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Tales from the Big Thicket

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The secretive beauty and mystery of the Big Thicket of East Texas would inevitably inspire tales--and the pioneers who came to terms with this land were an individualistic and legend-creating lot. In Tales from the Big Thicket, Francis E. Abernethy presents a collection of stories about the Big Thicket and its people. He begins with a brief survey history of the region and then presents anecdotes and tales that introduce us to the people of the Big Thicket and to the land. The reader will find herein the history and folklore of the area, including a collection of Alabama-Coushatta tales, a Civil War episode involving a search for hidden Jayhawkers, a travel account from the nineteenth century, and a history of one of the region's legendary families, the Hooks. "An enjoyable escape to the wood-culture of the past, to the thrill of the bear hunt of yesterday, to the quiet, natural retreat in the middle of an increasingly urban world."--Southwestern Historical Quarterly

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The Big Thicket: An Introduction - Francis E. Abernethy


THE BIG THICKET; An Introduction


the Big Thicket is as much a product of the

I guess imagination and wishful thinking as it is a geographical area. It represents the Great Unknown to the mind cluttered with trade names in a society labeled and categorized. It is a happy hunting ground for the mind, and in man's fancy the cool green womb to which he can retreat from the hot panic of concrete and glass in the industrialized brick jungles we call cities. It is the individual's final fortress against civilization.

To those who talk about it, the Big Thicket stands for something else too; it is the lair of the mysterious. According to the stories about the place, there is no telling what a man might come across, in the shape of man or beast, if he wanders deep enough into those woods. Before I had ever seen the Thicket I had been told that if I walked into it out of sight of the road I would get lost, and I have found out since then that this statement was pretty close to right.


A Sketch of the Geology and Soils of the Big Thicket - Saul Aronow






he Big Thicket, which occupies a major part of

Hardin County and portions of the adjoining Polk,

Liberty, and Jefferson Counties (see map facing p. 12), is very young as the geologist measures time. The clays and sands that support the extensive forest of the Thicket are perhaps less than a million years old. At this writing the best estimate of the age of the earth-an estimate based on the slow decay of radioactive elements

-is about 4,500 million years. The past million years of this history certainly have been most eventful in producing the familiar features of southeast Texas. All of the coastal features such as deltas, barrier islands, bays, marshes, and lagoons were formed during this time. Also made during this period were the extensive highstream terraces bordering the flood plains of the Sabine, Neches,

Trinity, San Jacinto, and Brazos rivers, which supply most of the sand and gravel to southeast Texas.

Outside the Gulf Coast region, during the past million years, vast continental glaciers have spread at least four times from central Canada into the midwestern and northeastern parts of the


Folklore in the Big Thicket - Archer Fullingim




Archer Fullingim is editor, printer, and publisher of THE KOUNTZE

NEWS. He is also a fire-brand Democrat who can raise more Cain with Republicans and with Birchites in his one editorial column than all the rest of Texas' liberal newspapers combined. In the

Thicket he is a controversial figure, sworn at as often and as vigorously as he is sworn by.

Archer's writing style is his own, very personal and idiomatic rather than grammatically pure and iournalistically bland. His news stories, as well as his editorials, tumble along like the energetic and rapid-fire monologues which he sometimes delivers to his visitors.

The Printer writes and talks about everything in the Thicket.

Banner headlines will announce that a bear or panther has been spotted in the nearby woods; or a lead will pose the question, "Do

Panthers Scream?" Several issues will be devoted to both sides of this problem. He can write an exciting front-page story about the size of watermelons or the shape of gourds raised in the Thicket.


Tales of the Alabama-Coushatta Indians - Howard N. Martin





There is not much left in the Big Thicket to tell us about the first men who hunted in its woods. At least ten thousand years ago hunters left their spear heads in East Texas in the remains of sloths and mastodons and other now-extinct animals, but so far nothing has been found to show that these early Americans roamed or settledin the Thicket area.

Three groups of Indians are historically associated with the

Thicket. They are the Atakapans, the Caddoes, and the AlabamaCoushatta. In the historical beginning, however, only the Atakapan and the Caddo moved through the Thicket with any regularity. Other tribes from as far away as Oklahoma, Colorado, and

Kansas made periodic hunting trips into the Thicket for bear meat, skins, and tallow; and Tonkawas, Lipans, and Wichitas met in peace at the medicinal springs around present-day Sour Lake and

Saratoga. But primarily the Thicket was the meat house of the mound-building Caddoes, who occupied the fertile rolling hills to the north, and the cannibalistic Atakapans, who bounded the


Settling the Old Poplar-Tree Place - Vinson Allen Collins




Pioneer life has always been much the same; a family pulls up stakes in the home town and sets out for a new life in a new country, where they will be on their own. A lot of the Big Thicket settlers followed that pattern pretty well. Whether they were getting away from something or were looking for something, what they found was big timber and privacy and the chance to prove to themselves that they could be independent.

There weren't many towns near the Thicket when the Collins and Hooks and Harts began coming in during the 'forties and 'fifties. There were a few stores in Old Hardin, near present-day

Kountze, and there were settlements at WoodVille, and at Concord

(the steamboat landing on Pine Island Bayou) and at Drews Landing on the Trinity, but these places were a long way off for most of the settlers. However, the old nesters that came to get some privacy in the Thicket weren't interested in spending much time in town. They liked the lonesome and they wanted to be apart so they could look after themselves.


Grandma Harrison: A Day at Drew's Landing - Ethel Osborn Hill



Drew's Landing


Ethel Osborn Hill (age eighty-seven) lives alone at the end of a two-rut, deep-sand road on her own forty acres, in a log house she built many years ago. The woods are deep around her Tyler County place, and the pine and sweet gum have grown high and close to the house. The 'coons and 'possums have pretty well accepted her as a kindred woods dweller, and they drop by periodically for left-overs. The squirrels feed from her hand, and the 'coons eat from plates nailed to the top of some nearby fence posts.

For a while a panther was coming by occasionally just to see if he could make her jump. The last time he came by it was the middle of the night, and Mrs. Hill waked up to hear him grunting and coughing as he wandered around the house. He scampered up a pine tree that grew close to the cabin and dropped off on the roof.

After that it was poke around and sniff until he had satisfied his curiosity: then he sidled down the tree and was off again on his rambles. He killed a calf that night about two miles from Mrs.


The Battle at Bad Luck Creek - Dean Tevis




During the 193(1s East Texas' spokesman in the field of history and legend was Dean Tevis, feature writer for the BEAUMONT ENTERPRISE. Tevis regularly wandered the piney woods in search of the old legends and tales that were told about that country and its settlers. He knew just about everybody in the Big Thicket and recorded many stories that now, thirty years later, have been buried with the tellers.

Tevis's story of the Battle of Bad Luck Creek and Kaiser's Burnout (BEAUMONT ENTERPRISE, October 25,1931) is one version of a

Civil War episode that left a distinct mark on the Big Thicket. The canebrake that was fired to flush out Warren Collins and the Big

Thicket layhawkers never did grow back, and you can still see where Captain Kaiser and his men (in another version of the same story) left their fiery scar on the landscape.

There was another kind of mark left on the Thicket by the War, and this one also took a long time healing, if it ever has. That was left by the natural ill will that was felt between those men who went to the War and those who refused to go. It is always hard to say who shows the more courage in cases like theirs. The layhawkers were "union sympathizers" only in the sense that Sam Houston was; they weren't ready to see the United States broken in two. On


Buckshot and Blue Whistler: An Interview with Frank Herrington - Frances Pitts Norvell



An Interview with Frank Herrington


Hampton Jackson Herrington didn't believe in slaveholding; his father did. So after a long-running argument, Hamp left home.

He married Rachel Overstreet and started farming near M ontgomery, Alabama. They had five children before she died in 1844.

As was frequently the case in those days, the family was ready to look out after each other, and Rachel's sister came to live with

Hamp and look after the house and the children. As Enoch Bentley Herrington tells it:

After Rachel's death, my grandmother, Elizabeth, and her mother were staying at Grandfather's house, taking care of the two children then living, Lum and John. My grandmother said the only courtship she and Grandpa ever had was one day at noon she was on the front porch and had just finished washing the faces of Lum and John and was putting clean dresses on them when Grandpa came up on steps at the end of the porch, took a gourd of water in his hand, took a long drink while he was kicking off his plow shoes, and said, "Well, Becky, it looks like you are going to have to stay here and attend to the children so I'm going to town Saturday and if you are willing I'll get the license and bring the preacher and we'll be married."


Camp Big Thicket: Life in the Piney Woods, 1887 - John A. Caplen



Pine4 Woods. 1887


We don't know much about John Caplen-who he was, where he had come from, or where he was gOing-but the story he wrote for the SUNNY SOUTH (published in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1887) includes details of Big Thicket life that make it interesting on-thespot reporting. Wherever he had come from, he hadn't been traveling a main road. And wherever he was going he passed through the old Buck Hooks farm near Thicket and through Batson Prairie.

Buck was living on Batson Prairie on the southwestern edge of the

Thicket in 1887, although he left the same year and went back to his farm in the heart of the Thicket. Buck built a board-and-batten salt-box house there in the 1890's, and his son Ben (called "Little"

Ben to distinguish him from Uncle Ben) built a fine dog-trot house next to him around 1900. Little Ben's house is still there, sagging a bit, and the old split shingle roof is green with moss and resurrection fern, but the place is still as pretty a picture of old-time East Texas architecture as you can find nowadays.F.E.A.


We Trailed Them through the Marshes - Solomon Alexander Wright




Solomon Alexander Wright was born in Newton County, Texas, in 1864 and died in California in 1937. The year he died he sent a longhand-written autobiography entitled My RAMBLES to J. Frank

Dobie. Dobie looked it over, pronounced it "fresh and genuine" and unique in its description of life in early Southeast Texas, and published it in 1942 under the auspices of the Texas Folklore


Solomon hunted and logged and herded and loafed all through

Southeast Texas, and his ;ournal is as casual as his life was during those last decades of the nineteenth century. Like most old-timers whose lives happen to be the East Texas big woods and the hunt,

Solomon's tale is about deer, bear, and turkey hunts; water moccasins, alligators, and wild hogs; and about moving alone, slow and contented, a part of the tall timber that was so much a part of his life.

The following selection is from a chapter of My RAMBLES entitled "Cow Work." During those years when the West Texas ranchers were·moving their herds up the prairie trails to Kansas depots, East Texas cattlemen were sifting their wild-eyed brush stock through the cypress brakes and pin-oak flats that edged the


Texas Bear Hunt, 1906 - L. L. Kiene




L. L. Kiene, a reporter and feature writer on the


came down to Texas and the Big Thicket in July of 1906.

On this trip he was accompanying a Santa Fe purchasing agent who was buying poles and ties in Southeast Texas. In those days they hunted the year around, and Kiene got in with Ben and Bud

Hooks on a summer deer and squirrel hunt. Ben killed a bear on this hunt, and Kiene got the fever; so Ben invited him back down for a full-scale bear hunt that winter.

The 1906 hunt that Kiene describes is a chronicle of some of the chief bear hunters in the Thicket. Ben Hooks was Hardin County's leading bear hunter at that time. They had struck oil on the Hooks land in 1901, and after that Ben and Bud settled back to en;oy life.

Hunting was first on their list, and Ben Hooks' camp in the heart of the Thicket was the starting place for many a bear and deer hunt.

Of all the old-timers who made the 1906 hunt, only Carter Hart survives. He doesn't get around like he used to, but he can tell a story that includes all the details of total recall. He knows a lot of hunting tales and he tells them with an eye to accuracy and truth.


Boom-Town Tales - Alice Cashen




John Cashen hit town in 1904, the first year of the Batson oil boom.

He had sailed the world, starting at his home on the Isle of Man, before he arrived, but this was his stopping place. He went to work on the rigs, made his stake, built a house, and headed back to the

Isle of Man to take a bride.

John and Alice, the author's mother, had a hectic honeymoon.

Their ship docked at New Orleans, on their way back to Batson, but the authorities would not let John off because his eyes looked infected. What really happened was that he had smoked too many wedding cigars in the cramped quarters of the ship and the smoke had irritated his eyes. Anyhow, in spite of a long argument John had to return with the ship to Liverpool, and Alice had to go on alone to set up housekeeping in one of the wildest boom towns in oil history. John signed on a freighter at Liverpool, lumped ship in

New York, and showed up broke in Batson a year later.

Alice Cashen, the author of these boom-town stories, was born in Batson, into a part of the Big Thicket where the boomers had ripped out a hole in the forest and planted their own kind of trees.


Tales from Uncle Owen - Lois Williams Parker




The end of the Civil War was the end of Andrew Jackson Williams as a small plantation owner in Alabama. He was fifty years old in

1865 and past the time in life when a man usually thinks about making a fresh start. But his part of Alabama was a waste, and there was nothing to do but to see what could be made of what was left in life. The family, which included six children and one on the way, sailed from Mobile to Southeast Texas in the early fall of

1865 and built their first house in the Big Thicket on the bank of

Steep Bank Creek.

The Williams iust naturally took to sawmilling in the Thicket.

Jackson had done some lumbering in Alabama, and his sonsDave, Jep, and Owen-took up where he left off, rafting logs down

Village Creek and the Neches to the Beaumont mills. By the turn of the century they were prospering lumbermen, furnishing timbers for the rigs and plank roads of the Saratoga, Batson, and Sour

Lake oil fields. Dave opened his big mill in 1904. The location was first known as Williams' Station, but because there was another


Sour Lake: Spa of the Big Thicket - Ruth Garrison Scurlock


SOUR LAKE: Spa of the Big Thicket


Ruth Scurlock, as a teacher and professional writer-iournalist, has been covering the stories of East Texas and the Big Thicket since the late 'twenties. She wrote about and participated in many of the early attempts to establish parts of the Thicket as game and forest conservation areas and collaborated with Dean Tevis in feature writing the best of the East Texas editions of the BEAUMONT ENTERPRISE.

The Sour Lake that Ruth writes about was a watering place from the beginning, when the Indians first decided that any water that smelled and tasted that bad ought to be good for them. And it was a prospering community at the turn of the century. Then came the oil boom in 1901 and the whole tenor of the town changed. Sour Lake became the political hub of Hardin County for a while and had three newspapers to boast of its accomplish. ments, one of which was giving birth to the Texas Company.

One of the most interesting episodes in Sour Lake oil history occurred in 1929. Early on the morning of October 9, a Texas


A Family Full of Legends - Ellen Walker Rienstra




There's no need to go into Mrs. Rienstra's family background and her connection with the Big Thicket. She is the great-granddaughter of William Hooks and the granddaughter of Bud Hooks, two of the central characters in "A Family Full of Legends."F.E.A.


he Big Thicket attracted a strange type of people to its abundance of timber and game. It abounded with mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, wildcats, bears, and wolves, and the people who came there were of necessity the hardiest of their species, a fact which they and their descendants were very proud of. Since the density of the Thicket prevented much unnecessary travel, the earliest pioneers had to be content with solitude. In fact, the Thicket, to most of them, was a refuge in which they could live their own particular lives as they wanted. To this day most of them still feel the same way.

From the time that the first settlers penetrated its outer barriers until the present day, the Big Thicket exercised its influence on its people until gradually a unique way of life was formed. The people of the Thicket country evolved their own customs, manner of


Big Thicket Balladry - William A. Owens




Noone has collected more Big Thicket songs or studied them more thoroughly than has Bill Owens. He was making the rounds with a recording machine when both collectors and recording machines were considered rarities. He cut the songs on aluminum disks that had to be played with a cactus needle, and his record of Ben Hooks' "Cattle in the Canebrake," made in 1938, still has the fidelity given by most modern tape recorders.

Bill was East Texas from the start, having been born and raised in the community of Pin Hook in Lamar County, and began studying East Texas folk music seriously when he was doing his master's work at Southern Methodist University. His first book,

SWING AND TURN: TEXAS PLAy-PARTY GAMES (1936) was an outgrowth of his thesis. In 1950 he published TEXAS FOLK SONGS through the Texas Folklore Society. Most of the songs in this book were collected in East Texas and the Thicket area. A lot of folks in the Big Thicket still remember that Frank Dobie came through on the trail of the Ben Lilly legend and that Bill Owens was around hunting for the old songs.-F.E.A.


From Moss Hill - Margaret L. Hewett




When I first started reading Mrs. Hewett's stories I was impressed by her ability to break every known law of English spelling, punctuation, and grammar; when I finished I was impressed by her ability to tell a good story well. She has captured a fine flavor of the

Thicket, and I am still not sure whether her success is in spite of or because of her style. Every time I tried editing these tales from

Moss Hill (between Liberty and Rye on state highway 146) and translating them into traditional English, I lost some of that flavor.

So I quit and turned them over to the general editor and the printer as a challenge to the first's sense of phonetics and the second's ability as a type setter.

I don't believe that the unorthodox mechanics will bother the reader very much. The experience should be much like one's first experience with a sixteenth century manuscript or facsimile. He might, however, have trouble with point of view; sometime it's hard to tell who is talking. Usually Mrs. Hewett identifies herself with the main character and speaks in the first person through him.


The Saratoga Light - Francis E. Abernethy





he Old Bragg Road with its mysterious Light turns left off Farm Road 1293 about seven miles west of Honey Island and heads straight for Saratoga, in the heart of the Big Thicket. The road itself is sandy, graded, and pretty well ditched, and is wide enough for two cars to pass. It is seven miles long and as straight as a rifle barrel. Loblolly pines that will make poles and saw logs in a few years grow right up close to the road on both sides, and occasional bogs hold their water and snakes and frogs tight up against the road bed. Sweet-gum sprouts, yaupon, and palmetto, growing thick in patches and always rustling, fringe the road, that after a light night rain carries the sandy signs of all the 'coon and cats and 'possums and armadillos that take their nightly stroll along its trail. A set of broad, splay-footed tracks show where a big old buck deer has eased up to the edge of the palmetto and pine, scanned the road to see that all was calm, and then sauntered down the middle, between the tire tracks, just taking his pleasure walking in the sand.



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