TEXAS AG DEPARTMENT and NUCLEAR WASTE

Billboard in Deaf Smith County

This is the first post on PHIT’s oral interviews with Texas Department of Agriculture Hightower years( 1983-1991).  The goal of the TDA was to create an agricultural economic environment that would deliver food that was safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the planet, and would allow the family farmer and family rancher a decent living.

One of the Hightower’s administration’s longer lasting impacts for Texas was the TDA’s fight against the federal Department of Energy’s designation of Deaf Smith County as a national nuclear waste dump.  Stopping a high level nuclear waste dump planned sited directly over the Ogallala Aquifer seemed like a no-brainer and the TDA assisted Deaf Smithians in fighting it.

Possible Dump Sites

Deaf Smith County is the number one farm county in the state.  The landscape in this panhandle county is dotted with grain elevators and cattle feed yards.  In summer, green fields of sugar beets, wheat, corn, sorghum and vegetables are irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, the nations’ largest underground water supply.  Firms in area include Frito-Lay, Holly Sugar, and Arrowhead Mills.

Yet, the Department of Energy, tasked with the problem of finding a storage dump for nuclear waste, picked Deaf Smith County, Yucca Flats, Nevada, and Hanford, Washington. 

The plan was to inject the radioactive waste deep underground below the Ogallala via pipes that went through the Ogallala.  Major processing firms based in Deaf Smith were already planning to move, because of the fear of possible contamination, mere rumors of which would spell consumer doom for their products.  This, remember, was just a few years after Three Mile Island and historically, very soon, Chernobyl will implode.

The DOE had to make a decision by 1991. But Deaf Smith County didn’t want anything to do with it.  Duh!

Gary Keith talked to PHIT about his involvement with that particular inane episode.

Gary Keith had contributed articles to the Texas Observer when Hightower was editor.  He had been involved in Hightower’s Railroad Commission run.  Although he left the state to be a professor up north, he wanted to get back to Texas, so he applied for a position at the House Study Group at the Texas legislature but, before that could happen,  Hightower’s people plucked him off the waiver wire.  He was recruited to work for the TDA in 1985. 

  One of his early chores at TDA was to respond to the nuclear waste dump proposal.  State agencies don’t generally get involved in these sorts of issues and generally just rubber-stamp the federal proposal.  But Hightower’s people thought they were supposed to protect the agricultural community and that included protecting water safety and promoting the availability of non-radioactive land.  This is a prime example of the uniqueness of the TDA and why PHIT is collecting these stories. 

Official survey

By law, the DOE is supposed to survey the community about community support, but the DOE is rather lax about such things and the TDA acquired a grant for the DOE to conduct that community survey.  Gary Keith described the process:  “We put state money into it… when I say state money, what I mean is that our money came indirectly came from DOE.  DOE was required to to engage with state and local entities. So DOE gave a grant to the governor’s office. The governor was Mark White and White knew that since this was a big agricultural area, there were big agricultural issues here and, and his guy Steve Frishman gave a grant to Hightower. So that is what we lived off of… this grant that came via DOE. Mark White, and Frishman had to publicly be neutral. But he was a supporter of us. He wanted us to do as much as we could. And then boom, White is defeated by Clements. And Clements stripped our money away.  So that was the end of the project. But at about that same time, DOE designated Yucca Flats, Nevada, and so we were off the hook.” 

“But it was a run for two to three years.  Julie Brody…her field was community psychology… so she did surveys of residents. And then I did work more on the ground.”

The TDA couldn’t exactly do the organizing against the waste dump, but they could provide information and coordination and forums for discussions.  So they assisted the local groups who had experience organizing against Pantex.

Gary Keith:   “So it was, you know….you’re doing stuff that follows up on the earlier work that people did… Tani Adams had been active in battling against the expansion of Pantex. So she didn’t start from scratch either.   There was an organization in place that, you know… you never want to have to keep doing something… but  they did the Pantex  work, and then lo and behold, along comes the high level nuclear waste possibility. So they geared up again, with some of the same people, same organizations.   But some were new— one was STAND- Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping. And then there was the Nuclear Waste Task Force. So we had those local organizations that would have their meetings and we did what we could to support them. I brought in Scott Denman of the Safe Energy Community Council out of Washington DC.   We did a workshop with the local groups in Amarillo on how to work the media.

‘You all be media advocates.’”

Just say No

“We came up with a slogan, I can’t remember who did it, but it was at the same time that GSD& M was doing their Don’t Mess with Texas. Thing that we came up with was Don’t Waste Texas.”

The story however is never-ending as Texas continues its dance with the federals on the issue of nuclear disposal. Yucca Flats eventually opted out of being the waste disposal for the country.  The United States is still looking for a place to dump its high-level radioactive trash.  And they still have their eyes on Texas.  In 2014, a proposal was floated for a dump site in Loving or Howard County.

Rick Perry defeated Hightower in 1990, and went on to become Governor of Texas.  As Governor, Perry presided over the expedited permitting of a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility in Andrews County, in the Texas Panhandle. Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who in 1995 acquired Waste Control Specialists was a huge contributor to Perry in all his campaigns. Simmons’ new company wanted to dump low-level radioactive waste.  The permitting was nasty and lengthy.  Four major aquifers flow under the site in Andrews County; the Ogallala Aquifer flows 14 feet below the lowest extremity of the excavated nuclear waste disposal pit.  But Simmons and Perry won that battle.

Oh, for the old TDA, the TDA that thought protecting agriculture meant protecting the safety of the Texas agricultural land.

PHIT New Project

Hightower Campaign Poster

  The Hightower Years

Farms on Fire

The Texas Camelot

PHIT is beginning a new oral history project.  The project title is still a work in progress, but the subject matter is pretty solid.  We are collecting participant stories on the impact that the Texas Department of Agriculture made on state and national policies during the years that Jim Hightower was Commissioner.  Those years were 1983-1991.

Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, Jim Mattox, and Garry Mauro victorious

The 1980s was the high-water mark for progressive politics in the state of Texas.  In 1983, Ann Richards, Garry Mauro, Jim Mattox and Jim Hightower, all politically progressive, were elected to state-wide office.  In a glorious moment of celebration, the four them walked arm and arm up Congress Avenue to get inaugurated.

In the years since, Ann Richards has been the subject of a biography.  Molly Ivins is celebrated in a play.  Mauro and Mattox ran more prestigious agencies and received more subsequent press attention.

Hightower was elected to two terms of office at the Texas Department of Agriculture.  In those eight years, Hightower, and an amazing team of activists and policy analysts that he recruited and enabled, created a legacy of agricultural achievements that created models the pattern for the rest of the country.    

Yet his legacy has been mostly neglected and his successors at the TDA have virtually written Hightower and his achievements out of history.

PHIT has begun an oral history project to recover that history.  And an incredible history it is.  This, my friends, is the PHIT mission statement.  To collect and preserve and to tell the story of the neglected and under-represented segments of Texas history.

Willie Nelson and Jim Hightower

Hightower came into office in the midst of the most severe agricultural credit crisis since the Great Depression.  The family farm and the family ranch was facing extinction.  

Reagan, the Farm Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture all were working avidly and gleefully to increase the average size of the farm in order to make it more “efficient and productive.”  And they were more than willing to sacrifice the family farm for massive exports and cheap cattle.

The Texas TDA became the focal point of opposition to that strategy.  The Texas TDA battled the Farm Bureau, battled the USDA, battled the Reagan-Bush administration.

The mission statement of the Texas TDA was to create an agricultural environment that would be safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the earth and would permit the family farmer and rancher an opportunity to make a profit.

In response to the death of farmworkers due to pesticide exposure, the TDA established the nation’s first pesticide application regulations.

The TDA created the first official state organic produce regulations and produced the first official organic certification stamp.  The federal government was forced to respond to this initiative by creating its own national standards.

The TDA battled the Department of Energy when it wanted to create a nuclear dump site in Deaf Smith County, the most valuable agricultural land in Texas.

Taste of Texas

The TDA helped Texas farmers diversify by creating effective marketing.  They supported the fledging wine industry with professional marketing and championed local herbs and local flower industry.  They helped promote a Christmas tree industry, helped develop a Texas blueberry industry, an export mushroom operation.  Texas produced zero pinto beans until the TDA helped a panhandle farmer start marketing them.

They helped create coop farms, spread farmer’s markets throughout Texas.

They advocated for national farm bills to control production and guarantee fair prices for farmers.

The fledging wind industry was hatched in the TDA halls.

The list could go  on.

PHIT is currently conducting oral interviews to collect the TDA participant stories.  In this Blog, we will present highlights of those interviews.

Eventually, we will begin work on a documentary.

Documentaries cost money

So save your pennies and nickels, because PHIT will, by the end of this year, set up a Gofund me site, and we will be asking for donations and selling coffee mugs, and T-shirts, and maybe even some of the lovely and quirky Texas craft souvenirs that TDA sponsored in the good old days.

A way station for the Underground Railroad in Blanco County

Some may be surprised that there was an Underground Railroad network in Texas.

A Ride for Liberty by Eastman Johnson. Brooklyn Museum / Wikimedia Commons.

By Steve Rossignol | The Rag Blog | February 13, 2020

We are all familiar with the tales of the Underground Railroad, how enslaved people in the South risked life and limb to escape to the Northern States before and during the Civil War.

Some of us may be surprised to learn that there was an Underground Railroad network in Texas.  Maria Hammack, whose research on this subject is coming to light in a doctoral thesis at the University of Texas in Austin, estimates that before the Civil War between 5,000 to 10,000 slaves escaped to Mexico to obtain their freedom.[i]

And I am fairly sure that most of us would be astounded to learn that there may have been a way station for this Underground Railroad in Blanco County.

The intriguing evidence for this way station comes from the early letters of Jean Charles Houzeau, a Belgian astronomer who lived in Texas in the early years of the Civil War and who was forced to flee Texas because of his abolitionist activities.

In a letter dated September 20, 1861, to his colleague Van Bemmel in Belgium, printed in the Revue Trimestrielle, and later collected and reprinted as La Terreur Blanche Au Texas (The White Terror in Texas)Houzeau writes of his experience near Smithville in which a group of African American slaves are prompted to escape from their local overlords. Their plan for escape from Smithville is aided by a local Methodist minister and by Houzeau.

Houzeau relates:

I had promised to assist the runaway slaves, and in the hope of meeting them, I cut through the most deserted and wildest parts of the countryside. I arrived one evening at the edge of a small rugged river, which flows between limestone rocks, resembling ruined castles and dismantled citadels. This white belt of rock walls has earned the stream the name of Rio Blanco. I was hoping to cross the plateau faster by ascending to the source of the river. Oak forests, of a dark color, which contrasted with the bright edge of the water, seemed to continue at any distance. It was therefore not without astonishment, nor without some kind of pleasure that I came across, at the head of water of the Blanco River, an isolated farm, the remotest oasis of the county. [ii]

Houzeau was later joined at this “isolated farm” in “the remotest oasis of the county” by the same escaping group of slaves from Smithville, who seem to have known where to rendezvous. This indicates that it may have been a prearranged stop on the Texas Underground Railroad, or perhaps it was an incidental stop: Houzeau relates that the unnamed settler at the farm is not an abolitionist, but offers food and lodging for his unannounced guests.

The escapees were on their way by the next morning and Houzeau speculated that they “must be free… anywhere in the territory of Mexico.”[iii]

In 1861 the headwaters of the Blanco River were within the boundaries of Blanco County.  In 1862 Kendall County was established, whereupon the headwaters of the Rio Blanco would be in Kendall County.

Why would a group of escaping slaves have traveled west from Smithville to escape to Mexico?  For a variety of reasons, not the least being that the Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras path to Mexico would have been the shortest route.  It would have also been in a less populated area, free from the pro-slavery plantation areas of eastern Texas. And it would have been a friendlier route (the possibility of encountering hostile Native Americans notwithstanding):  the German population of the Hill Country was adamantly against slavery and Blanco County voted overwhelmingly against secession in February 1861.  The Freethinker German settlements of Sisterdale and Comfort, both militantly political against slavery, would have been along the route.

Another tantalizing clue for the existence of a way station on the Texas Underground Railroad in the Hill Country is given in the autobiography of Dr. Adolph Douai.  Douai was an ardent abolitionist and a refugee from the 1848 revolution in Germany. He resided for a period of time in Sisterdale, 10 miles as the crow flies from the headwaters of the Blanco River.   Douai remarked: “The Negroes often escaped to us and then easily fled to Mexico.”[iv]

The Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras crossing into Mexico appears to have been a long-standing route for crossing into Mexico. It was used by the Kickapoo tribe to enter Mexico in 1850, as well as by the Seminoles in the same year (it should also be remembered that there were many escaped slaves assimilated within the Seminole tribe).  It had been established as a budding crossing point for escaping African American slaves as early as 1836,[v] and the travelogue of early Texas explorer Frederick Law Olmstead talks of a colony of freed slaves there in 1857.[vi]

In 1855 Blanco County settler and Texas Ranger James Callaghan purportedly undertook a punitive expedition against marauding Lipan Apaches to Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, but there is ample documentation to suggest that Callaghan was on a mission to recover runaway slaves. Failing to recover any escapees and encountering resistance from the Mexican population, Callaghan burned Piedras Negras to the ground.[vii]

The land of the headwaters of the Blanco River were later acquired by Amos Valentine Gates in 1872.  Gates was elected Chief Justice (County Judge) of Blanco County on September 21, 1861, the day after Houzeau wrote his letter to Von Bemmel.  Strange coincidence.


[Steve Rossignol is a member of the Blanco County Historical Commission.]


[i]“The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico,” Becky Little, History.com, August 28, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/underground-railroad-mexico-escaped-slaves, accessed January 30, 2020.

[ii] Jean Charles Houzeau, La Terreur Blanche et Mon Evasion, V. Parent et Fils, Brussels, 1862, p. 23 ; translated from the French by Wikisource as The White Terror in Texas and My Escapehttps://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:The_White_Terror_in_Texas, accessed January 30, 2020.   

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Adolph Douai, Autobiography, translated by Richard H. Douai Boerker, unpublished manuscript, 1957. Douai Papers, Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Douai would be forced by angry secessionists to flee Texas in 1855. He settled in Boston and became one of the leading figures of the Socialist Labor Party.

[v] Ronnie C. Tyler, “Fugitive Slaves in Mexico”, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 57, #1, January 1972, p.2.

[vi] Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey Through Texas, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1978,

[vii] Ronnie C. Tyler, “The Callahan Expedition of 1855: Indians or Negroes?” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, #2, April 1967.

Jean Charles Houzeau in 1891. From Popular Science Monthly.

From the Tri-Weekly Telegraph (Houston), December 15, 1862.

Bastrop County Freedom Colonies

Bastrop County Museum

The Bastrop County Museum has a wonderful exhibit on a series of previously unrecognized Freedom Colonies in Bastrop County.  This exhibit has now been moved to the Elgin Depot Museum and will be there until February.  People interested in Texas History should most definitely plan to visit this exhibit.

On June 17th, 1865 (Juneteenth)  General Granger landed on the coast of Texas and declared all peoples previously enslaved were now free.  As soon as word filtered through the state, African Americans began creating new towns and communities.  Historically they came to be called Freedom Colonies.

Thad Sitton did yeoman work in the early 2000’s tunneling through the written archives for records of the Colonies. But he only had access to written records.  https://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Colonies-Independent-SMOTHERS-HISTORY-ebook/dp/B0089Q2NL6/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=thad+sitton+freedom+colonies&qid=1574540391&sr=8-1

Andrea Roberts, a professor at A&M, is currently collecting information about the more elusive oral and community histories of Freedom Colonies.  http://www.thetexasfreedomcoloniesproject.com/

A third local historical effort in currently being conducted in Bastrop.   

Oral History of Jane Bell

The WPA in the 1930’s collected as many slave narratives as possible.  The stories are amazing and sad, a tribute to people’s ability to survive and maintain their family and their culture and their community under the worst possible conditions.  Many of the former slaves stayed on the same plantation and continued to work for wages, many went to the cities looking for new opportunities, many went searching for their children, and many banded together and purchased land to farm in a community of their own.  Those last are the Freedom Colonies.

Map of Freedom Colonies in Bastrop County

Carol Kysar, an archivist with the Bastrop County Historical Society, also happens to be a member of the Sayersville Historical Association. Sayersville is a rural community in Bastrop County and the association, composed of a grand total of six people, documents its rural lifestyle and history. Each year the association publishes a bulletin or paper. 

Kysar had come across a few materials about the Freedom Colonies in the Bastrop County Historical Society’s (BCHS) archive and she proposed doing a bulletin on the Freedom Colonies. She conducted some more research and became fascinated with this lost history.

One day at the BCHS museum, Kysar met a visitor named Doris Williams and began talking to her about the Freedom Colonies. Ms. Williams knew some people who had more information and said she’d help. As they were talking, Dock Jackson walked in and joined the conversation. Mr. Jackson is a former Bastrop city council member and he said he would help too. 

Kysar scheduled a meeting, and she, Doris and Dock each invited people to come. Twelve people attended. They began meeting every Thursday and at the end, there were 42 people at the weekly meetings. Kysar says it all happened by word of mouth.

Diane Mills heard about the project and approached Carol. Ms. Mills is the granddaughter of Dr. T.C. Franklin, historian and educator who was at one time the superintendent of the African-American schools in the county. Dr. Franklin kept detailed records of everything and Ms. Mills has given his papers to BCHS. 

Texas Freedom Colonies Project

Dr. Andrea Roberts at TAMU leads the Texas Freedom Colonies Project. Kysar said Dr. Roberts contacted them recently about doing a joint project in the future, no details yet. Her website is http://www.thetexasfreedomcoloniesproject.com/

Kysar said they are writing an article for Wikipedia on the Bastrop County Freedom Colonies.  The exhibit has now moved to the Elgin Depot Museum and will be there through February. Hopefully, it will bring in even more people who will add to the story.

More info is on their Facebook page at facebook.com/bchs1832 – Museum and Visitor Center Bastrop County Historical Society.

People’s History in Texas started a project about a decade ago to document the St. John’s colony.   We have footage of the trail ride that follows the route from Bastrop to St. John’s Colony.  There is a stunning sense of the history and tradition in this annual gathering.

We would like eventually to make it available and time permitting will put it up on the website to contribute to this new community effort to remember and preserve the history.

Shiner Beer Documentary 1975

The Last of the Little Breweries, a documentary on Shiner Beer, is an absolutely wonderful piece of history. It was produced in 1975 by Frank Binney. Please take some time and watch it. It is only 20 minutes long. It is well worth the time.

The documentary tells the story of Kosmos Spoetzl and his journey through Egypt, Canada, and San Francisco to land in Shiner, Texas. The German and Czech community liked their beer and wanted it brewed in the traditional Bavarian way.

Binney uses the classic documentary style of illustrating how the beer was actually produced–kind of an Industry on Parade–which I have always found fascinating.

Also fascinating is that tidbit of information that Spoetzl’s daughter was the first woman to run a brewery in the United States.

In the Seventies, Budweiser and Miller began the merger wars in the beer industry that eliminated all the small brewers. Then the regional brewers disappeared. By 1990, there were only 10 independent brewers left and Bud and Miller were producing 67% of all the beer in the United States. It was so boring that people began brewing their own and the craft beer market emerged, although craft beer still accounts for less than 15% of the market.

Well…. I fudged….I should say that the beer merger movement had eliminated all the local small regional beer companies –except for Shiner. That story of how Shiner stayed independent is a fascinating one. To be told later.

Shiner is now owned by the Gambrinus Company, based in San Antonio. Gambrinus only produces Shiner Beer and Trumer Beer. Trumer is a pilsner beer and the brewery is based in Berkeley and has a sister brewery in Salzburg, Austria.

Pecan Shellers Strike

Steven Harrigan’s New Book on Texas

Steven Harrigan published an excerpt from his new and highly anticipated book, Big Wonderful Thing, in the Literary Hub

In it, he tells a story about the Pecan Shellers Strike in 1938, and mentions Emma Tenayuca, and Latane Lambert.  He tells the story quickly and well.  

PHIT’s new publication
BUY IT NOW

Further material on the Pecan Shellers Strike can be found inPeople’s History in Texas newly republished booklet Talkin’ Union: Texas Women Workers.   There is a chapter on the Pecan Shellers Strike by yours truly.  We cover the same ground.  You can buy it on Amazon and if you do, please write a review.

Max Krochmal’s Book on Texas Progressives

Even further material can be found in Max Krocmal’s Blue Texas.  Max, who did a stint as a PHIT board member, has produced, by far, the most extensive narrative of San Antonio politics and the story of the Pecan Shellers.

Women in the Texas labor force

Here is a link to PHIT’s 1977 documentary which includes the oral history of the Pecan Shellers. There are 4 parts. Talkin’ Union

Happy reading!

Jesse Billingsley Texas Hero and Pet Lover

Jesse Billingsley

Meditations at the Museum

PHIT’s new project is to visit small Texas museums and tell stories of peculiar and little known episodes in Texas History.  It is modeled somewhat on the Mysteries of the Museum, but we don’t want to get sued, so we changed the name to Meditations at the Museum.

The Bastrop County Museum is a lovely museum and has an exhibit of the Freedom Colonies of Bastrop County, which PHIT will profile in a later post. PHIT, however, noticed a two-foot limestone cemetery marker celebrating Jesse Billingsley, a local Texas Revolutionary hero.  The stone was originally positioned in the front yard of Billingsley’s house in McDade and the placard said that he requested that his horse by buried on one side and his parrot on the other.

Billingsley McDade Headstone

In 1930, however, by order of the State of Texas, he was disinterred and reburied in the State Cemetery.  His horse and his parrot were not re-buried by his side.

Billingsley was one of the earliest settlers of Bastrop County, and joined the fight for independence, ultimately becoming the captain of Col. Edward Burleson’s First Regiment.  Billingsley was a friend of Davy Crockett and is generally credited as the first Texas to utter the battle cry “Remember the Alamo.”  The First Regiment fought with great distinction in the battle of San Jacinto.  On that day, April 21, 1836, Billingsley was wounded in the left hand by cannon fire, which crippled the hand for life.

Billingsley subsequently represented Bastrop County in the First and Second Republic of Texas Congress and the Fifth and Eighth legislatures of the State of Texas.  In 1861, he sacrificed his public career by taking a stand against secession from the Union.  He was also an advocate for the literacy of slaves.

In 1874, Captain Billingsley stepped forward to insist that the name of a black soldier, Maxlin “Mack” Smith be inscribed on the San Jacinto honor role after his name had been omitted from the bronze plaque listing those who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto.

In 1929, the state of Texas, in preparation for the Texas Centennial, began disinterring important Texans and reburying them in the State Cemetery.  Billingsley was re-buried, but, sadly, his horse and his parrot were left behind in McDade.  

We at PHIT believe that Billingsley has been done an injustice and that he is probably lonely in the State Cemetery.  He is surrounded by pro-secessionists and racists, people who threw him out of the Texas Legislature just because he was a loyal citizen of the United States of American.  And he has to endure this for eternity without the comfort of his beloved animals.

PHIT thinks a petition is in order.

PHIT also thinks that that sad saga of the 70 men and women dug up and reburied in the Texas Cemetery is worthy of a story.

Barton Creek

Barton Creek
Ed Crowell
Photos by Alberto Martinez

Who doesn’t love Barton Springs?  Home of the ice cold swimming hole.  Home of philosopher’s rock.  Home of the hippest place in town.

Turns out so many people want to be associated with Barton Springs that many, way too many, want to live on Barton Creek.  And they want pavement and they want their manicured lawns and they want their privacy  They don’t want anyone trespassing on their little piece of a hallowed creek.

Others think Barton Springs and Barton Creek are a natural and environmental treasure to be saved and protected and enjoyed.

Story of a battle?  You bet!  A non-stop epic.

This endless battle to save the purity of Barton Springs has been waged since I arrived in 1972 and will probably still be going on when they scatter my ashes at an undisclosed location on Barton Creek Watershed.  

In researching the Rag for the book Celebrating the Rag, I found an article in a 1970 RAG alerting the community to some planned apartments above the Springs.  The writer mentioned that if folks weren’t careful and if they didn’t regulate that kind of development, it could hurt the Springs.

Austinites have been trying to slow down development ever since. Austinites have been swimming and agitating and protesting and winning elections and agitating some more and protesting about protecting Barton Creek and protecting the watershed and maintaining the purity of a Austin, if not Texan, if not national, icon. 

The newest and latest and gorgeously beautiful book about this icon  is Barton Creek written by Ed Crowell and peppered with delicious photographs by Alberto Martinez.  In a series of essays, the book travels along the entire 40 mile twisty Barton Creek stream and talks with the people who live on the banks of Barton Creek, and in that pleasant process details the history of this storied Creek and very specifically outlines the environmental history of the area and the nasty impacts of development.

Barton Springs Begins Here

It starts at the end and ends at the beginning.  Of the creek that is.  The headwaters begin at Ralph Breed’s Ranch.  Right next door to the headwaters is the Pure Luck Goat Farm.

Crowell interviews elderly ranchers who treasure the land and simply will not sell it to developers.  These natural stewards want to keep the land intact and pure for their kids and for kid’s kids.

He talks with the current resident of Philosopher’s Ranch, the rustic getaway for J. Frank Dobie, that has been turned into a writer’s getaway.

And he begins the story with the tale of a young man who walked the entire 40 miles of the creek a couple of decades ago

The people he didn’t talk to were the developers and the owners of the pricey McMansions who try to horde this treasure all to themselves.  I mean,who wants to hear their sordid story.  Seriously, who would want to hear their history—destroying paradise for a couple of bucks.  Not People’s History in Texas, that’s for sure.

Buy this book. The photos are great. The stories are great. And you might learn a little people’s history along the way.

Talkin’ Union: Texas Women Workers

More than four decades ago, an enterprising group of young independent historians produced a path-breaking book and documentary, Talkin’ Union. It featured one of the first scholarly accounts of the great San Antonio pecan sheller strike of 1938, amplifying the powerful but overlooked voice of lifelong organizer Alberta Zepeda Snid. It uncovered interracial unions among Black, white, and Mexicana women garment workers in Dallas, of all places, as well as their union sisters along the border—long before anyone had heard of maquiladoras. The rare oral history interviews and pioneering scholarly essays in this book have clearly withstood the test of time and will now bring the power of people’s history to a new generation of activists!

PROFESSOR MAX KROCHMAL, AUTHOR OF BLUE TEXAS: THE MAKING OF A MULTIRACIAL DEMOCRATIC COALITION IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA

NJP Publishing is proud to announce that Talkin’ Union:Texas Women Workers is now available for purchase at Lulu.com. Edited by Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield with a preface by Glenn Scott, Talkin’ Unionis the third book published by NJP Publishing as part of a 2019 series featuring women’s work, memoir, poetry and history. Talkin’ Union tells the groundbreaking story of Texas women pecan shellers and seamstresses who organized for economic and social equality in the ’30s. Researchers with People’s History in Texas relied on first-hand oral histories and extensive archival research to bring this history to life. The Pecan Shellers Strike is now acknowledged as an historic mass movement, the largest mass strike in Texas, and the foundation for Hispanic organizing for a generation.  The Texas garment workers who organized in the ’30s with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union have never received the attention they deserve.  Essays from 1979 about African American women and Chicanas in the Texas workforce capture the beginning of a sea change in women’s workforce participation that would soon transform women’s lives, family dynamics, and the U.S. economy. The material was available for limited distribution as a booklet in 1979, but has been published by NJP Publishing with a 2019 introduction to make this history available through online platforms.Talkin’ Union:Texas Women Workers can be purchased at Lulu.com and will be available soon through Amazon, Ingram, and Barnes and Noble.   

General Patrick Cleburne and ConfederateEmancipation

Random Meditations at Random Museums

     

picture of general patrick cleburne
General Patrick Cleburne

PHIT’s new project is to visit small Texas museums and tell stories of peculiar and little known episodes in Texas History.  It is modeled somewhat on the Mysteries of the Museum, but we don’t want to get sued, so we changed the name to Meditations at the Museum.

The Johnson County Historical Museum is located in Cleburne, in the County Courthouse.  The Johnson County Courthouse is truly one of the finest courthouse reconstructions around.  Beautiful marble rises four stories around a central court.  Faces of creatures can be seen peering through the marble.  You have to see it to believe it.

The Museum is on the second floor and is nicely arranged although clearly it is a volunteer and an underfunded affair.   While circling the exhibits, PHIT found a note in a cabinet devoted to General Patrick Cleburne, a confederate general who is the town’s namesake.

Cleburne was born in Ireland, and he fought in the British Army before migrating to Arkansas.  He signed up to fight on the Confederate side in the Civil War, and proved to be a brilliant tactician. He was known as the Stonewall of the West.  After the war, a group of his soldiers settled in Johnson County, Texas, and pressed to have the county seat named after their commander.

road side of cleburne's proposal to arm slaves

In the exhibit dedicated to the town’s namesake, there was a small quote from Cleburne.  In late 1863, Cleburne advocated a unique policy to win the war.  “Free the slaves and arm them.”

DUH!  That is some serious thinking outside the box. The logic was inexorable.  Free the slaves and what’s the point of fighting.  Of course, it goes without saying that the proposal was rejected and Cleburne was ordered to not talk about it.  He was killed in Battle of Franklin later in 1864.

HIs proposal gave me great mirth the rest of the day.  Talk about cognitive dissonance.  What did he think he was fighting for?

But it turns out the proposal wasn’t so off the wall.  It was actually quite well thought out and sophisticated, clearly the product of a brilliant tactician. Cleburne basically prefigured in 1863 the ultimate Reconstruction adaptation to the victory by the North. 

In late 1863, the South was clearly losing the war.  The generals knew that they didn’t have the manpower.  They had drafted every white male Southerner of fighting age.  No one was left.  Except male slaves.  The only route to victory was to arm them. Offer them their freedom. And put them on the front lines.

It was an existential moment for the South, or at least it was to those who bothered to think about the implications.

By freeing slaves and keeping the North at bay, the South would get to keep their institutions.  If they won the war, then they didn’t have to submit to the North.  They were worried that Abe Lincoln really would give all the land, all the plantations, to the former slaves.  

By 1863, those who bothered to think about it understood that the slaves were gone.  Slavery was done.  But if the South wanted to be in control of their own destiny, the south should free the slaves.  Freedom didn’t mean they got the right to vote.  Freedom didn’t mean that African-Americans had the right to control their lives.   

Cleburne was Irish.  He knew that the Irish were free, but the English still controlled everything.  He understand that you can be free and not free at the same time.

Debate about Confederate Emancipation raged for rest of the war.  Until the end,  actual slaveowners said “No Way!”  Cleburne’s gambit might have worked in 1863, but, by the end, when Confederate Emancipation was actually enacted in early 1865, the south worried, with good reason, that blacks would turn the guns on the slave owners.

“They day they give us guns, that the day the war ends,”  said one slave in Georgia.

front cover of book on confederate emancipation by bruce levine

Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves by Bruce Levine is an excellent book that details this existential crisis in the South.  As one of the Southern generals said during the discussion of Cleburne’s proposition,  “If we arm the slaves, and they fight well, then everything we have said about the capacity of the Negro for the last 60 years is wrong.”  Basically, he was admitting that if this gambit proved successful, his whole concept of how the world worked was wrong.  Talk about an existential moment!

On another note, one major gripe about the Cleburne museum is that the Populist Party had its origin in Cleburne.  During a major convention held in the town, the Alliance split into two factions, one of them political—they issued the Cleburne Demands in 1886.  It was this platform that led to the creation of the Populist Party. There is not one word of mention of this major historical event.