Saving the Battleship Texas

You may have seen news footage the other day of the big event. Starting before dawn on Wednesday, August 31, the Battleship Texas was towed out of its berth at the San Jacinto Monument near Baytown. A fleet of tugboats pulled the massive old ship backwards out into the Houston Ship Channel, then one got in front of it and began towing her down the channel, past the refineries, and down to the mouth of Galveston Bay. The ship was maneuvered into a giant drydock at a Galveston shipyard, where it will be repaired and restored and made ready for a new home.

The USS Texas, BB-35, was the second US Navy vessel to bear our state’s name. The original Texas was launched in 1892 and was actually the first American naval vessel designated as a “battleship.” That ship served in the Spanish-American War and later was renamed USS San Marcos so the old name could be given to a new ship.

(By the way, there was also a guided-missile cruiser named USS Texas, CGN-39, in service with the Navy from 1977 through 1993. The current Texas, SSN 775, has been on duty since 2006. She is a Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast attack submarine serving as part of Submarine Force Atlantic. Her motto is, “Don’t mess with Texas!”)

The historic Texas was launched in 1912 and commissioned in 1914 as the second New York-class ship to be built. These vessels were generally known as “dreadnoughts,” a class of enormous ships with larger main guns, steam-power, and other technological advances of the early part of the Twentieth Century. Texas’ main battery consisted of ten 14-inch cannon, which could fire 1,400-pound armor-piercing projectiles up to 13 miles. She was also initially equipped with 21 5-inch guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. The Texas also served as a technological “test bed.” She was the first battleship to have anti-aircraft guns mounted onboard, the first US ship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers, the first US battleship to launch an aircraft, and one of the first US Navy ships to receive production radar.

The ship served faithfully in World War I before being refitted in 1925-26, designated as the “Flagship” of the US Navy, and serving with both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. When World War II broke out, she was initially assigned to convoy escort duty before participating in the “Operation Torch” landings at North Africa. Later, the Texas was part of “Operation Overlord” D-Day landings on Normandy. She supported the Rangers scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, where she fired 255 14-inch shells in 35 minutes – a fire rate of 7.5 shells per minute. She then shifted her focus to Omaha Beach and continued firing at enemy positions along the beach and inland. During these operations, the battle cry was, “Come on, Texas!”

A few days later, she was engaged with the enemy near the French city of Cherbourg, when she was hit by German fire and suffered the loss of her helmsman killed and others wounded. She was also hit by a German shell that was a dud; this unexploded projectile is still on display in the ship’s museum. She was reassigned to the Pacific, and in 1945, participated in the heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She was decommissioned after the war and in 1948, the ship became the first battleship designated as a permanent floating museum in her namesake state. Today, she’s a survivor: the last of the dreadnought class, and the only remaining capital ship to have served in both World Wars.

She has been refurbished since coming to Texas, but not since 1988-1990. She is currently under the jurisdiction of Texas Parks & Wildlife. Voters in 2007 approved providing state funds for the ship’s maintenance, as well as creating the non-profit Battleship Texas Foundation to raise additional monies, to support preservation and upkeep. The repairs now beginning are expected to take two years and are being funded from a combination of public and private revenue.

What will become of the Texas? Good question. She’s NOT going back to San Jacinto. The BTF is considering several possible new permanent homes, including Galveston, Baytown, and Beaumont. (Personally, I’d vote for Galveston, but it’s not my call.)

The Battleship Texas, being towed past Pelican Island, on her way into a Galveston drydock. She will undergo two years’ worth of repairs before resuming her status as a floating museum.
Photo credit – KPRC-TV.

Wherever she ends up, here’s a salute to this fine old ship. May she continue proudly to bear the name of her state and hold out her valuable lessons about history and service for many more generations.

“Come on, Texas!” And in the words of the old sailor’s blessing, Fair Winds and Following Seas.

At the Old Ball Game

Kathy and I celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary the other day with a family get-together in the Metroplex. Our older daughter Brittany, who lives in Baltimore with her husband, John, couldn’t be with us, but our other three kids joined us for a terrific weekend. The first stop was to Abilene early Saturday morning, to meet our younger daughter Erin, and her husband Joseph. Erin drove their car, so Mom and I got to be chauffeured all the way over to the Metroplex and back.

Our son Drew lives in Dallas, so we met him and his girlfriend Reid for lunch. They suggested we go to an upscale food court in downtown Dallas known as “The Exchange.” It’s located in sure-enough Down-Town Big D, in the heart of the AT&T Discovery District. Like any food court at a mall, they had a number of eating places that specialize in fast service, with lots of tables and chairs around the area. What was different was the quality and wide variety of the types of food being offered from the 16 different eateries, serving everything from gourmet burgers and pizza, to Middle Eastern street food and Asian noodles, and from seafood and tacos to soft-serve ice cream topped with your favorite sweet breakfast cereal.

Kathy and I ate at a place called Baboushi. I have been blessed to go to the Middle East twice and really enjoy the food there. We had gyros made with shredded lamb, stuffed in a pita bread pocket, with lettuce, tomatoes, and an amazing sauce. We also shared a side order of falafel – if you’re not familiar with that, think of a hush puppy made of ground chickpeas, fried up nice and crispy and served with tahini (sesame) sauce. It was delicious and reasonably priced. They also had shawarma wraps, made with roasted chicken (think of a really good chicken soft taco), a great salad bar, and many other options.

Drew and Reid were excited to see us and to show us around “their” city. After lunch, we went to a park in downtown there where a giant “street fair” was in progress, with lots of craft booths and food trucks, and people selling all kinds of handmade items. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to see all the different kinds of vendors and their wares, and to do a little people-watching. It was also a good spot to “walk off” our lunch and stretch our legs after the ride over there.

Next we went to the Dallas Museum of Art, also downtown. Part of Drew’s contribution to the anniversary trip was to treat us with tickets for a touring exhibit at the museum, featuring jewelry made by the Cartier family of Paris, especially brothers Louis and Jacques. The exhibit focused on the influences that shaped their jewelry creations, especially from the Middle East and India – such incredibly detailed creations of gold with diamonds, turquoise, and gemstones too numerous to count.

We went to our hotel, where our other son Travis was waiting for us – he had driven over and met us there, and we all piled into Erin’s car to go to Globe Life Field and the Rangers game. It was “Michael Young Bobblehead Night” at the ballpark, so we wanted to make sure we got there early enough to get one – he was always one of my favorite Rangers, and he is still the all-time club leader in several categories. It was also induction night for the Rangers Hall of Fame, so we were able to see another all-time favorite Ranger, Ian Kinsler, honored with being named to the team’s HOF, along with the club’s outstanding PR guy, John Blake. Several other favorite Rangers from down through the years also made appearances, either in person or by video, including Jim Sundberg, Pudge Rodriguez, Ferguson Jenkins, Adrian Beltré, and Nolan Ryan, so that was fun. And former President George W. Bush, who was a co-owner of the team several years ago, also sent a video message.

Then it was time for the game. We had good seats, down low in the first deck above left field, just inside the foul pole. Drew and I enjoyed talking strategy as we watched the fielders adjusting their positions, based on the ball and strike counts to each hitter. The Mariners jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but our boys tied it up, then took the lead for good and won the game, 7-4.

Here’s the whole bunch of us, all decked out in our Rangers gear (from left) Son-in-law Joseph Santana, daughter Erin Beth, Kathy and myself, son Drew, his girlfriend Reid, and son Travis.

It was a fun trip, and I’m thankful we got to go. More than that, I’m thankful for the love and companionship of family. The scriptures teach that “God sets the lonely in families,” and I’m very thankful for ours.

The Regency Bridge

A Sight Worth Seeing – A Site Worth Visiting

Kathy and I were in the mood for a little daytrip recently. We didn’t really have the time (or money!) to go on a long trip, but we just wanted to get away for a few hours and see some different sights. After talking about it, we decided to head south towards Goldthwaite and San Saba, and see the Regency Bridge. It turned out to be a drive worth taking.

You may not be familiar with the Regency Bridge by name, but you have probably seen pictures of it, crossing high above the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties. It’s the one-lane suspension bridge featured on the opening of the TV program Texas Country Reporter, and it was visited by then-Governor George W. Bush when it was dedicated and reopened following repairs in 1997. It has survived long enough to become the last suspension bridge in the state still open to vehicular traffic.

The Regency Bridge is a one-lane, wooden-decked suspension bridge high above the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties. The bridge is 16’ wide, and the main span is 343’ long; the total length with approaches is 403’. It soars about 75’ to 100’ above the river that it crosses.

It is at the intersection of Mills County Road 433 and San Saba County Road 137 (both gravel roads), near the tiny community of Regency (population 25). It’s a little hard to find – there aren’t very many signs pointing the way – but in my opinion, well worth the effort if you enjoy Hill Country-type scenery and interesting Texas history.

Speaking of history – the current bridge is the third to span the Colorado at that location. The first was a traditional truss bridge, built in 1903. It only lasted 21 years – in 1924, a local rancher and his two sons were taking a herd of cattle across the bridge, which collapsed under the combined weight. The father and one son managed to survive, but the man’s nine-year-old son and several head of livestock were killed in the tragedy. There were no state funds available, but it was the only bridge for miles around, so Mills and San Saba Counties went in together and had the bridge rebuilt in 1931. Unfortunately, THAT bridge was lost in a flood in 1936.

Then in 1939, the counties hired the Austin Bridge Company out of Dallas to raise and improve the bridge at a cost of $30,000. They put up two tall welded-steel towers and strung – by hand – hundreds of feet of cabling to make the suspension bridge. The cables are 3.25” in diameter, each consisting of 475 strands of No. 9 galvanized wire, extending 16 feet beyond the bridge abutment towers and secured with tons of concrete. The wooden deck roadway is supported by timber stringers and steel floor beams with steel suspension rods.

To get to the bridge from Goldthwaite, take FM 574 West about 12 miles. Watch the County Road signs and turn off to the left – that’s south – on CR 432. You’ll go about seven or eight miles when you come to a dead end and a T-intersection. TURN LEFT – this is CR 433 – and go maybe a quarter of a mile, and you’ll see the approach to the bridge. Be advised this is a one-lane bridge with traffic coming and going from both sides. If you are approaching the bridge and see a vehicle coming towards you, be sure to stop short enough to allow them to get past you before you drive across. Also, please understand that cellular service is spotty at best, so don’t count on using the Maps app on your phone for navigation help.

When you cross the bridge in your car (and you’ll want to drive slowly to enjoy the magnificent views of the Colorado River), you can hear the rattle and rumble of the timbers as you drive across. And you can actually feel the bridge sway in the wind. Locally, it’s known as “The Swinging Bridge,” and this is why. But to really enjoy the bridge and the scenery, besides driving across, I’d suggest parking under the shade of some nearby live oaks and walking across. Anyone with a fear of heights, and families with young children should probably skip that part.

The Regency Bridge provides gorgeous views overlooking
the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba Counties.

Suspension bridges have several lessons to teach us. For one thing, as my dear friend, former Haskell pastor David Page used to teach: there are many spiritual truths which must be held in suspension against each other, just like the two ends of a suspension bridge – what he used to call “Biblical Tension.” Another lesson is to consider that the individual strands of cable that are used to hold up the bridge are tiny, almost flimsy. Bundle enough of them together, though, and look at the weight they can hold.

It’s an object lesson about teamwork and about the good we can accomplish when we work together.

Exploring Galveston

One thing about living in Texas – there’s no shortage of nice spots to visit, and fun things to see and do. I love going to Fredericksburg, and I enjoy the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and San Antonio is always great. But of all the terrific places to go in Texas (and no disrespect to another other locations), Galveston remains my favorite. I grew up just a couple of hours away from there, and I still love it.

There are just so many fascinating places to visit, and so many things to do. Or, for that matter, get a comfortable chair and just sit on the beach and do nothing. (Be sure to leave your phone in your motel room.) Here are some of my favorite things to do on the Island City.

Visit the Strand.

Beginning in the 1880s, Galveston’s Financial District was a prominent center of banking and commerce, the “Wall Street of the South.” Today, the restored buildings are home to all kinds of shops and stores, from upscale boutiques to architectural salvage, and from unusual antiques to old-school soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. You can spend hours walking up and down these old sidewalks. It’s also home of the city’s giant Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Christmas extravaganza, “Dickens on the Strand.”

This brightly-painted mural is near “The Strand” in old Galveston.

Tour the museums.

Galveston is home to numerous museums – one of the largest is their Train Museum, located at the intersection of Strand Street and 25th. The high-rise Santa Fe depot has been restored and features several fascinating exhibits, with life-size mannequins posed as travelers from the past. Out back, they have one of the largest private collections of rail equipment in the country, including diesel and steam locomotives, passenger cars, freight equipment, and more. If trains aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other museums in the city, including Seawolf State Park, with the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cavalla on permanent exhibit. Want to learn a little science? Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, or tour one several art museums in the city. There really is something for every taste.

Ride the ferry.

There are two ways on and off the island in your car – one is the causeway and bridge coming down I-45 from the mainland, and the other is by the free ferry boat operated by TxDOT, between Galveston’s eastern side to the Bolivar peninsula. Visiting Bolivar is worth the trip – there’s a beautiful historic old lighthouse there – but even if you don’t need to drive up there, I would recommend driving to the ferry, walking up and riding it across and back. Watch for dolphins as you head across the ship channel.

Hit the beach.

As an island, of course, Galveston has miles of good beaches. If you enjoy fishing, there are several jetties and piers for you to indulge yourself – just be sure to have a valid fishing license and know the regs, because the game wardens will check you and your catch. And there are great places to walk in the surf, or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the gulf. If you’re driving on Seawall Boulevard, there are plenty of good places to park. You’ll have to pay, but it’s cheap, easy and secure to just use your phone and bill a credit or debit card.

Our family enjoys visiting the park at the west end of island. It’s less crowded, and if you go at low tide, you can find some gorgeous seashells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two.

Sunrise over the Gulf, as seen from our hotel.

Learn a little history.

Galveston was a major port during the Civil War. After that war, it was where Union troops landed, and it was there that General Order #3 was announced, proclaiming an end to slavery. That day was June 19, 1865, known since as “Juneteenth.” There’s lots of history all around you on the island. You can take a driving tour of numerous historic homes – many predating the “Big Hurricane” of September 1900. Which, by the way, is still the most catastrophic loss of life due to natural causes in the nation’s history – something like 8,000 people perished.

Climb aboard the tall ship Elissa, and “learn the ropes” of antique sailing vessels. Tour the beautiful Victorian-era Moody Mansion. And so much more.

Enjoy some good food.

There is absolutely no shortage of great places to eat around here, regardless of your price range. If you’re on the Strand, visit the Hubcap Grill for one of their awesome burgers. Or check out the Star Drug Store and see their authentic soda fountain.

Of course, where you find the sea, you’ll find the seafood, and Galveston has plenty. Gaido’s on the Seawall has been open since 1911, and features a nautical theme. It’s a bit pricey, but the food is amazing. If you’re near Pleasure Pier, check out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on – you guessed it – the well-known Tom Hanks movie. (“Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates.”) Or try a really awesome shrimp po-boy sandwich at Benno’s Cajun Seafood. And of course, there are plenty of chain restaurants and fast-food places, if the kids insist on eating chicken nuggets.

However you enjoy your “down-time,” you’ll find something to like about Galveston. I’m ready to go back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always “Island Time.”

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

A Loving Look at the Lone Star State

Texas Country Reporter is a TV news magazine show built on an unusual format. Every week the host and crew travel around the state and present a half-hour program of good news and positive stories that celebrate Texas people and Texas culture. (There are several such programs now, but TCR was the first.) The long-time host has been Bob Phillips; in recent years, he has been joined by his wife, Kelli, and the two of them crisscross the state every week, from Beaumont to El Paso, and from Dalhart to Brownsville, telling the stories that make Texas special.

It started out back in 1971, when Bob was a young staff member at Dallas TV station KDFW, channel four. He saw the “On the Road” segments that Charles Kuralt was producing for the CBS Evening News, hosted by Walter Cronkite. Bob figured he could do something similar in telling Texas stories, and 4 Country Reporter was born. A few years later, it morphed into an independent, syndicated TV program, and became Texas Country Reporter, or TCR. The program is found locally on Abilene’s KTXS-TV, channel 12, along with a number of stations across the state, as well as the RFD-TV cable channel and YouTube.

In celebration of their fiftieth year, Bob and Kelli have produced a live musical program that they are taking around the state. The format goes something like this: they arrange for a local band or orchestra to play the music, featuring familiar and historic Western and Texas tunes, music from the TCR show, and original compositions. While the music is playing, the hosts provide narration that recounts the history of the state from the days of the first European settlers up to modern times. It’s called “A Texas Tribute.”

During its running length of about 90 minutes, the show celebrates many of the things that make Texas unique and special. This past Friday evening, they brought the show to Abilene’s Historic Paramount Theatre, with the World-Famous Cowboy Band from Hardin-Simmons University providing the music. Bob and Kelli took the stage, and as Bob’s familiar voice began and the music drew us in, we in the audience were treated to a special evening.

Bob & Kelli Phillips in front of the HSU Cowboy Band, at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Abilene. They were presenting their affectionate tribute to the history and culture of our state in the program, A Texas Tribute, produced as part of TCR’s 50th anniversary celebration.

As the program got started, we heard narration from a speech by Stephen F. Austin, given to prospective settlers, in which he discussed the outstanding qualities of the land and the place to which he was inviting them. We heard the letter that Colonel Travis wrote from the Alamo as the band played “El Degüello,” the bugle call of the Mexican army, meaning “No Quarter” – no mercy for the enemy. The narrators then took us to San Jacinto, where legend says General Santa Anna was keeping company in his tent with a beautiful former slave named Emily Morgan, who was – ahem – “distracting” him from his duties with the army. And legend says, that’s where we get the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a good story.

One of my personal favorites was during the time they were talking about the cowboy way of life, and they read an excerpt from a memoir by an old cowboy from the famous XIT Ranch. He talked about his last days of riding for that brand, and some of the memories he had of being alone on the range with only his horse for companionship. And he talked about the day that he rode to the nearest railroad town, took his saddle off the horse and turned him loose. He watched as the horse made his way back to camp, then the cowboy turned towards town and his cowboying days were over.

From there, it was ragtime music and remembering the Spindletop oil gusher of 1901. We also heard a new arrangement of our official state song, “Texas Our Texas.” Back when I was in elementary school, we used to sing it regularly, but these days, not very many folks even recognize the tune anymore, let alone remember the words. The first verse goes,

Texas, Our Texas! All hail the mighty State!
Texas, Our Texas! So wonderful, so great!
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev’ry test
O Empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest.
      God bless you, Texas! And keep you brave and strong,
      That you may grow in power and worth, throughout the ages long.

It was a wonderful evening of Texas music, history, and legend. Kathy and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and we saw several Haskell friends and neighbors there. Thanks to our daughter Brittany who gave us the tickets.

And God bless Texas.

More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Railroad Memories

It’s difficult these days for us to realize how much significance our ancestors living a hundred years ago placed on the railroad, but imagine if the internet, the news media, your communications system, the mail, the future of your business, and your transportation system were all rolled up into a single entity? Throw in the chance for economic development as well as the opportunity for face-to-face social networking and interaction, and you have some idea of what the railroad meant to those who came before us.

The first community in Haskell County to see the “Iron Horse” was actually Sagerton. The Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad was building north on its way to Kansas City in the summer and fall of 1905. The story is, they wanted to go through Stamford, but a wealthy rancher blocked them, so they went a few miles west and arrived in Sagerton on December 9, 1905. The town was actually named for local landowner William Sager, who donated land for the depot, the right-of-way, and certain town lots. Later the Stamford & Northwestern arrived there in 1909 on its way to Spur, making Sagerton the only town in the county to have TWO railroads. Historical accounts state that the two depots were located “some distance apart, to the inconvenience of the public.”

The “Orient Line,” as it was known, continued on its way north, creating the towns of Rule, Rochester, and O’Brien in 1905 and 1906. The KC, M & O was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1930s; it was salvaged in 1996, although some of the historical depots remain in the communities they served. (For now, I’m having to leave out some colorful stories, including a fascinating one about residents in northwestern Haskell County who, when they realized the railroad was bypassing them, just picked up and moved the town and became part of Rochester. But I digress.)

Early histories of the county reveal some of the negotiations – along with lots of broken promises and double-dealing – in the early efforts to bring a railroad to the city of Haskell. In 1906, the Wichita Valley RR, owned by Abilene rail entrepreneur Morgan Jones, was on its way to connect Wichita Falls with Abilene. They came through Weinert first, then they arrived in Haskell at noon on August 2, 1906. In their August 4 edition two days later, the Haskell Free Press described it as a “Consummation Long Desired,” adding “Haskell is now a railroad town, bound by bands of steel to the outer world.” The WV was eventually merged into the Fort Worth & Denver, then the Burlington, and finally the Burlington Northern. It was eventually abandoned and torn up in the mid-1990s.

Did you know that Haskell once had its own streetcar? A gasoline-powered streetcar owned by Mr. M.R. Hemphill ran from the WV depot to the square, then three miles north through what would later be known as the “Shook Addition,” to Hemphill Lake, and ending near the present location of the Haskell Country Club. The line operated from 1909-10 and cost ten cents to ride. At the lake was a bandstand, a golf course, and recreation facilities.

Haskell’s streetcar was in operation from 1909-1910. Pictured are Frank Craddock at the controls; Mrs. B. Baker, front seat; Mrs. C.L. Lewis, second row.
Photo from Haskell County and Its Pioneers, by Rex A. Felker.

Many of you have been kind enough to share with me some of your train-related memories from the old days of Haskell. Sam Pace tells the story of his grandfather, William Lynn Pace Senior, who owned Haskell’s first Ford dealership, near where Kay’s Cleaners is now. Mr. Pace also knew Henry Ford, and back in the day, the new Fords would arrive in Haskell by train, disassembled and boxed up in crates. Mr. Pace’s mechanics would go down to the depot and unload the crates, reassemble the cars, pour in a cup or two of gasoline, and drive the contraptions down to the Ford house.

One common memory that I have heard from several folks has been about “riding the Doodlebug” – a self-propelled rail passenger car. For many years in the 1940s, riding that railcar was a much-anticipated school field trip. Do you remember riding it? Do you have any pictures of it, or other rail-related recollections to tell from the old days of Haskell? We would love to hear from you! We will share some of those stories, and more, in our next column.

A Place Called Honey Island

(Dusty’s note – I have printed this article in the past, but it is my favorite story about Labor Day, so I’m going to run it again. I hope you don’t mind.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island. How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July 1964 – less than a month after the picture was made. (The date shown, August 1964, was the processing date. Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.) Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, several family members were talking and decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to see each other. So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion began, with all of the cousins, family members, the Garisons and the Garrisons (we spell our name with only one “R,” but we do have some “2-R” cousins), the Linscombs, the Cottons, along with the in-laws, out-laws, and some assorted friends.

Here I am with my grandparents, my brothers, and a bunch of my cousins. I’m the shirtless one, second from the left. My grandmother died not long after this snapshot was taken.

In the heart of Southeast Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze. And back in the day, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables, and two giant swimming pools, fed by artesian springs. One of the pools was shallow and perfect for us kids, with water that went from about three feet to eight feet deep. The other (which mom wouldn’t let us go in) was deep, with a diving board that must have been 200 feet in the air! (Okay really, it was probably 20 or 30 feet over the water, but it LOOKED really high and scary to me.)

I remember the water had this vague, sulfur-y smell – kind of like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days. We didn’t mind the smell. It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall with a jukebox. CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing. (“Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…”) Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the music from the pool. And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great. Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad. Mom would sometimes fix a giant pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots, and always plenty of other good things to eat. Sometimes there would be homemade ice cream, and ALWAYS, lots of ice-cold watermelon. It was a great time to be a kid. And part of the family. The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island. One by one, the older folks passed away. The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own. But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much. Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

Having family reunions is a lot of bother and fuss, no doubt about it. But I deeply appreciate my parents for going and for taking us, and for all the trouble they went to so that we could enjoy those times together with family. Those memories are very precious to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island. And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families. Try not to wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.