Wind Power and the TDA

Texas is the now King of Wind!

Wind delivered 22% of the state’s electrical energy in 2019.  More than the nasty, no longer dirt-cheap, coal and wind power gaining rapidly on natural gas as a source of Texas electricity.

It is quite a stunning achievement for Texas, the land of fracking and flaring natural gas, to also rule the renewable resources arena.

George Bush takes credit for it.  Ann Richards is given credit for it.  

But this phenomenon didn’t happen overnight.  The tiny beginnings of the Wind Industry date back to the 70s.  And the Texas Department of Agriculture(TDA) nurtured the industry in the 80s. It is a story not often told.

The TDA assisted renewable resources in those meager years of baby steps, by providing seed money and study money and conference money.  While the total was only a token amount, it provided vital financing and support in the early days.

In the Texas Wind Story, Bob King was present at the beginning, the middle and the end. In those middle years, he was employed by the TDA.

Bob King explained it to People’s History in Texas in an oral interview, one of a series that PHIT is conducting on the innovative Hightower years at the TDA.

Bob King was there at the beginning of the renewable energy resources, at the middle and at the final glorious conclusion. He explained the middle segment, “ I was starting up the country’s first residential energy audits and home insulation programs and solar water heating program in Nashville and Memphis.  But, I was also advising Hightower and his people about energy policy issues for the Railroad Commission race.”

“I was talking to Hightower and DeMarco about what you could do.  He was real focused on energy policy.  Even with the Railroad Commission, they was saying this is a statewide race, and, just like the governor, we can talk about whatever we want.”

“He lost that first race, but when he decided to run for Agriculture, he called me up.” King was in California at the time advising the state government on solar power.  “Actually I think it was DeMarco. Most of my conversations were with DeMarco. DeMarco would call me every couple of weeks at Jerry Brown’s office and say we’re thinking about this, what would you do? We would have hour long conversations about what was going on in California and what the revolution looked like from there and all that kind of stuff. “

Bob King laughs…”I was saying, well, you could do this, you guys ought to do that. And DeMarco said, King, you don’t understand. I don’t need to know what to say to get elected. I’m worried we’re going to get elected. We need you to just come here and run it.”

Bob King was primarily interested in conservation and renewable energy, but he aware that, for the agricultural industry, that was just one piece of the problem.  “Hightower had plenty of background on the whole food system. So there was the bigger vision of how to produce safer foods and healthy foods and reduce pesticides and that kind of thing. And he was pulling me along on his coattails because he also had the broader vision that the resources you use to make the food are important and critical. And so in this pile of reports [reports that he shared with PHIT], you’ll find things on land use, farmland protection, pesticides, water quality, water efficiency. There’s a 1985 report that I wrote on climate change.” 

Bob King agreed to come back to Texas and in the process committed the TDA to the goal that ultimately led to a successful Wind Industry.  “I finally said, Okay, I’ll come back but I want enough money to have two or three staff and a secretary (at that time you needed a secretary) and some travel money and some spending money. For instance, that renewable report was produced in part by a grant we made to help advocates create the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association.

But in order to help start that up and kick it off, we gave a $25,000 grant to the new organization to do a little study.  So I worked with them to do the document, to have a product out of it. But it was also partly to create some momentum for them and some organization.”

The TDA offered grants to produce studies, they sponsored conferences, and they provided Bob King a forum for renewable energy resources.

After Hightower was defeated, King went on to help jumpstart the Wind Industry in Texas.  For the larger story, please read the The Great Texas Wind Rush.  Bush takes credit,  Ann Richards was involved.  The TDA helped in the tough early days, when nobody cared about renewable Wind Power but a few visionaries.

FARM BILL 1985 LOST OPPORTUNITY

Texas Populism Project

Rally to Save Family Farms

Doug Zabel grew up on a farm in the Midwest and was a political consultant and campaign manager before he went to work with the Texas Department of Agriculture.  He became closely involved with the development of the National Farm Bill of 1985.

“My dad had this little community bank that was based almost entirely on farmers. In ’81, the farm economy basically collapsed in the Midwest. It was a little later coming down here to Texas. Farm land prices dropped by 40%.  Farmers were overproducing.  They had big surpluses of corn, soybeans, wheat. So, it was clear we were gonna need a new farm program or some major adjustments.”

Agricultural economics, it is generally agreed, is one of the most arcane and convoluted pieces of governmental policy.  If you ever have the misfortune to experience insomnia, my recommendation is to peruse a dusty book on agricultural policy.  It comes with a guarantee to provide a instant, although mildly troubled, sleep.   

Roosevelt’s New Deal was the first to venture into the quagmire of restructuring the farm economy. The New Deal set up a variety of policies that included supply management and price supports.  Every decade and every administration since then has added a new layer of tinkering.  Since the 50s, Farm Bill gets reauthorized every five years. And every five years there is a fundamental battle between the supporters of family farming and the advocates of technology and agri-business, corporate farming.  The USDA, the Farm Bureau, and the Chemical Lobby and agribusiness line up for the latter.

It was Zabel’s TDA assignment to shephard the process for the 85 Farm Bill. “In 1984. Hightower became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Agriculture Council, which, in the past, was basically responsible for raising some money from big Agri- Industry for the Party. But I took it seriously and…we put together a series of hearings all around the country and invited farmers to come discuss the problems.  We were in the heart of the farm crisis by then. And so, we  talked to farmers, all over the country and then I basically sat down with some of them and came up with a commodity program.”

Most businesses have some sort of way of managing their supply to match the demand.  Most businesses except agriculture. Agriculture needs some sort of government help.  Voluntary controls, mandatory controls, price supports, outright subsidies, price targets.  The list is endless.  Well, not endless but too long for a short blogpost.  The Farm Bill supported by the TDA offered a democratic and participatory way of managing supply.

Zabel thought the proposed 1985 Farm Bill would solve a lot of problems.  “it would have involved a referendum by the various farmers growing the various crops. And if they approved it, we would set a production quota basically that intended to match the anticipated demand. So you didn’t end up with surpluses piled on the ground.  That sort of thing had been discussed before.  But we threw in a little twist in which the smaller farmers would be required to set aside slightly less of their land. And the bigger guys with have to set aside a little more, and that was sort of slanted toward small farmers.  

Essentially, the way it was set up was there would be a guaranteed floor for your crop. And so if you produce that, then you would get that amount for making your quota. If you happen to produce more than your quota, then you would store the overage and it would be applied against your quota the next year to keep things in balance.”

It seemed so simple and straightforward and fair, but there was a lot of opposition.

President Ronald Reagan signs Farm Bill H.R. 2100 Photo courtesy of President Ronald Reagan Library.

“It was the chemical industry and the big grain traders like Cargill Continental Grain that made their living off of shipping a lot of grain, corn, wheat, soybeans. Their margin maybe wasn’t that high but the more they shipped, the more they processed, the more they made, so they fought it tooth and nail.  The chemical companies, of course, didn’t want this.  It would have resulted in cutting back on chemicals by, in some cases, 30 to 35%, due to set asides. And that was in good times when the crops were good.

The American Ag movement and Farmers Union and a bunch of other commodity groups got behind the bill and and made a major push.   It came up one vote short in the house Ag Committee because the Reagan administration bought off Kiki de la Garza, our South Texas Congressman who was chairman of the Committee.

I still look back now and think if we had passed the bill that rural America would look a whole lot different now.   A lot of those small towns would still be around and a lot of the ones that are around would be doing a whole lot better. “

Texas Organic Label First in Nation

First Texas official Organic Label

Texas was first State to certify an Organic Label for produce.

That’s right—TEXAS!  In 1987, the Texas Department of Agriculture established an official State label guaranteeing that the produce was organically grown. It is a little known fact.  It is so little known that it has almost been completely written out of the  history books. 

People’s History in Texas unearthed this nearly buried fact in our interviews that have been tracing the accomplishments of the Texas Department of Agriculture during the glory years of the Jim Hightower administration, 1983-1991.

Susan Kaderka went over the details in a recent interview and oral history with PHIT.

Kaderka joined the TDA in 1983, having shifted over from the House Study Group.  Officially, at TDA, she was in charge of Weights and Measures.  In the old days… and well, let’s be honest, the current days… that sleepy, dusty outpost of Weights and Measures was responsible for egg inspections, gas pumps, and calibrating meat scales at grocery pumps.  Boring!!

But…the 1980s TDA added organic certification to that mundane list and, thereby  became the FIRST state in the nation to offer an organic label that consumers could trust.

Concern over the quality and purity and health of vegetables and produce began with the Rachel Carson expose on pesticides and pesticide problems.  Religious groups like the Mennonites in the Pennsylvania area had been farming organic since…well…Biblical times. Other fringe groups had been advocating for the quality of the earth since the turn of the century.  Of course, beginning in the 60s, hippies and anarchists demanded fewer capitalist chemicals in their food.

But for someone who didn’t own their own farm or personally know the farmers, it was hard to know what was in their food.  Groups of farmers on the West coast, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers, created standards, but they could only enforce the standards for their small group of members. Non-members made up their own definitions of organic, and marketed their products as organic as well.

So an organic label was effectively meaningless.

Organic vegetables at Farmer’s Market

The 1980s TDA transformed the Organic label into a marketing tool to promote Texas agriculture, and specifically, smaller, family farm agriculture.

Susan Kaderka recalled the surprise of the California organic farmers.  

“Dan Kelly and I took a trip out to California to visit with the  California Certified Organic Association.  We set up meetings and, after we got copies of their standards, we toured an organic farm.  The state of California did not certify organic food at that time— it was the Growers Association that did that. So they were fascinated with the idea that the state of Texas— which they didn’t consider to be, you know, as cool as California—that the state of Texas was interested in this, and bringing the power of the state behind it… they were just shocked by that.”

“We didn’t make law. That was the point of it. We developed a little logo that said Texas Organic.  Growers had to submit to an inspection.  And we hired Keith Jones to be the Program Director.  But he was the actual on-site inspector and he would go out to farms and conduct this inspection, to verify their practices and to give them the green light to start using this logo.  It was an inspections based marketing program.

So, we didn’t have to pass any laws.  We just had declare that we had this label that people could use.  Keith was doing these inspections. As the program matured, we eventually trained other inspectors.”

Other states started duplicating the effort—because honestly, who wanted to get upstaged by Texas. According to Koderka, “Texas recognized early on that we needed national legislation to harmonize the definition of organic, so consumers would be able to trust what they were buying at their grocery store, even if it didn’t come from Texas. We started working with Senator Leahy’s staff, especially Kathleen Merrigan. I think we shocked ourselves when we got the very conservative National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to back Senator Leahy’s bill, and testify in favor of it. That was a sea change, driven by consumer demand.”

Prologue to the National Organic Production Act

Keith Jones and Jim Hightower went to Congress to testify.  Hightower, in his Texas drawl, explained to the Senate,  “We have developed this organic certification program in Texas in 1987, providing this label that can be used by the farmers and by the marketers of a Texas Department of Agriculture Certified Organic product.

We, as a State agency, do the inspections on farm. It is a requirement, and Keith, you can add to this if you want, but it is a requirement of 3 years pesticide free.

We had 30 farmers certified in March 1989. Today, we have 140 farmers certified. That is a 450 percent increase in a single year, and we expect 250 farmers to be certified by the end of this year. Farmers are moving dramatically into this. We will have about 1,000 percent increase in the volume of organic production moving into the marketplace this year, and that does not begin to reach the actual potential that is out there. 

These are, as I indicated to you yesterday, not just balloon flying hippies out there with half an acre and wanting to do what is right. These are mainstream farmers who are beginning to make this conversion.”

Hightower offers the example of Jim Crawford who was a farmer in Muleshoe, Texas. “Seven years ago, he was losing money in the traditional production techniques_ about to go under. So he decided to switch to organic just to stay afloat, because it promised to reduce his input costs and promised a higher market price at the time. It took him about 3% years to convert. We got him certified about 1987 and it is working. He is getting substantially higher yields today than his neighbors do. You can test his soil and go right across the road and test the soil there. There are substantial differences, in fact, unbelievable differences in soil quality and till.”

The Leahy Organic Bill passed in 1990.  The  USDA foot dragged, of course, and it took until the next century to devise and approve standards. 

The Hightower TDA deserves credit for pushing the standards. The Chemical lobby, the USDA, the established industry didn’t like it. The TDA received a lot of blowback.  

Texas A&M

Susan Kaderka recalls Texas A&M University being particularly unhappy. “Yes. I remember them having a meeting with Hightower where they just ripped into him.  I mean, they were just furious with him because they thought that the very fact of organic… of there being a label for organic agriculture… essentially cast aspersions on conventional agriculture and and it was suggesting that growing without pesticides was better for people and they were just outraged that the Agriculture Commissioner, who they considered their advocate at the state level, was doing this.  

Hightower, his attitude was— there’s a market for this, people want this, and so if there’s a market for it, and if Texas growers are producing it, then it’s fine to promote it.  So he did.   He got a lot of pushback from it, but, we just kept going.”

Kaderka is still surprised at how effective they were.  “I’m proud that Hightower allowed us to do this…to really participate in a a vigorous and robust way in national discussions and actions not only around food safety, but also organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture in general.”

“With the state organic standards, I felt like we gave a big push to organic production.”

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.