A brief History of Florence Stratton part1

 

 

Florence Stratton was born in Brazoria, Texas to Asa Evan Stratton and Louisa Henrietta Waldman on March 21, 1881. Although some references state she was born in 1883, I have confirmed her month, day, and year of birth through the following sources: a 1900 census, at least six mentions in Florence’s Sunday Enterprise weekly letters, and a letter from Florence’s 10-year-old sister, Emily, in February 1883. Little is known of her childhood, but I hope to keep peeling away the layers and find out more of her early life.

One interesting note I found while researching Florence’s early years in Brazoria County is that her grandfather, Major Asa Stratton, owned a sugarcane plantation. On that property sat the second oldest log cabin in Texas, known today as the McCroskey-Stringfellow House. Florence mentioned it several times in her weekly Sunday Enterprise articles, which we will get into next week. Another interesting fact is that Major Stratton’s daughter and Florence’s aunt, Sarah Emily Stratton married Samuel Bryan, son of W. Joel Bryan and nephew of Stephen F. Austin. Does that make Florence related to Stephen F. Austin?

In 1900, Florence graduated as valedictorian from Troy Normal College in Troy, Alabama. She lived there two more years while teaching and then moved to Beaumont in 1903, most likely to live near her sister Emily. Emily and her husband, Walter Stevens, had already been living in Beaumont for at least a year; Walter was working as a clerk in the E. L. Clough Drug Store.

In Beaumont, Florence continued her teaching career by becoming a faculty member at Miss Anne’s private school in 1903, then moving on to Beaumont High to teach grammar. Her salary is unknown to me, but when she resigned in 1905, her successor took on the job at $60 a month.

In 1906, Aurelia Peters Norvell formed the Colonel Moffett Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Many prominent Beaumont women joined this organization, and Florence was no different: She became its charter secretary. Florence’s Revolutionary War ancestor was her great-grandfather Peleg Stratton.

In 1907, Florence began her journalism career at the Beaumont Journal as society editor. She also spent much of the following years, 1908-09, in Washington D.C. with her best friend, Willie Cooper. Together, they rubbed elbows with Washington’s elite, even attending a White House reception in January 1909.

Florence and Willie had spent many early years together, and when Willie finally married her childhood sweetheart, W.P. Hobby, in 1915, little changed in their friendship. In fact, Florence probably spent more time with her, especially after Hobby became governor in 1917. Evidence in Texas newspaper archives dating from 1917 to 1920 put the three together at many events in this time frame.

Florence started two charity funds: the Milk and Ice Fund, which gave underprivileged people milk and ice during the summer months, and the Empty Stocking Fund, which gave toys to the poor children of Beaumont. Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered when the Milk and Ice Fund was founded. Each year, the Beaumont Enterprise rehashes the same article and says it began in 1914. I would agree, but the only proof I have of the fund starting earlier than 1920 is a 1921 article in the Beaumont Journal stating the fund had been running for a few years. The Empty Stocking Fund, which I believe was started in 1920, is run by the Beaumont Enterprise today.

A November 1980 article by Laura Young of the Beaumont Enterprise stated that Florence had written speeches for Governor Hobby. Though not farfetched, I haven’t found proof of it. In fairness, the article was an interview with Eunice Stephens, Florence’s niece. Unfortunately, Eunice is partially to blame for some of the incorrect information out there. Her recollections do not seem to fit the facts. In defense of Eunice, however, all information gathering on Florence using Eunice seemed to happen during the final years of Eunice’s life (1979-1980; she died in January 1982). I do not and will not speculate on Eunice’s ability to remember her aunt’s ventures, but publications that have used her as a source, such as the November 1979 issue of The Texas Gulf Historical & Biographical Record, have contained completely inaccurate information on Florence’s life.

To be continued…

The Search for Lewis Cemetery

 

While looking through historian Bill Quick’s research papers, located in the Sam Houston Research Center in Liberty, I came across a file about Thomas H. Lewis. I discovered that the Lewis family was one of the first three families to settle in what would eventually become Beaumont. That was back in 1830. Among Mr. Quick’s papers, I unearthed an interesting copy of an old newspaper article, dated October 30, 1932 from the Beaumont Enterprise, entitled, ‘Pioneers Who Came to Beaumont in 1829 are Now Resting in Old and Forgotten Lewis Cemetery’, written by a Mary E. Kelley. The article spoke of an old cemetery located “a few hundred yards from Calder road, on a quiet knoll in the heart of the thicket.” This description would probably place the old cemetery on the old Lewis Survey, which covered the area from Gladys Avenue to just South of Harrison Avenue, with its west and east borders extending from Central Drive, to North 14th Street. In 1932, the area to the north of Calder Road, which passed the five-year-old Phelan Mansion, is very likely to have been a thicket. On Google Earth, there is a 1938 aerial view of Jefferson County, which shows little development in that area at the time.

My first thought was to look through the Jefferson County, Texas Cemeteries book which was compiled by Mildred Wright and published in 1981. (Note: The book is available in PDF format as a free download from the Jefferson County Historical Commission website and is a great reference book for any researcher!) Wright’s book mentions an old cemetery located on Calder and Thomas Roads, and at first, I imagined I had found what I was looking for. However, since then, I have found the actual perimeters of the old surveys. The cemetery mentioned by Wright would have been located on the H. Williams Survey, and not on the Lewis Survey.  Wright’s cemetery would have been located in the area now covered by the Westbrook Shopping Center.

Over the past few weeks, I have again tried to locate information on the Lewis cemetery. I visited the Sam Houston Research Center again to have another look through Quick’s file on Thomas Lewis, and to see whether I had perhaps missed another reference to the cemetery. I did find documents on other subjects that will warrant future research, but found nothing on the cemetery itself.

However, a few nights ago, I came across a website that gives you the exact perimeters for the Texas County surveys. I typed in ‘Lewis Survey’, and up came results far more accurate than I had derived from many hours spent trying to guess those borders. For someone like myself, devoid of mapping skills, this website is a godsend!

My next step was to email a fellow researcher about my interest in finding this old cemetery. She was able to find a couple of plats from the Calder Addition, developed in 1952. She also noticed a mention, which I had totally missed, in Wright’s book of a cemetery located north of Harrison, between 19th and 23rd Streets. This would definitely put the “missing” cemetery on the Lewis Survey. I am thankful for my research friends!

I think I am getting closer to finding the exact where-a-bouts of the old Lewis cemetery. Unfortunately, the plats provided no evidence of it, but I imagine that just indicates that they had moved it before the 1952 development. I did spend some time in the Magnolia and Forest Lawn cemeteries to see if Thomas H. Lewis, or the other few names I have from the Lewis cemetery, had been transferred, but as yet, I have found no evidence of such a move. I feel there is a mystery to be solved here: what became of those old families and their graves?

I will continue my search, but wish to give credit to both Mr. Quick, and Mrs. Wright. Without these two historians and their contributions to this County, and to Southeast Texas in general, my own journey would be far less interesting.

Old Survey locator link: http://www.earthpoint.us/TexasLandSurveySearchByDescription.aspx

Jefferson County, Texas Cemetery book links: http://www.co.jefferson.tx.us/Historical_Commission/Jeffco_History_Cemeteries.html

Jefferson County Historical Commission link: http://www.co.jefferson.tx.us/Historical_Commission/default.htm

 

Tales from Hallowed Ground: Miss Jack McDonough

 

 

In my time involved with the Jefferson County Historical Commission, along with my own personal adventures, I have spent a considerable amount of time in cemeteries tracing the history of our area through the lives of those who have passed. I have found many things that are not widely known or that have been obscured by time. It would seem that every time I enter a cemetery, I come across either a memorial, an interesting headstone that catches my eye, or both. And just as certainly, a mystery will follow.

In, 2014, while planning the first of our annual October cemetery tours, I noticed a unique headstone placed behind the Firefighters plot, located near the flagpole. At first glance, it was difficult to make out the wording, simply because the stone, once ivory white, had been weathered for over a hundred years on this bluff. I asked Judy Linsley, local historian and co-founder of the tour, about it. She did have some recollection of its origin, but didn’t know the specifics. The story was of a woman who lost her life, as did many, in the Great Hurricane of 1886 in Sabine Pass. Her body was never recovered, and this stone was a memorial to her, erected by her brother.

During the first two cemetery tours, we acknowledged the memorial, but we never went into the story in full detail as it wasn’t really a part of the main tour. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that I tried to document what I could of this tale, but, as usual, I ended up with more questions than answers. So, as of early 2017, I still haven’t found all of what I am searching for, but it is becoming more clear that this isn’t just a memorial to Miss McDonough; to me, this a springboard to find out more about this family’s alluring history.

My search began, of course, with the question, who was Miss Jack McDonough? There are a few sources out there, but little was known to me until I ran across her memorial page on Find a Grave. For those who don’t know, findagrave.com is a free website in which you can make a memorial to your departed family members, friends, or anyone you would like remembered. I’ve used this website for research a few times, and I’ve had mixed reviews with regard to the historical accuracy of some of its members, but it can be a good starting point all the same. In this case, the source behind the memorial page was family, and they did seem to have knowledge of, or at least family lore, pertaining to Miss McDonough.

Miss Jack McDonough was born in Henderson, Texas (Rusk County), in 1855 to Benjamin Franklin McDonough and Adalissa Williams McDonough, but there is no information regarding her childhood or her adulthood until 1885, when she was appointed Postmistress of Sabine Pass on August 17. I did find documentation of this on both the memorial page and in a scanned document on Ancestry.com. The next documented evidence of her unfortunately, is of her demise. I found countless articles of the aftermath of the hurricane, but mostly mentioning Miss Jack McDonough in the list of the dead and/or missing. Miss McDonough’s memorial page tells the story of what happened on that dark day. Note: The story is from research and genealogy done by Martin McDonough (1915–1987), who was the son of Andrew T. McDonough (Miss Jack’s brother).

 

On October 12, 1886, a tremendous hurricane hurled high waters and fierce winds through Sabine Pass, and more than 50 residents were drowned. Benjamin and Adalissa, Benjamin Jr., and the small grandchild, (son of the deceased Jesse) went to the post office to rescue Jack; she would not leave until she had counted up the postal funds and put them in a bag to take with her. By then the two Benjamins were pushing a boat with the two women and the child in it. The boat overturned, and in the darkness, wind, and the confusion the three occupants were lost. The bodies of Adalissa, and Benjamin Foley, were recovered by rescue workers two days later, but that of Jack was never found.

Some of the citizens of Beaumont and Sabine Pass erected a monument to Jack in Magnolia Cemetery, in Beaumont, where it still stands in a prominent place.

https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=38196304

 

Another mystery in this story was Miss Jack’s father, Ben Franklin McDonough. While I believe he lived in Sabine Pass in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, with a few minor stints in Austin County, Texas, I found no evidence of his existence here locally. I contacted a few local historians on Sabine Pass, sifted through another historian’s papers, at the Sam Houston Center in Liberty, and even contacted the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I figured if anyone would have information on him, it would be the SCV, since he was a Confederate veteran. Unfortunately, nothing was found.

At first I believed that the family might have been mistaken, but last week, instead of typing Benjamin Franklin McDonough’s full name into a Google search, I typed in his initials B.F., which opened a wealth of information on him through Google books. Not only did I find records of his life in Sabine Pass, I found documents concerning his life in Henderson as well. But best of all, I found a letter he had written to the then-sitting President of the United States Andrew Johnson, dated May 27th, 1865.

He writes:

From Benjamin F. McDonough

                                             Sabine Pass Texas May 27th 1865

His Excellency Andrew Johnson

President US

Dear Sir

     You will perhaps recognize in the signature attached to this letter an old friend and relative.

    I am the son of James McDonough (Brother to your Decesd. Mother) of Bledsoe County Tenn. My Father now resides in Georgia. The last time I had the pleasure of seeing [you] was in Pikeville Tenn. 9th May 1840, in great contest for the presidency between Van Buren & Harrison since which time a great many changes have taken place. I have married and removed to Texas some years ago. When the war commenced I was appointed to the office of Collector of Customs for the Port of Sabine Texas, which office I have held until the re establishment of the U S Authority in this District.

   I have nothing to conceal having acted my part as I believed properly & honestly and have nothing more to add except that as the war seems to have terminated and finally it appears to be the General wish to settle down once more in amicable relations &c.

   The gift of the Collectorship of the Port of Galveston Texas in your hands in remembrance of times now past and our former friendship &c you will confer a favor by appointing me to the office of Collector of Customs for the Port of Galveston Texas. If my application is granted it [will] be remembered with pleasure. If not I shall not harbor an ill feeling or even feel disappointed.

   I can give the best references as to my General Character. I refer immediately to Honl L D Evans who is now in Washington and was formerly a member of Congress from this State who has known me for years in Henderson Texas.

  Your Brother Wm. P Johnson who as you know married my Sister is residing in Columbia Texas. Family all quite well. I will not further trespass on your time &c with a long letter well knowing how much you are occupied with public business &c.

  Hoping soon to have a favorable reply I remain

                                      very respectfully your B F McDonough

address B F McDonough

Sabine Pass Texas

 

 

I guess being first cousin to the President of the United States could be a plus when asking for a pardon, and a new job!. Don’t you think?

In the end, my continuing pursuit of collecting research on the McDonough family for future reference will go on. Their mark on Southeast Texas history, however minor, should be remembered and told. It is good, though, to see their descendants keeping their history visible. For whether prince or pauper, no one should be forgotten

Willie Chapman Cooper Hobby

 

 

Throughout my research of Florence Stratton, I have been down many rabbit holes, so to speak. She certainly led an interesting life, which involved many people. And yes, I have files on just about all of them. One person who I can say influenced Florence’s life more than the rest was Willie Cooper Hobby. Their friendship lasted many years, and I’m sure they had many tales that were never told nor graced the pages of any periodicals, but in Willie’s life of fifty-three years, she definitely had a social advantage over most.

Willie Chapman Cooper was born in Woodville, Texas, on June 19, 1876, to Sam Bronson Cooper and Phebe Young. There is little information about her life as a youth, other than that she grew up in Woodville. I do know she attended Kidd-Key College in Sherman, Texas; yet I don’t know the year nor if it was, at the time, a women’s high school or a genuine college. And looking into her father’s endeavors, with the few available records that I have, I can see little information about her until she resided in Washington D.C. in March of 1893, when her father was a congressman. So, let’s delve into his history a bit.

Sam B. Cooper served as the prosecuting attorney of Tyler County for four years (1876–1880), then as a Texas state senator for the next four years (1880–1884). I assume that this is where the friendship of the Stratton and Cooper families began. Florence’s father, Asa Evan Stratton Jr., was a Texas senator from January 1883 to May 1884. In 1885, he was named collector of internal revenue at Galveston. Sam would hold this position until 1888. After an unsuccessful run for district judge in 1889, his next stint in politics came in 1892 as a congressman in the United States House of Representatives. He would serve six consecutive terms for the Second Texas District, before losing to Moses Broocks in 1904. Sam served for one more term, from 1906 to 1908, after defeating Broocks in the next election. So, knowing the political path her father took, it seems obvious to me that Willie would take on the role of a socialite, especially living in Washington and later New York, where her father was appointed to the Board of General Appraisers of New York by President William Howard Taft in 1910.

Throughout her years in Washington, Willie was indeed popular around the social circles and was even invited to the White House a time or two. I know this from a few newspaper clippings and her invitation, which, as I stated in the last article, are in her scrapbook at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin. As friends do, Florence also tagged along and got to mingle with the elite, or should I say, the world’s hubs, which capitals can be, especially in a thriving country.

On May 15, 1915, Willie married her childhood sweetheart and, at the time, the lieutenant governor of Texas, William Pettus Hobby. Her early years in Washington would play an important part in her life due to her social duties as the lieutenant governor’s wife.

In August of 1917, W. P. Hobby became governor of Texas after the sitting governor, James E. Ferguson, was impeached. Hobby held the Democratic ticket and eventually won the governorship in 1918 after Ferguson ran against him in the primary. Willie shone as first lady of Texas and won the praises of many in her years in Austin. She was highly popular and entertained much, except during World War I, because she felt it inappropriate, according to Dining at the Governor’s Mansion by Carl McQueary. She also wanted to follow government guidelines for food conservation during wartime. In addition, Willie was responsible for making needed repairs and additions to the 60-year-old mansion, such as installing steam heating and adding a bath to one of the bedrooms.

While living in New York, Willie became interested in the women’s suffrage movement, which was a cause most dear to her. I found much evidence of this in my Briscoe Center research and in newspapers from her days as first lady of Texas. In fact, much of her scrapbook dwells on this topic. I also found an ample number of newspaper clippings from this era that show that both Florence and Willie did their part to promote women’s right to vote.

Throughout her life, Willie was always gracious and charming and treated everyone the same, whether servant or dignitary. In her memorial book, there are many references to how she was loved by those who knew and conversed with her. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, Willie was Florence’s best friend, and many years were spent together enjoying social events. From a visit to the White House 1909 to attending the inauguration of Mexican president Álvaro Obregón in 1920, both always seemed to be in good company. In fact, one of Florence’s books, Favorite Recipes of Famous Women (1925), is a compilation of Willie’s recipes when she was first lady from such visiting dignitaries as authors, actresses, and wives of past presidents or foreign leaders.

Willie died in her sleep at her Houston residence on the morning of January 14, 1929, to the shock of most. During the following days, there were many heartfelt condolences sent to her husband, W. P. Hobby, from all across the world. Many of these condolences can be found in a memorial book entitled Tributes in Memory of Willie Cooper Hobby, which was privately published by (I would assume) her husband. Here are a few excerpts:

 

 

I cannot longer wait to tell you how distressed and grieved I am over Willie’s death. Words fail to express the love and sympathy which has gone out from my heart to you all. I just cannot reconcile myself to the fact so grand and useful a woman should be taken.

As I write my thoughts run over the twenty-five or thirty years. Dear Mrs. Cooper and her family are vividly before me. So well do I remember the party I had and Willie, a beautiful young girl there and received the prize. In the years which followed the Cooper family figured in my life. You know how I loved Mrs. Cooper and Willie. Although of late years I saw so little of her I knew she was nearby. She it was who suggested to me to change the name of the Woman’s Reading Club to the Woman’s Club. Some hesitate to mention it to me thinking I would feel hurt but soon as I heard of it I made a motion to make the change.

Beaumont                                                                                                                    Sally Greer

*                               *                               *

 

To me Willie was the embodiment of all the word, “friend,” implies; her charity of thought… the kindliness of her heart and the deep solicitude for her friends… qualities the make one so worthy of admiration and love and for which I feel my life has been enriched for having known her.

Houston                                                                                                                       Edwina Wiess

*                               *                               *

 

We the members of the Woman’s Club of Beaumont, wish to extend to you our deepest sympathy. Mrs. Hobby has been loyal and faithful to our club and our hearts too are full of sorrow. We shall miss Mrs. Hobby but we shall ever hold her in memory and we shall strive to reach the goal of high ideals which she held before us.

Beaumont                                                                                                                     Woman’s Club

The Uninvited Guests: The Funeral of Wong Shu

 

 

Doing research for the Magnolia Cemetery tour for the last three years has taught me a few things. For starters, it’s taught me that you never know what you’ll find when you start researching the past. Some stories can be poignant, and others, not so much. What skeletons lurk in someone’s history? There could be many or none, so we take the good with the bad here at rediscoveringsetx.com and try to preserve our findings correctly for all to see. I write this because recently, we’ve stumbled on one of the oddest stories to date. I want to give you a little backstory before I go on.

When I first walked the hallowed grounds of Magnolia Cemetery, I noticed a Chinese headstone close to the line of trees near Brakes Bayou. We’ve had it partially translated for our yearly tour, but unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do a rubbing so that we could get a more complete translation of the inscription. So, this stone still presents a mystery, and we’re not certain who is buried beneath it. When a fellow researcher found an article in the Beaumont Enterprise about a Chinese sailor who drowned in the Neches River, I began wondering if our mystery could soon be solved. As sad as the sailor’s death was, the aftermath was a fascinating oddity that could not easily be explained.

(Note: I have two articles about the Chinese sailor, and both include different spellings of the ship’s name. In the original article, the steamship was named Sapanta. The second article called it Santanta in the heading and Satanta in the body. Since the ship was primarily used in Mexico, I’ll assume all three attempts at naming the vessel were wrong. Furthermore, because all three names seem to be a misspelling of Santana, I’ll be using this name throughout this article. If I discover a clearer document that indicates what the ship’s name was, I’ll update this article accordingly.)

Wong Shu was a Chinese sailor who sailed on the Standard Oil Company tanker Santana. The ship had been docked in Beaumont for some time, on hiatus because of the volatility of the Mexican oil trade. Tragedy struck, and Mr. Shu drowned in the Neches River, just off the Magnolia docks in Beaumont, in the evening on Saturday, August 6, 1921.

Mr. Shu was Cantonese and a Buddhist, as were approximately half of his fellow Chinese crewmates. Knowing this, the crew attempted to hold the traditional funeral rites for Mr. Shu, but a few problems arose. While many of the items needed for the ritual were purchased, such as rice, meat, and bread, organizers were unable to locate a band to provide music at such a late hour. Automobiles were provided to transport mourners to the cemetery, but when they arrived, they were met by a multitude of locals.1921-08-09-beaumont-enterprise-enhanced-edit

As the first article explains:

. . . there were fully 400 Beaumont men, women and children and some of these behaved themselves in a manner unbecoming to American citizens and believers in the Christian religion, according to some of the ship’s officers who were there.

The thirty-four Chinese mourners and British officers of the Santana who attended were distressed, to say the least. The locals were asked to step back so the mourners could finish the ritual, but the locals ignored the plea. Most of the mourners did not throw their offerings of rice, meat, and bread into the grave, as is custom, due to fear that the locals would take the food away.

Then each Chinaman passed around the grave and cast a handful of dirt on the casket. A titter rippled about the grave and the Chinamen were displeased, but decided to continue with the ceremony. Then each mourner cast into the grave his handkerchief, which had been bought new for the occasion. Again there was a titter and the Chinese mumbled something and expressed a wish to leave the cemetery to return at some other time to complete the ceremony without interruption.

Wong Shu was buried at Magnolia Cemetery, though the exact location of his grave is not known. The newspaper article stated that he was buried in the Chinese part of Magnolia Cemetery, but this is incorrect, as there is no “Chinese part” of the cemetery. Records show he was buried on public ground, but this information is largely unhelpful, as it means he could be buried nearly anywhere.

1921-08-14-beaumont-enterprise-enhanced-editOn August 14, another article about Mr. Shu’s death graced the pages of the Beaumont Enterprise. This one featured the “chief mourner,” second engineer Alexander Lawson Watson. He was chosen as chief mourner by the Chinese crew for his selfless actions of diving into the Neches River and attempting to save Wong Shu. Although the first part of the article is mostly an account of Mr. Watson’s war record, Mr. Watson had many things to say about the crew, and about the Chinese in general.

A Chinaman is not coldblooded and heartless, he says. They love, hate and sorrow as much and as genuinely as members of the Caucasian race but they show their love, their hatred and their sorrow in a different way. It is not the belief of the British officers of the Satanta that the people of Beaumont who attended the funeral last Monday of the Chinese sailor to be disrespectful but they failed to take into consideration that the odd things they saw were not intended to provoke levity. Some of those who were there deny anything was done by Beaumonters that was disrespectful of the dead. However, American manners were just as odd to the Chinese as the manners to Americans and on a less sad occasion the Orientals would not have taken offense at what they heard and what was done.

After reading both articles, I got the impression that the Beaumonters’ ignorance of cultural and religious differences was on full display. Yes, you can also say this about the Chinese crew, but you must admit they were surely in a vulnerable state at the time. To lay a loved one to rest is a solemn and poignant moment for family and friends. I think (or hope) most cultures would agree on this.

This wasn’t the first time that Southeast Texans were introduced to Asian culture. During the same period, a few Japanese rice farming families settled in SETX and went on to make a big impact on the industry. Although some residents were initially hesitant to welcome them, they eventually found them to be hospitable neighbors.

 

 

Notable Women of SETX History

IMG_2721

International Women’s Day was on March 8th and deserving tributes galore made their way to my internet feed. I applaud this because credit needs to be given to those who aren’t really talked about in history either locally or nationally. It’s sad but true, but females are rarely honored in history unless it’s behind a husband of a notable sort. So in this blog I will concentrate on local women who made a difference in SETX history and skip the popularity contests that usually end up as news on your social media pages.

Below is my list of 15 women whom I could think of right off the bat. (Of course, there are many more in SETX history, and I would love to hear about them. Email rediscoveringsetx@gmail.com.)

I will say however that this list is subject to the bias of the writer. There are no Playboy centerfolds or musicians on this list, so my apologies for the deliberate oversight. I’m sure you will be able to find another list of 15 notable women of SETX! 😉

http://www.chron.com/entertainment/slideshow/Notable-women-of-Southeast-Texas-126236.php.

I will also state upfront that the women are not ranked in order of importance. Their contributions to SETX history stand alone. I have not gone into detail for some of the prominent women on the list, but I have provided website links whether they be to my own pages or those of historic organizations that support their memories.

1 Florence Stratton Graduation Photo edit

Florence’s contribution to our area extends to multiple heights. Teacher, journalist, author; she wore many hats in her lifetime. Notably, she began the Milk and Ice Fund (1914) and the Empty Stocking Fund (1920) at the Beaumont Journal. She also wrote of our historic past in her books The Story of Beaumont (1923) and The Storm God Rides (1936). She additionally wrote an article each Sunday for the Beaumont Enterprise called “Susie Spindletop’s Weekly Letter.” The latter is a treasure trove of information if you want to identify the who’s who of Beaumont of the time.

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2016/02/03/rediscovering-florence-stratton/

2 Catherina Jeanette Stengele  IMG_9365

Catherina was a milliner/businesswoman who prospered considerably while living in our area. She owned a three-story brick building on Pearl Street at the turn of the 20th century, and among her other investments, which included land in multiple states, she gained wealth through money lending. Some may have heard that she was a lowly seamstress who saved her money and spent it on an exquisite mausoleum, but that story has since been disproved. (Sorry!)

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2016/01/27/tales-from-hallowed-ground-catherina-jeanette-stengele/

3 Babe Zaharias

There is no disputing the need for her inclusion on this list. Babe was in a class of her babeown, whether in terms of sports, self-determination, or the ability to succeed. Her accomplishments are many and should be honored.

www.babedidriksonzaharias.org

 

 

 

 

4 Mamie McFaddin- Ward    Mcfaddin-ward.org

I for one am thankful that this lovely lady decided to preserve a part of our SETX history. Please visit the McFaddin–Ward house for more information.

http://mcfaddin-ward.org/

5 Chambers Sisters     IMG_8604

If you haven’t taken the tour of the Chambers House Museum, then you are missing out. Ruth and Florence lived long and interesting lives in Beaumont. Both were highly educated but chose to live in the family home and never married. After the deaths of Homer (Papa) and Edith (Mama), they were left with a house, a car, and around $50,000. Faced with the prospect of no future income, the sisters put their inheritance to work in the stock market and grew their wealth considerably. Ruth died in 1989 and Florence in 2004. Their combined wealth of $12.8 million was used to form a foundation, which now oversees the Chambers House, along with annual donations to their favorite charities.

http://chambershouse.org/

6 Rita Ainsworth

Well, anyone who knows the history of Beaumont knows this name. Rita was the owner of the Dixie Hotel, and she was quite a businesswoman. The Dixie was different from other hotels in Beaumont because the patrons rarely slept there. You see, Rita was actually a madam and did very well through the years before the James Commission shut the bordello down in the 1960s.

One thing that is always noted about Rita Ainsworth was her philanthropy and charity. Some say she had a heart of gold. Among the recipients of her wealth were churches and Little League baseball teams, and legend has it that she sent a priest through seminary training. She also reserved the third floor of her establishment for older men with no other place to go. When most other hotels charged a dollar a day for rent, their monthly bill of seven dollars included meals.  

Dixie Hotel Video

7 Grace Woodyard

Speaking of bordellos, I could not pass up this Port Arthur entrepreneur. Like Rita, Grace ran a very successful business. Unlike Mrs. Ainsworth however, Mrs. Woodyard’s clientele tended to be the multitudes of seaman entering the port of Port Arthur. As the story goes, the City of Port Arthur could not pay the electricity bill, and being a good citizen (along with the ability to look the other way), she paid it in full. Her reign ended when the James Commission moved in.

For a good read and more history on both Rita and Grace, please check out the book Betting, Booze, and Brothels by local authors Wanda A. Landry and Laura C. O’Toole.

8 Catherine Magill Dorman     kate dorman

Whether or not the lore of Kate’s contribution to the Battle of Sabine Pass was authentic, there is still much to tout about her. Kate opened up the Catfish Hotel, which she owned, as a hospital for yellow fever victims in 1862. She, along with Sarah Vosburg and Sarah Ann King Court, tended to the ill without reserve while most other citizens fled to Beaumont.

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2012/06/06/kate-magill-dorman/

9 Blanche Morgan

Mrs. Morgan is a name most will not recognize, but she was inspiring all the same. Her story was sent to me by a reader. Imagine you’re married with three children (and another one on the way), and your husband gets killed. This was Blanche Morgan’s fate, and after her husband’s death in 1917, she spent 35 years working at the Gulf refinery. Not to bad-mouth Gulf refinery workers, but a widow with four children would not have been treated like a delicate flower at the time—or any time since. Please keep this in mind.

After her retirement in 1952, she enrolled at Lamar Tech to study religious education and earned a degree.

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2014/04/16/blanches-journey-an-early-look-at-life-in-port-arthur/

 

10 Ida Luvonia Graham

Along with her husband Charles Frank Luckett Nordman Graham, Ida spent her life aiding people in the African American community. Whether it was helping the needy through the Christmas Tree project (1920), organizing the first black YMCA (1930), helping with the plans for a YWCA (1931), or improving race relations in Beaumont, Ida (and her husband) played a huge role

  

11 Nelda Stark

Whatever side of the history fence you are on, you cannot have a list like this and not include Nelda Stark. There is a bit of controversy about how history should perceive her, so I will provide two links to represent both sides. She had an interesting life.

http://starkfoundation.org/about-the-foundation/founders/nelda-childers-stark/

http://www.ifthedevilhadawife.com/

 

12 Evelyn Keyes Evelyn Keyes

It is true that Evelyn left Port Arthur at the tender age of three, but throughout her life, she maintained positive ties to this area—unlike certain other celebrities. You can visit her at the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2014/04/06/tales-from-hallowed-ground-evelyn-keyes/

 

 

13 Jane Long

Her “Mother of Texas” status should be enough to counter any critics, but I will throw in that she had a cannon and wasn’t afraid to use it.

https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/flo11

14 Magnolia Sealy

This is someone whom I’ve been meaning to take a closer look at. I first heard of her on the Galveston Tour of Homes while touring the Sealy mansion. She certainly had an extensive repertoire as a mother, wife, and philanthropist. On my tour of the mansion in 2014, I found out that during the storm of 1900, Magnolia helped survivors from across Galveston. I was told that Magnolia had hosted 200 people for two months in the mansion while other well-to-do individuals had turned their backs on Galvestonians. (In the Handbook of Texas Online, the number is given as 400.)

https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fse20

15 Kisselpoo

Did she really exist or was she just a legend concocted by early SETX residents? I have no idea, but she is a legend and that’s good enough for me.

http://www.rediscoveringsetx.com/2012/08/31/legend-of-kisselpoo/

 

Under the Influence of Brownies

Some SETX history is permanently engraved in our minds, such as the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the Battle of Sabine Pass where Richard (Dick) Dowling and his band of 45 fellow Irishman overcame all odds and defeated a 5,000-strong Union flotilla. I would also put Arthur Stilwell’s “Dream City” down as another historic event that is regularly recognized, even though not too many people will know the whole story. It is nevertheless interesting to look back at the origins of Stilwell’s “hunch.” So let us examine Arthur’s role in SETX history.
Born in Rochester, New York, to Charles and Mary Stilwell, Arthur Edward was by some accounts a “sickly child,” although this is not mentioned frequently in respectable sources. Indeed, there is not much mention at all of his early childhood in any of the sources I’ve found—at least not until his 14th year. Only later, in his own writings, would Stilwell mention certain aspects of his early life. And in those writings we find a treasure trove of just who Arthur was and what would steer him on the path to prosperity.
“All my life, even when a child, I have received messages from the spirit world and they have greatly influenced my life,” he wrote in his book Live and Grow Young (1921). Arthur Stilwell was a Spiritualist and believed that he had contact with the spirit realm. Based on his English heritage, the Brownies, as he called them, were influential in his business dealings. These “nightly visitors” even foretold his marriage to Jennie Wood:

When I was 15 years of age my life’s companion was selected for me by this choir invisible, and I was told that I would marry her when I was 19 years old, which I did. The wisdom of their selection and my appreciation of it has been the paramount factor in strengthening my faith in these leadings.
Jennie and Arthur were married on June 10, 1879 in Iona, Virginia. That same year they moved to Kansas City where Arthur took a job at a friend’s print shop. After he had recovered from a bout of typhoid fever, they left Kansas City and moved to Chicago. During this time he began a new career selling insurance for the Travelers Insurance Company, a venture that proved to be very profitable. So profitable in fact that Arthur invented a new policy called a Coupon Annuity Endowment. This was the first type of life insurance policy that gave the holder a monthly income after they reached a certain age.
In 1886 the Stilwell’s moved back to Kansas City where Arthur founded the Real Estate Trust Company, but in 1889 the real estate market took a hit. Fortunately, all was not lost. In another endeavor, Arthur formed the Kansas City Terminal Construction Company after winning a contract with the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railway. And so went his entrance into the railway industry.
In the early 1890s Stilwell began forming, building, and acquiring other rail lines in an attempt to follow through with his nightly visitors’ plans of extending a railroad to the Gulf of Mexico.
From the plan and advice received in this way I have been able to build five western railroads, 2,500 miles all together- more than any other living man has constructed. By this means I have founded forty odd cities and villages with a combined population of 125,000. I was warned by my nightly advisers not to make Galveston the terminal of the Kansas City Southern Road because that city was destined to be destroyed by a tidal wave, which prediction was fulfilled, tragically, four years later. Thereupon, I constructed the City of Port Arthur, Texas, and built the Port Arthur Ship Canal and Harbor under the same guidance, not deviating from the plans revealed to me in any way.

Arthur’s nightly advisers were certainly “accurate” according to all the writings I have seen, but one must take into account that they were all written after the fact. So take that into consideration the next time a voice in the night tells you to construct a railroad.

Interestingly, an article dated August 2014 by Judith Linsley gives a different story about how Arthur Stilwell came to build Port Arthur. Two daughters of Mark Wiess were interviewed in a Port Arthur News article on Independence Day 1948, and both Octavia Wiess Andrus and Olga May Wiess Hoopes stated that their father was the one who had pointed out just where to build the city.
Mark Wiess’ part in choosing the Port Arthur townsite was also quoted in his obituary, which appeared in the July 2, 1910 Beaumont Journal. When Stilwell was considering Sabine Pass as a terminus for his new railroad, the landowners wanted too much for the right-of-way. At that time, Wiess suggested that Stilwell buy land nearby, owned by W.P.H. McFaddin, W.W. Kyle, Sr., and his brother Valentine, partners in the Beaumont Pasture Company. Stilwell did so, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whether it was Mark Wiess or the Brownies who pinpointed the ultimate settlement, there were certainly more players in the founding and development of Port Arthur. One of these developers was John “Bet-a-Million” Gates who, in 1899, took over the Kansas City, Pittsburg, and Gulf Railroad after forcing it into bankruptcy. He then named the company the Kansas City and Southern Railroad, which we still know today.

Now that Arthur Stilwell had been ousted from his post atop the railroad company, he moved back to Kansas City in search of other ventures. It wasn’t long before he announced plans to build another railroad but this time connecting Kansas City to the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately this too went bust, and investors lost millions. Where were his nightly visitors? This is not known for sure, but ultimately, Arthur took a hiatus from the railroad business.

Stilwell would go on to write books, plays, and poems, all credited to his advisers. I have copies of most of his books, and they are interesting to say the least. In the one that I’ve quoted from, Live and Grow Young, Arthur explains life’s problems as well as illness and death. He further reveals the secret of longevity, but unfortunately he would die of apoplexy just seven years later, on September 26, 1928.

An additional dismal event to conclude this story features Jennie, his wife of 49 years. Thirteen days after Arthur’s death, Jennie Ann Wood Stilwell walked/jumped out of an eight-story New York hotel window. This article in the New York Times dated October 10, 1928 fills in the details:

Mrs. Arthur Edward Stilwell, widow of the railroad builder who died just two weeks ago, ended her life yesterday morning by jumping from a twelfth floor window of her apartment at 305 West End Avenue. Notes addressed to her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Burton W. Robb of Buffalo, said the death of her husband left nothing in life for her and requested that they dispose of her property.

Mrs. Stilwell was to have gone to Buffalo last night to make her home with the Robbs in accordance with their plans. The tickets had been bought.

Because of her despondency since the death of her husband her relatives had been apprehensive that she might attempt to end her life. Consequently when Mr. Robb noticed a light burning in her room at 5:45 A.M. he looked through the door to assure himself that all was well. He found the bed empty and a window raised. A glance out confirmed his fears. Mrs. Stilwell’s body was on the roof of a four-story building at 303 West Seventy-fourth Street.

A note, evidently prepared the night before, announced her intention to end her life. She said life was empty without her “darling,” as she referred to her husband.

Mr. Stilwell had been retired from active business for eight years before his death. He and his wife had withdrawn from their friends. During his later years Mr. Stilwell was much interested in spiritualism, an interest which his wife did not share, according to relatives.

Mrs. Stilwell, who was Miss Jennie Wood, was born in Rochester in 1860. She was married to Mr. Stilwell in 1879. A sister, Mrs. Mary Ferris of Binghamton, survives.
In accordance with her wish, no funeral services will be held. Her body will be cremated as was her husband’s.
Did the Brownies guide Arthur to prosperity here in SETX? I have no clue, but what I do know is that this is the second draft of this story. The first draft disappeared from my computer without a trace. Strange but true. One thing I have learned from this whole episode is to NEVER EVER compare an English faerie to a Scottish brownie.

Rediscovering Florence Stratton

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My research on the life of Florence Stratton is now in its fourth year. It’s true that I’ve made multiple discoveries in what would seem, at times, a hopeless endeavor, but there always seems to be an open door at the end of the hallway, so to speak. And I have definitely ventured into many of those long corridors.
In late December 2015, after a visit to the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center to research historian Bill Quick’s papers, I “quickly” (pun intended) became inspired by how organized he was in his research and how he maintained his notes. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Quick when he was alive, I am ever so grateful for his years of documentation of SETX history, especially regarding the Sabine Lighthouse—it appears we shared a mutual love for this structure.
f1So as many do, in January I decided to make a New Year’s resolution. I spent countless hours filing, scanning, and digitizing all my files for future use by persons unknown should the need arise. I believe I am nearly through with this growing inventory of information, except for the Florence Stratton Project as I call it. I have scanned and digitized many related files and documents, but three-plus years of research are not always readily available to scan, such as my small two-page file on the city of Ronald, Texas. Nevertheless, most of the files about Florence and her family are stored as PDFs, along with countless newspaper clippings in JPEG (photo) format. Then there are the “Susie Spindletop’s Weekly Letter” articles written using Florence’s nom de plume, which span February 28, 1926 to January 23, 1938. This collection will be a whole new digitizing endeavor, which will mean many weekly trips to the Sam Houston Region Library and Research Center to obtain clearer images. The initial scans from many of the microfilm collections for the Beaumont Enterprise are quite blurry. DSC02508
I have also realized that field trips are a necessity. Given the timetable, genealogy, and friendships in Florence’s history, I found it important to proactively explore these sites, cities, and research hubs. And it was in Austin that I began my journey over the road. On Monday January 25, I stepped into the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The center holds many historic treasures—so much so that I could spend months, or even years, sifting through them. Since I only had a day, I decided to focus on W.P. Hobby Sr.’s papers. W.P. Hobby was the Governor of Texas from 1917 to 1921. At the time, he was the youngest governor ever to hold the office in the state. Hobby also had many local ties to Beaumont. He became the manager and part owner of the Beaumont Enterprise in 1907 and married Willie Cooper, the daughter of the U.S. representative Sam Branson Cooper, on May 15, 1915. At various points in Florence’s timeline, I noticed she spent time with Willie Cooper in Washington D.C. (1907–1908) or in the Governor’s Mansion in Austin (1917–1921). Other newspaper articles described her attendance at many functions with the Governor and First Lady, from a Turkey trot in Cuero to the inauguration of the Mexican president Álvaro Obregón.
White House reception attended by Willie Cooper and Florence StrattonIn one of the two boxes I requested, I found a scrapbook that once belonged to Willie. After looking at all the newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, it certainly put what I’d been studying into perspective. Between the clippings and other historical artifacts, I located an invitation addressed to “The Misses Cooper” dated January 9, 1908. It reads as follows:
The President and Mrs. Roosevelt request the pleasure of the company of
The Misses Cooper
At a reception to be held at
The White House
Thursday evening January the ninth
Nineteen hundred and eight
From nine to half after ten o’clock
Holding something like that in your hand can be inspiring to say the least. Both Willie and Florence attended the White House reception in January the following year as well. I know this thanks to an article in the Washington Post dated January 8, 1909.
I made many discoveries that day. Most of the scrapbook concentrated on W.P. Hobby becoming lieutenant governor and eventually governor when James E. Ferguson was removed from office. I also noticed a lot of content on women’s suffrage (women’s right to vote). Unlike others, Hobby saw the benefits of this early. There is one letter to the editor of the Beaumont Enterprise in Willie’s scrapbook. We’ll call him Pete (because that is how he signed his name in the letter). Pete was hell-bent on not giving women the right to vote. He talked of the curse of Jehovah God “by harkening to the voice of women, and giving to the ballot.” He also quoted the Apostle Paul and the like, but it would have been pointless to spend one more iota of time on this jackleg. It is interesting to ponder just what Mr. Pete would have thought when a woman, Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson, was elected Governor of Texas in 1925. A possible coronary, I would imagine.
I assume Willie saved this letter as a reminder of how important this era was for women, and through the newspaper articles, I was also able to get a small glimpse of Florence’s journey. In September 1918, she was listed as one of 31 vice chairpersons for the senatorial districts for the Democratic Party.
My next field trip will be to the place Florence treasured most, her place of birth, Brazoria County. Florence was born on March 21, 1881 at her childhood home in Brazoria, Texas, which in later years she revisited regularly in “Susie Spindletop’s Weekly Letter.” Her popular column was published each Sunday, and in this, she also spoke highly of her grandfather, Major Asa Evan Stratton, who owned a sugarcane plantation.
My other ventures into her past will this month include a visit to Woodville to find any more sources relating to Willie Cooper that may be traceable to Florence, a revisit to Austin to peruse more of W.P. Hobby’s papers, and then the inevitable journey to Troy, Pike County, Alabama. Troy_School
Contrary to most articles about Florence, she graduated from Troy Normal College and not Gray Normal College as W.T. Block noted in his earlier writings. In fact much of Florence’s lore is inaccurate, and I’m still sorting through the mess. This is not to discredit Mr. Block on this subject; he was blissfully unaware that the recollections of his primary source, Florence’s niece, were wholly inaccurate. I personally have no knowledge of the atmosphere or Eunice’s mindset when she was interviewed for the articles published in the Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, but most of the “facts” were just plain wrong.
Graduation Photo editLuckily, with time, Florence’s past is emerging in the form of documented proof on how she spent her life, and how she was a positive resident who was loved by all. Many of my early questions have been answered, but there is still a mountain of research to climb. Some readers have asked what I plan to do with all this research. Well, it is no secret that I intend to submit a marker application to the Texas Historical Commission (THC) in 2017 to celebrate a life that deserves recognition in SETX history. Indeed, Florence’s contributions to Beaumont history, society, and charity cannot be matched.

Tales from Hallowed Ground: Catherina Jeanette Stengele

 

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My first introduction to Miss Stengele was on a cold morning during a walk through Magnolia Cemetery. As the story goes, she was a lowly seamstress who worked hard to save her money. In her short 43 years of life, she purchased a costly St. Catherine of the Wheel statue for her mausoleum, along with the twelve plots near her intended resting place, all of which she had tiled in.

Sounds like an amazing story, right? Well it is, so let us throw the rumor out and try to ascertain the facts.
Catherina Jeanette Stengele Nat. paper1Early Beaumont was home to an entrepreneur in the form of the youthful Miss Stengele. According to her naturalization form, she arrived in this country in 1884, spent a few years in Baltimore learning the millinery business, and then moved to Beaumont in the late 1880s. The form also shows she was born on February 28, 1856, and not 1866 as stated on her mausoleum. (I suppose, even in death, some need to hold onto their youth.) Her country of origin is also unclear because of contradictory documentation. I have found some papers stating that she was from Germany. Others indicate that she was from Holland. My belief is that she was probably born along the present German–Holland border, which was initially a part of Germany but later became Holland.
Miss Stengele was certainly competent in the world of business. As a single woman in the 1890s, she made a good living in her millinery business, and other ventures in the financial and real estate sectors also seemed to work well for her. She was so successful in finance that she placed an ad in the Beaumont Journal in May 1899 stating that she was “Going to quit the business! I am going to quit the millinery business, and from the date will sell my entire stock at very low prices.”
Catherina Jeanette Stengele seemed to be a natural at finance and the lending market. So much so that she quit her day job, so to speak. Her investments would even finance a return trip to Europe in 1901. See the article in the Beaumont Enterprise dated January 6, 1900. 1900.01.06 Beaumont Enterprise Special Notice
You may notice the name Stengele Building, highlighted in yellow above the article. Miss Stengele also owned a three-story brick building at 345 Pearl Street in Beaumont, which had housed her millinery shop as well as several of her tenants.
While records from 1900 until her death in 1909 tell a tale of a successful businesswoman, not every investment would always go as planned. For instance, around 1905–6, records of court proceedings show the bankruptcy of the Nederland Rice farms in which she held a $20,000 stake. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the time to research the court files in detail, but this is on my to-do list.
In April 1909 Miss Stengele left Beaumont for Los Angeles because of an illness. An article from the Houston Post dated September 16, 1909 states she “underwent two surgeries for appendicitis during the summer.” Unfortunately Miss Catherina Jeanette Stengele had passed away the day before the article was printed, on September 15, 1909.
I found a few articles from the Beaumont Journal that explained the highlights of life and the aftermath of her death, but her will is undoubtedly of considerable interest. According to hearsay, she was at odds with one of her brothers and left him nothing, but technically that’s not true. Browsing through her will, I found that she did leave a detailed list of her heirs and her final wishes. Her wish for the St. Catherine of the Wheel statue was originally included in the first draft of her will in 1908, but the mausoleum was only added in May 1909. She had many family members, both locally and in Holland, to whom she bequeathed her wealth. Her assets were around $120,000. That’s the equivalent of $3.1 million today. Not too bad for a lowly seamstress… or should I say, a milliner?

Tales from Hallowed Ground: Virginia Lee Rowley

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While walking through Greenlawn Cemetery in Groves one mid-August morning, I came across a monument erected by the American Legion Auxiliary. Surrounding the stone memorial, which was inscribed “They gave their lives that freedom shall not perish,” were the graves of several veterans. Although most survived the conflicts of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and subsequently went on to lead healthy lives with their loved ones, there was one memorial that differed from the rest. Corporal Hugo J. DeBretagne, it seemed, paid the ultimate price for his country and never returned. The inscription on his headstone reads:

In memory of Hugo J. DeBretagne, CO D 1st Bat. 2nd Marines Killed at Tarawa Buried at sea.  Oct. 13, 1923 – Nov. 23, 194312186843_919687414771958_5085764410071279457_o

There are multitudes of stories at the cemetery that I would like to pursue. Many veterans lived simply and some even heroically, but there are no claims to their historic pasts. In fact, most of us will similarly end up forgotten in the end. It’s sad but true; most of our history will disappear when we die. There may be a few friends and/or family members who will grab the torch and try to prop us up for eternity, but ultimately, death, for most, is where personal history ends.

As I maneuvered through the area to take photographs of the residents’ headstones, I came across what will probably go down as one of the oddest mysteries in my search through SETX history. Located near the American Legion’s monument was a flat headstone with an image of the deceased in porcelain. This is not entirely unusual in and of itself, but the text that went along with the image was very disturbing to say the least:

If I must die then die I must and when the coffin round me rusts my bones will go whence they came and all that’s left is my name. To shield that name I’ll do my best; that’s all that’s left when I’m at rest. I’ll do no harm and bring no shame upon my dad and mother’s name.

Not really a poignant tribute to an attractive 20 year old who lost her life so young, is it? So who was she, and what was her story? Let’s try and piece together this tale.

Virginia Lee “Gene” Rowley

While doing research that evening, I came across a couple of leads, but unfortunately (as usual), the facts didn’t add up to the reality. My first find was an IMDB page for a 12-minute film called Roothold (2004). It was directed by, and starred, Port Arthur native Eric Patrick alongside Jennifer Baker. According to the IMDB plot summary, the film has some historical significance:

Roothold is a divination film that speculates on Gene Rowley: a woman pictured on an abandoned gravestone in Port Arthur, TX. The film is an elusive narrative that places the filmmaker in an emotional and psychic state of ceremonially rehearsing for mortality and burial.

– Written by Anonymous

I looked for Eric Patrick’s website but all I could find was his Wikipedia page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Patrick

The second—and last—mention of this mystery that I found on the internet was on an Angelfire web site. You remember those free sparkly web sites that never really amounted to much? I could hardly believe this one was still up and running, but there it was, in all its glory. It shared the following story:

The story of Virginia Rowley, ‘Gene’ as her family and friends called her, is a sad one. Gene was born on October 8, 1922 in Port Arthur, Texas. Gene’s father, Clyde, worked for the city as a railroad operator. Gene’s mother, Martha, was a seamstress with a strange disposition. The strange behavior would today probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, something that Gene likely would have been diagnosed with as well. Gene was the eldest of four children; Elroy, Clyde Jr. and Tara. Martha would require the children in church each Sunday; usually promptly switching the children with branches for doing the slightest thing. Though Martha loved her children; she was aggressive and was quick to anger. The children grew up attending private schools. The children, especially Gene and Tara were not allowed to date. This was taboo for Martha until her children came of age. Though Martha kept the children under her wing to an extreme degree; she demanded that they make their own way in life by obtaining jobs at a young age. Martha encouraged the children to live at home so that she could keep a close eye on them. By 18, Gene ventured from the nest, shortly after graduating and took a job as a telephone operator for Southwestern Bell. She became independent and even found a boyfriend. The dashing young man was 22-years-old, his name was James. It was instant love for Gene. The two became inseperable; this was something Gene went to great depths to hide from her mother. Though Gene was on her own; Martha did not approve of James. Martha thought of James as too worldy. Gene was more of a straight laced girl to Martha; she needed a likewise young man. Martha, too, didn’t approve of James’ age. After a year long union Gene discovered the unthinkable. She was expecting a child. James was confronted with the issue; to Gene’s disbelief; James fled Port Arthur, refusing to contact Gene. Heartbroken and betrayed; Gene confronted several friends and relatives with the issue; they all assured her that they would help her and everything would work out, however, Gene knew that this would shame and devastate Martha a great deal. On June 18, 1942, Gene took the day off from work and stopped by Martha and Clyde’s to say hello. Gene never breathed a word about her pregnancy to her parents. It was simply a good bye visit. Gene later drove to Nederland. Once there, Gene found an unoccupied truck and plowed into it. Gene died shortly after reaching the hospital. That night Martha found a note (At top) that Gene had left in her bedroom while visiting that day. It became quite clear that this had been no accident. The reasons were quite clear. Gene’s pregnancy would have brought harm and shame to her parents name.

 

Knowing this, the first site was possibly an author/director’s take on the mystery. It was honest enough I guess, but I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I know how to watch or buy it. To be frank, the second site comprised plain nonsense. The author had devised an epic story around a few facts but failed significantly in producing details, resulting in what I can only assume was an attempt at historical fiction. All names, except Virginia’s, were inaccurate, so if the narration of a historical tale was intended, it was shoddily done. I wondered if both the first and second sources were related. I still have no idea, but their timeframes were similar. Again, I haven’t seen the 12-minute movie and IMDB was scant on detail.

But now that we have discussed what is online, let us delve into some of the “real” facts.

 

Virginia “Gene” Lee Rowley was born on October 16, 1922 in Nederland, Texas to Rex Blanton Rowley and O’ciela M. Roy. She was the oldest of four siblings. Her brother Rex, who was born in 1924, would go on to serve in World War II. Vera, her sister, was born in 1925, and the youngest of the bunch, her brother Jerry, was born in 1928. I found very little on their childhood other than that they lived in the Van Oostrom addition. (This addition, according to records, is the area around Van Street and Herring Avenue in Port Neches.) The father Rex, a World War I veteran, served with Company C, 9th Infantry, and held several jobs through the years. The records showed that he was a machinist at an oil refinery (the name of which one is unknown) in the 20s, and at other times a dairyman (in Nederland) and a seaman.

In November of 1934 I can only assume that life changed dramatically for the Rowley family because the father Rex decided to take his own life in their house. Obviously I’d be promoting the same theorizations as those who speculated on Virginia’s scenario, so I will disregard my thoughts as to why he may have taken this extreme route and terminated his life, leaving a wife and four children behind to fend for themselves. I will say that Rex’s exposure to the vile war (1916–1919) is currently unknown, but I can only surmise that his experience would have been unimaginable if he had seen the front.

Knowing that Virginia’s father died so tragically, I wondered if this was the origin of the inscribed words that were placed on her headstone eight years later. Unfortunately we will possibly never know, but there is more to this story than a couple of web sites will tell.

Virginia eventually moved to San Antonio where she was employed as a radio operator in Duncan Field. Virginia met her demise on Frio City Road in an auto accident in the early morning hours of July 24, 1942. The death certificate stated that her death was an accident, not suicide. There was no mention of a pregnancy in any of the documents that I found.

The tragedy of the family would continue almost 20 years later. Rex, the oldest remaining sibling, was electrocuted while working on an air-conditioning unit in 1961. He is also buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, next to his mother O’ciela who died in 1963. Jerry H. Rowley died of a cardiac arrest in 1981 leaving Vera as the sole sibling. Vera, as far as I can tell from the records, died in 2008. I say this because a Vera B. Rowley married an Elmo J. Rowley in Port Arthur in 1943, but that doesn’t fit the other available records. Also, Vera and Jerry are not listed in the relevant census and city directories of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, although I do know that they were siblings to Virginia because of their birth and death certificates.

There is a further mystery. According to the 1920 census, O’ciela (or Ciela in some documents) was the daughter of Albert and Metta Wee Bossman and lived with her husband Rex B. Rowley. It is an original document, but I see no way that it can be right since all other documents state that her parents were A.J. and Maria Alida Roy.

There was much tragedy in this family, and I would certainly not want to resuscitate any negative memories for their descendents.  I would however somehow like to find out the meaning of the words on the headstone. Was it some sort of tribute or perhaps a memorial left by the living family members? Was it Virginia’s poem? The tragic loss of a father for a 14-year-old girl could certainly have brought out thoughts of sorrow. She may even have felt partially to blame for the tragedy. Did her mother O’ciela write it? This is quite possible, but until I find evidence, I could not say for sure. My only goal in this saga was to bring to light the facts about Virginia, but as I dug deeper, this family’s ongoing tragedies and mysteries came to the fore.

If anyone knows any part of this story or has knowledge of the family, I would love to hear from you.

rediscoveringsetx@gmail.com

Update: 1/04/2016

What a difference a week and a few newspaper archives can make! While conducting research for my next endeavor, I veered off my intended path and found myself back on the Rowley’s trail. I inadvertently unearthed a few more answers to some of the questions that were still puzzling me about the Rowley family.
Rex B. Rowley Sr.’s death
A Port Arthur News article dated November 27, 1934 informed its readers of Rex’s death and the probable cause of his suicide:
“Relatives said he had been despondent because he had not had steady work. Justice E.B. Moye returned a suicide verdict.”
I have included a photo of the full news article here. seaman kills self rowley 112734
Who was Albert Bosman?
Another mystery the article cleared up was the link between Albert Bosman and the family. As previously explained, I had discovered a 1920 census showing O’ciela as the daughter of Albert Bosman and “Metta Wee.” I was certain this was an error because all the other documents pointed to Andrew and Maria Roy being her parents. The truth was revealed at the end of the article: Albert Bosman was actually Rex’s stepfather.
“Besides his wife, Rowley is survived by two sons, Rex Jr. and Jerry; two daughters, Virginia and Vera; and his stepfather, Albert Bosman, all of Nederland.”
I also discovered that “Metta Wee” was the maiden name of Vera, Rex’s mother.
Who wrote the poem on the headstone?
I still cannot say for sure, but I found a few articles in The Chronicle (1939) that offer a clue.
VLRowley poem PNCA February 17 article entitled “Nederland girl, poet given second honor” announced that one of Gene’s poems, “March,” was to be published in the World’s Fair Anthology. It went on to say that Virginia (Gene) had previously had a poem published in an anthology of verses.
Another article, dated November 10, 1939, stated that O’ciela Rowley was the author of a poem appearing in Christmas Lyrics of 1939, which had been published by Beacon Publications.
“This anthology, according to the Beacon concern, has been issued annually since 1936. Work of Mrs. Rowley already has appeared in the World’s Fair Anthology.”
This I found very interesting. Were both mother and daughter published poets? It is possible, but as I’ve discovered through my research, you should never assume that the printed word is without errors. I do believe Virginia was an accomplished poet. At Nederland High School, I found multiple articles on her awards as well as her studies. And this makes me think that she was indeed the source of those dark words etched under the photo on her headstone. Again, we will probably never know for sure, but it seems we are getting closer…