Monday, March 16, 2015

DRIVING THE DEEP SOUTH PART TWO--MORE INTERESTING STUFF IN MS,. LA., TN, AR. MO

JEFFERSON CITY, MO

We  were still in the frigid January weather when we lighted by the Missouri State Capitol.  Jefferson City, named after our Third President, is one of the least known state capitols.  Jefferson's connection to Missouri is that he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.  The Capitol Building is very impressive, 238 feet high.  In the surrounding outdoor plazas are bronze and stone statues commemorating the Louisiana Purchase and other major events in the opening of the West.

We visited the Lewis & Clark Trailhead Plaza across from the Capitol Building.  Named after the Sunshine Boys, Lewis & Clark, the monument features larger than life bronzes of Lewis and Clark, of course, as well as Clark's man-servant York (no last name), George Druillard, their French Canadian Shawnee interpreter, and Seaman, Lewis's Newfoundland dog.

It was lunchtime, and after a long search for a decent restaurant, we ate at Wendys, using our coupons.  We befriended a developmentally disabled man who worked at the restaurant.  With some difficulty, he walked over to every diner in the restaurant and welcomed them.    He was difficult to understand, because of his speech patterns, but I looked him in the eye and started a conversation with him.  He told me he worked there for 20 years busing tables.  I think most people tend to blow the guy off, but to me, it doesn't cost anything to show kindness.  When we finished our lunch, I put my arm around him and gave him encouraging words.  His face lit up.

BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS

Bentonville, in far Northwest Arkansas, was named after the 19th Century statesman Thomas Hart Benton.   The town's nickname is "the Fruit City", and I'm not touching that one.  Actually, in the 1800's, Benton County was the largest apple producing county in the U.S.  Today, it is best known as the world headquarters, not of Apple, but of Walmart, the world's largest retailer. 

Sam Walton was newly discharged from the service in 1946 and opened a variety store in nearby Newport, Arkansas in 1948.   He was a franchisee of the Ben Franklin stores.  Walton's landlord refused to extend the lease, probably because he thought Walton would never amount to anything.  Walton then opened his Bentonville store in 1950 on the town square across from the courthouse.  Today, Walton's 5 and 10 store is a Walmart museum with a soda fountain and a gift shop.  Its exhibits illustrate the history of the Walton family and significant events in Walmart's journey to the pinnacle of retailing. 

The dime store carries a large variety of sundries including books to read.  We bought a sock monkey puppet for our friends back home.   I picked up Fun with Dick and Jane for my nighttime reading.  I read the book once before--when I repeated first grade.  The dialogue is stuff like "see Spot run" and "funny, funny Jane".  The books were used to teach reading to young children from the 1930's to the 1970's.  The characters included Mother; Father; Spot, the dog (originally a cat in the 1930's editions; and Puff, the cat.    The book was so popular, it was made into a 1977 movie.  The movie was a comedy starring George Segal and Jane Fonda, who embark on a life of petty crime.  The cast  includes Ed McMahon and even Jay Leno in an uncredited bit part.  The similarity to the book  ends with the title. 

A mile or so down the road from our hotel, we entered historic Rogers, Arkansas.  Rogers promotes its Historic Downtown, with its Historical Museum, the Daisy Airgun Museum, the Fire Department Museum and even the Pea Ridge National Military Park.  No mention of the most well known historic event that ever took place in Rogers--the opening of the original Walmart store in 1962.  Of course, it wasn't perceived as historic when it opened, but then none of the other historic sites would have been also. 

FERRIDAY, LOUISIANA

We returned to Ferriday for the second time in a year.  Last year, everything was closed because of snow and ice.  We decided to try it again. 

Ferriday, you may recall, is the hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, all related to each other.  When they were young, the three cousins often  jammed together, Lewis playing the piano (which his folks mortgaged their farm to buy).  Truth be told, everyone in town may be related.  In a small town like Ferriday, it was common for several members of one family to marry several members of another family.  The relationships can get complicated, and the Delta Music Museum provided us with a family tree to figure it all out if you wanted to take the time.  The Museum was created to preserve their musical heritage and that of other musicians from the area. 

We watched a 20 minute video featuring the many colorful musicians from the Delta region.  When I say colorful, scandals are what makes them interesting.   Jerry Lee Lewis, for example was an icon of rock 'n' roll in the 1950's, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show, playing the piano with his hands, feet and other parts of his body.  His brief time in the limelight ended when the 22 year old Lewis married his 13 year old cousin, his third marriage.  One problem was that he was still married to wife number 2--his divorce was not final.  At that point, his acolytes headed for the exits as fast as they could.

Lewis was 14 (and his wife 17) when he married for the first time.  At least he is willing to make commitments.  The curator of the museum told me Lewis is now married to his seventh wife.  I didn't ask how old she is.  After the scandal blow over, Lewis moved on to country music where he enjoyed a long and successful career.

Swaggart was a hugely successful Christian evangelist but was also a musician with a wonderful singing voice.  His preaching career ended abruptly a few years back (1987) when it came to light that the married Swaggart spent too much time and money courting prostitutes.  If he had been a politician, he would have been handily re-elected.  But he wasn't.  Today, he has a small congregation in Louisiana and appears occasionally on TV. 

The museum was highly informative.  I was pleasantly surprised to see exhibits about artists from the 1960;s whom I had long forgotten.  They included Aaron Neville, Fats Domino, Dale & Grace (I'm Leaving it All Up to You), Clarence Frogman Henry, Conway Twitty, John Fred & the Playboys (Judy in Disguise), and Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans and Sink the Bismarck)..    

NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI

Like Ferriday, LA, we returned to Natchez to see if the mansions were open.  They were.  We stayed for 3 days and 2 nights.  We arrived in town in mid-afternoon on a cold, rainy January day.  We made arrangements to visit 4 ante-bellum mansions the next day.  While exploring the town, we came upon the William Johnson homestead, a substantial brick building in the city, operated by the National Park Service.  Our thinking was that if it's a National Park, there must be something to it, so we went inside.  We were the only tourists there.

William Johnson had an interesting history.  He was known as "the Barber of Natchez" which doesn't have the same ring as The Barber of Seville, but it is worth the visit.     In the 1850's, just prior to the Civil War, Johnson was a freed Black man who opened a string of barber shops in Mississippi.  He owned 15 slaves.  (That wasn't so unusual--nationwide there were about 3000 Black slave owners) . As a Black man in the South, he had to walk a fine line between freedom and slavery.  His father, also named William Johnson was a white slaveholder who emancipated William who was 11 at the time.  His mother and sister had been freed earlier.  The significance of this site was that Johnson wrote a daily diary from 1835 until his death in 1851 which became a treasure trove for historians of the era. 

As I stated previously, Natchez is famous for its spectacular, columned ante bellum mansions, with names like Stanton Hall, Longwood, Melrose, Auburn and Rosalie.  The Civil War drove the owners into bankruptcy, but at least the houses were spared.  Our house tour took us to Stanton Hall, Melrose, Auburn and Longwood.    We missed the tour of Rosalie because we couldn't coordinate with their hours.  We missed the tours last year because of the severe ice storm.  (For more on this see KENSUSKINREPORT, March 6, 2014).

Longwood is a house with a compelling story.  It is an octagon shaped house, maybe the largest octagon house in the country, with an onion dome on top.  The Nutt family began construction in 1859, and the neighbors were convinced they were all nuts.  Be that as it may, their timing was awful because when the Civil War broke out soon after, all the workers walked off the job.  Dr. Haller Nutt, the patriarch died of pneumonia in 1864.  Prior to the Civil War he owned 43,000 acres of cotton and sugar cane as well as 800 slaves.    Mrs. Nutt as a single mom had to raise the 8 little Nutts who continued to live in unfurnished rooms for the next 30 years.  But at least they were able to keep the house.  To this day, the house is unfinished above the ground floor, but is impressive from the outside.  There are 5 unfinished stories above the living area.

We stopped for lunch at the Cotton Alley CafĂ©, a small bistro restaurant on the main street.  Their specialty is fried turnip strips.  What could be more Southern than fried turnip strips?  I never ate a turnip before  in my life, but this is better than fries with dip. We struck up a conversation with a good ol' boy sitting nearby at the bar.   He and the bartender were talking football.  The guy was a LSU alum.  They were agonizing over a trivia question:  what college team went undefeated and unscored upon?  I piped in "Michigan, 1902". 

They gave me that deer in the headlights look and frantically consulted their smartphones.  The answer was Michigan who won the 1902 Rose Bowl, defeating Stanford 49-0.  Incidentally, touchdowns only counted for 5 points at that time, and the game was ended by agreement 8 minutes early.

All of a sudden, I was the go-to guy in the bar.  I don't know much about LSU football, but I remembered a Heisman Trophy winner from the '50's, Billy Joe Cannon.  The guy informed me that Cannon's blocking back was Jim Taylor who went on to star for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers championship teams.  I didn't realize that.  You learn something every day. 

For dinner, we dined at the highly recommended Roux 61 Restaurant a few miles south of Natchez on Highway 61.  Nobody left the place hungry.  We ate fried oysters and shrimps, hushpuppies, catfish.  We also had oysters in the half shell and coconut shrimps.  The soup was cream of shrimp and corn soup.   Next time, I'm in Natchez, I'm going back.

NATCHEZ TRACE

Natchez is also known as the end of the road for the Natchez Trace which is a historic 444 mile scenic highway operated by the National Park Service.   The other end of the road is in Nashville.   The highway began as an ancient Native American footpath used by the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations.  Later, it became a postal road and pioneer trail, linking up the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

We drove the 100 or so miles from Natchez to Jackson where we had to exit to eat lunch.   There are no commercial businesses on the Trace, no traffic lights, and the speed limit is 50 mph. 

The brochures provided by the National Park Service describe the historic sites along the way with the mile markers to plan your trip.   They make a big deal of some of the people born along the Trace.  For example, Oprah and Elvis (do we really need last names?) were born near the Trace in Mississippi, Elvis in Tupelo, and Oprah in Kosciusko.  W.C. Handy, father of the Blues was born in Florence, Alabama where a museum honors him.  Helen Keller was from Tuscumbia, Alabama, where her home is a museum.   At the 385 milepost is the Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis & Clark fame) grave in Hohenwald, Tennessee.  We didn't get that far on the Trace, but maybe next year. 

MISSISSIPPI SPORTS HALL OF FAME, JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI

Driving through Jackson, we stumbled upon this one.  I find these local halls of fame interesting and informative.  We visited the Indiana one a few years ago and enjoyed it very much.

We paid our admission and were directed to the introductory video, a three screen presentation hosted by Robin Roberts, not the Phillies pitching great, but the Good Morning America newscaster.  This Robin Roberts was also a good athlete who starred in basketball at her Mississippi high school.

The museum features a Sports Illustrated Wall displaying SI covers with Mississippi athletes. For many of them, I had no idea where they were from.  It appears Mississippi is right up there with much larger states when it comes to sports.

The Hall of Fame Room is adorned with plaques of every member of the Mississippi Hall of Fame.  Many were high school or college stars who never made the national stage.  Others are household names like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Archie Manning.  Brett Favre from Southern Mississippi is not (yet) an inductee--apparently he's not retired long enough.  His locker is there, however, along with the lockers donated by other athletes and their families.

The museum even honors the contributions of the native Choctaw Indians to sports.

A whole section is devoted to Jay "Dizzy" Dean, the great Cardinals pitcher of the 1930's.  Dizzy, a good ol' boy, acquired his nickname when, as a rookie, he pitched against the Chicago White Sox in the exhibition season and blew the hitters away with his great fastball.  The Sox manager said he was driving the batters dizzy, watching the ball whiz past them.  




















After his baseball career, Dean became a broadcaster on the Game of the Weak and drove the audiences dizzy with his off the wall observations and his fractured use of the English language.  Dean had only a 4th Grade education and liberally used the word ain't to the consternation of the suits back at the network in New York.   The viewing audience loved it.

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI

We spent the night in Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss).  Back in the 1830's, the city fathers chose the name Oxford in the hopes of landing the state university in town. Obviously, it worked.  It was Saturday evening; we drove around the campus, it was getting dark and we were hungry.  We went to campus town and found the town square nearby.   It was crowded with students who had just returned from the Ole Miss basketball game. 

We looked for the most popular restaurant, and didn't have to wait long when the staff recognized that we were the oldest people in the place.  Southern hospitality!  We had an Epicurean feast of Southern fried chicken, catfish, hushpuppies and red beans and rice. To top it off, Dianne had her dessert favorite, pecan pie.

CASEY JONES MUSEUM, JACKSON, TENNESSEE

Casey Jones, the legendary train engineer is the subject of at least 2 museums in Mississippi and Tennessee.  We passed the sign for the one in Water Valley, MS (where Casey used to live) and instantly regretted not visiting.  Our redemption came about an hour later as we drove through Jackson, Tennessee.  Hey!  Another Casey Jones museum!

John Luther Jones (1863-1900) hailed from Cayce, Kentucky, hence his nickname.  He probably would have disappeared into history but for a song written by Wallace Saunders, his engine wiper.  I had to look that up:  The engine wiper is the guy who wipes the engine clean.  Saunders, as an African American could not aspire to becoming an engineer, but he idolized Jones who treated him right. 

Jones worked for the Illinois Central Railroad and was considered a real cowboy at the wheel.  For his risk taking, he was cited at least 9 times for safety violations (speeding!) and suspended for 145 days in his career.  Nevertheless, his reputation was such that he always got his train to the destination on time.  The penalties could be worse for running behind schedule than for the rules violations. 

One particular night, Jones finished his shift on the Cannonball Express carrying passengers, but the engineer on the next shift called in sick.  Jones agreed to work a double shift.  The trip began behind schedule, and Jones was determined to make up the difference.  It was a foggy night, and Jones was going full throttle when, approaching Vaughan, Mississippi, on a long curve, he encountered a stalled freight train on an adjoining siding, but it partially blocked the main track.  Jones did all he could to stop the train, but, seeing the imminent crash, yelled to his fireman Sim Webb to jump to safety.  Webb jumped, survived without serious injury and related the story many times until his death in 1957.  Jones, of course, was killed, and some of the passengers incurred minor injuries.  Jones was survived by his wife and three kids.

Saunders' song, which was never copyrighted, made Jones a folk hero.  Today, so many versions of the song have been recorded that we're not sure what the original words were, but the lyrics are certainly inspiring.  The song has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the Grateful Dead, among others, and they often made up their own verses.  The tune was that of a popular song of the era called Jimmie Jones

The museum is a trove of railroad memorabilia.  Casey Jones' modest house was moved to the site.  There is a train in the parking lot.  I jumped into the cab of Casey's Engine No. 382 and dreamed of a long ago era when trains were king.

KEN SUSKIN
3/16/2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

SUSKINS MESS WITH TEXAS--DRIVING THE DEEP SOUTH PART 1

HOUSTON

Three days after leaving the frozen wastelands of Chicago, we arrived in Houston on a rainy, foggy Sunday morning, carrying our tickets for a cruise to Belize.  Houston is not located on water, so we weren't sure where we would be cruising from.  As it turned out, the harbor is in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston.  In 1893, Pasadena was named after the California city where the Rose Bowl is located, because of the perceived lush vegetation.  We didn't see much of that.  The Texas Pasadena is a working class suburb whose major industries are oil refineries and petrochemical plants with big smokestacks.  The harbor is by the Houston Ship Channel, with tanker ships lined up to serve the heavy industry.

Obviously shipping and energy are major drivers of the Houston economy, but the city of over 2 million is a transportation center and also a leader in biomedical research and aeronautics.  Recently, Forbes Magazine rated Houston the top city for employment creation and number one for paycheck worth.  You get good value in Houston.  We were only in town for a couple days and we look forward to seeing the rest of the city next time.   

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER

The most famous attraction in Houston is the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, spread over 1600 acres, and employing thousands of contractors and civil servants.  We know it best as Mission Control ("Houston, we have a problem").  The space center directs the International Space Station and trains astronauts for their missions.  The public can view and interact with replicas of the lunar modules, space suits, moon rocks, control rooms and other space related exhibits.  No space center would be complete without "Angry Birds Space" for the kids to play interactive video games for fun and learning.  Angry Birds!  We had lunch  at the Zero-G Diner on overpriced hamburgers and pizza. 

This place is really spread out, so NASA furnishes trams to carry visitors to see the behind the scenes work in the outbuildings.  They took us on a tour of the Saturn V facility and the Rocket Park.  The Saturn V rocket lies on its side in a very long building.  We walked around it and took many photos.  I wasn't sure if we were allowed to do so, but apparently the technology is public knowledge.

SAN ANTONIO

San Antonio with a population of 1.8 million is the second largest city in the U.S. without an NFL team (Los Angeles is the largest, but it used to have one, actually two).  It is the 7th largest city in the U.S..  In the late 1800's, many Germans settled there.  They originally came and built communist (with a small "c") communities which, not surprisingly, didn't work out.  The problem was too many people wanted to supervise but not many wanted to do physical labor.  The Germans eventually settled down and started businesses and prospered.  They build substantial houses in the King William neighborhood named after the Prussian King Wilhelm I who died in 1888.  His successor was the guy who started World War I.

The main street in the neighborhood was King William Street, but during World War I, they changed the name to Pershing Avenue.  A few years later, after the anti-German hysteria died down, they restored the old name.     Today, this area is a National Register Historic District.  Walking tours are very popular to see the architecturally notable houses.

We ate a wonderful dinner at Schilo's German delicatessen where we ordered their specialty, a large bowl of split pea soup with homemade root beer to wash it down.  The restaurant is also famous for its horseradish flavored mustard which they bottle and sell.  It was so good that I brought a bottle home to use on my daily salami sandwiches. 

REMEMBER THE ALAMO

It's hard to forget, but at the Alamo, we learned much about the history of Texas which used to be part of Mexico in the 19th Century.  Incidentally, the Spanish word alamo means "poplar tree" in English.   The mission was built around a grove of cottonwood trees.  As the symbol of Texas independence, it is the most popular tourist attraction in Texas.

Americans started coming to Texas in the early 1800's.  In 1820, if an American wanted to start a farm, he could purchase land from the U.S. government for $1.20 per acre, cash upfront.  Spain decided to encourage immigration into Mexico (Texas), and they promoted this in the U.S. by selling land for 25 cents per acre on easy credit terms.   They didn't even have to give away free dinners to get Americans to come.  The only catch was that the immigrants had to convert to Catholicism and become Mexican citizens. 

The result was that 30,000 Americans went to Texas as (legal) immigrants.  They called themselves "Texians".  By the 1830's there were so many Americans in Texas that native born Mexicans, who were outnumbered by 2 to 1, were becoming alarmed about American immigration--does that sound familiar?  The Americans didn't assimilate well with the Mexican population.  The Mexicans had good reason to be alarmed about the Texian immigrants who openly expressed displeasure with Mexican policies. 

General Santa Anna became the dictator of Mexico and abolished the 1824 Constitution which was similar to ours.  The Texians didn't take kindly to that and they resisted.  The revolt started in Gonzalez, Texas, and spread from there.  In late 1835, the Texian volunteers, American settlers and other adventurers, led by Ben Milam, attacked the Mexican troops quartered in San Antonio and kicked them out of the heavily fortified Alamo. 

Not surprisingly, Santa Anna was furious, and he personally led an inexperienced 2000 man Mexican army and marched them to the Alamo where they began a 13 day siege.  The Mexicans had to train their ragtag troops on the fly while marching them to San Antonio.  Many of these guys were bringing  their families along!  Santa Anna described the Texians as "pirates" and declared he would take no prisoners.  The Texians were commanded by Col. William Travis who was the highest ranking American officer in the area. 

Col. Travis sent out messengers seeking help all over Texas.  On the eighth day of the siege, 32 volunteers came in from Gonzalez, TX, bringing the total to 188 defenders.  With the prospects of reinforcements fading, Col Travis drew a line on the ground and asked any man willing to stay and fight to step over.  187 men did so--a man named Louis "Moses" Rose allegedly declined.   Actually that story surfaced long after Rose's death, and many historians assert that never happened.  However, several Texians did sneak out during the siege. 

Ultimately, Santa Anna's army broke through and killed every defender including the famous ones like knife-fighter Jim Bowie and frontiersman David (Davy) Crockett.  Approximately 600 Mexican troops were killed.  Our history books and the John Wayne movie imply that everyone in the Alamo was killed.  That is not true.  There were survivors--approximately 44 couriers, women, children and slaves. 

The couriers left before the final battle.  One, Samuel Maverick (yes THAT Maverick) left to serve as  a delegate to the convention where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. In the movie, John Wayne starred as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark played Jim Bowie, and Laurence Harvey played Col. Travis.  Even Frankie Avalon was in the movie.   The movie set was built 120 miles away in Brackettville and is a popular tourist attraction. 

Of the survivors, two year old Angelina Dickinson was carried out by her mother Susannah who told the story for posterity.  Santa Anna wanted to adopt young Angelina, but her mother refused.  In later years, Angelina achieved a certain level of notoriety as a courtesan in New Orleans and Galveston. 

After his victory at the Alamo, Santa Anna pressed his luck.  He ordered the execution of hundreds of Texians who surrendered , further inflaming the local population.  Although his troops were exhausted and ill trained, Santa Anna marched them to confront Sam Houston's Texian army at San Jacinto near present day Houston.  The outmanned Texians surprised the Mexicans at siesta time  and blew them away in an epic 18 minute battle and declared their independence.  The 2000 man Mexican army suffered 630 casualties and 730 captured (including Santa Anna) while the Texians lost 9 men.    They eventually sent Santa Anna back to Mexico where they told him "don't forget the Alamo" or something like that.  He remembered it the rest of his life. 

SAN ANTONIO MISSIONS

There are five missions in San Antonio which are administered by the National Park Service.  The most famous is San Antonio de Valero which is also known as the Alamo.  We also visited San Jose and Concepcion missions.  The purpose of the missions was to "civilize" the local Indians by immersing them in Spanish culture and converting their souls to Catholicism.  The Indians received protection from their enemies in the fortified missions.  Essentially, the priests said "C'mon in and we'll make you Spanish." The missions were financed by the Spanish Crown who, as their dreams of great wealth faded, concentrated on spreading the Catholic faith to the heathen Indians.

RIVERWALK

The famed Riverwalk flanks the San Antonio River which is essentially a concrete storm sewer less than 50 feet wide.  The plan, as it was conceived by architect Robert Hugman in 1929 was to line the river with apartments, restaurants and parks.  It was not built until years later when the Work Progress Administration provided funds to do so.  Even then, the area was largely neglected until the 1960's when the city brought in the designers of Disneyland to assess the commercial potential.  Today, the Riverwalk is the trendy area of San Antonio where diners eat outside under colorful umbrellas watching the tourist boats glide by.  We boarded the 35 minute evening boat ride winding through the downtown area, to enjoy the spectacular city lights. 

CORPUS CHRISTI

On the way to Corpus Christi, we spent the night in nearby Refugio, a small town which would otherwise be insignificant except that we ate dinner at the Gumbo Seafood Restaurant a family restaurant just down the road from our motel.  If you're into seafood and Cajun cuisine, this is the place.  I had the best crawfish etoufee I've ever had, and I've tried it in classier places. 

The next morning we arrived in the coastal city of Corpus Christi on a beautiful sunny day.  They probably could not name it that today, the city would be sued by the anti-religious police.  We called it Corpus Crispy.  CC is a Navy town with a Naval Air Station and an aircraft carrier open to the public, but you have to buy a ticket.  Near the waterfront is the Museum of Science and History.

I went inside to use the facilities and decided to stay and look around.   We found it very interesting.  CC is by the coast and many people are interested in shipwrecks.  The museum provided exhibits about that.  They had a wonderful section filled with geodes and geology in general.  We saw dinosaur bones.  The museum is geared toward kids who think Columbus's three ships wound up here.  Wooden replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria stood here for many years until they were demolished last Summer because they were too expensive to maintain. 

After touring the museum, the curator recommended a seafood restaurant on the waterfront called Pier 99.   We had to cross over an enormous highway bridge to the barrier island.   We dined outside on the patio enjoying the balmy breezes while eating delicious fried oysters, shrimps and hushpuppies. 

SPINDLETOP and GLADYS CITY

About 80 miles East of Houston on I-10 is the City of Beaumont.   It became famous in 1901 when a wildcatter named Anthony Lucas, after several dry wells, spent the last of his money to drill an oil well and hit a gusher at a area known today as Spindletop.    If he had drilled 50 feet over, it would have been another dry well.  The oil was highly pressurized and like Old Faithful, sprayed the black goo 100 feet in the air over the derrick for ten days, polluting everything around it.  It marked the beginning of the Texas oil industry. 

The story began several years earlier with the dream of Pattillo Higgins, a self taught geologist from Beaumont who was convinced that a vast amount of cheap oil lay beneath Spindletop Hill.  Higgins talked it up with a few friends persuading them to invest in his venture.  He named it Gladys City Oil, Gas & Manufacturing Co. because he was particularly fond of Gladys Bingham, a little girl in his Sunday School class.  The company attempted several times to drill for oil and failed because of inadequate equipment.    Everyone lost faith; Higgins left the company, and his investors derisively called him "the millionaire".

Meanwhile, Lucas, an Austrian mining engineer, was developing salt mines in nearby Louisiana.  He visited Beaumont and was also convinced there really was oil there.  He leased land from the Gladys City company in 1899.  His first attempt to drill for oil failed and he was ready to throw in the towel, but his wife persisted and urged him to seek outside financing and try again.  He went to Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania oil patch and talked the experienced wildcatting team of James Guffey and John Galey into working with him.  They approached the prominent banker Andrew Mellon seeking funding to continue operations. 

Guffey and Galey knew oil, and they hired the best drillers available, the Hamill Brothers of Corsicana, Texas, who came to Beaumont to begin drilling in October, 1900.    They encountered numerous problems with solid rock, but were able to drill down over 1000 feet where the drill lodged in a crevice.  As they attempted to extricate it, all hell broke loose. 

They eventually cleaned it all up and a boomtown sprang up nearby.  Today it is preserved as a museum with the old wooden shops and houses.  The buildings are all replicas based on old photos of the town.  The period furniture and objects inside are authentic, but not necessarily from the buildings in the town.  The 13 stores in the boomtown include a dry goods store, a printer shop, post office, general store and, of course, a saloon.  A large 58 foot obelisk along with a wooden derrick in a grassy field marks the alleged location of the Spindletop well.   I say alleged, because the actual well is about one mile South of the monument.  They had to move it from the actual site because it kept sinking in the loose soil.  The boomtown is called Gladys City.  Its motto is "where the wildcatter spirit lives on."

A few miles down the road on the Gulf Coast is Port Arthur which is arguably the most polluted city in the U.S. Its other claim to fame is Janis Joplin was from there.  Port Arthur is heavily industrialized and contains the port where the pipelines end.  It may smell bad, but it is the smell of money.  We decided not to visit. 

NEXT:  Deep South, Part 2, More Interesting Stuff in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri