Meet scheming Texans who slipped out of the history books


Schoolchildren learn about Davy Crockett and the Alamo in elementary school. Older (cooler) people know Willie Nelson, and football fans still remember Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, but Texas history is made up of much more than larger-than-life personalities.

The McFaddin-Ward lecture series brought author and journalist Joe Holley about his travels to a small town in Texas in search of everyday stories that make this state what it is. His road trips were often the source of his “Native Texan” columns which were a staple of the Houston Chronicle.

“It seems like stories in small towns are sometimes more accessible,” he said. “My readers will send me suggestions on what I have come to call, in a way, the particularity of a place, the personality of a place, which has to do, frequently, with its history. .

Holley said that digging in, researching and talking to people reveals all kinds of weird and interesting things.

The Marx Brothers become actors in Nacogdoches

Holley told the story of an old opera house in Nacogdoches and its place in the old burlesque circuit. In 1907, four young guys from Brooklyn – whose mother was their manager – walked in and did their show of music, poetry, recitations, etc. In the middle of their performance, the doors opened and a guy shouted, “A mule is loose.” The story goes that the whole audience got up and walked out, came out to watch them try to catch the mule.

Unsurprisingly, the four young guys were furious that their audience had just left, Holley said.

“Then the audience came back, sat down and one of the cool young guys, he was kind of pacing up and down on stage berating the audience,” he said. “And he said he was trying to think of a word that rhymed with Nacogdoches and the only thing he could find was,” Nacogdoches is full of cockroaches. “And his coworkers were trying to stop him, (saying) ‘Dude, it’s just Texas, you don’t do that kind of scenery.’ But then they realized everyone in the audience was laughing out loud at his insults.

“And that’s when the Marx Brothers realized they were comedians, not musicians. There are weird stories all over the state like this.

Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells

Holley is working on a story from Mineral Wells, a town in North Texas, about the Baker Hotel which compiled a fairly large list of celebrities who came to bathe in the mineral waters. These luminaries included actor Clark Gable and actress Judy Garland, as well as conductors Lawrence Welk and Glenn Miller. Legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are said to have spent the night there.

“And now the developers at Mineral Wells are trying to bring the hotel back,” he said. “I’m trying to find little towns around Texas, I guess all over the country actually, that are dying. If I can find a city where the locals bring it back, that interests me too. And be able to tell her story before it disappears.

Holley cited Fredericksburg as a prime example of how locals have preserved historic buildings and thrived by creating her own distinctive personality.

His speech ranged from the story unknown, probably to most Texans, of a certain John Richardson Harris – founder of Harrisburg, now known as the City of Houston, and his solitary but proper grave in Glendale Cemetery. overlooking an offshoot of Buffalo Bayou. It is the oldest cemetery within the city limits.

Halletsville – largest city in Texas named for a woman

He then turned to the missing town of Bettina, a German colony in the Hill Country, named after a German woman who was a writer, opera singer and musician. Founded in the 1800s by young intellectuals, Holley said she was gone because they thought someone else was supposed to do the job.

This story was published in a column and one reader pointed out that Bettina was one of the few towns in Texas with a woman’s name. Holley asked the public to name other towns or counties in Texas named after women. Only one of Texas’ 254 counties – Angelina – qualifies. And only a few towns, most notably Hallettsville – the largest town in the state named after Margaret Hallett who donated the land for the town’s location.

Hallett was the widow of English sailor and War of 1812 veteran John Hallett – he fought with the Americans after deserting the British Navy a few years earlier. When he died suddenly in 1836 – after he and Margaret settled in Texas through a land grant from Stephen F. Austin in 1831 – she ran a store known to sell horses to the Tonkawa tribe and Mexican merchants. On one occasion, after an altercation with a group of Tonkawa, she hit one of the group members with an ax. This impressed the local chief so much that it made him an honorary member of the tribe and an ally against their common enemy, the Comanches.

Texas and Critical Race Theory

Holley also explored the general history of the state and the Texas Legislature’s Bill on “Critical Race Theory” and how race and history should be taught in schools.

“As a state, we don’t have to be afraid of its unvarnished history, because these people who are our historical icons were normally typical people with their own flaws,” said Holley. “They didn’t start out as statues or monuments. They were just people, just like us. And I want to remind Texans that, and that they don’t need to censor or hide stories about Texas’s past from young people. ”

Holley went on to say that lawmakers are walking dangerous ground and actually ignore history when they censor or ban books they just don’t like. It agrees that parents have the right to have a say in what their children read, but lawmakers telling libraries what should and should not be in the school library is worrying.

We need to know, for example, that William Barrett Travis was a 26-year-old scoundrel, Jim Bowie was not just a slave owner, but a slave trader, and Sam Houston enjoyed his opium, Holley said, adding that Texans need to know this stuff is because it humanizes these people who made the history we live in today.

“Love does not require taking an uncritical stance towards the objects of one’s affections,” he said. “In truth, it often requires the opposite. We cannot be of service to the hopes we have for places and people, including ourselves, without a clear assessment of theirs and of our strengths and weaknesses. It often requires a willingness to be critical, sometimes profoundly.

Holley’s love and interest in Texas history is evident in the Waco native’s enthusiasm for the multitude of stories waiting to be told. The stories he tells aren’t always the brash and daring lore of the Big Texas we think of. They sometimes tell tragic stories that also shape the future.

Sutherland Springs Church Shooting

An audience member asked which story had the most impact on him. He cited his coverage of the Sutherland Springs church shooting in November 2017. It is now the deadliest mass shooting in Texas and the deadliest American shooting at a place of worship.

“I know these people,” he said. “I grew up in a fundamentalist childhood. I know small towns. I know the gun culture. I know Texas. And it all unfolded in an incredibly tragic way this Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs, when bullets started going through the wall.

“So I spent a year, I guess, going to church on Sunday mornings with them, going to Bible class and supper on Thursday night, visiting their homes, trying to figure out how to get to someone. ‘one and say,’ Here is my notebook. Tell me about the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you. And it is difficult for any journalist.

Her strength is her ability to connect with people, tell their stories, and always seek out the things we all share in common.

Holley was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist. An award-winning author of several books including “Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town,” “Hurricane Season: The Unforgettable Story of the Houston Astros and the Resilience of a city ​​”,” Hometown of Texas “.


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