Saratoga, Texas will always be known as the birthplace of two very famous Americans. George Jones and my mother. Well, perhaps my mother is only famous in certain circles.
During the summer months of my youth, my mother would drive me to Saratoga where we would stay for weeks at a time visiting my grandmother and great aunt. They lived in a very modest home right off the main highway and I spent every waking hour exploring every inch of the area that I could. Mosquitoes and all.
Crawfishing was huge. Every drainage ditch had them and I would probably catch over 100 a day using bacon as bait. Memories from those summers were of thick Saint Augustine grass, the vegetable garden out back, the smell of oil in the old lean-to garage and a gazillion crawfish mounds all over the place. They had this screened in little sun porch right at the front entry of their home and after supper we would all go out and sit. I don’t recall the conversations, only that the evenings were pleasant and the nights were filled with the sounds of tree frogs and crickets.
The crawfishing, although entertaining, would become a little old. So to help entertain, the ladies would try to find things for me to do. Not knowing I would write about it one day, one of those instances was in taking me to the town museum that housed artifacts from the Big Thicket. (A name that refers to the area of Southeast Texas including Saratoga.)
As we were leaving the little museum, I saw some images that have haunted me for over 30 years. Photographs taken by Larry Jene Fisher who was a local musician turned photographer, these black and white images of the local people living and working in the East Texas Thicket still stand out in my mind today. Larry spent an entire decade shooting between the 1930s and 1940s photographing Big Thicket people trying to survive in what would be known as the last southern frontier. Mostly woodsmen, they all had a hand in just about any job they could find. Farmers, stockmen, tie makers, loggers. Whatever would feed the family soon became an item on their resume.
The photographs capture just about every thing you can think of and more. Church functions, deer hunts, oil exploration and timber harvesting. Perhaps it’s just me but photos like these stir at my insides and make me realize that the human race is a lot tougher than what I would imagine. This was indeed the case of my grandmother and great aunt. They were both survivors that would throw nothing away and could live on a stone in a soup pot.
Ellen Walker, a woman from the Big Thicket who lived until 1974, gave a very detailed account of growing up in a frontier Big Thicket at the turn of the century in the book, Big Thicket People by Thad Sitton and C.E. Hunt .
“When I was a girl there was big timber on the high ground, virgin pines five feet through, and just a little underbrush. In other places it was so thick you couldn't get through without a hack knife, and ever' kind of animal you heard of, nearly. Turkey go in herds, just like a bunch of chickens. Deer aplenty, and I've seen wild horses that didn't belong to nobody, couldn't catch 'em. I guess there's been wild hogs in here always, and wild cattle. Anybody could go and kill one when he wanted to. They'd go out and kill a wild beef, kill one and divide it with the neighbors. Didn't everybody have a gun, and a lot of 'em that had guns didn't have enough money to make bullets.
There was plenty of blackberries and may haws and worlds of black walnuts and chinquapins. There was worlds of wild flowers in the woods. Wild honeysuckle was my favorite. Over yonder, that big cypress brake was just covered in palmettos. Ma used to make fans out of 'em. Sometimes she made 'em out of turkey feathers, from the wing and tail. That made a good 'un.
We raised what we eat, had a garden. Always had a patch of corn and sweet potatoes, sugar cane and maybe some peanuts. We'd raise peas and when they'd get dry Ma'd put somethin' in 'em to keep the weevils out. Had all kinds of meat: venison, turkey, squirrel. We'd cure bear meat. You can cure it just as good as you can hog meat, and you can season with it, too. You can eat all you want of it and drink the lard, and it won't make you sick. I liked bear meat, but in the summertime, I wanted venison. We could get that any day we wanted it, and turkey too. I loved squirrel just any time, and we eat rabbit, and sometimes coon in the wintertime, when they was big and fat. We'd cut venison up in strips and dry it on a scaffold in the sun, jerky. When it dried, put it in a sack and hang it up. We didn't farm but a little. We had a horse and a plow, but we done it mostly by hand.
We had an old hand mill and ground our own cornmeal, and we made good hominy. Made it with fireplace ashes. We'd make our soap out of hickory ashes. Make you a hopper and put the ashes in it and let it stay four or five days. Pour a little water on it and after a while it'd go to drippin'. Put a pot under it to catch it. Put your grease in there and go to cookin'. It'd make good jelly soap, never very hard. When we killed hogs we'd make enough lye soap to do all year, stored it in big old gourds, sugar gourds, maybe eight inches across.
I've still got my mother's iron skillet, has legs and a lid. We'd cook our bread in it, put the lid on and put a little fire on top and on the bottom. That's where I learned to cook, on a fireplace.
Nearly everybody had some fruit trees and we'd preserve our peaches, use homemade sugar, made it ourselves from sugar cane. We always growed enough cane to make our own sugar and syrup. We growed nearly everything we needed except coffee. We'd buy a big sack of green coffee beans and roast it ourselves.
There were some salt licks where people got their salt, and there was salt springs where people would go and camp out maybe for a week and get enough salt to last all year.
Made our shoes out of wild cowhide; used a wooden trough for tanning. Soak the hide in alum water and red oak bark, bark turn it yellow. Lay the hide on a log and beat it with a club, while it is wet, to get the hair off and make it soft. Don't dry it in the sun; that would make it stiff. Daddy made the sole first and then put the top on with wooden pegs. Had an awl, punch a hole, and put a peg in there, and them pegs didn't come out neither.
Ma made all our clothes, the thread, the cloth, all by hand. Made cloth on Grandma's old loom, made it out of cotton or wool. They'd dye it different colors. Get bark off of trees to dye it. And they raised their indigo bushes. They'd dye blue with it, the prettiest blue you ever did see, and it wouldn't wash out. Indigo grows in the Thicket now. We used to have revivals in the summer, last a week or two, and the girls would dye their dresses two or three different colors during the revival so it would look like a new dress.”
Reflecting on the simple words of Mrs. Ellen Walker, one is humbled by the great efforts our forefathers put forth in creating a life for themselves and their community. It pains me to see how much we waste every day while knowing how hard people like this had to work just to feed their families.
Perhaps we as a country should all take a hard look within these kinds of life struggles and realize that there was a time in our society when we lived within our means. We all worked hard for what we had and saved our money only purchasing the things we needed to survive. Perhaps we have much to learn from the Big Thicket and the people that lived there so long ago.
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The photo used above was taken by Larry Jene Fisher and is copywritten by the University of Texas Press.Copyright © 2003-2010 University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.