanish Colonial Empire, the forest of ninety-eight-foot longleaf pine trees measuring up to six feet in diameter towered over dense growths of six-foot palmetto trees, beech trees, fern, cacti, orchids, and carnivorous plants. The padres who established Spanish missions in East Texas traveled a route that circled north of the 3.5 million-acre swath of Southeast Texas that sprawled from near Nacogdoches to near present Beaumont.

Long before the Spanish arrived, mound-building Caddo Indians and other tribes from along the Gulf coast used the thicket for hunting deer, bear, panthers, and wolves.  At the end of the 18th Century, Alabama and Coushatta Indians migrated into the region and settled in the thicket in the 1830s.

Called “the thicket” because of the dense plant growth and cypress swamps, the region offered ideal hiding places for emigrants coming to Texas to escape legal problems such as bankruptcy and criminal charges in the United States. During the Civil War, when the Confederate government began conscription in 1862, men who did not want to join the army, men who did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for big plantation owners, hid out in the thicket. They survived on the abundance of fish, small game, and wild berries. They set up secret locales where their families brought them coffee and tobacco in exchange for honey, wild game, and fish the families sold in nearby Beaumont.

Lance Rosier grew up listening to the stories about the thicket and the timber barons who began clear-cutting the forests in the mid-1800s and turned the region into a lumber bonanza after the railroad arrived in the 1880s. By the time Spindletop blew in south of Beaumont in 1901, the thicket had been reduced to about 300,000 acres and the oil industry brought more frantic development into the area.

After serving in the army in World War I, Rosier returned to his homeland and worked as a timber cruiser (someone who measures a plot of forest to estimate the quality and quantity of timber in that stand) and he led Big Thicket tours for anyone seeking his expertise including scientists, photographers, students, scholars, and conservationists. Rosier also led politicians such as Texas Governor Price Daniel and Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn as they explored possibilities of making the Big Thicket a Texas state park.

A shy and retiring little man, Rosier is said to have lent a sense of spiritual zeal to his quest to save the thicket. He cataloged hundreds of species of new plants and discovered plants that had been considered extinct. Rosier worked with the original East Texas Big Thicket Association that began in 1927 hoping to save the land and waterways. When that project met political headwinds, he led a new movement that became the Big Thicket Association in the early 1960s.

Remaining units of the Big Thicket National Preserve

Lance Rosier died in 1970, four years before his dream came true. Congress passed a bill in 1974 to establish the first national preserves in this country––the 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve and the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The Big Thicket is a string of nine separate land units and several creek corridors. Today, the Lance Rosier Unit at 25,024 acres is the largest and most diversified preserve in the thicket. It encompasses the land where Rosier was born and roamed as a child.

Cypress Swamp, Rosier Preserve
Greg Lasley, Nature Photographer

Victoria, A Mexican Colony

Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas. Ironically, of the forty-one empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a

Don Martin De Leon

Mexican. Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750. De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River. He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.

De León’s land lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s grant, the first and most successful of the colonies. De León named his settlement Nuestra Señora Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico. The families began arriving in 1824 and received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming. Upon completion of the colonization, the empresario received five leagues.

One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town of Victoria, and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the settlement. Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons. Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.

A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with its Austin Colony neighbor.

De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685. Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had

De Leon Cattle Brand

registered in 1807, was the first in Texas. It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.

From the beginning, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies. His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements. The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León. The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north. And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.

De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars. His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.

The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence. The De Leóns took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause. They contributed enough to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were treated as traitors.

Despite their support, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers. After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.

In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family. Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.

Nobility in Big Spring

Texas claims its share of frontier characters—buffalo hunters, Indian fighters, gunslingers, and cowboys—who roamed and sometimes helped settle the vast western regions. The remittance man, although a less well-known frontier character, represents a few hundred wealthy Europeans, mostly Englishmen, who found themselves exiled in the wilds of West Texas. Although these nobles lost their positions at home, their families continued financial maintenance (remittance) in an apparent effort to keep them out of sight.

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford

Joseph Heneage Finch, Seventh Earl of Aylesford, fits the bill as a remittance man. He held claim to one of the finest estates in England until his life blew up in a scandal that shook British nobility, including such personages as the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), and Lord Blandford Churchill, uncle of the future Sir Winston Churchill. It seems Finch accompanied the Prince of Wales on a goodwill trip to India in 1875-76 only to abruptly leave his sponsor and return home to confront his unfaithful wife and her lover. A divorce followed that shook the highest levels of English society. Finch lost his estate, and he left for adventure in America.

Upon arriving in New York, Finch met Jay Gould, president of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, who described the cheap land and good turkey and antelope hunting in West Texas.

With former buffalo hunter John Birdwell serving as his guide, the earl bought a 37,000-acre ranch northeast of the new railroad town of Big Spring in 1883 and stocked it with $40,000 worth of cattle. Birdwell warned Finch that cowboys “don’t cater to big names and such, so we’ll just call you ‘Judge.’ ” The Judge became popular with the local cowhands for his tales of hunting in India with the Prince of Wales and for footing the bill for their drinking parties.

Storytellers say Finch bought a saloon, tended bar himself, and at the end of the party gave the establishment back to its former owner. We know he satisfied his yen for mutton, which did not sit well with local cowboys and cattlemen, by building his own meat market, the first permanent building in Big Spring. He lined the walls of his lodge with an amazing collection of hunting gear and after the structure burned, he bought the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Some folks say he bought the hotel because he and his friends needed a place to party for one night. He gave the hotel back the next day with the understanding that there would always be a room for him and his buddies. On January 13, 1885, after throwing a lavish Christmas dinner and drinking party that lasted two weeks, the Seventh Earl of Aylesford died in his hotel room at the age of 36.

A Texas Historical Marker in Big Spring tells the English nobleman’s story.

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Texas Historical Marker, Big Spring

Waco’s Suspension Bridge

Slide49After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River.  No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas.  During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river.  Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time.  Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning.  Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000 as the investors continued to issue new stock offerings.  The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads.  The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed.  Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

Slide50The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each.  It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls.  Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach the fords on the river.  The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing.  Today lovely, shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker.  Slide51

Bose Ikard, Black Cowboy

More than a quarter of the cowboys in the 19th century were black and Bose Ikard became one of the most famous frontiersmen and trail drivers in Texas.  Born on a

Bose Ikard

Bose Ikard

Mississippi slave plantation in 1843, Bose Ikard moved to Texas when he was nine years old with his master Dr. Milton Ikard.  The family settled in Parker County, just west of Fort Worth, where Bose learned to farm, ranch, and fight the ever-present Indians.   Even after becoming a freedman at the end of the Civil War, Bose stayed with his master’s family until 1866 when Dr. Ikard wrote a letter of recommendation for Bose to work as a trail driver for Oliver Loving and his partner Charles Goodnight.  Bose joined the already famous Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail over which about eighteen men drove cattle more than 2,000 miles from Texas through New Mexico to Colorado.

After Loving’s death from injuries in an Indian fight in 1867, Bose continued to work for Goodnight and earned his employer’s respect and abiding friendship.

Goodnight is quoted as saying: “Bose surpassed any man I had in endurance and stamina.  There was a dignity, cleanliness and reliability about him that was wonderful.  His behavior was very good in a fight and he was probably the most devoted man to me that I ever knew.  I have trusted him farther than any man.  He was my banker, my detective, and everything else in Colorado, New Mexico, and the other wild country.  The nearest and only bank was in Denver, and when we carried money, I gave it to Bose, for a thief would never think of robbing him.  Bose could be trusted farther than any living man I know.”

Larry McMurtry patterned his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winnning western novel Lonesome Dove and the 1989- TV mini-series after the adventures of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, modeling the character Deets (played by Danny Glover) after Bose Ikard.

J. Evetts Haley in Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman relates Goodnight’s account of Bose Ikard’s rugged endurance, ability as a nightrider, and skill at turning a stampeding herd.

When Bose decided to leave the trail and marry in 1868 Charles Goodnight advised him to settle on a farm near Weatherford an area west of Fort Worth that continued to be plagued by Indian attacks. In 1869 Bose rode with his former master Dr. Milton Ikard in a running battle against Quanah Parker, leader of the aloof and warlike Quahada Comanches who for a decade had refused to move to a reservation.

Bose and his wife Angelina had six children and continued over the years welcoming Goodnight to their home. After Bose died on January 4, 1929, Charles Goodnight had a granite marker placed at his friend’s grave in Greenwood Cemetery.  imgresIt reads: “Bose Ikard served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.”

A Texas Historical marker also stands beside Bose Ikard’s gravesite.imgres-1

A CENTURY OF CHAUTAUQUA

An octagonal-shaped wooden building in Waxahachie began hosting hundreds and then thousands of enthusiastic farmer families and small-town residents from all over North Texas when it opened in 1902.  They came in wagons and on horseback to camp out for a week to ten days; they slept in tents and under their wagons; and for the first time in their lives they enjoyed a chance to hear humorists, watch jugglers, listen to statesmen talk of patriotism and actors read Shakespeare.

Before the turn of the last century, a few Waxahachie residents reported with great excitement their travels to the famous summer adult education center on Chautauqua Lake in western New York State where they heard speakers, musicians, preachers, and scientists.

Organized in 1874 by a Methodist preacher and a businessman, Chautauqua started as a training program for Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer camp setting.  It grew in popularity and soon “daughter” Chautauquas began springing up all over the United States.  In the early days, the most popular lectures were inspirational and reform speeches.  Over the years, the fare lightened with the addition of current events, story-telling, and travelogues—often in a humorous vein.

The first Waxahachie Chautauqua Summer Assembly met in 1900 in a pavilion constructed along a creek in West End Park.  More than 75 tents dotted the landscape that first year.  With the completion in 1902 of the 2500-seat Chautauqua auditorium, the pavilion became a dining hall.  The new all-wood building, constructed at a cost of $2750, boasted large wooden windows that slid upward into the wall to create an open-air facility, which boasted electric lights.  Drinking water came from a large, nearby water tank.  At times crowds from 5,000 to 7,000 milled in and around the building.  Buggies often pulled up beside the windows to offer extra seating and at least once, tents stretched out from the windows to protect the audience standing outside from the summer sun.

The list of programs and the response of the audiences paints a clear picture of how eagerly rural and small-town residents grasped for an opportunity to know about the world and to be challenged with new information in those days before widespread communication.  A professor from Trinity University captivated the audience with experiments showing the many uses of liquid air.  A group of local men shared their world travels with a packed auditorium and people standing in the windows.  In 1906 a standing-room-only crowd arrived for a demonstration of wireless telegraphy. A packed house paid fifty cents a ticket to hear William Jennings Bryant, the famous populist orate on “The Price of a Soul.”

The attendees enjoyed plenty of social life.  A Chautauqua Parlor offered popular piano and vocal solos and tables set up for games of Forty-Two.  The local Young Men’s Chautauqua erected a social tent complete with electric fans and ice water.  Later, they added sofas and rugs.  The group became known as the “matrimonial agency” because of the number of couples that met at the social tent and later married.

Music brought in crowds especially when the U.S. Marine Band performed in 1914.  Scottish music and the Highland Fling became a 1922 hit.  The next year an electrical storm interrupted for twenty-five minutes a lecture and demonstration of electricity and the radio.  John Phillip Sousa changed his schedule at the last minute in 1925 and crossed out Waxahachie on his hand-written itinerary and in its place wrote “Korsikana,” obviously meaning the lucky town of Corsicana a few miles down the road.

World War I themes turned to patriotism and the war effort.  A war tax boosted the new ticket price of $2.50.  A 1918 program highlighted war inventions–two-wheel automobiles or gyrocars, airplanes with gyroscopes, ultra-violet rays, and hearing torpedoes—for a spellbound audience.

By the 1920s at the height of its popularity, twenty-one companies operated ninety-three Chautauqua circuits in the United States and Canada.  Often, one performer finished his presentation and left for the train as another arrived.  When circuits began booking performers, access opened to New York City actors presenting plays such as “The Melting Pot,” “Little Women,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pinafore.”

By 1926 the talent began arriving via automobile, which caused one performance to be cancelled because the actors coming from their show in Ardmore, Oklahoma, ran into bad roads and did not make it in time for the production.  Will Rogers the cowboy humorist, on his third U.S. tour, made a stop in Waxahachie in 1927.  As the audience waited for his show, they listened in delight to a radio program amplified with music.  Although he spoke for 101 minutes, some in attendance left disappointed because he did not do his famous trick roping, for which he named himself the “poet lariat.”

Several cultural, social, and financial events—advent of the automobile, the popularity of the radio, and the Great Depression–began a slow erosion in the attendance at Chautauqua.  Ticket sales declined, forcing local supporters to underwrite more and more of the Chautauqua expenses.  By 1930 the Chautauqua Assembly in Waxahachie came to an end.

The old building slowly declined and its door shuttered in 1971 as the city considered tearing it down.  Members of the community formed the Chautauqua Preservation Society and began fund raising to restore the building.  The Texas Historical Commission awarded the building a state historical marker, and it was placed n the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1975, with the restoration complete, the grand old building reopened with a July 4 celebration.  It serves today as a city auditorium hosting reunions, conferences, civic and educational events, and high school graduations.  The Fort Worth Symphony performs several times a year.  And a new generation has a visual reminder of an era when people came from miles around, eager for a sampling of the latest in culture and entertainment.

AIRSHIP FLYS BEFORE WRIGHT BROTHERS?

Residents in the East Texas town of Pittsburg house in the local museum a full-size replica of the Ezekiel Airship, which many old timers declare flew almost a year before the Wright brother’s claim to fame at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Burrell Cannon, a mechanical genius and part-time Baptist preacher, inspired by the first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel in which the prophet writes of angelic vehicles composed of wheels within wheels, worked over twenty years building models and improving his design for a flying machine.  In 1901, Cannon convinced Pittsburg businessmen to establish the Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company and issue stock for twenty thousand dollars to underwrite the project.

Employees of the Pittsburg Foundry and Machine Company built the airship between March and October 1902.  Its engine turned four sets of paddles, which powered large, fabric-covered wings—incorporating a compulsion force similar to a helicopter.

Local residents claim seeing the airship fly for about 160 feet at a height of ten to twelve feet. A former machine shop worker admitted that one Sunday, when Cannon and the other investors were out of town, the employees took the plane out to the field across from the shop and he flew it.  All the conspirators, fearing the loss of their jobs, made a pact not to tell anyone.  If the story is true, it explains why no newspaper coverage exists and why officials of the company denied the flight.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made their famous flight.

The next year investors loaded the Ezekiel on a flatbed railroad car for a trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair.  As the train neared Texarkana, a fierce storm blew the airship off the railcar and destroyed it.

The Reverend Cannon did not attempt another flight until 1913 in Chicago when his new craft flew only a few feet, hit a telephone pole, and received damage to the bottom of the ship. The Reverend, declaring God had not willed the airship to fly, promptly gave up the project.

A Texas Historical Marker tells the story in Pittsburg at Fulton and South Market streets beside the railroad tracks.