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Reflections on the Neches
A Naturalist's Odyssey along the Big Thicket's Snow River
By Geraldine Ellis Watson
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2003 Geraldine Ellis Watson
All rights reserved.
Part One Day 1
River Mile 108 12:00 Noon
It was a glorious autumn day, the river was just right, my boat was packed with simple necessities, I was ready. My 15-year-old blind samoyed dog, Ulysses, Jr., was also ready, and David, my son, was ready to launch us off. We were putting in at Town Bluff and I had left my VW van at Sheffield's Ferry (Highway 1013), the takeout point. Junior and I climbed aboard my 14-foot flat-bottom riverboat, and David pushed us off into the current to begin our odyssey. Ulysses, Jr., posed proudly like a figurehead in the prow, his ears erect to catch the sounds of all the things his poor blind eyes were missing. How joyously he had leaped into the boat when I said, "Yes, Darling, you can go!"
At this point, I should have sailed grandly and majestically off onto the river and into my great adventure, but, alas, the Corps of Engineers, who regulate the release of water at Dam B, just a few hundred yards upstream, had decided to hold the water for awhile, so there was no current. A strong wind came up and pushed my light craft backward, so there I sat, paddling furiously and going nowhere. David stayed long enough to have a good laugh and left me to the mercy of the wind and river. Finally, the wind slacked, and I made enough headway to get downstream into some current. I continued to wield the paddle with vigor, however, in order to get away from the developed areas below the dam before night fell. My heart was set on camping the first night on the big sandbar at Cowart's Bend. Another reason was that my muscles, unused to sustained paddling, were reaching the limits of endurance.
Once out of sight and sound of civilization, I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace and well-being. I began to feel a lifting of weight from my shoulders—a lightening of spirit and a clearing of the mind. It took a mile or two before I overcame the urge to fight the paddle. Hurry, hurry, hurry! "I have to do this or do that! So-and-so is depending on me, etc., etc.!" Finally the point of no return was reached (I simply couldn't paddle upstream) and I was irrevocably bound to stay on the river until the current and my paddle carried me to my destination. There was absolutely nothing I could do about family problems, the world situation, and the myriad of routine chores that are a necessary part of living in a "civilized" technological society.
As I was borne along by the gentle undulations of the current, caressed by the sun and the soft, cool breeze, with the wind in the streamside trees and the songs of birds in their branches the only sounds, the words of Job expressing his desire for a place of refuge came to my mind:
There the wicked cease from troubling;
and there the weary be at rest.
There the prisoners rest together;
They hear not the voice of the oppressor.
The small and the great are there;
And the slave is free from his master.
Gradually, my paddle strokes, my heartbeat, breathing, and pulse developed a rhythm that was in harmony with the flow of the water, the drift of clouds, the flight of birds, and I became one with them all—one with the river.
River Mile 107.5 12:45 P.M.
The first point of interest we encountered about three quarters of an hour after launching was the site of Town Bluff Ferry. The ferry site was below the actual bluff, which is probably the highest point on the lower Neches. On the bluff, where the old road between Woodville and Jasper crosses the river, was a pioneer village called, appropriately, Town Bluff. A thriving river port and center of commerce, it was referred to as "Natchez on the Neches." Town Bluff was the county seat of Menard County, until 1842 when the county was divided into Hardin and Tyler Counties, and the Tyler County seat was located at Woodville by popular election. The coming of the railroads around the turn of the century put an end to riverboat transportation and to ports like Town Bluff.
There was a ferry here in the early 1800s operated by Wyatt Hanks, a member of another pioneer family. Hanks, Argulus Parker, and John R. Bevil became involved in a feud over land frauds, and a number were killed on both sides. Hanks left the area and settled on Wolf Creek farther to the north. After that, the ferry was operated by Austin Ogden until 1928 when Thomas (Babe) Barlow acquired it and operated it from 1928 to 1945 when the dam was constructed at the site.
The ferry site was changed from time to time, but the last ferry, run by Babe Barlow, was about a quarter of a mile below the dam site. The Barlows were an early family and are still represented in the area. A few years ago, I visited with his son, Joe Barlow, and his wife, who still lived at Town Bluff.
At first, Mr. Barlow was reluctant to waste time talking with me about local history, but he gradually warmed up enough to invite me into their home. What a lovely home! And what gracious hospitality they showed me. Coffee was made, and it was served with fresh, sweet, clotted cream and a delicious cake. Many a year had passed since I had cream fresh from the cow in my coffee. The home was furnished with solid, golden oak furniture, no doubt brought over from the East with the first Barlows into Texas. The Barlow farm is an excellent example of how a small family farm should be run. In the well-kept green pastures, fat red-and-white cattle grazed. There were rows of fruit trees and forage crops as well as vegetable gardens. The outbuildings were neat and well cared for. I'm sure taking care of such a place kept the Barlows busy, but what better way to spend one's time than working about your own place in the fresh air. Sure beats some stinking refinery or smoking factory. Then there's always the children and grandchildren to entertain when they visit. Who knows, one of them might want to continue the tradition.
Along with the Barlows, another family well remembered in relation to Town Bluff was the Collier family. Zacharia Cowart Collier was an early settler whose entrepreneurial talents gave Town Bluff its importance. He, with other members of his family and neighbors, came to Town Bluff before the Civil War. These were people who had a tradition of strong moral and religious values and personal freedom—at least for themselves, for they owned slaves. Z. C. Collier was a man of many talents and ample means. Although he was educated as a physician, he performed many other duties including those of storekeeper, banker, postmaster, pharmacist, and cotton gin and sawmill operator. All of the trade of the area went through Collier's store. In addition, he operated the Town Bluff Ferry for many years. Collier's store was sold to the Barlows who donated it to be moved to Clyde Gray's Heritage Village near Woodville where it was restored and supplied with goods and furnishings of that era.
One might think Z. C. Collier was something of an exploiter profiting off slave labor and virgin natural resources for his own enrichment, but one action that came to light in my research proves his worth as a brave and noble human being. A yellow fever epidemic was devastating Sabine Pass and Galveston. It was near the end of the Civil War, and famine abetted disease. People were fleeing the area, but Z. C. Collier went into the scene of death and pestilence to use his medical skills to help the stricken.
The Collier family is still represented in Southeast Texas. I spent an afternoon with Virginia Collier at her lovely home in Beaumont, where she generously gave time and information about her Town Bluff forebears. She served tea in the manner of those gentlefolk who, pioneers though they might be, still maintained the gracious, aristocratic lifestyle of the Old South.
The Pedigo family was also prominent here. Atop the hill at Town Bluff, just as you drop off into old bottomland cotton fields, is a house which was the home of Judge Henry Clay Pedigo. It once had a row of small cottages to the side which were slave quarters before the war. The family lived closer to the river in times past in a two-story log house, but moved the house up to the top of the hill in 1884, I suspect in response to the great flood of '83, when many families who had once felt secure living close to the river moved onto high terraces or bluffs. The Pedigo house was pulled up the steep hill on rollers by mules. They had to first clear a path, then knock off the chimneys and some of the top. What a tremendous labor that must have been! As I viewed the hill where they raised that house, I was stunned! What daring! I never cease to be amazed at what these people dared to do in those days with nothing but the strength of their arms and backs, primitive tools, and mules and oxen.
The Pedigo plantation was only a short distance from Town Bluff, but had its own post office between 1902 and 1938. The bottomland Pedigo fields were surrounded by slopes of Fleming Clay, which is rich in lime, essential to most crops, so the Pedigo fields were especially productive. Sometime in the l940s, I remember passing by and seeing the "colored folk" scattered about the fields picking cotton. The remains of the log shacks where the cotton was weighed and stored are still there.
But, back to the ferry ... One of my earliest childhood memories was crossing the river on the ferry in 1932. We were making what was then a long journey from Doucette to Bessmay. Leaving at about 4:00 A.M., we four children were placed in the back seat of Daddy's Model T Ford and bundled up in quilts, for it was winter. Eisenglass curtains were buttoned onto the sides of the automobile to keep out the rain. Highway 69 and the Town Bluff road were not paved then, the red clay hills were slick as glass when wet, and it took a really skillful driver to go either up or down them. If the hill were steep, Daddy would turn around and back up it. There was something about the gravity flow fuel feeder that wouldn't operate at a certain angle. With the rear end higher than the front, the fuel flowed freely. On the small creeks there were no bridges. A large tall tree was felled across the streams and split in half with the flat side up. It must have taken iron nerve to aim those skinny Model T wheels at those narrow planks and charge across.
When we reached Town Bluff, Daddy went into Collier's Store and bought cheese, boiled ham, crackers, and red soda pop, which we ate in the car. It was still raining. The river was in flood, and the steep clay bank down to the landing was slick. Mother got us children out of the car and we walked down the embankment while Daddy drove onto the small ferry. It was a fearful moment, and my daddy never appeared more heroic to me as when he was wrestling the wheel of that Model T down that slick clay and onto that small raft of lumber in the boiling water. The muddy bottomland on the other side of the river was horrendous, what with the rain. I remember him replenishing the water in the boiling radiator from roadside bar ditches and repairing a flat tire.
We got into Bessmay after midnight. The trip, an hour's drive today, took over twenty hours. It was an epic journey, but crossing the river on Town Bluff Ferry was the most memorable part.
River Mile 106.9 1:10 P.M.
After leaving the Town Bluff area, I saw an interesting-looking little streamlet entering the river on the east side, so I decided it might be a good time for a belated lunch and an exploratory stop. A short distance up the streamlet, I was surprised to find an outcropping of rock and a charming little waterfall. Further, the streamlet wound through a grove of cypress trees, presenting a most lovely picture. This was my first intimation on this trip that, to see the real Neches, one must climb the banks and discover what the river has done and is doing to the land and forests through which it courses.
Beside the little waterfall is a bluff known as McQueen's Landing. A road leads from the river into the woods and ultimately winds up at Highway 190. There is a rocky shelf here and two men had brought lawn chairs and thermoses of coffee and had settled down for a fine day of pole fishing. I stopped and chatted a while before re-embarking. I have never yet found an unfriendly fisherman. Perhaps after a few hours of clutching a pole and staring at the water, they are glad to break the monotony.
The steamboat Dixie Queen was wrecked on the shoals here at McQueen's Landing and was abandoned. Fortunately, the accident happened by the warehouse on the river, so planks were placed from the sinking ship to the warehouse wharf, and the deckhands were pressed into service saving the cargo, which consisted of hundreds of sides of bacon. There was a door in the front of the warehouse and also a door in the rear facing the woods, so the deckhands ran into the front door with the bacon, right through the warehouse, out the back door, and into the woods where they stashed the meat for future collection. They were found out, however, and made to bring the bacon back into the building. They say the remains of the Dixie Queen can still be seen in low water.
After I had mastered the paddle and current enough to avoid disaster, I began to give some attention to my surroundings. Many of the nonhuman residents were out to enjoy what could be the last pleasant weather of the year. The first resident to note and announce to the river world my invasion into their watery realm was the belted kingfisher. Zooming from a high snag on the cutbank, he skimmed just inches over the water like a strafing fighter plane—"ak, ak, ak, ak, ak!!" This is a territorial display, for the kingfisher is extremely territorial, guarding his stretch of river with authority and vigor. When fishing, he flies high over the water, and spotting a small fish just below the surface, slants his wings and descends like a meteor, emerging later with the fish impaled on his beak.
A mating pair of kingfishers dig a tunnel, sometimes as much as ten feet long, into a steep cutbank inaccessible to all but them. The predator they can do little about is the water snake. I once heard an account of a great battle between a large water snake and a pair of kingfishers. Aiming their attack at eyes and head, the birds were successful in driving the monster from their tunnel entrance and sent it flailing and twisting into the deep water below.
Along with the sound and action, kingfishers attract one's attention because of their large size and handsome blue-and-white coloring with black markings. They are so much a part of the stream scene, one can be sure to thrill and delight at their antics at any time on the river.
Whether on land or water, one should be certain to take along binoculars and bird identification book such as the Golden field guide, Birds of North America. It is not recommended to ornithology students, but it suffices for the ordinary bird lover like me.
Managers of commercial upland forests do not allow aged, decaying trees to take up space where profitable young pine trees could grow, so the floodplains are the last bastion of many birds, and animals as well, which require hollow trees in which to nest. Since there are many old, dead, or dying trees in our floodplain forests, there are naturally many woodpeckers to take advantage of them for food and nesting sites. Red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, the small downy and hairy, and the spectacular pileated woodpeckers are to be seen in the floodplains. If you get a one-in-a-million treat, you might catch a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Most ornithologists believe the ivorybill to be extinct, but it was sighted several years ago by ornithologist John Dennis and Dr. Armand Yramategue along this stretch of the Neches River. Bald eagles have been sighted also by National Park rangers along the river just below Dam B Lake.
One of my favorite streamside birds is the prothonotary warbler, locally called the wild canary because it is largely a golden yellow. They like to streak across the waterway from bank to bank. Along with the resident blue jay, cardinal, scarlet and summer tanagers, yellow-billed cuckoo, and a myriad of sparrows and warblers, there are also many transients migrating through here during the autumn.
Our floodplain forests also have the dubious distinction of serving as roosting sites for the millions of blackbirds and grackles which feed in the rice and soybean fields in Jefferson County. They are the noisiest gang I've ever come across. You actually can't hear another person speaking for the great commotion. Late in the evening, they come in flocks which cover the sky from horizon to horizon and one wonders, "Will they never stop coming?" Then they settle down and, apparently discuss the day's doings for awhile before total darkness puts them to sleep.
As I rounded bends in the river, great blue herons rose and floated low over the water before me until, finally, they climbed, banked, and turned back upstream to their fishing in the shallows.
Clouds of small birds, mostly warblers, kinglets, and sparrows, stirred bankside bushes for insects and seeds. Every sandbar had its sandpipers, dipping heads and bobbing tails as they fed on small crustaceans buried in the sand. They flitted away like wind-scattered leaves at my approach. Can it be possible those tiny wings have just brought them from the white frozen Arctic and they only pause here before continuing to the summertime of the Antarctic at the southernmost end of the world?
Excerpted from Reflections on the Neches by Geraldine Ellis Watson. Copyright © 2003 Geraldine Ellis Watson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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