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. When my family moved there in the fifties, you could hardly see the town for the trees. When hurricanes came through, some of the giant oaks would fall, and children would play among the mighty branches like Lilliputians.
Almost everything in Lake Jackson was new, from its tiny downtown to its schools and churches and its various clubs and sports teams. It was a town in the process of inventing itself. And one of the first fruits of civic boosterism was a sign at the edge of town announcing “Lake Jackson: City of Enchantment.” My friends and I used to joke about the sign, saying it meant the town was under a spell, and once you entered, you’d fall asleep for a hundred years. If you wanted to see the bright lights of the big city, you had to drive past Dow at night: The plant, which produced its own power, was aglow like Paris. Lake Jackson was a quiet place, the kind of town where strangers wouldn’t just happen to be passing through.
If you didn’t like the outdoors, you were out of luck. For children, hunters, and fishermen, it was paradise. That is, it would have been paradise except for the heat, the humidity, the floods, the storms, the snakes, and the mosquitoes. Until the arrival of pesticide-spewing fogging machines and air conditioning, Lake Jacksonites might have done well to emulate the first inhabitants of the area, the Karankawa Indians, who went without clothes and smeared themselves with alligator fat to repel the insects.
We settled on Oak Drive, the town’s oldest residential street, which wound along a stretch of Oyster Creek, and it felt as though we were on the edge of the wilderness. At the end of the street, beyond our house, was woods. Across the creek was more woods, serving as a buffer between us and the prison farm to the north. I remember hearing the baying of bloodhounds one night after a prisoner had escaped.
Not long after we moved in, the woods began to be cleared for new lots, and among the families moving to Oak Drive was the Bryant family, which included my friend John Bryant, who later became a U.S. congressman from the Dallas area. During high school, Bryant managed to double as a star