THERE’S A MEMORABLE SCENE IN The Graduate in which a prosperous middle-aged man leans over and gives Benjamin, the coming-of-age character played by Dustin Hoffman, a career tip. “Plastics,” the man says sagely. He could also have been talking about the key to the story of my hometown, Lake Jackson, although he would have been more precise if he had mentioned, say, polyvinyl chloride or any number of other compounds produced by the Dow Chemical Company at its sprawling plant on the Gulf Coast.
I can remember the day when my father, who worked at Dow, brought home a new product, a roll of thin, clingy plastic wrapping material—Saran Wrap. If I had been prescient, I would have sensed a kind of turning point. Dow, which had gotten its start extracting magnesium from brine, was rapidly diversifying—its Texas plant was already the biggest chemical operation of its kind in the world. With the help of petrochemicals, we were heading away from the tyranny of nature and toward the world of comfort and convenience. We were moving inexorably toward the kind of progress celebrated at the brand-new Lake Jackson Historical Museum, which opened with great fanfare in September.
A small section of the museum is devoted to the old Abner Jackson plantation, a slave-built sugar-producing operation whose ruins lie on the edge of town. But its centerpiece is a full-size plastic airplane that was designed by a former Lake Jackson dentist and is made of Dow-produced compounds, and the bulk of its exhibits have to do with Lake Jackson’s history A.D.—after Dow. The museum features a state-of-the-art animatronic dummy of A. P. Beutel, Dow’s first Texas-division manager, that stands beside Beutel’s conference table and holds forth on company history. (The dummy is so lifelike that it was almost shot one night by police officers responding to a false alarm.) But a few bits of local history aren’t on display at the museum. You won’t find out, for example, how the town lost its most meaningful piece of history—and perhaps its soul—when Dow presided over the sale of a much-beloved park, a transaction that provided funds to build the museum.
These days, Lake Jackson is a pleasant, prosperous town of about 26,000 with neat, tree-shaded lawns and a huge shopping mall that draws shoppers from around Brazoria County. With the completion of a new stretch of highway, it is also becoming a refuge for people who commute the forty-odd miles to Houston. In Lake Jackson’s early days, though, nature still appeared to have the upper hand. The town, built hastily by Dow at the start of World War II to house workers for its new plant on the coast near Freeport, hadn’t even been planned to last.
The site for the town was carved out of the Brazos bottomlands, a formidable wetland forest of towering moss-draped oaks and green ash that stretched from the Brazos River to Oyster Creek. It wasn’t exactly unknown territory: The area to the west had been settled originally by Stephen F. Austin and his colonists. By the time Dow arrived, though, most of the area that had been the Jackson plantation was literally gone with the wind—that is, with the hurricanes that had blown through over the years. All that remained of the area’s brief antebellum era was the beautiful horseshoe-shaped lake for which the town was named and a few piles of bricks to add a little atmosphere. Another large plantation owned by the Jackson family, Retrieve, had become a prison farm, one of several in the area.
With its primeval forest and dense undergrowth of palmettos and tropical vines, the area around Lake Jackson felt a little like a lost world.