“You went where?” asked a co-worker on a Monday morning in August. We were comparing weekend notes. “Egypt,” I repeated. Her eyes grew larger. “For a day?”
Egypt. The word conjures up immediate visions of pyramids, hieroglyphs, and busts of Nefertiti. So when my husband, Mike, and I headed to Egypt, Texas, on a morning this past summer, we wondered what ancient wonders we might come upon at this destination we had never heard of.
Our visit would be a step back in time. A quiet farm and ranch community in Wharton County, Egypt is a relic from early Texas pioneer days, a town whose story began with settlers from Stephen F. Austin’s first colony. Mike and I were greeted by George H. “Bud” Northington IV, the owner of an antiques mall in Egypt with whom we had arranged to meet. Bud, a consummate history lover (he participates regularly in historical reenactments around Texas) and a descendant of original Texas Egyptians, helps arrange visits to his tiny hometown. After perusing the stalls of his Egypt Plantation Antique Barn, Mike and I received a quick lesson on Egyptian history from Bud and then embarked on a tour with his mother, Anita, also an Egypt resident.
Egypt, Texas, was settled by pioneers in the early nineteenth century. Originally referred to as Mercer’s Crossing after a settler named Eli Mercer who operated a plantation and a ferry at the San Felipe-Texana crossing on the Colorado River, the town was rechristened when, during a severe drought in 1827, the fertile area supplied corn to surrounding settlements. People began referring to it as Egypt in memory of the biblical account: “Now there came a dearth over all the land . . . and our fathers found no sustenance. But when Jacob heard that there was corn in Egypt, he sent out our fathers first.” (Acts 7:11-12)
Settlers to the area included W.J.E. Heard, the captain of Company F, First Regiment of Texas Volunteers, in the Battle of San Jacinto; Andrew Northington, who ran a stagecoach line through Egypt; William Menefee, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico; and Gail Borden, Jr., the inventor of condensed milk. Strategically located on the Colorado River and near the Atascosito pioneer trail, Egypt became both a center of commerce and a base for military planning in the years before the formation of the Republic of Texas.
As Bud informed Mike and me, today’s Texas Egyptians are direct descendants of the Heard and Northington families. When Captain Heard arrived in Wharton County (then Colorado County) with his family and slaves, he chose Egypt as his home, buying 2,200 acres from the settler John C. Clark in the 1830’s. The Heard family would then develop a friendship with the family of Andrew Northington, the stagecoach owner, which resulted in the marriage of Captain Heard’s daughter Elizabeth and Andrew Northington’s son Mentor. It is the Northington children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have lived and worked on this same land until the present day.
The Egypt Plantation, as Captain Heard named his property, originally comprised the family home, slave quarters, and crops of sugar cane, corn, and cotton. Over the years, the family’s land holdings would grow to cover almost 50,000 acres, and to keep up with changing times and needs, Captain Heard’s descendants would raise livestock, add pecans and rice to their list of crops, and eventually stop growing sugar cane. Because the Egypt Plantation has been lived on continuously since the 1800’s, today, as Mike and I discovered, it holds layers and layers of generations’ possessions and memories.
Our tour with Anita started out at the Northington home, a brick Georgian Revival-style building completed by Captain Heard in 1849. Anita lives there today, and the 150-year-old restored house is furnished with antiques that have belonged to her family since forever, it seems: a Regina music box (complete with its large, disklike records), a loud player piano, a sixteen-foot Brunswick bar, beautiful four-poster beds, and furniture dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, all in immaculate condition. It was like traveling through a time warp; except for our jeans and sunglasses, it was easy to imagine ourselves as early pioneers. This sense of time was heightened when Mike happened upon a framed document in the Great Room: It was the original 1831 Spanish land grant to Captain Heard from Stephen F. Austin. The original. Wow.
Over a century of lives materialized before us through Anita’s storytelling. We heard tales of the ghost soldier that haunts the upper bedroom, and about how Aunt Clarissa Northington, known as the Queen of Egypt for her poetry and watercolors, was the only one with a chauffeur-driven Cadillac. Anita also recalled for us the story behind an old chest displayed in the main hall of her house: During the Runaway Scrape, when news of invading Mexicans caused Texas settlers to flee from their homes, her ancestors hid their most prized possessions in the chest and then buried it in their front yard, making the dirt look like a fresh grave before they went into hiding. Their belongings had survived intact until their return.
Dazzled by this taste of the past, Mike and I followed Anita to our next stop, the Egypt Depot. No longer practical once the Santa Fe Railroad Company ceased running through Egypt, the wooden building was transported by the Northington family onto their property to serve as a museum. With its perfectly preserved waiting rooms and ticket office, the depot now houses a collection of dusty treasures: newspaper clippings, a primitive washing machine, a corn sheller, tin bath tubs, saddles, and farm tools used once upon a time. As we treaded the wooden floorboards we could almost hear the whistle of a distant train.
Also on the Egypt Plantation were a slave’s cabin (soberingly small and simple compared with the home we had toured), a sugar cane press, a cook’s cabin, a few barns, and the family cemetery. Like pharaohs’ tombs bespeaking of accomplishments past, the headstones for the rulers of Texas’ Egypt are a reminder of the days and successes of many generations: marriages, families, new settlers, unexpected illness. Some of the early graves were covered with crypts made of handmade bricks, which deterred looting Indians. Other graves were unmarked slave burials.
Anita ended our tour with a visit to the Northington Saloon (which has served, in different forms, as a social center in Egypt since the 1890’s) and a drive through some of the Egypt Plantation’s land, where we got to admire the Colorado River, cotton fields, and family horses. As the inheritors and keepers of a rich history, today’s inhabitants of Egypt, Texas, hope that their legacy, so closely tied to this land, will endure for years to come.
For more tour information, call Anita or Bud Northington at 979-677-3562 or e-mail them at [email protected]