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The Hawkins Ranch in Texas: From Plantation Times to the Present

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In 1846, James Boyd Hawkins, his wife Ariella, and their young children left North Carolina to establish a sugar plantation in Matagorda County, in the Texas coastal bend.
In The Hawkins Ranch in Texas: From Plantation Times to the Present, Margaret Lewis Furse, a great-granddaughter of James B. and Ariella Hawkins and an active partner in today’s Hawkins Ranch, has mined public records, family archives, and her own childhood memories to compose this sweeping portrait of more than 160 years of plantation, ranch, and small-town life.

Letters sent by the Hawkinses from the Texas plantation to their North Carolina family in the mid-nineteenth century describe sugar making, the perils of cholera and fevers, the activities of children, and the “management” of slaves. Public records and personal papers reveal the experience of the Hawkins family during the Civil War, when J. B. Hawkins sold goods to the Confederacy and helped with Confederate coastal defenses near his plantation. In the 1930s, the death of their parents left the ranch in the hands of four sisters, at a time when few women owned and ran cattle operations.

The Hawkins Ranch in Texas: From Plantation Times to the Present offers a panoramic view of agrarian lifeways and how they must adapt to changing times.

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27 Chapters

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1. North Carolina Roots


Chapter 1


In 1829 John Davis Hawkins was feeling that worrisome shudder that so often afflicts members of an older generation when looking at the young and finding them undisciplined. Hawkins was a North Carolina lawyer and planter, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina, and for fifty years one of its trustees.

His eldest son, James Boyd Hawkins, a boy of sixteen at the time, whose life would be lived out in Texas, was approaching college age. Should this son attend his father’s revered alma mater, the University of North Carolina? The father had grave doubts and confided them in a letter to his classmate John Branch, the secretary of the navy. He told Branch that the students were too little disciplined by the faculty and that they were more given to “extravagant dissipation and drunkenness” than to “emulating each other for literary form.” John D. Hawkins wrote this gloomy evaluation and said it made him think of West Point as perhaps a better alternative. But first he would like to make a visit there himself to get more information on West Point educational methods. Could John Branch, as secretary of the navy, possibly arrange to have him appointed an official visitor there the following June?1


2. Letters Written en Route


Chapter 2


Traveling to Texas, Ariella wrote to her mother on November 20, 1846, when she arrived in New Orleans from Memphis. The fact that New Orleans was a new and thrilling adventure for her suggests that Ariella probably had not been to Texas before the trip she now described.

She was “heartedly tired of traveling” and anxious to get to their Caney Creek home in Texas. Traveling in a paddle wheeler, they had started down the Mississippi from Memphis. Probably they arrived at Memphis from North Carolina by private carriages or public stage. The slaves, who accompanied them on the Mississippi riverboat, had made their way from North Carolina to Memphis in their own group, probably by wagon. All reached Memphis safely, Ariella told her mother, who she knew would want to hear, and were “well pleased” with their trip.1

The party traveling to Texas together consisted of Ariella and her husband, whom she called “Mr. Hawkins”; their six children, including their baby daughter Ella; and the wife of the (probably permanent) overseer hired for their Caney plantation. Ariella did not say whether the overseer himself was on board. While J. B. Hawkins was bringing his family to Texas, he had put a temporary man named McNeel in charge at Caney. The trip from Memphis to New Orleans took them one week by paddle wheeler.


3. Starting the Caney Sugar Plantation


Chapter 3


In Texas J. B. Hawkins went into partnership with another brother, John Davis Hawkins Jr., and on October 17, 1846, these two brothers signed a written agreement to buy and cultivate land on Caney Creek. While 1846 is the date of their written agreement, the two brothers had selected their land earlier in 1845. The agreement does not specify that their plantation is to be for sugar cane exclusively; it speaks only of the cultivation of crops in general. This written and signed partnership agreement was witnessed by still another brother, Dr. William J. Hawkins. Following is a summary of the 1846 partnership agreement that marks the beginning of the North Carolina Hawkins family’s farming and (in later years) ranching business in Texas.1

James B. Hawkins and John D. Hawkins Jr. agreed to purchase land in Matagorda County for cultivating crops along the Caney Creek, sometimes called the Caney River. From Thomas Williams they bought about fifteen hundred acres at a price of three dollars per acre, payable in installments and without interest. The Thomas Williams League is located just north of Sargent on both sides of Caney Creek at the place that was to include the acres of the Hawkins sugar plantation and the crossroads village later called Hawkinsville.


4. Ariella and Plantation Family Life


Chapter 4


Ariella had great confidence that her husband would succeed. She and the children knew all the details of her husband’s projections for the planting, harvesting, and marketing of his crops. Her own day-to-day responsibilities included the care of her children and managing the household, the servants under her supervision, and the vegetable garden and poultry. She was as busy as her husband with her eight children, her 102 chickens (her actual count), and a garden that she told her mother provided peas, lettuce, radishes, pumpkins, Irish potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbages “in abundance.” And she hoped that her mother would send her more seed, which she said was hard to get. She also noted she had sewn three suits each for her two little boys, James and John.

At first Ariella plainly missed her relatives and felt shut off from the socializing so available to her back in North Carolina. Her reports of this isolation are factual and uncomplaining. “I never have anything to write about except my family,” she said. At Caney she had neighbors, but only one was near enough to visit in a day and return the same night. She explained that the close neighbor was the family of Colonel Jones, who happened to be the “brother of the girl I went to school with in Salem . . . Mrs. Jones has been to see me twice. She is very clever and kind and I like her very much.”1


5. The Case of Edgar and Ways of Thought in Slavery Times


Chapter 5


Although Spain and Mexico had opposed slavery, when Stephen F. Austin was colonizing Texas and about twenty-five years later when the Hawkins family came in 1846, the state was seeking settlers who could farm profitably and contribute to a productive, stable citizenry. Successful planters were those who came with their own labor supply—their slaves. Texas had a surplus of land but a scarcity of labor. Thus families from the South who came with a slave labor force were welcome, and the slave-holding families found the cheap land in Texas a boon. Growing crops was profitable provided there were enough laborers to farm on a larger than subsistence scale. One contemporary observer notes that “very few even poor men consent to be hired, preferring to work their own lands,” a disposition that reduced the number of acres worked and made them less profitable than a more extensive slave-worked plantation. For this reason, almost no one at the time could think of a profitable way to cultivate a large plantation except by slave labor.1


6. Building the Ranch House (Lake House), 1854


Chapter 6


James B. Hawkins presented an impressive piece of news to the North Carolina family on January 12, 1854. To his mother-in-law he wrote: “I am very busy sawing out lumber for her [Ariella’s] Lake Auston House. She is going to put up a large and splendid building and I hope after it is finished to have you to live with us. I think we will make a pretty place of it.” By March 22, 1854, J.B. reported to Major Archibald Alston that the framing of the house was up.

We will complete the frame of my Lake House this week. It is three stories high with nine rooms and cross passages and galleries all around with a large closet to every room and every room has a fire place. It will be a star house when completed. The sawmill makes lumber very fast. We are up to our shoulders in work with our different works to keep them all going as they ought to go.1

Ariella’s diplomatic husband refers to the house as his wife’s when he writes to her mother, but when he writes Major Arch, it becomes “my Lake House.” J. B. Hawkins selected the location for the house and to a large extent oversaw the construction himself. He had the help of a master carpenter and the skilled craftsmen among the plantation’s slave workforce. He supervised sawing the lumber cut from trees on his own Caney bottom land. The flooring wood in the house was ash. Some of the larger structural supporting timbers still had evidence of the bark. Even today, the marks of an adze are evident on some heavier beams, and nails in use had square heads. The house was certainly made from a detailed plan, but who drew the plan is still a mystery, although there are grounds for speculation.2


7. Effects of Civil War and Emancipation


Chapter 7


The two major events that marked the years 1861 to 1865, the Civil War and the Emancipation, affected the J. B. Hawkins plantation in opposite ways. During the Civil War the plantation thrived. But when the Emancipation took full effect (and it was not immediate), it ended the labor supply and the plantation system as well. Then the business of J. B. Hawkins changed from planting to raising cattle, and in that endeavor he would come to rely on his son, Frank Hawkins.

J. B. Hawkins’s support of the Confederacy made him an even busier planter-merchant than he had ever been, because the demand for his sugar, molasses, cotton, beeves, lumber, and hides was now greater than ever. Texas did not suffer the same damage to its agricultural system during the Civil War as did the deep-south states that were overrun by Union foot soldiers. In Texas during the war years, slavery continued, as did the crop production in the plantation system.1

Sales receipts and other documents among the papers of J. B. Hawkins indicate that the Confederacy gave him favorable business opportunities. For example, J. W. Selkirk sent a notation on December 21, 1861, from Camp McCulloch, confirming a shipping order: “I enclose you an order on Col Hawkins for 30 BBLS molasses, 25 of which we have sold the Department [Confederate Department of Texas] at $24 per BBL. The other 5 we can sell here. I suppose the Col will not ask more than $16 as he promised us. Send it as soon as possible.”2


8. Frank Hawkins and the Development of Cattle Ranching


Chapter 8


Franks Hawkins did not join his father immediately in the cattle business. First he had to attend to his formal education. He was about nineteen in 1866 when the question of his education was raised in the family. His father discussed the matter with a family named Kirkland, whose son Jesse was about Frank’s age. The Kirklands and the Hawkinses thought of sending the two boys together to a school in Germany. Both Jesse Kirkland’s father and J. B. Hawkins likely got the idea of a German schooling for their boys from a German-American shipping agent both knew named Henry Runge of H. Runge and Company.1

The German school that Jesse and Frank attended was Carlshaven, located near Cassel (now spelled Kassel), Germany. That city lies in central Germany on the Fulda River southwest of Göttingen, in a Protestant region of the country. An ancient city chartered in 1198, Cassel was a refuge for Huguenots in the 1700s. In the early nineteenth century the Brothers Grimm lived in Cassel and collected their fairy tales in that region. Very likely the Texas boys Frank and Jesse had their passage arranged by Henry Runge and landed in Hamburg or Bremerhaven before they proceeded south to their school at Cassel.


9. Ariella’s Fight for Her Rights


Chapter 9


One day about three years after her husband’s death, Ariella took a good look at her husband’s will. She understood immediately that it abridged her own property rights, and anger surged through this strong-minded woman. She found that her husband had simply dismissed from consideration her own community interest in land her husband had conveyed to their son Frank. In her life Ariella had always met the challenges that came her way: hard travel, settling in a new territory, loneliness, numerous childbirths, outbreaks of cholera and fevers, or the death of children. She was now approaching eighty, and nothing in her long experience had ever made her lie down in the face of difficulty, nor did she now. She became a passionate advocate for herself with a rhetorical power she directed against anyone she defined as an opponent—often against her own lawyers who were trying to look out for her interests.

J. B. Hawkins left to Ariella for her lifetime the Ranch House and the two hundred acres immediately surrounding it. But Frank received nearly all the Hawkins Ranch pasture land, excluding the Ranch House and the two hundred acres, which he would also receive at Ariella’s death. Frank had been deeded land that his efficient cattle operations had made it possible to purchase. J. B. Hawkins was so beholden to his son for the piece-by-piece acquisition of this ranch land in the 1870s and 1880s, when his profitable sugar business was at an end, that he completely dismissed Ariella’s community interest in it. As J. B. Hawkins explained in his will, it was


10. A Birth, a Death, and the Move to Town, 1896


Chapter 10


Within a six-year period from 1896 to 1902, James B. Hawkins, Ariella, their son Frank, and his wife Elmore were all gone. Ariella’s death in 1902 swept away the last but one of the Hawkinses who had come to Texas from North Carolina in the 1840s. Only Frank’s sister, Virginia Hawkins Brodie of Henderson, North Carolina, was still living (see appendix for more about the antebellum children). The story of the Hawkins Ranch then continued through the lives of Frank and Elmore’s five children.

The event that took these young children—my mother Meta and her four siblings—away from the Ranch House and brought them permanently to town occurred on April 3, 1896: the sudden death of their mother at the birth of their baby sister. The new baby was named Elmore for her mother but was always called “Sister.”

Rowland Rugeley witnessed this event as a boy of seven. Even later in life it was a painful memory for him, but he described to me what happened.


11. Schooling and a House of Their Own, 1913


Chapter 11


Living in town with the Rugeleys, the young Hawkins children had only to cross the street to attend classes with Mrs. J. D. Holmes, who was assisted from time to time by her daughter, Miss Tenie Holmes, who many years later would be my teacher. Mrs. Holmes was a widow who had written for newspapers when she lived in Kansas and was highly regarded by her friends for her “always instructive conversation.”1

When Mrs. Holmes wished to share one of these instructive thoughts, it seemed natural for her to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. In 1899, and again in 1900, the Hawkins children had given her a Christmas gift. She was touched and filled with high-minded resolve to teach them well. She wrote:

Mr. Editor:

It is said that ‘old wine is best to drink, old wood to burn, and old friends to love,’ and I may add that old thanks are sweetest.

December 24th, 1899

’Twas the night before Christmas,

And all through the house

Not a creature was stirring,


12. Young Lady Ranchers in Charge, 1917


Chapter 12


When the Hawkins children were still very young, still living with their grandparents and attending Mrs. Holmes’s classes, their father, Frank Hawkins, had begun to be troubled with symptoms indicating a kidney ailment called Bright’s disease. His father-in-law Dr. Rugeley had suggested that he seek treatment in Austin with a Dr. Wooton. Dr. Rugeley accompanied him there, and the two of them stayed at the Millet Mansion in downtown Austin. On February 25, 1901, while in Austin, Frank Hawkins died suddenly, and his remains were brought by train to the small neighboring town of Van Vleck, where he was buried beside his wife at the old Rugeley cemetery. He was fifty-four years old, and his children were still very young. Harry, the eldest, was only thirteen and Sister, the youngest, was five. They would continue to live with their Rugeley grandparents in Bay City.

As Frank’s will provided, a trust for his minor children was soon put into effect. Henry Rugeley and James H. Brodie were both named as trustees, but Henry Rugeley, as the local resident, was the more active of the two. He began operating the Hawkins Ranch for his nephew and nieces in 1902 and continued to do so for fifteen years. He was scrupulously businesslike, as the records of his bookkeeper Frank A. Bates attest. A statement of cash receipts and disbursements for May 1915 reveals the ranch operations of that period. The report indicates that a sale of cattle on May 4, 1915, brought $7,495 and that the number of calves branded in the spring was 654. A notation also shows that the Brahma breed was then being recognized for its value in improving native herds.1


13. Courtship and Marriage


Chapter 13


Although living in their own house with their brother, the Hawkins girls in their social engagements were under the scrutiny of their Rugeley grandmother until her death in 1923. Sister, growing up with her grandmother, described her as an exceedingly gregarious person. “Just sit up with me a little while longer,” she said to Sister, whose school girl eyes grew heavy at a late hour. “Let’s just play one more hand of whist.” Though sociable, Mrs. Rugeley was also very conscious of propriety, and her standards derived from a previous generation. The fact that the Hawkins children skipped their parents’ generation to be brought up by their grandparents pressed into them habits of thought, language, and social expectations drawn from the nineteenth century. The Hawkins siblings were fun loving, but formality and propriety were never absent.

When these young ladies took over the management of their ranch, none except Lizzie had yet married. In their new house, on March 5, 1915, two years before the ranch takeover, Lizzie, escorted on the arm of her Uncle Henry, was married to Michael J. Murphy. She was exquisite in her bridal dress of white tulle over pale green satin. Small pink rose buds were embroidered into the fabric. Lizzie’s hair was still in the Edwardian upsweep. She carried a bouquet of American Beauty roses. To make room for the wedding ceremony, which took place in the parlor of their new home, Lizzie’s sisters had removed the usual furniture, leaving only the piano, and they had made an embankment of ferns and palms against which the bridal couple and the Reverend John Sloan would stand—the same Mr. Sloan who had taught the Hawkinses and accompanied Rowland in applying to the University of Texas. At the piano their friend Marguerite Hamilton (later Gaines) played the wedding march. Lizzie’s sisters had filled the house with pink and white carnations, sweet peas, ferns, and palms. They covered the round dining room table with a colorful embroidered table cloth and set in the center of it a crystal epergne filled with mints. Following the ceremony, they served supper to the bride and groom and guests.1


14. Lizzie


Chapter 14


Those who knew Lizzie in her twenties and thirties, before her troubles began, remembered a beautiful young woman with gloriously golden hair and an air of confident sociability. During the 1930s and early 1940s she loved giving parties for young people—for my brother Frank and his high school friends and for my cousin, Jane Doubek. She played the piano and had collected stacks of sheet music of the popular songs of the day that she kept in a special walnut cabinet with shelves cut to the size of the sheets. A birthday, a graduation, or any national holiday could set her to arranging a card party, dance, hayride, or luncheon. Like Sister she had a feminine willfulness in the way she insisted on giving hospitality. “Have just one more cup of cocoa! You really must!”

The downturn in this charming person’s life began on March 31, 1921, when she and Mike had been married only six years. The date was just four years after the young Hawkinses had taken over their ranch from their Uncle Henry’s trusteeship, a time when all five were in partnership and fully in charge. On that date Lizzie went to her sisters and asked to have her own undivided interest in the Hawkins Ranch land partitioned to her as her separate property so that she and Mike could operate it themselves. To Lizzie’s sisters it was an unexpected and unwelcome move; they expected to be in partnership for the rest of their lives. The circumstance of their childhood had made their safety seem to depend on their staying together.


15. The Conversations in the Family, 1935


Chapter 15


From childhood, I remember that Lizzie’s troubles were discussed with more worry by the Hawkins family than any other issue, because of being so painful, so long in duration, and so beyond their control. But another issue preoccupied them in 1935. Should the Hawkins siblings let the Ranch House—the Lake House, where they were born—fall all the way down, as had the Currie house, or should they try to get hold of someone to repair it? Unlike their father and grandfather, who had managed the Hawkins Ranch while living on the place, the Hawkins sisters ran it while living in town. They did not need a headquarters on the ranch itself, and the house had fallen into neglect and disrepair.

The question now on their minds was whether to let nature take the house all the way to its extinction. It would be a natural transition, familiar to anyone who went into the country and viewed old houses after their proud purpose had come to an end. People of the Gulf Coast were used to seeing the process of destruction and considered it a part of life itself. Driving out into the country, one could always see the remnants of some deserted dwelling located in a once convenient place at the corner of a field now unused. The winds of seasonal northers would have torn at a corner shingle and exposed the house’s interior to rain until nails and planking loosened and the structure began to lean and finally fall. The process took time to happen, but inexorably it did happen. If time and change had divested a structure of all its practical purpose, then its only remaining purpose must be an attachment to the story the structure might tell, but was the story now worth the lumber and the nails?


16. Janie and Harry


Chapter 16


While the Hawkins family often spent Sunday afternoons together at some county beach or wooded spot on the ranch itself, they were also likely to gather on a week day in the evening on the screened porch at Janie’s house in Bay City. The time of day chosen would have been “after supper,” in the early evening. Meal times for all households were scheduled, sit-down affairs, and visitors courteously delayed an unannounced arrival until after supper. Gatherings like this were also likely settings where the condition of the Ranch House was discussed.

The porch at Janie’s was next to the dining room, and on evenings when the family gathered on that porch, Janie and Harry would have finished their supper. Typically it would be a thin steak, grits, tomatoes with cucumbers, biscuits, and for dessert, Jell-O with heavy cream. After the meal they would put away their large white dinner napkins, folding them and pushing them through their respective silver napkin rings. Janie’s was an oval one with “Janie” engraved in cursive script; Harry’s was octagonal with his initials in block letters, H.B.H. for Henry Boyd Hawkins. I was often there too, a child who had stayed too long and been invited to supper. If I had been in the way, the family’s code of hospitality would never have let that fact be noticed.


17. Sister and Esker


Chapter 17


When Sister and Esker arrived at any family gathering, it almost always created a little laughter, a little stir of delight that everyone felt when they joined the group. Esker’s charm derived from a capable, takecharge generosity. Sister’s came from a captivating vulnerability and the ease with which she laughed at herself. If there had been some news of the day that came from her encounters with the grocer or the hairdresser or the cook, she would create some laughter out of it at her own expense.

My parents, Jim and Meta, often walked over to Janie’s on summer evenings from their house down the street, as did Rowland and Daughty, my great-uncle and aunt, who lived within the same block. Sister and Esker rarely walked. There was only one time that I can think of, and it came in later years, that Sister would have been willing to walk three or four blocks: when she was trying to take exercise in order to “reduce.” For the few weeks in their lives while she was undertaking this effort, Sister and Uncle Esker got out after supper and walked a planned route together, as if he had weight to lose too.


18. Meta and Jim


Chapter 18


My mother Meta, the eldest Hawkins daughter, was highly in favor of proceeding with renovation of the Ranch House and impatient to get on with the project. If Sister was propelled by dismissing the practicalities, Meta was propelled by the consideration of them. She thought dithering too long was to lose an opportunity. “It’s just going to wrack and ruin if we don’t do something about it, and we ought to get started on it.” Impatient impulse was her way. “Just do something, even if it’s wrong,” she would say.

Meta had the same fair complexion as her sisters but redder hair. People teased her as a child and pretended to light a match from her hair. Her skin was fair, but her eyes were brown. She was the only one of the Hawkins siblings who had children. When she was thirty years old my brother Frank was born, named for her father, Frank Hawkins. When she was thirty-eight I was born, delivered at home by Dr. Livengood. Another child, a little boy, born between Frank and me, died at the age of two. His smiling baby picture in a wooden frame was always on her dresser. He was called J. C. for James Claire, my father’s name. Fifty years after J. C.’s death, I happened to ask my father about the cause of death. Exercising control of his emotions, he said, “I always laid it to a cow we had.” J. C. had infant dysentery and died of dehydration and shock in 1927.


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