The Petrified Forest
Both trees and the past surround life in deep East Texas, where lumber is king and the Civil War was yesterday.
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Driving east to San Augustine, against the grain of the pioneers, I first met the Piney Woods of East Texas at Crockett. Abruptly, a forest curtain fell. Gone was the big Texas sky, the familiar flat, horizontal junction of earth and cloud, the sense of space that shaped the expansive character of the West. Green-and-brown vertical walls stretched along each side of Highway 7, the two-lane road that cuts through the Davy Crockett National Forest. Long bright shafts of light sifted through the dark trees like a chiaroscuro sketch. I drove past sleeping swamps covered with a baroque intertwining of roots, branches, and vines, past an occasional mobile home (the new log cabin) looking shrunken and frail against the surrounding forest. Fluffy cumulus clouds slowly drifting north from the Gulf were suspended behind tall pines like puffs of smoke from chimneys. When I looked up, I could see the same amount of sky as a New Yorker standing in midtown Manhattan.
For anyone not born in the forest, a love for deep East Texas is, like the craving for cane syrup, an acquired taste. There is a rich beauty in the sheer lushness of it, ferns poking from thatches of pine needles covering the red dirt floor of the forest, an infinity of trees marching like ghosts up and down the rolling hills. And there is also the beauty of the old timer’s familiarity with it, knowing the secret places, the clearings, and the swamps, the paths through the woods. But the spirit of these fairy-tale woods also contain mystery, loneliness, suspicion, magic, fear. Even neighbors are walled off from each other by thick woods, their houses suspended in solitude among the hickories and red oaks, pines, elms, chinquapins, chestnuts, swamp willows, and cypresses, all melded together by the universal and tangled underbrush. For Texans used to the open spaces of the west of the 98th meridian, this world is vertical and claustrophobic, amputated not only from the rest of Texas, but also from neighbors half a mile away.
The people I met during two months of living in San Augustine were friendly, but the friendliness was not unqualified. There was an edge of suspicion and mistrust, a touch of fear, even of each other. Too many conversations ended with admonitions to beware, watch out, be cool. The history of all Texas is marked by violence, by long battles among Anglo settlers, Mexicans, blacks, and Indians. But here the memory of violence and the potential for it seem real and immediate, no matter how lazy the day or slow the pace.
Poor and isolated, deep East Texas carries the special burden of the South, the burden of conflict between black and white, rich and poor, passed down through generations. Beneath the crust of gentility of the well-to-do, the memories and “way of life” of the Deep South preserved as if in amber, lies the darker side: the black man’s special exile to grim shanties along back streets; the poor whites, in their own exile, huddled in the backwoods, blending a harsh Pentecostalism with the peckerwood (Southern dialect for poor white) crimes of moonshining, poaching, cockfighting, and incest. The TV antennas on the shanties and the cabins are merely a cosmetic twentieth-century intrusion: in San Augustine the nineteenth century is very much alive.
Most East Texans will wax eloquent on how much they love the land, but for a century they have done little but abuse it. Millions of acres of East Texas have been leached out and cut over, first by cotton plantations, then by the timber companies, and always by the poor, who scratch it to survive. The land has been attacked with a vengeance, either for one’s own immediate subsistence of from someone else’s profit. There is a love for the country in East Texas—the love of hunting on it, of running dogs over it, of treeing coons, of cane-pole fishing, of its variety of plants and animals—but that love fades quickly when it comes to cutting down the forests for timber or flooding them with huge lakes to raise the price of land. Love, it seems, does not go so far as practicality.
For most of the people in San Augustine County, love of the land is a luxury they simply cannot afford. Apart form the small circle of the wealthy and upper middle class, the county is desperately poor. Its per capita income is $2562 a year, about two-thirds that of the rest of Texas, which is more than $4200. More than 40 per cent of the people are poor, compared to less than 20 per cent statewide. The infant mortality rate is 49.2 per 1000 births, compared to 20 in Texas and 19.2 across the United States. One in five homes has inadequate or no plumbing. Almost half the adult population has never been to high school. The town of San Augustine is economically stagnant. In 1950 its population was 2510; today it is 2599.
The county’s outstanding virtue seems to be endurance. Obstinacy is all, and to survive despite virulent prejudices and a brutal economic system that leaves most poor whites and blacks physically and spiritually drawn and quartered is a full day’s work.
It was not always so. The Spanish settled San Augustine in 1717 as the eastern link on the chain of Texas missions, which also included the Alamo and Goliad. For a hundred years San Augustine was the main border town, first between New Spain and the French-held Louisiana territory, then between the United States and Mexico. In the early days of the Texas Republic, San Augustine, Galveston, and Matagorda were the primary ports of entry for new settlers coming to Texas. Down the Old San Antonio Road came settlers and preachers, thieves, and murderers, heroes and brigands, soldiers and adventures, all funneling through San Augustine, fifteen miles west of the Sabine. Toward Natchitoches, Louisiana, just to the east, was a no-man’s-land, a vast belt ruled by smugglers and fugitives.
From the beginning San Augustinians thought big. They called their town “the cradle of Texas,” even though it was untouched by the Texas Revolution. During the years of the Republic, it became the self-styled “Athens of Texas,” when it boasted two universities and was the home of some of the state’s finest jurists and lawyers. Much of this flowering culture and economy was cut short by the Regulator-Moderator War of 1839-1844, an arcane feud that so tore apart the region that farmers couldn’t get their goods to marker. The poor citizens went broke, sold out to the larger plantations, and were forced back into the marginal sand lands and forests, where they live to this day. Then, when cotton and railroads passed their heyday, San Augustine lost its vitality and stopped growing; it remains a perfect relic of a pre-Civil War town.
San Augustine was the first town in Texas laid out on the American rather than the Spanish pattern. The courthouse was plopped down in the middle of what was supposed to be the open Spanish plaza; instead of the church and municipal buildings lining the square, San Augustine had saloons, trading posts, hardware stores, and livery stables. Churches, however, were not long in coming. The San Augustine Methodist Church, built in 1839, was the first Protestant church west of the Sabine. The God of the new settlers was the Jehovah of the Old Testament, militant and fundamental, a God who would mute the guilt of slavery, who, as W.J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South, “had called one man to be rich and master, another to be poor and servant…men did well to accept what had been given them instead of trusting to their own strength and stirring up strife.” Founded by the Spanish as a Catholic mission, San Augustine became instead the fundamentalist center of its region.
Today life in San Augustine still revolves around the square, the churches, and two drugstores on Columbia, the town’s main street. Stripling Drug Store was founded in 1904 by Judge R. N. Stripling, who at 97 still comes in for business each morning. Right in the middle of Stripling Drug is the old town well, dug 27 feet deep in 1860 by slave labor. Across the street is the San Augustine Drug Company, founded in 1905, six months after Stripling’s. Before he retired in 1974after 47 years as San Augustine Drug’s pharmacist, Casey Jones was famous for his ability to imitate locomotive sounds and for inventing the “grapefruit highball,” a mysterious mixture that outsells Coca-Cola at the counter, its secret known only to the current owner, Therman Bridges. San Augustine Drug splits the afternoon coffee trade with the town’s only motel, the Best Western on the western edge of town. Among San Augustine’s other businesses, there are a movie theater, which in the past few years went from general movies to pornography to black films before it finally closed; two weekly newspapers; one dry cleaner; one major food store, Brookshire Brothers; two vegetable stands; and a Radio Shack. There is also a small but fine library that lends 1500 books a week.
On the west and north sides of town are the black communities of Sunset Hills and Rocky. Fifty per cent of the county’s 2800 blacks live within the town limits; most of the poor whites live in rural areas. Blacks operate three service stations and own two washaterias, a few barbecue stands, two funeral homes, an ambulance service (until last year, the only one), a fried chicken take-out business, and one liquor store (there is one white owned liquor store down the road—the rest of the county is dry). The largest black church, True Vine Baptist, is in Sunset Hills, near the public housing project and not far from the Alberta King Day Care Center.
Cotton once dominated the area’s economy. Now that it has gone west to the irrigated plains, cattle raising has increased, so that now more cattle are raised in East Texas than in the traditional West Texas cattle regions. But in East Texas there has always been one constant, growing industry. The timber business is San Augustine’s livelihood. It pays most of the bills and sets the county’s character. Four-fifths of the county is timbered, and 70,000 acres are in national forests. Most people in San Augustine are involved in cutting that timber down. There is one large sawmill and several smaller “peckerwood” or “groundhog” mills. Fifty truckloads of logs come out of the forest every working day of the year. If one image sums up San Augustine, it is the bobtail truck, with pulpwood piled high between its vertical standards, red dirt caked around its wheels, traveling slowly down a muddy road to the San Augustine Lumber Company sawmill.
George Juniel, who runs the lumber company and sawmill, is the town’s largest employer. He is also the husband of the town’s mayor, Alvis Juniel. Twice she has beaten the favored candidates of lawyer-autocrat Smith Ramsey, who for decades had run the town with a grip of iron in velvet. The Juniels have lived in San Augustine eleven years, just long enough to become interested in funerals, as George says, and George says things like that often. He is a folksy humorist in the vein of John Henry Faulk or the region’s reigning wit, lawyer Bob Murphy from Nacogdoches County. George stands six-foot-two and has a smile that enlists all his facial features, accompanied by an irresistible high-pitched giggle. He is a familiar figure around town, dressed always in dark-green khakis with the pants legs stuffed inside his boots, coming out of the San Augustine Rambler office with a box of prize-winning pecans, or sipping a grapefruit highball at San Augustine Drug’s back table.
One morning after a grapefruit highball and a back-table chat with Sam Malone, the Rambler’s editor, George and I rode south the mile or so to his small office, which is dwarfed amid stacks of newly cut lumber, piles of huge logs, the mill itself, and an ancient crane that helped dig the Panama Canal. Now the crane lifts sixty-foot pine logs as if they were toothpicks, tacking them near the platform where the logs begin a journey that ends as siding on houses. George’s mill turns out 750,000 board feet each month. (A piece of lumber one foot square and one inch thick is a board foot.) He has just under sixty employees and a $10,000-a-week payroll.
Ninety per cent of the logs at the mill come from nearby national forests, which is why George believes he and the red-cockaded woodpecker have something in common. “Last July Judge William Wayne Justice up there in Tyler extended indefinitely his ban on clear-cutting timber in the four national forests,” George said, not laughing. “Not long ago, we had to leave 60,000 board feet of standing timber to protect this bird, the red-cockaded woodpecker. We also had to leave a path of timber for the woodpecker to fly over to get to the 60,000 board feet of valuable timber. Environmentalists said this bird was almost extinct. I told the hearing that was inquiring about the court ban that if they had an endangered species list to put me on it if the judge’s ban sticks, or this time next year I’ll have to close up and go to the house.”
Judge Justice’s ban is the latest development in a growing battle between timber corporations and environmentalists, which boils down to a battle between the companies and people in the Piney Woods who depend on trees for a livelihood and the conservationists, mainly nonresidents, who believe in the right of some wildernesses to survive man’s voracious onslaught. In San Augustine County, the news of the Justice ban was received with outrage and dismay. For now, the ban remains in effect. Companies like the Lufkin-based Southland Paper Mills, which clear-cuts an average of 15,000 acres of its own land annually, continue to clear-cut, but not in national forests. There are other ways to harvest the forest, for example, by selectively cutting only the mature trees, but the tradition of the timber industry has seldom been to look for such alternatives.
Beginning in 1875, railroads opened up the East Texas forests to enterprising timbermen eager to work the last huge stands of virgin pine east of the Rockies. Men like John Henry Kirby, Henry Lutcher, and most successful of all, Thomas Lewis Latane Temple followed the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad (known as the “Hell, Either Way Taken”) or the “Orphan Katy” (a spur line of the M-K-T from Trinity) into the forests to pay from fifty cents to five dollars an acre for their future empires.
T. L. L. Temple bought 7000 acres in Angelina County from J.C. Diboll in 1893, built a complete timber manufacturing plant—sawmills, dry kilns, warehouses, planers—and schools, general stores, and churches in his company town of Diboll. By 1908, he had the rights to 1.15 billion board feet of standing pine on 209,313 East Texas acres. Today, Temple-Eastex controls 1,060,000 acres, including 51,600 in San Augustine County—an area almost equal to the combined acreage of the state’s second- and third-largest timberland owners. Temple’s descendants also own the largest share of Time, Incorporated, and travel regularly from Diboll to New York to determine policy at the board meetings of one of America’s media giants.
It took 200 years to cut the virgin forests of the Northeastern United States, 40 years to exploit the Great Lakes area; in Texas, the transformation of virgin forests into a cut-over wasteland took only 25 years. Between 1880 and 1905, eighteen million acres of pine timber were cut down. More than half the lumber was processed by large permanent mills operated by fewer than three dozen lumbermen. Despite this earlier rape of the landscape, the East Texas Piney Woods have come back, but as second-growth forests without the centuries-old longleaf virgin timber. Private companies and the federal government have steadily replanted so-called “super pines” bred to grow faster and produce cheaper wood fiber per acre.
If lumbermen could have invented a tree, it would more than likely have been pine. The trees grow quickly and can be planted in rows and harvested like wheat. Most timber cut in Texas is some sort of pine, which is called softwood. Hardwood is virtually everything else—oak, ash, hickory, elm, beech. Most pine is converted into lumber and plywood. The use of hardwood depends on the tree. Ash is the best for long tool handles, boat oars, and sports equipment such as polo and hockey sticks and baseball bats. Elm is an excellent bending wood, good for boats, bent parts of chairs, and other furniture. Almost 500 million cubic feet of timber was harvested in Texas last year; 80 per cent was softwood.
Both hard- and softwood are harvested chiefly in two ways: as sawlogs or as pulpwood. Sawlogs are generally the best, meaning the straightest with the fewest knots and wormholes, and are cut at the mill into ten- to sixteen-foot lengths so they can be transformed into lumber. Sawlogs are measured in board feet. Pulpwood, on the other hand is measured in cords, like firewood. A cord of wood measures four feet by four feet by eight feet, and in hardwood, weighs about 5600 pounds. Virtually all pulpwood goes into paper and cardboard. The best of all logs, the cream, goes into veneer logs, which are made into plywood. Good timbermen can look at a stand of trees and divide it immediately into sawlogs, pulpwood, and veneer logs.
The distinction between woods leads to a much more important distinction in the timber business. It has to do with jobs and color of skin. The black man has always been the pulpwood hauler. The white man has always cut and hauled sawlogs. Cutting and hauling pulpwood requires a muscular back, one bobtail truck, a chain saw, and a friend. Sawlogs are sixty feet long and require an expensive truck and a loader and more than a friend. They require a crew. There is much more money in the sawlog business.
John Oglesbee, Jr., is a white man who is a San Augustine pulpwood supplier. Like his father before him, he works in an office by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. He wishes the forests of East Texas extended west to Austin, his favorite town. He subscribes to the Austin American-Statesman and sends his kids to UT. He has lived in San Augustine 36 years and at times still feels like an outsider. His father, John Senior, who lives across from him, came north from the Gulf Coast in 1941 with a contract to produce railroad crossties for Kirby Lumber Company. Woodmen cut ties for a nickel apiece and when their saws began to stick, they pulled out a Coca-Cola bottle filled with coal oil and stuffed with pine straw and sprinkled their sticky blades to dissolve the resin. Those were the days when a few deep East Texas communities shut the sawmill down at noon on Saturdays so folks could take their corn and mash to the community still to make community whiskey.
John Senior prospered and progressed from cutting to supplying, burying up to 7000 railroad ties on Saturday afternoons as the middleman between pulpwood haulers and companies buying the cut wood. John Junior does the same today. A fellow representing Owens-Illinois or Temple-Eastex will timber cruise (walking in the woods looking for good timber), find a good stand of trees, and negotiate timber rights with the landowner. An acre with a thousand board feet (determined by measuring the number and height of trees) goes for about $80 to $150. After settling on a price, the company man will come to John Junior to arrange getting the timber cut and place on the railroads.
Before John Junior decides to cut the lumber company’s newly acquired stand of timber, he has three things to consider. First, he calculates how far the timber is from the railhead; transporting it beyond thirty miles is too expensive and takes too long to make a profit. Second, he evaluates the trees themselves, taking into account how many trees there are to be cut, how dense the trees are per acre, and the value of the wood in standing trees, which makes a difference because of the time his crews spend on the job. Third, he looks at the terrain specifically at the particular problems of getting the trees out of the tract, since the fifty inches of rain that falls on San Augustine every year makes hauling ten-ton loads of timber through red, gooey mud a difficult and thus expensive proposition. If John Junior is satisfied on all three counts, he makes the deal with the timber company—usually for around $150 an acre—and sends out his crew.
Vonnie Ray and Vonnie Roy Jones haul an average of 32 cords a week for John Junior, using their bobtail truck and their ten-year-old Homelite power saw. They hit the woods about 7:30 a.m., which in December is barely sunlight. Sometimes they build a fire to get warm, then they start cutting. One cuts, one loads. It takes less than two minutes to send a forty-year-old, sixty-foot pine crashing to the forest floor. Vonnie Ray first makes a notch on the side where the tree is going to fall. Then he takes his power saw and saws into the other side of the tree, the sawdust spewing out like blizzard snow, so the blade will emerge just above the bottom of the notch. The trees ceases to resist and cracks along the cut, then—very slowly—it begins its swooshing fall to the ground. To see a previously untouched forest grove after five hours of cutting is to see a desolate landscape, a spectral wasteland littered with tree trunks lying on the earth like jackstraw giants brought down with fifteen cents’ worth of gasoline, their lofty, stiff strength and pride no more. I never got used to it.
The Jones crew will bring a load to John Junior’s yard at noon and another after dusk. For their labors—they work every day except Sunday—they will gross about $760 each week, less a $40 gas bill, $15 saw maintenance, $25 truck care, and other costs, making their take-home pay about $340 each. Most pulpwood haulers average $250 to $300 the weeks they work, but not many own their own truck, saws, and homes like Vonnie Ray and Vonnie Roy.
In 1900, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad’s run from Beaumont to Longview replaced the Sabine River as the way to get logs to paper mills and sawmills. Like John Junior, other timber folk have offices up and down the tracks. Nobody else, however, has an extraordinary one-armed man like Maurice Jones. Maurice (no kin to Vonnie Ray and Vonnie Roy) runs a Big Red loading machine whose hooks and chains wrap around the wood and stack it neatly on railroad cars.
Like his father, Casey Jones, Maurice has always been in the pulpwood business. He was bringing home a load back in 1969 when he met an unloaded bobtail on the Turkey Creek Bridge. The bobtail’s tire hit the bridge wall and the truck bounced over the highway line, severing Maurice’s arm above the elbow. Maurice passed a terrible six months after the accident full of self-pity and doubt, feeling washed up, a one-armed black man in a white man’s county. To support his family he went back to work for John Junior, raking leaves, doing odd jobs, forgetting about going squirrel and coon hunting with a favorite rifle he could no longer aim or shoulder. One day the Big Red loader man got the flu and logs needed stacking. Maurice swung into the cab, fired the engine, practiced a few times, and now when he isn’t working the books or measuring loads, he is operating the Big Red.
Maurice is the third generation of his family in San Augustine County. His grandfather was a slave who settled in the Preemption community, a special spot in the history of San Augustine’s blacks. In 1870, a bit more than fifteen square miles in the northwest portion of the county was set aside for ex-slaves or their descendants. After staying overnight and hanging a piece of kitchen equipment from a tree as a testimony of ownership and intent, single men could apply for 80 acres; married men, 160.
Maurice was born 41 years ago in the Norwood community in mid-county, where his grandfather, John “Two-Hoss” Jones, had moved looking for better farmland. Despite his grandfather working like “two hosses” and his daddy working and all the boys planting cotton and corn and olive-brown field peas and potatoes and watermelon, all of them taking care of a few hogs and coffee-and-gravy cows (“they give just enough milk for coffee and a little gravy”), when the crops were sold they still were always in debt. Maurice, his brother C.J. (still a pulpwood hauler), and his father also worked as a pulpwood crew. Twenty-six years ago they made six dollars each for three loads, eighteen dollars taken home for the daily work of three men.
Maurice finished the eleventh grade, joined the Army, and served nineteen months in Germany before returning home to haul pulpwood. He thought the Army experience was mostly a waste of time, but it is paying for his business courses at Stephen F. Austin University in nearby Nacogdoches. Maurice and his wife, Vera, who works at the big Temple-Eastex plant down at Pineland, are getting by. They don’t have much leisure time, but occasionally a few couples get their fishing gear and spend a long, lazy Sunday down at Sam Rayburn—just a pole in the lake and some fried chicken to eat with friends. Maurice does his squirrel hunting now with an automatic .22 that he wields as well as the Big Red loader, but it’s not the same as his favorite rifle.
The timber business is so pervasive it turns up in the unlikeliest places. Sheriff Nathan Tindall’s jail sits on the east side of the courthouse, a concrete box of a building across from Gladys’ Café, home of the midmorning coffee break and the substantial home-cooked lunch buffet, during which gossip is elevated to social history. Inside the concrete box I met Nathan Tindall, who at the time was talking on the telephone, telling an old boy that he had a warrant for his arrest because of those worthless checks, but if he would kindly come by, maybe they could work something out that would get the money repaid and keep him out of jail. That would make everybody happy and save the state and county some money.
Nathan Tindall stands a foot shorter than most small-town sheriffs, but still has the obligatory ample paunch spilling over his belt buckle like over-leavened bread. His small, narrow-set eyes miss nothing. He stood by the dispatcher’s telephone, talking in loud flamethrower bursts with no malice in his voice, asking questions, settling arguments, giving advice. I had seen a sheriff operate like this before, Bill Decker of Dallas County, a legendary lawman who arrested killers by calling them on the phone and telling them to come on in. Like the late Dallas sheriff, Nathan Tindall is a man who knows how the wind blows in his county.
He grew up in west San Augustine County near the Attoyac Bayou. As a kid he hauled pulpwood, then joined the Navy, and later came back to San Augustine. In 1950, Tindall was elected sheriff of the county, the youngest in Texas at age 21. Except for a four-year dropout in the fifties and a recent stint as the city police chief, and he has been the county sheriff ever since. Tindall has left the county overnight only once since becoming sheriff 28 years ago, and that was to carry evidence to Austin. His yellow, blackwalled Ford LTD is as permanent a fixture outside the courthouse as the statue of former Governor James Pinckney Henderson, which forever stares north into Mathew’s Dry Goods Store.
Tindall married his second wife, Willie Earl, a librarian at SFA, while talking on the dispatcher’s telephone. He took off two hours for their honeymoon, driving over to Hemphill, 28 miles southeast. The total cost of the newlyweds’ trip was sixty cents—for two quarts of oil and a Coke.
I asked Tindall if he’d ever been to Dallas to see the Cowboys or to the Astrodome or to see Willie Nelson. “Naw, I might miss something.” Isn’t he curious about those things, I wanted to know? “Sure,” said the sheriff, “But you know, it will be just as exciting here tomorrow as the first day I started. There ain’t nothing else I want to do. Now, come on by Saturday afternoon and I’ll show you my crews.”
Tindall may be the wealthiest sheriff in Texas. His crews work for his sideline, N.L. Tindall Logging and Pulpwood Company, which happened to gross $1 million last year—a nice addition to the $516 a month he pulls down as sheriff. On our Saturday trip, Sheriff Tindall pointed out landmarks like his beautiful ranch and the color codes that timber companies tag their property with: light blue bands around a tree trunk marked Temple-Eastex’s land; the U.S. government’s color was blood red; Kirby-Lumber, orange-red; International Paper, yellow. Light blue and blood red were the most prominent. He took me down the sandy road south of Broaddus where Elmer Wayne Henley had helped bury the bodies of four sodomized and strangled young boys from Houston. We skirted the upper reaches of Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and the sheriff talked about his drowning chart.
He had pulled 31 victims out of the lake and knew, according to the water temperature, how long bodies stayed under. In the winter they didn’t emerge for 35 to 40 days. In the summer they bobbed up much sooner. They always seemed to surface at sunrise or sunset.
Nathan Tindall has two black deputies helping him keep the peace in San Augustine County. Richard Carl Davis is the younger, fiery one who lost one eye in a gun battle alongside the sheriff. The older, smoother Willie Dade is a six-footer who wears a cowboy hat, shades, and a neatly clipped moustache, a big man who’s always calm. I heard however, that you don’t want to make Willie Dade mad. Judge Parks also helps Tindall out. Judge is a black pulpwood hauler who has worked for the sheriff since 1947. he says the sheriff might steal the courthouse, but if you need it, he’ll bring it right back. Nobody else can joke the sheriff like Judge Parks. Logging and pulpwood hauling are all the Judge knows. The only day of work he’s missed these 31 years was when his father died. A consistent hard worker is rare in the timber business.
The youngest doctor in San Augustine is Curtis Haley, 51, and he was the man I picked to cure an ear infection. Dr. Haley, a native of San Augustine, Mrs. Haley, and their eight children live in a beautiful house on a 750-acre estate east of town. Haley’s father had also been a town doctor. Haley’s offices are in the old bus station, a flagstone building one block east of downtown near the city’s municipal offices. I entered the front door, gave my name to the receptionist, and sat down to wait with the other patients, mostly youngsters and the elderly.
In front of me, three signs declared, “No Medicare, no Medicaid, no exceptions made.” Taped on small filing drawers was another admonishment, “No exceptions, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no personal insurance.” At the west end of the room was a floor-to-ceiling partition of wood and opaque glass. From behind this wall came soft mumblings. It took thirty minutes or so before I realized I was sitting in a segregated waiting room. As a white man, I had walked through the front door. If I had been black, I would have entered the building through the west side door, where blacks had entered to buy tickets and await the Continental Trailways bus in the early fifties.
In the blacks’ waiting room beneath one naked light bulb and a ceiling fan are ladder-back chairs, a couch, more signs advising the prospective patient that Medicaid and Medicare programs aren’t available. Only one of San Augustine County’s three doctors—Dr. Matthew Buchele, originally from Kansas—maintains an integrated waiting room. The elder statesman of the medical community, Dr. N. T. Bennett, 77, school board president and with 2974 acres, the county’s largest individual landowner, has his black patients come in a front-but-separate door and wait in another room. Haley patiently explained, “They are used to it. It just works better for all of us.”
Dr. Haley is a good doctor who works hard, averaging a total of 43 patients—black and white—daily. He is the only doctor in the county who delivers babies. He declares himself to be a strong conservative, an avowed enemy of federal bureaucracy and programs, and says he treats free of charge those he knows cannot pay. I had barely been in town three days before several people had told me that Curtis Haley is an excellent doctor, an archconservative, and a power in the community who actively works to keep younger doctors from settling in San Augustine. They told me of the black women who attacked him in his office after he refused to treat one of their children. Haley held his own in the fight, had them arrested, and charged them with assault.
“They were drunk and cursed the nurse, saying they wanted treatment right then, that they were going to sit with the white folks in front,” Haley said. “I told them they had to wait or they could go to the hospital. They went, then came back madder than before, attacked me after I told them this was a free-enterprise office, that I didn’t have to treat anybody just because they were there, and the best thing for them to do was leave right then. They got some NAACP lawyer and sued me for violation of their civil rights. This case is still pending here in county court, but I won the case down in Federal Judge Bill Steger’s court in Beaumont. His investigation concluded this was not a segregated office. The HEW [U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] representatives came down and said it was segregated and that they were going to cut off the Medicaid and so forth, and I said go right ahead, I could care less.”
In October 1947, Debra Polk, one of the women involved in the Haley fight, filed a complaint with the HEW’s Office of Civil Rights in Dallas, alleging that Haley maintained segregated waiting rooms. The complaint was forwarded to the Texas Department of Public Welfare. In April 1975, Jerome Chapman, deputy commissioner of DPW, informed HEW officials that they were unable to document or prove whether the allegations were true or false.
Still, the fact that Haley’s office had two waiting rooms and two separate entrances was in the state’s report. In August 1975, Raymond Vowell, the state commissioner for Public Welfare, wrote HEW stating that since the federal court had ruled in the Polk-Haley case that Dr. Haley did not maintain separate waiting facilities, the state was obliged to abide by the court’s decision. HEW, however, was not so obliged. On September 1, 1976, HEW representatives visited the Haley office, interviewed three of the doctor’s patients, and concluded that Dr. Curtis R. Haley maintained segregated waiting rooms and was in noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. He was still in noncompliance with Title VI when I left San Augustine just before Christmas Day, 1977.
So far, government agencies have yet to score a point against Haley. Chiefly because of his opposition to government influence in medicine, San Augustine County is one of three Texas counties with no state health programs. In October 1971, a cervical cancer screening and family planning clinic was set up in San Augustine County by doctors and nurses working out of Texas Public Health Region Seven headquarters in Tyler. One doctor and several nurses saw patients at the county courthouse on the second and fourth Mondays of the month. They checked for TB and venereal disease, gave physical exams, and advised women on birth control methods. In 1972, school immunization programs and crippled-children’s programs were begun. These programs were funded with state and federal tax dollars and cost the county nothing. They were preventive-medicine programs, and patients were referred back to local physicians if cancer was detected or if birth control methods were advised. All 35 counties in Region Seven have these programs except San Augustine and nearby Sabine County, which was close and unpopulated enough to benefit from San Augustine’s programs.
On December 4, 1976, Dr. Haley sent a letter to Dr. Marietta Crowder, director of the East Texas Public Health Region Seven, requesting the clinic be removed from the county. Haley claimed the government program had “become competitive with the free-enterprise system of private practice of medicine … the medical community was opposed to any scheme of socialized medicine … if the illegitimate birthrate in the county could be reduced, perhaps the group would serve a worthwhile purpose … we have seen no decrease, but rather an increase in illegitimate births, and we ask that this family planning clinic be removed from this county.” The letter was also signed by the county’s two other doctors.
Dr. Cowder was invited to a luncheon at the hospital after receiving the letter and explained the rest. “They were polite but firm. They didn’t want us there. We stopped the programs that day. We were not trying to interfere with their medical practice, rather we were offering a service to people who were offering a service to people who usually could not afford to see doctors. It is true that illegitimate births rose 35.4 per cent in the country between 1970 and 1975, but is that due to the failure of family planning clinics? We immunized 3223 children between 1972 and 1976, saw 880 new patients in the four years we were in the county, saw 443 patients in 1975 regarding venereal disease. Of course, you have to do physical exams, blood tests. Pap smears before deciding on birth control methods. We have had no controversy like this in any other county that I know of.” Crowder was somewhat bewildered.
Wyatt C. Teel, for ten years San Augustine County Judge, showed me the letter, filled in details, and politely answered questions between adjudicating child support cases in his first-floor office in the courthouse. Wasn’t it simply a case of the doctors losing a little money from patients who would normally come to them for these services? “Yes sir, that’s correct. You’re exactly right,” said the judge. The judge also explained that there were no Mental Health/ Mental Retardation (MHMR) programs in San Augustine because the county couldn’t come up with a $4100 contribution to initiate the program, nearly all of which is funded by state and federal money. In addition, San Augustine does not participate in Head Start school programs because of opposition to the federal guidelines. And so, while other counties are as poor, their poverty has been somewhat ameliorated. Hidalgo County, for example, received more than $34 million during the last fiscal year, while San Augustine, even though it is comparably poor received only 1.6 million. To be poor in San Augustine is truly to be poor.
Audrey Lee Adkins belongs to one of the poorer white families in the county. She works the three-to-eleven shift six nights a week as a nurse’s aide for $99 a week at San Augustine Memorial Hospital, a trade she learned by studying nursing nights at Angelina College in Lufkin while working as an egg gatherer at Holly Farms. She is an exceptional woman, her face reflecting lost battles against work, weather, and steady pressures, resulting in premature old age.
She and her husband, Elmer, 49, her daughter, Elizabeth Ann, 4, her son, Jay Mark, 12, and Elmer’s mother, who is 73, live in mid-San Augstine County east of the Ayish Bayou. This is the social divider, the historic bayou that begins north of the town near Bland Lake and empties south into Sam Rayburn Reservoir. West of the bayou’s murky waters lives the middle class: those who are allowed credit at Johnnie and Earl’s Grocery. Audrey Lee is the only person east of the bayou afforded this privilege. For poor whites and blacks times are better than they were during the Depression. Now they have electricity and some benefits from welfare programs like social security and food stamps. No one raises cotton anymore, that hardest of God’s tasks, but east of Ayish Bayou where Elmer and Audrey Lee Adkins live, near the Grapevine Missionary Baptist Churh, the major evidences of the passing of the 49 years since the stockmarket crash are television sets, newer cars, and bass boats.
Almost every family has few cows, some hogs, at least five country dogs, more cats, two ornery but trusting mules, hordes of small children, and a truck garden growing collard greens, onions, and cabbages in the early spring, corn in March, peanuts in June, then watermelon, potatoes, field peas, sugar cane; and there are banty hens, Rhode Island Reds, or guineas. No one has clothes made from flour sacks anymore, but some of the kids have never attended school and still eat bacon-and-egg sandwiches, biscuits poured full of syrup, and squirrel. (Younger squirrels are tender when fried like chicken, the older, tougher ones are stewed with dumplings.)
Early spring brings poke salad. It is parboiled for fifteen minutes, fried with bacon drippings and scrambled eggs. (Pokeweed, however, can be poisonous if not properly prepared.) Much of the food comes from the wilder swamp or creek bottoms. First to ripen in early May are dewberries, then mayhaws, which look like miniature apples. Kids shake trees and seine the mayhaws out of the bayou with minnow nets. Wild plums ripen in June, then elderberries, persimmons in August, and the later varieties in October—blackberries, huckleberries, and last, after the first frost, blackhaws, the favorite of possums. There are many varieties of nuts, but chinquapins are best. Smaller than a chestnut, the kernel has a sweetish flavor appreciated by river bottom kids and squirrels. There are always deer to kill, no matter the season; rabbits, either cottontail or swamp rabbits, the latter used for chili; and blackbirds to fry with dumplings. Catfish and bass are staples.
Everybody raises a little corn, not for the dinner table as much as for meal and for feeding hogs. White corn is for bread and meal; yellow, which has more nutrients for the mules. A hog or two is slaughtered in the late fall, maybe a cow if times are good, and the meat is covered with sweet gum leaves to keep the flies away. It is virtually a pioneer’s life. Trips to the store are rare.
Elmer Adkins was born near Grapevine and only left it once, for a job in the Orange shipyards after he got married the first time at sixteen. His first wife left Elmer after fourteen years of marriage, but he and Audrey Lee, his second wife, celebrated their fourteenth anniversary in February. Hauling pulpwood and construction work are the two skills Elmer knows. He hasn’t worked in eleven months because of an ulcer operation that claimed most of his stomach. Four years ago a seventeen-year-old neighborhood boy yelled at Elmer while they were both hunting squirrels in the Ayish Bayou bottoms. Elmer thought he wanted help turning a squirrel. Instead the boy shot him with a twenty-gauge shotgun once in the shoulder, then in the eye, then in the chest. Elmer won’t say why.
Elmer and his family live in a three-room house down a narrow backwoods red-dirt road. Next to the house is a small garden, and behind that are hog and chicken pens and four cows grazing over the 42 acres his family has had for years. Jay Mark lives with his grandmother in the old family cabin just down the road, where the name of Elmer’s father, C.T. Adkins, is still on the mailbox. Jay Mark attends school in San Augustine, has a pet rooster named Bruce, a mean yellow dog, a dove he has kept alive for two years, and a raccoon named Tubby, who sits caged in his parents’ impossibly littered front yard, surrounded by tires , an oxygen cylinder, dog cages, ducks, a battery for the bass boat, bottles, washtubs, a yellow plastic swing, tin cans, a supermarket shopping cart, tools, stacked wood, a clothesline, broken windows, auto parts, bicycle wheels, an old washbasin, dogs, nanny goats, cats, chickens flapping in dung-laden dirt, bent wire, torn ropes, and hundreds of no longer useful things that will never be thrown away.
Across the dirt road is the family car, a green Dodge, along with a bass boat, thirty or forty Quaker State Motor Oil cans, a broken-down pickup, and, under a lean-to made from a portion of skylight, a large RCA color television set, so unexpected as to be surreal.
When I visited them, Elmer was wearing green pants, two unlaced left tennis shoes, a used work shirt with the name “Andres” stitched above the right pocket, bought for a dollar at Burks’ grocery in San Augustine. Elizabeth Ann had just one pink plastic curler rolled in the front of her blonde hair and a runny nose. She held her favorite pet, a mangy dog named Creature. Inside the house, Audrey Lee worked to finish her chores before leaving for the hospital.
The living room was buried in dirty clothes. A small goat and a cat huddled next to the wood stove in the cold room. On the walls were a tiger painted on black velvet and mirrors holding a score of family pictures. In the corner was a television set. On that cold December day, what smelled like fried chicken wasn’t. “That’s squirrel,” said Audrey Lee, smiling for the first time since I arrived. This week she had to slaughter two hogs and deliver the meat to the locker plant in town so the family would have pork that winter. Hog meat, snap beans, and biscuits smothered in ribbon cane syrup were last night’s meal. Elmer loves syrup and often consumed a gallon a week before he lost his stomach.
Standing behind his house, watching Audrey Lee’s guineas and Elmer’s banty hens (kept in separate pens), I smelled the odors of a Southern winter—soft blue wood smoke, frying squirrel, sweat, animals, manure, and wet decaying pine needles—smells of deepest rural East Texas. The family members had a look of remoteness and solitude as they stood near the trees under a gently clouded sky, Audrey Lee was smoking, saying little, listening to Elmer tell of misfortunes, of being too weak to cut posts.
Elmer hopes to get some help from social security or from an old employer he worked for off and on for 23 years, a timberman in San Augustine named Hal Land. But Elmer is tired and the other eye is going blind and he can’t keep much down in his stomach. So he keeps the kids and works on the bass boat battery as Audrey leaves for work.
It is like seeing a slide made for a stereopticon, a forty-year old fading sepia photograph, and if one had the hawk’s high synoptic view of mid-San Augustine County, one would see similar pictures, other homes like Elmer and Audrey Lee’s walled in by the forest.
As a group the blacks, one-third of the county population, are the poorest. Sixty-four per cent live in poverty. The daily life of the San Augustine black man and woman is determined both by the lingering presence of their terrible past and their current condition of poverty, powerlessness, restriction, and isolation. Although a black man or woman no longer has to clear the sidewalk and step into the street when white folks pass, the legacy of slavery and segregation still prescribes a certain deference. Don’t protest when a white man steps ahead in the grocery line. Don’t call a white woman by her first name without a “Miz.” Don’t expect to visit the nicer homes in town unless you’re the maid or yardman.
In San Augustine’s pre-Civil War agrarian economy, only slaves held their value on the commercial market—not the land, which could be gotten for the asking, and not the livestock, which were worth almost nothing. An examination of tax rolls, deed records, and county archives testifies to how basic the slave was to the white man’s economy: slaves were mortgaged for small and large loans, used to settle estate debts, to purchase whiskey, to recover property. Of one man’s total property holdings of $21,000, his 24 slaves accounted for $16,000. Another record shows that a slave boy of twelve was equal in value to 237 acres, five head of cattle, four horses, three bales of cotton, some furniture, farming tools, and a rifle. On September 15, 1842, Aran Roberts mortgaged to Abner Partners one Negro girl aged fifteen, named Sarah, for ten barrels of whiskey.
One hundred and thirty-six years later blacks are, of course, no longer bartered for whiskey, cattle, furniture, or rifles. But little else has changed for them. Reality for the county’s blacks is unrelenting subservience in their public and private relations to the white world. A few blacks do have businesses. One family, Percy Garner and his sons, who own Garner Funeral Home, is moderately well off, but the rest work at low-paying jobs, trying to ignore the undercurrents of Negrophobia as best they can; they are getting by. One thing is a certainty: in this county you cannot separate the two races. They are tangled together through history and daily commerce like the region’s snarled underbrush.
“They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence,” said a character in Flannery O’Conner’s short story ironically entitled, “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” But besides the stores, and only since 1970, the schools, where is the point of convergence?
If changes in the county are to occur for the black man and woman—a lessening of money and job troubles, better instead of bitter times—they will have to come from the blacks. In the city of San Augustine, blacks make up 50 per cent of the population. The whites will alter their customs as people always do for compelling reasons—legal ones, economic ones—resulting from pressure exerted by the blacks themselves. There is no reason at this point to believe the change will occur, that the blacks of San Augustine will ever be anything more than outcasts. But in similar counties in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, the black majority has organized, so it could happen here.
“I can describe the black so-called leadership of San Augustine like this,” said F.D. McClure, a former school principal in the county and now administrator of the Community Action Program in Center, eighteen miles north of San Augustine. “If we were to go down to the coast and go crabbing and put one crab in the basket, it would crawl out. But if we put two crabs in the basket, they both would stay because cause just as one would reach the top to climb outside, the other would drag him back.” McClure’s wife, Mayme, has been the system’s nurse for 23 years. Their son, Fred, once salutatorian and class president of San Augustine High, was state president and then national secretary of the Future Farmers of America, student body president and summa cum laude graduate of Texas A&M, the recipient of that school’s Earl Rudder Outstanding Student Award last May, and a participant in the White House Intern Program. Fred McClure presently serves on the staff of Senator John Tower while he finishes work on his master’s in agricultural economics.
The elder McClure’s CAP program administers outreach programs and two hot-lunch programs for the elderly in San Augustine (one for blacks in the old American Legion building; another for an integrated group in the city’s Cedar Crest Public Housing Development). Yes, the county is poor, McClure agrees, so poor that they were able to get a reduction in nonfederal sharing funds. Normally the money breakdown is 70 per cent federal funds, 30 per cent other. Because of poverty conditions in San Augustine and Sabine Counties, their requirement was cut back to only 18 per cent.
“We have token leadership, which is at least a step forward,” said McClure. “Eddie Wilson, who runs the Exxon station, is on the school board, but he’s a handpicked candidate of Dr. Bennett. Lon L. Garner is on the city council. He doesn’t cross lawyer Smith Ramsey, the real power in the town. Percy Garner’s son, Sam Garner, ran for the school board and for a state Legislature seat against Buddy Temple and lost both races.
“It’s not just the racism and distrust of the blacks here in San Augustine, you see, but their lack of education,” McClure continued. “When I was principal at Lincoln I had the opportunity to hire a black as my secretary, or a white. I tried every black person I could find, but none could type a letter without errors. I hired a white girl because she could do the job.”
There is no leadership. There is poor education. There are no political movements like the populism of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, when the needs of poor people for jobs, land, decent wages, and good schools transcended race. Mr. McClure feels the situation in San Augustine County is getting worse, although he isn’t sure why. As an educator, he blames and at the same time places great home in the schools. After seeing the schools, talking to teachers, learning of the politics and financial woes of the San Augustine school system, I can understand his concern.
San Augustine’s elementary, intermediate, and high schools finally were desegregated in August 1970, after the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against ten East Texas school districts (including San Augustine) , claiming that the school boards operated dual school systems in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. J. L. Smith, school board president and member of the powerful Ramsey, Ramsey & Smith law firm, said they had “fought the good fight,” that the time had come for San Augustine to “face facts,” that the dual system was a relic of the past. The change was implemented swiftly and peacefully. In one way, the losers were the blacks who moved from their relatively new Lincoln School, built in 1958, to the 51-year-old San Augustine High School. Less than three years ago, the school had such a porous roof that students were assigned buckets during a rain to catch the steady dripping around their desks. Uncovered light-bulbs hung form the ceiling; sewage backed up into the drinking system; only this year is a general-science lab being constructed. There was no air conditioning in any of the schools. Finally, a portion of the roof collapsed, luckily injuring no one.
After a visit to the town’s schools in October 1973, Texas Education Agency officials threatened to withdraw accreditation of the school district. They cited deficiencies such as inadequate lighting, science laboratories without equipment, large holes in walls, non-vented heaters, loose-hanging tiles, rotting doors, and no organized instruction of art, music, and physical education at the elementary school. Students using the auditorium for classrooms wrote on large squares of plywood supported on the chairs in front of them. The high school was singled out as being dangerous, inadequate, and run-down.
The school board responded to the state’s report by presenting the voters with a $2.6 million bond issue ($2 million for a new high school and $600,000 for immediate renovations) , which passed overwhelmingly in April 1974. To pay off the district’s increased bonded indebtedness and to raise additional tax revenue, the board sought a reappraisal of property, but they rejected suggestions that they hire local appraisers such as Earl Woods, an associate of the Ramsey law firm, or Jake Whitton, whose family had sizable holdings in the county. Instead, they hired Southwestern Appraisal Company of Austin to revalue, for the first time in anyone’s memory, the 290 square miles of school district property, 180,000 acres at the time valued at $10.7 million.
Certainly, land evaluation was overdue. The valuable timberland and pastureland in the district was listed on the tax rolls for ridiculously low amounts. It is not hard to understand why. The tax rolls show that three major timber companies—Kirby Lumber Company, Temple-Eastex, and International Paper Company—own 27.5 per cent of the land in the school district. Last year they paid only 13.5 per cent of the school district property taxes. If you add the acreage of six of the largest landowners—Ben Ramsey, former lieutenant governor and railroad commissioner and a member of the Ramsey, Ramsey & Smith law firm; his brother, Smith Ramsey; Ed Clark, native son, former ambassador to Australia, Austin financier, friend of presidents, and statewide finance chairman for Senator John Tower; school board president Dr. N. T. Bennett; U.S. District Judge Joe Fisher, native son; school board member and finance company president Porter Halbert—to the timber company holdings you find the combined total represent 32 per cent of the land. Together, they paid only 15.5 per cent of the taxes. The other 4000 property owners in the district, who own 68 per cent of the land, paid almost 85 per cent of the taxes. Timberland in the school district is valued at $40 an acre; pastureland, $36, which any landowner or timberman in East Texas will confirm is barely one-twentieth the real property value of the land. On the almost 21,000 acres it owns in the district, Temple-Eastex paid just $14,643 in school taxes, or 70 cents an acre.
At first glance, this phenomenon has all the earmarks of an age-old story; a poor, unorganized region, dependent on a few major industries and dominated by a wealthy local elite, ends up sacrificing its children for economic gain. Since about 40 per cent of the students in the San Augustine school system come from families earning less than $3500 a year, it seems likely that the end result of offering them such inadequate education would be the predictable one: the rich get rich, and the poor … Certainly the new property valuations that came out of Southwest Appraisal’s study were aimed at reversing this trend. When the new property tax bills went out in September 1947, the total tax rolls shot from $10.7 million to more than $64 million, the largest increase coming from pasture- and timberland. With resources like those, the school district should have been able to afford at least a mediocre program.
But such changes are seldom so simple, and even fair valuation may seem like highway robbery to people accustomed to paying practically nothing. The ensuing battle over the valuation of property in San Augustine County gave the school board, most of whom no longer serve, a good lesson in how power works in San Augustine County. It also produced the opening salvos in a battle between rural and urban school districts that could challenge the whole basis of funding public education in Texas.
Naturally, the Ramsey, Ramsey & Smith law firm was behind it all. On behalf of a group of large property owners (few of whom had children in school), the firm filed a suit challenging the new valuations, claiming they assessed real property excessively high while excluding all other classes of property. Even as the firm was winning their case in U.S. District Court, a “fair taxes” slate defeated the school board candidates who favored the new, higher valuations. The new school board purged the superintendent and other officials who had backed the effort to get more money for the schools and proceeded to draw up the 1976-77 school budget based on old property values of $36 an acre for pasture and $40 an acre for timber.
Meanwhile, the state of Texas got back into the act. Since the amount of state aid a school district receives is based on a complicated formula that uses the value of the district’s property, the controversy over what San Augustine’s property was really worth was crucial. The Texas Education Agency, in its “Official Compilation of School District Market Value Data,” claimed last year that the district had property worth $79 million. This year the TEA reported the property value at $106 million, which could be taxed to raise money for the schools. So, while the school board was confidentially expecting a $700,000 chunk of state money to help run its schools, the state officials refused to disburse funds.
Smith Ramsey then pulled another rabbit out of his hat in the form of a new suit claiming the whole “Official Compilation” was unfair because it ignored as much has $75 billion in personal property—cash in bank accounts, corporate stocks and bonds, life insurance, art collections, jewelry, etc.—which the Texas Constitution requires to be taxed along with land and other real property. The result, the suit argues, is that state aid is distributed on a system that makes land-rich rural districts seem more wealthy than the urban districts where most of the personal property is concentrated. Rural districts therefore get less than their fair share of state aid.
Last July, continuing to operate in their own world like the Wizard of Oz, the school district ran completely out of money. They borrowed $55,800 from the First National Bank to meet July’s payroll. In August, one week into the new school year, they again could not pay the bills, and the state refused their request for an emergency appropriation for teachers’ salaries. A last-minute loan on August 31 from the tow’s other bank, Commercial State, saved the day. Later last fall, First National, Ed Clark’s bank, refused to lend the board $80,000 for a new vocational-agriculture building.
In November, the board had to return a new school bus because they could not afford its $15,000 price tag. In December, Dr. Bennett tried unsuccessfully to remove from the school district’s textbook committee two teachers who had been hired through a federally funded program. In December, board member Sarah Sharp called Superintendent Glyn Williamson’s proposal to extend, as people throughout the country were doing, the Christmas holidays an extra day because of yearend football game telecasts “a communist plot to weaken the moral fiber of the nation.” Gesturing wildly as she complained of the “plot,” Ms. Sharp, the largest of the school board members, fell out of her chair.
As comic-opera as the school board seems, its lawsuit (joined by the Leander school district) is deadly serious. Last August, Federal Judge Jack Roberts denied San Augustine’s request to stop the state’s disbursement of school aid money, but the said the East Texans had a “substantial probability” of success in a trial based on the merits of the case. There is no doubt, said the judge, that the “Official Compilation” does not include intangible wealth in its figures and that “rural districts are forced to raise a larger proportion of school operating costs than is required of urban districts. This violates the federal Constitution and state law.” The school board’s case suddenly looked good.
It was now time to meet Smith Ramsey. I had been in San Augustine almost two months and not a day had passed that this man’s name was not mentioned, no matter what the subject: blacks, timber, politics, money, doctors, school taxes, religion, and most of all, power. He seemed to dominate the place with his personality; when his fellow citizens spoke his name they followed it not with smiles, but with respect and fear. Smith Ramsey and his law firm represent the ruling class in San Augustine. As in small towns in the Deep South, as it was one hundred years ago when the state’s finest attorneys and jurists practiced out of San Augustine County, those in control are a closed clique composed of lawyers, bankers, selected cronies, and yes-men who all but monopolize available credit and business opportunities. They are men of property.
The office of Ramsey, Ramsey & Smith is squeezed between the J. B. Smith is squeezed between the J.B. White Store and the Toledo Automotive Supply on the west side of the courthouse square. There is no shingle out front, just a glass door that opens to a reception area and a long narrow hall leading to the library and offices of Smith Ramsey, J.L. Smith, Ben Ramsey, and Smith’s young nephew, John Mitchell. Ramsey is a slight, solid, keen man with handsome white hair and wary but confident eyes. I have seen those eyes before on other men of power who, if they like you and you stay hitched, will ride with you all the way. If you don’t stay hitched, you will ride alone and at your own peril. At 75, Ramsey’s face shows the creases of a shrewd man who can at once call up a perfected poisonous expression or unexpectedly light the room with the child-like, vulnerable smile of a kindly town preacher.
Ramsey speaks calmly and deliberately, confident of dates, sure of opinions, reminiscing fondly about his years at UT when he played catcher on the championship team of the early twenties, of coming back to San Augustine in 1927 and practicing law with his brother Ben. That was the same year Smith Ramsey became city attorney, a post he held for 45 years, thus beginning a remarkable dynasty of family and law firm members who would hold positions of power in the city, county, and state.
The law firm of Ramsey, Ramsey & Smith provides legal counsel for all timber companies working in the county except Louisiana Pacific. They have represented the town’s two banks and the savings and loan. Until a young lawyer named Macon Strother came to town seven years ago and founded his East Texas Title & Abstract Company, Ramsey had the area’s only abstract business. His law firm did all the title work in the mid-sixties when Sam Rayburn Reservoir inundated thousands of acres of land and began a vacationland real estate boom.
Ramsey has prospered. When Macon Strother came to town fresh out of Texas Tech University law school’s second graduating class and asked Ramsey if money was to be made in a small town, Ramsey replied in his characteristically blunt fashion, “Yes, if you work hard, you will do well,” and added that for years he had made as much money as any of the top ten partners of Leon Jaworski’s law firm. The younger man was impressed. So in 1971 Strother and his wife Shirley moved to San Augustine from West Texas. They found San Augustine different, all right. People talked of great-great-grandfathers and the Civil War as if they were yesterday. They were clannish, skeptical. During his term as Chamber of Commerce president, Strother couldn’t get the town leaders to offer industry anything to bring them into the county. It was as if they were saying they didn’t want anyone else to move there.
Still, Strother got along well with Smith Ramsey. The older man took the younger lawyer hunting and fishing and out to the Fairway Farms to play golf, even after Strother established a competing abstract business. Macon and Smith remained good friends until the 1972 sheriff’s race when Smith Ramsey’s secretary’s husband, county game warden Sherman Bales, decided to run for sheriff. Macon Strother’s candidate was John Hoyt, a former Texas Ranger and district supervisor for the then Liquor Control Board, now the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Strother liked Hoyt and thought he was the most qualified and became his campaign manager. Hoyt won, and his election was the first defeat for Ramsey in anyone’s memory. Strother felt the brunt of the older man’s rage.
Nor did it smooth thins out when Strohter’s law partner, Bill Weems, became one of the three members of the Tax Equalization Board appointed by the school board to oversee the new tax evaluations. Weems fought Ramsey head on. No quarter. When it was over, Weems had made too many enemies and had earned the wrath of Smith Ramsey. He moved to Nacogdoches. Another equalization board member, Robert Baker, also ran into trouble. Baker was fired from his position as manger of the local Brookshire Brothers supermarket. Although Brookshire’s officials denied Baker’s dismissal had anything to do with his work on the equalization board, few believed that the competent Baker was fired strictly for problems at the supermarket.
Ramsey and Strother have since made their peace. The younger man lost a race for county attorney. Ramsey’s candidates have lost the mayor’s race the last two outings. The older man has taught the younger lawyer that in San Augustine County those who have group up steeped in the traditions of the Old South don’t’ get too interested in outsiders, in industry, in people drifting in for a quick buck. “This area is exactly like South Carolina, where my first wife was from,” said Smith Ramsey. “She’s been dead for 24 years, but I still go back every summer. Near Greenwood. The race relations are the same. The old Nigras are the best, like the maid who works for me right now, a fine religious person. Not like these younger ones who say, ‘You pay me so much or I don’t work.’ Those kind that make a lot of money playing football and if they don’t’ make it, get addicted to drugs. Integration is all right if you give them freedom of choice. Let them go to the white school if they want to.
“I tried to reason with that superintendent about the tax rolls. He was a very prejudice fellow. I called him up and said let’s talk about this. If you want to stay over here and make a good superintendent and learn to like the town, then let’s compromise. Let’s raise the taxes gradually. Oh no, he wouldn’t do it my way. He had to bring in that outside firm and raise them so high the poor people couldn’t pay. Well, he’s-gone and we won the suit and we got a new board that operates on the East Texas basis. Real conservative. That bond issue passed and it shouldn’t have. They spent the $600,000 on school renovation and didn’t do it right.
“At least they didn’t spend the two million for a new school. People try to blame the school building as the reason the children can’t read or write or multiply. Only one thing you can blame and that’s the teachers. We’re a poor county here. Not much farming anymore. No cotton, just timber and raising cattle. Those poor people with only fifty acres or so couldn’t pay those high taxes. They came to me with those tax notices and I took care of them.”
In Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, Amanda warns Tom “that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” What will change and improve life for the people of San Augustine County? Will planning make a difference in this region of unchanging social classes, of nostalgia for the charming and elegant days of the Deep South’s planter aristocracy, of strongly held customs and repudiate innovation?
Death and old age will change some of San Augustine’s ways. Smith Ramsey’s once-iron grip on the town’s politics and financial decisions is already loosened and will soon be released altogether, perhaps to make way for a Macon Strother dynasty or a John Mitchell barony. It is a continuing irony that the town could, in theory, be controlled by the votes of the not-quite-penniless, the blacks, rural folk, insecure small-town people who outnumber the middle class and wealthy by a huge margin. It is unlikely, however, that leadership—white or black—will mobilize this voting force.
The optimistic say the two huge new lakes not far away, Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, will bring money and new residents to the county. Tourism could be the next industry. Certainly some of the new developments around the lakes have opened up the county to outside influence. But nothing seems to have changed in spite of it. perhaps it is the woods and the burden of history that insure no change, that keep San Augustine deep in sleep, never to be awakened by prosperity, social integration, or a better standard of life for those unlucky enough to be born without a land title or a great-grandfather who died at Gettysburg.