My small slice of the Texas landscape has been bought up by a billionaire.
All the land for miles around this tiny town of Simonton, Texas—
which has a population 718, plus or minus a few of those subversives who refused to take part in the latest census, and which is geographically located betwixt the meandering and critically-eroding banks of the Brazos River—
is part of the grand scheme of a speculator from Singapore. His billions were made in the tobacco industry and, despite global economic setbacks, he still has grandiose future plans in mind for this geographical area. Life in small town America.
But before Simonton fell into the hands of a major developer, it was just a wide spot in the road, a community of farmers and rodeo cowboys and small town folk.
From 1898 to 1909, the town was the site of a prison farm. Convicts were charged with clearing the land from Simonton to the Brazos River for farming. The main crop was ribbon cane from which syrup was made.
At one point in time, there were two cotton gins, a hotel—always filled with potato buyers and railroad men—which had a general store on the bottom floor, cafes, and blacksmith shops. At one point, there was even a school with a Teacherage next door. Of course, the schools were segregated. There was a school for white children, a school for blacks, and a school for Mexicans.
That’s just the way it was back then. That’s a fact.
The first real settlement was in early 1850s when James Simonton and his family migrated from North Carolina to establish one of the largest and most affluent plantations on the Brazos River.
Before that the town lay in the path of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his soldiers chasing after frightened homesteaders in what’s known in Texas history as The Runaway Scrape. There were a string of Texian battle losses in the rebellion against the Mexican government…
Sam Houston had continued to retreat, and general panic engulfed the citizens scattered across the Texas farmland. Homeless wanderers—fleeing, without food or shelter, “unprotected by the stalwart arm of their natural defenders from the ravages of a barbarous foe” ran for their lives, leaving homes and possessions behind. The people used any means of transportation or none at all. Added to the discomforts of travel were all kinds of diseases, intensified by cold, rain, and hunger. Many persons died and were buried where they fell. The flight continued until news came of the Texans victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. Gradually, the refugees began to reverse their steps and turn back toward home, many toward homes that no longer existed.
Before the bloody war with Mexico, this wide spot in the road was part of a land grant given by the Mexican government to Thomas Westhall, a settler who came with Stephen F. Austin to Texas from Tennessee. Westhall received the grant in 1825 from the Baron de Bastrop. Each of the three hundred settlers who arrived with Austin received both a league and a labor of land. Westhall’s labor was five miles wide and one-and-a-half mile long.
Long before Westhall received his grant, the townsite comprised the hunting and fishing grounds for the Karankawa Indians. Burial grounds, tools, beaded necklaces, and arrowheads attest to their lifestyle and their forms of commerce.
Before that, anthropologists tells us that during the Pleistocene Epoch, huge animals known as rancholabrean fauna migrated from Siberia to America via the Bering Land Bridge between Alaska and Russia. Mammoth and saber-toothed tigers and gigantic bison and armadillos roamed a landscape unthreatened by human foe. My guess is that this land along the Brazos River looked a mite different than it does today.
And, I also guess that before the Pleistocene Epoch and earlier Geological Eras and Periods, this place just belonged to a young Earth. I guess back then, it was still just God’s Country.
Some of the locals still call it that. Wilbur, who runs Bailey’s Pecan Barn located at one of the widest spots in the road says the land on this side of the Brazos is “God’s country, for sure. It’s red land, you see. Not like that black gumbo on the other side of the river. That’s the high side. I guess all that red land came our way from flooding back in the ice age.”
Wilbur told me this when I stopped in at the barn one day for a chat. He and Kenny were playing a mean game of dominoes, and they didn’t really want to be interrupted. Kenny said it was my red hair that changed his mind. I’m writing a history of the town. They are both a part of that history. They had stories I needed to hear.
This is what Kenny and Wilbur do. They play dominoes, smoke cigars, and talk about the past and the present. They don’t talk much about the future because, as Kenny put it, “What’s the point? It hasn’t happened yet.” That’s a fact.
We had a good chat, and they told me stories that I’d best not be repeating in polite company. Mostly, I just let them play their domino game while I took pictures and listened.
Old Lady Bailey’s husband was named Jack. The two of them built the pecan barn and the liquor store next door back in ’34. Kenny claimed it was good business sense, because fellas would come in and sell the pecans they’d picked, then go next door and buy liquor with the cash they’d just made in the sale. Since the Bailey’s owned both enterprises, they would turn around and sell the pecans they’d just bought for ten times the price and also make money selling liquor to the same folks.
The good-old American Way of conducting business.
Wilbur is in partnership with Bagley Pecans out of Richmond. The pecans Wilbur buys go to Bagley’s. Bagley furnishes Wilbur with bags of good shelled pecans to sell. Bagley used to come himself to pick up the pecans from Wilbur, but now Kenny trucks them over to Bagley early in the morning, before the day shift goes to work. Likes the early morning, he says. Leaves the rest of the day for more important things. Like dominoes, I suppose.
Bagley buys pecans from all over the state. But alas, the Simonton pecan crop now belongs to the billionaire speculator from Singapore. Wilbur and Bagley lease Bailey’s Pecan Barn from the rich guy. “That’s just life,” Wilbur told me. “That’s just the way it is.”
He’s been buying and selling pecans for quite a few years, and he’ll keep on buying and selling them until they tear the barn down and put up a shopping mall or an oak-lined thoroughfare/boulevard. He’s enjoyed the time working at Bailey’s Pecan Barn. He enjoys sitting with Kenny and playing dominoes and smoking cigars. As he put it, it’s one of those businesses where “You meet good people. You meet bad people.”
Just like life. And that’s a fact.