My hometown, Lake Jackson, had a familial relationship with Dow Chemical, the company that founded it—until its heritage was traded away.
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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 of both student government and the rodeo. “We all watched the town being built from the ground up,” he recalls. “It was an interesting mix of traditional Texas and where Texas was headed culturally and economically.”
Just up Oak Drive was Andrew Sansom, who now heads the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. As a kid, Sansom liked to fish in Oyster Creek for alligator gar, as I did, and he claims to have caught one eight feet long. “I trace everything back to that creek,” he says. Last year Lake Jackson named a children’s fishing pond for Sansom at its popular Sea Center Texas, a combination aquarium and marine-fish hatchery.
Lake Jackson, Sansom observes, was a little like Los Alamos, New Mexico—another community that had been created by the war and had drawn educated people from around the country. While I was living in Lake Jackson, from 1955 to 1965, it was a remarkably homogeneous town, with little poverty and almost no racial diversity. It was a town in a bubble. And for many of us, the bubble didn’t burst until the Vietnam War, when boys of my generation had first-hand experience with some Dow products that aren’t included in the Lake Jackson Historical Museum: napalm and Agent Orange.
In retrospect, Lake Jackson, with its winding streets and unobtrusive buildings, didn’t look at all like Los Alamos, Levittown, or other “planned” communities of the time. Nor did it have a main street or town square like older towns. It was easy to get lost and go around in circles in Lake Jackson, whose peculiar street names make you dizzy just saying them—This Way, That Way, Circle Way, Winding Way. And that was mainly because Alden Dow, the quirky architect son of Dow’s founder, Herbert Dow, who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, didn’t much like right angles and straight lines. (An animatronic dummy of Alden Dow expounds on his theories at the historical museum.) Streets, he thought, should curve, so there’d be some doubt, some mystery, about what lay around the bend.
The younger Dow had been given the task of designing the new town in a “southern jungle,” as he put it, and he envisioned it as a “city in a park.” He designed the town’s first residential buildings and schools as well as its first drugstore, movie theater, and even its first church. When Dow returned to Lake Jackson in the sixties after a long absence, however, he complained about its lack of downtown “coherence.” And in the intervening years, more and more of the town’s retail energy has moved to the concrete expanses of the Brazos Mall, located where I used to walk in the woods, and Alden Dow’s downtown office has become a Christian bookstore.
Alden Dow’s most meaningful architectural contribution to the town was probably the screened pavilion he designed for Dow Park, a fifteen-acre retreat next to the lake, at the edge of town. It was a wonderful place for parties, and it made a great dance hall. The park itself was to Lake Jackson what Barton Springs is to Austin. It was what gave the town its identity. And it was where most of the town’s social gatherings, from barbecues to church socials, took place. Kids learned how to fish on the pier. With the remnants of the old Jackson plantation sugar mill and the huge, magnificent oak that had become the town’s logo, the park was a dreamy, romantic place. Later, when I was going to college and invited friends home to visit, I always took them to the park.
By the mid-eighties, however, something had happened to Lake Jackson. And something had changed in Dow Chemical’s relationship to the town. One summer I returned to find that Dow had closed the park at the lake. It was fenced off to the public. The park had become a “liability,” according to H. H. McClure, a former manager of Dow who headed the Lake Jackson Historical Association and was on the board of the Lake Jackson Farms Association, a group of wealthy homeowners who lived around the lake. McClure now happens to be the director of the historical museum. The park, he says, had become a “drug drop.” Lakeside residents didn’t like the “loud music” played by people who came to the park. According to another longtime resident, there were complaints about “sex on the picnic tables.”
At the time, Dow, which had been affected by a statewide and an industrywide economic downturn, began cutting its work force and looking around for someone else to take over the upkeep of the park. Although Brazoria County officials had expressed interest in making the place a county park, the town of Lake Jackson quickly declared its interest in the land. But after looking into the cost of maintenance, the mayor, a member of the historical association, backed off. And that’s when the historical association and H. H. McClure made a deal with Dow to take over the park and sell most of it for development, leaving a small section, including the ruins of the old sugar mill, to be closed off for archaeological research. The money from the sale was to be used to build a new museum in the center of town, although the association had been offered a historical building on the lake—the former home of A. P. Beutel—to house the museum.
“The folks who lived at the lake wanted to keep it as their private preserve,” says a longtime Lake Jacksonite who spearheaded a fight to keep the park. They didn’t want a museum on the lake any more than they did a public park, he explains. And most people in town, he says, “simply couldn’t believe that a historical association would sell the town history.” Lake Jacksonites always assumed, too, that “Dow would do the right thing by the town,” says Sharron Stewart, an environmental consultant who has been involved in a bitter, long-running battle over the town’s plans to build a golf course on forested wetlands. But the transfer of Dow Park was a done deal by the time opponents put together a group called the Brazosport Nature Conservancy to buy the park and preserve it for public use.
The town hasn’t been the same since, according to many of my friends who live there. The park remains fenced off, and in place of the pavilion is an upscale home. Lake Jacksonites who want to visit the lake are restricted to a once-a-month tour of the archaeological site. There are people who are “still aching about the park,” says my favorite history teacher, Georgia Walley, when I call to reminisce. The town has other parks now, including a lavish new recreation center built on land donated by Dow. But “there’s still a lot of bad blood,” says another longtime resident who fought to save the park and who refuses to set foot in the new museum. “Some of my oldest friends still don’t speak to me,” he says sadly.
In recent years other issues have divided the town, including the costly fracas over the golf course, which has lasted almost a decade. And the town is in for more. As Lake Jackson bursts at the seams, the wetland woods north of town may be the site of “the next big land battle in Texas,” according to Andrew Sansom. “That forest is unique to this hemisphere,” he says. He believes, however, that there is a chance, with the cooperation of developers, to save a good deal of it and still let the town grow.
But first, Lake Jackson will have to learn some hard lessons about healing and history. When the museum opened in September, there was a surprisingly sparse crowd to watch the cheerleaders, dance-school performers, and local politicians who had been rounded up for the occasion. I had to wonder whether it was a coincidence—or perhaps a last protest from nature—when a black cloud hovered over the museum that morning, preventing the grand finale of sky divers who were to land next to the museum, one of them carrying a flag with the museum’s logo: the big oak tree from Dow Park.