Friday, April 16, 2010

In Funky Town and Around


Every Spring I help chaperon 20-30 college students from our area on a field trip to the General Land Office in Austin, Texas. It does me good to venture beyond the Pine Curtain from time to time. This year, I took off a couple of days early to poke around in the Texas Hill Country, the absolute best region of our state.

Friday:
I left at 4:00 AM and by 8:30 I was having breakfast at the Bluebonnet Cafe in downtown Marble Falls, still going strong after 81 years. From there, I charted my path for that day: a long, sweeping, counter-clockwise loop around the edges of the Hill Country, then back to Austin for the night.

My first stop was to check out a few ghost towns northwest of Llano--Valley Mills, Pontotoc and Katemcy, and do a little bit of genealogy along the way. This stretch of road--from Llano to Mason--had the most spectacular bluebonnets I saw. This area is less frequented by bluebonnet-peepers than the areas closer in to Austin and Fredericksburg. Unfortunately the standard practice is to pull you car off to the side of the road (onto the bluebonnets), tromp out (across the bluebonnets) and sit down cross-legged (amidst the bluebonnets) to have an informal family portrait made. I feel fortunate that I saw them when I did. In another week's time, all that will remain will be smushed bluebonnets.


Nothing much remains of Valley Mills, except a modest stone school house and the picture-perfect hilltop cemetery. Two siblings of my great-granddad's lived here in last quarter of the 19th-century. The families of both moved on to Junction about 1900, but the aunt and some infants were buried here. I found the grave of one of the infants and the probable spot of my aunt's now-unmarked grave. I added her name to my list of graves to mark "one of these days."

I had no family connection with Pontotoc, the next vanishing rural community. The only reference I ever heard of the community was the the tragedy associated with my granddad's best friend and cousin, and his fiance who was from Pontotoc. Both drowned in a 1913 boating accident on the Llano River. Many of the homes and buildings here seem to be constructed from a dark stone, unique to this area. You can tell that at one time, this community was a going concern.




Nothing is left of old Katemcy except a boarded-up church. I stopped at the Bethel Chapel Cemetery nearby to visit the family plot of a distant relative. William Flemon Cowan (1808-1890) was a first cousin to my great-great-great-grandfather. They were about the same age, but chances are that they never saw each other past the time when they were very small children, for their parents' migration patterns went off in divergent directions. But, after the Civil War, my great-great-granddad settled in the same small Central Texas neighborhood as his dad's first cousin. This implies to me that these extended frontier families somehow kept in better contact than we perhaps imagine. Later, William Flemon moved out here to Katemcy, where his son had a mercantile business.

From Katemcy, it was a bit of a stretch out to Junction, but I enjoyed every mile of this new territory. Somewhere past Junction, the Hill County ends and West Texas proper begins. The brother of my great-granddad (though a generation his senior) moved out to this area at the turn of the last century. My dad remembers his aged great-uncle visiting their home in the early 1920s. The man was a rock mason by profession. He and Aunt Hester had six sons. Most of them died as bachelors and there were no grandchildren. In my mind, there was a story here to be uncovered.



Junction is the kind of town where they lock the courthouse doors during lunch hour. Except for the fact that I needed to check some deed records, I kind of liked that pace. While waiting for it to reopen, I went over to the county library. There, I made a discovery that was worth the drive. For in Volume II of the Kimble County History, I discovered an article about this uncle and his family. This made me even more curious, as there were no surviving family members to write it, though the story obviously contained material of a personal and affectionate nature. But beyond that, it contained a detailed account of the Skirmish at Cates' Flat in 1869. This uncle only barely escaped with his life in this Indian battle. His older brother, my Uncle Marion, was not so fortunate. The tragedy is old family lore, but I had never heard about the particulars as outlined here. Apparently, Uncle Marion--anxious for a fight and with the precipitousness of youth--initiated the fight. They had not yet been seen by the Indians, until Marion whooped to get their attention. Only then did they discover the party to be much more numerous than thought. From all accounts, he was dead before they fled the scene, but his cry of "Boys, don't leave me here," haunted them for the rest of their lives. When the news reached my great-great grandmother, they say her wails of grief could be heard across Backbone Valley. Later, a neighborhood party returned to retrieve the body, and of course he had been scalped.

The nice ladies at the library informed me I needed to talk with Frederica over at the County Museum. So after my courthouse run, I stepped over to the local museum to meet her. Every county seems to have someone like this--usually a woman, history-obsessed, who knows every county story and where all the bodies are buried (literally.) Her face lit up when I asked her if she knew my uncle's family. She was old enough that her life overlapped with the children of an uncle born in 1850. She was well-acquainted with the bachelor sons, who all lived together. And as a Cates descendant, she had an uncle in the Skirmish of Cates' Flat. This shared experience cemented a bond between her family and my uncle's. And it was she who penned the article on my uncle's family. I had to chuckle over the obituary of one of the bachelor sons that she had in her collection. It state that he enjoyed submitting articles to the local newspaper, usually on the weather and religion. I bet he did.

From Junction, I headed down to Bandera. Traditionally known primarily as dude ranch central, and increasingly as home to the swankiendas of San Antonio's moneyed set. The city cemetery contains the lone grave of my great-great-grandfather, whose name my father and son share. Born on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, he migrated to Arkansas with his family as a teenager. By the advent of the Civil War, he lived on a small farm south of Fort Smith, with his parents and siblings living on the adjoining place. The war presented a dilemma to the family, as they were all Unionists, and outspoken ones at that. My great-great-granddad's brother and brother-in-law slipped across the border into the Indian Territory where they joined up with Federal forces. My ancestor, with a with and children, decided to try and ride it out. After the Conscription Act of April 1862, he was drafted into the Confederate Army. Meanwhile, the situation back home became increasingly untenable. The family home became a refuge for those of like sentiment avoiding the Rebel authorities. His father was imprisoned and threatened with death, and their crops and livestock were raided repeatedly. His sister suffered a mental breakdown and eventually died after being raped by Confederate bushwackers. After Federal forces occupied Fort Smith, the rest of the family moved into the town for protection. On Christmas leave, in 1862, my ancestor loaded his family and slipped across the border into Indian Territory, leaving Arkansas and the Rebel Army behind forever. My great-granddad told of their crossing the Red River into Texas, when a fall into the water caused his buckskin clothes to shrink past wearing. Within a few years, the family settled on a 200-acre farm near the distant kin earlier mentioned. Some 30 years later and now elderly, they still lived on the place, along with a widowed daughter-in-law and their young grandson. Another son and his new wife lived on the other side of the farm. But all that changed in 1898, for the daughter-in-law gave birth to another child, some 5 years after her husband's death. My great-great grandparents continued to support her, and the infant bore the family name. A month later, they sold their farm and moved to a small house in Bandera, 100 miles away. The reason is not hard to ascertain. No doubt, neighborhood gossip made their continued residence in the area uncomfortable, and they sought a new home where the two young children could come of age untouched by the scandal. My great-great granddad earned money as a teamster in the area. But within two years, he was dead, and the family soon moved elsewhere, having no desire to remain in Bandera. Later on, a family member apparently planted a speria bush at the foot of his grave. Over the decades, the bush consumed the entire plot. So, every few years, I stop by, trim back the shrubbery and leave some flowers. For the first time, I noticed the inscription at the base of the stone: He is not dead, but sleepeth.

From Bandera, I skirted around the north side of San Antonio and made the long trek up the interstate to Austin. I checked in to my headquarters when in the city, the Austin Motel. This old travel court dates back to 1938. It's a quirky little place, but perhaps because of this it stays booked weeks in advance. Austin now promotes the South Congress Avenue neighborhood as "SoCo," but I just call it Funky Town.

Anyway, I quickly showered and left to meet my cousin for drinks and supper. She is another great-great grandchild of the man buried in Bandera. But we are only 3rd cousins, her granddad being a first cousin to mine. An only child who has never married, my cousin is a no-nonsense type of person. She has a distinguished nursing career, while also having cared for both parents in their declining years. My cousin also owns the last 150 acres of her great-granddad's once extensive holdings in Lampasas County. She makes the 70 mile drive twice a week to check on things at the farm. The place was always prone to rattlesnakes, and she says she puts her snake chaps on the gate, before she ever enters the property. I think we have something of a mutual admiration society, and I believe I am the executor of her will.

Saturday:
After the long day before, Saturday progressed at a somewhat slower pace. Truth be told, I did not go to bed immediately after supper with my cousin, as would befit someone of my age. So, Saturday morning found me a bit sluggish. From my motel, I walked through the back neighborhood for about 3 blocks and came out at the Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, a makeshift affair with outside seating and hippy-dippy waiters with Phd's and tattoes--just what I needed to regroup. After several cups of strong coffee and a light breakfast, I was ready to face the day.


My first stop was the Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendalia, Texas. Over lunch today with a good friend of mine, I was reminded that the non-Orthodox do not really understand our penchant for visiting monasteries. The assumption is that if one visits a monastery, one is contemplating taking vows themselves. I assured him that this was definitely not the case. But I am not at all sure that my explanation clarified the issue any at all. I ended by simply saying it is what Orthodox people do. We go to monasteries.



Most people in the region have no idea that this incredible monastic complex even exists. Perhaps that is a good thing. But for those who seek it out, it is well worth the effort. I am pleased to see that the 40,000 sq. ft. dormitory (that can eventually house 50 monks) is nearing completion. Just as one usually doesn't expect to find an extensive Greek Orthodox monastery in the Texas Hill Country, one does not usually expect to find an Islamic cemetery on monastery grounds either. The property had once been a Sufi Muslim retreat center that ran into legal problems. The center closed, and the Orthodox acquired the property a number of years afterwards. Left behind was a 12-grave Muslim cemetery, now cared-for by this monastic community.




My primary reason for visiting the monastery was to visit the grave of my friend, little Jamie Wingerd (Memory Eternal.) I spent some time at his grave and left some flowers there. The two rows of wooden crosses, marking the resting places of about 26 of the faithful here on the monastery grounds, speaks as eloquently as any of the brick and mortar on the property that the Holy Orthodox Church is here to stay.

At different times, both Fr. Ephraim and Fr. Michael encountered me as I strolled around the grounds. Each insisted that I stay for luncheon with them. This fit my plans exactly, as this is one of those places where you linger and put off leaving as long as possible. I ate the simple, but filling meal in the back dining room with 4 or 5 of the monks and novices, and a couple of men staying there at the time. Afterwards, I helped clean up in the kitchen. Holy Archangels Monastery is one of the most peaceful spots one can imagine. I am anxious to return when I can stay longer.


From Kendalia, I headed north to Fredericksburg. This old German town is ground zero for Texas Hill Country tourism, and at no time more so than in the early Spring. No need to stop here, unless I wanted to fall in line with all the other gawkers trudging up each side on the main drag, glancing in all the shops and boutiques at all the stuff they do not need. Not interested. What I was aiming for, however, was Enchanted Rock, about 16 miles north. This is huge, rounded granite outcropping--a mountain, if you will (in the Texas sense of the word, not the Colorado sense of the word.) Enchanted Rock is something of a touchstone with me. I have been climbing it every few years or so since I was 20 years old. I tell myself that if I can still climb Enchanted Rock, then technically, at least, I am still young. Well, at least relatively so. I knew it would a tougher climb this year, as I was a bit winded by the time I reached the end of the parking lot. Thankfully, there was a concession stand just past, so I fortified myself with some Blue Bell Ice Cream before ascending the peak. I set my pace at a consistent mosey, and started my climb. I reached the summit in better time that I anticipated. I had to think, however, how something done to prove my (relative) youth had, in fact, made me feel so damn old.




















A number of climbers milled around the peak. I found them to be a good cross-section of our evolving American cultural mix. Sure, there were plenty of white-bread folks like myself, but I was actually surprised to see the large number of Asian-Americans, Hispanics and Blacks doing the mountain. I am glad. My hope is that this place becomes as much a touchstone for them and their children as it is for me. The sun was beginning to set, so I laid down on the west face of the Rock and soaked-up some sun while it was still there. I had also stuck my Psalter in my back pocket, so I used this opportunity to read the kathisma for the day. If I had an overseas visitor, and I if I had to take them only one place that exemplifies Texas, this would be the spot. Standing on top of the rock, I would say, "Forget Houston. Forget Dallas. This, my friend, is Texas." On the way back, I stopped in Johnson City, hometown of perhaps our most infamous president, and had a chicken-fried steak and a beer. I allow myself 2-3 chicken-fried steaks a year. Back in the motel, I did not do anything but go.to.bed.

Sunday:
I attended Divine Liturgy at St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church. One of our young parishioners, at school in The University, joined me there. While there were some elderly parishioners in attendance, most of the crowd of 100-110 were young people. This is an Antiochian church, so I picked up on a few differences in practice than in our OCA mission. Overall though, it was much the same. They are in their new building, though really it is just their future hall whenever they build their temple. I think this may be the wrong approach, as churches that build halls first often spend far longer in them than they intend. But then again, they didn't ask me. But I will say this--the acoustics were incredible. And for those Orthodox keeping score on these types of things--no pews.

My fellow parishioner and I had a nice lunch at the Brick Oven, and then she went back to her studies, while I found a New York Times to read. Back at the motel, I swam a few laps in the pool, and then explored the neighborhood some more. I stopped by to visit with Ed, the pot-bellied pig, who lives in the front-yard of a nearby residence. He will let you scratch him. Late in the afternoon, I drove about 15 miles south of town, to visit with another cousin and her husband. They are a generation older than me, but do not act the part. Last summer, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by a trip to Venice--all on money raised from their fruit stand in their front yard. If sales are good enough this year, they'll take off for somewhere else, once the tomatoes stop making. We had a great visit. Back in Austin, I walked over to Freddie's Place, the quintessential Austin neighborhood beer garden, about 4 blocks from my motel.

And so ended my free time in the Austin area. On Monday morning, my students would be arriving and I would have to switch into responsible teacher mode for 2 days. But before they left, I made sure I had introduced some of them to Ed.











14 comments:

John said...

I bet that was a fun trip. Did the steak have white gravy or brown? Here in Alabama, they offer it either way, when they offer it. It's white, isn't it?

My grandfather had a farm in Navarro County, which he lost when the cotton market broke in 1920. He then managed the Tate Ranch near Rice. They were Halls. Any of those names familiar?

elizabeth said...

How nice...

esp. the visit to the monastery; it is hard to expain to others that one goes to them for one's salvation and that it is normal for Orthodox lay people to pilgrimage to such holy places...

John said...

John, c-f steak is only served with white gravy in Texas. This was an authentic steak, not some frozen, breaded meat patty. That said, this place offered either white gravy or their homemade hot sauce. I opted for the hot sauce, hoping to lessen the damage to my heart and arteries. But it just wasn't the same. Next time--back to white gravy! I live 70 miles east of Corsicana, and the names you mention are not familiar to me. If they'd been on the east bank of the Trinity, I would have probably known of them :)

Elizabeth,
It's funny--before 2003, I had never set foot in a monastery. Now it seems the most natural thing in the world, and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to. I am slowly realizing, however, that this seems a bit weird to many people.

John said...

btw, the pictures are:

1. at the Austin Motel
2. ruins of old Pontotoc
3. old Pontotoc business district
4. Katemcy church
5. Holy Archangels Monastery
6. Muslim cemetery at monastery
7. Orthodox cemetery at monastery
8. Enchanted Rock
9. Ed, the pot-bellied pig

John said...

btw, the pictures are:

1. at the Austin Motel
2. ruins of old Pontotoc
3. old Pontotoc business district
4. Katemcy church
5. Holy Archangels Monastery
6. Muslim cemetery at monastery
7. Orthodox cemetery at monastery
8. Enchanted Rock
9. Ed, the pot-bellied pig

s-p said...

You should seriously write travelogues. I LOVE these. And I've never heard of brown gravy on CFS. Shudder...

Milton T. Burton said...

Superb post. Things like this remind me how much I love Texas, for better or worse, with all its warts and flaws. Thanks for this one.

Ian Climacus said...

Your not being a travel writer for a newspaper or magazine, or published in a book [though perhaps you are and being modest in not revealing it ;) ] is an injustice against good travel writing.

I love all you write, for it is so well-written, and always encourages, edifies, challenges or amuses -- and sometimes all four; but your descriptions of your travels, together with your family history and the many, many people you know, are simply a joy and blessing to read. Thank you for sharing. I'm booking my flight now to see Ed. :)

John said...

s-p, milton and Ian,
Thanks. Y'all are too kind. I am actually considering a writing project. We'll see. And Ian, the "many, many people" I know may actually be more a factor of how long I've been around (something s-p and Milton would know about, as well-ha!)

Becky said...

I enjoyed every word and am insanely envious of the whole trip, especially the monastery. I have to find some way to get back there this year with George, I think about it all the time. Was all that grass around the cemetery last year at Jamie's service? I thought I remembered it being more rocky right there.

rhymeswithplague said...

I lived in Texas from the age of 6 until the age of 20, and left almost five decades ago. I grew up in Mansfield, which at that time was just a wide spot in the road between Waxahachie and Fort Worth. I attended college in Georgetown (not in, but near, the hill country).

I enjoyed this post very much.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I love the hill country. It's been a few years since I tried Enchantd Rock. It left me winded even when in my 20's. I hope to make it down before it gets much hotter. In addition to Holy Archangels I also want to get some seeds from Wildseed Farms. It's 7 miles east of Fredericksburg and has spctacular fields of many types of flowers.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness you don't have a real job! Looks like a great Texas trip.

John said...

Anonymous,
But I do have real full-time job--keeping my nephew in line.