Living off the land—hunting, fishing, and farming, along with a range of specialized crafts that provided barter or cash income—was a way of life that persisted well into the twentieth century in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas. Before this way of life ended with World War II, professional photographer Larry Jene Fisher spent a decade between the 1930s and 1940s photographing Big Thicket people living and working in the old ways. His photographs, the only known collection on this subject, constitute an irreplaceable record of lifeways that first took root in the southeastern woodlands of the colonial United States and eventually spread all across the Southern frontier.
Big Thicket People presents Fisher's photographs in suites that document a wide slice of Big Thicket life-people, dogs, camps, deer hunts, farming, syrup mills, rooter hogs and stock raising, railroad tie making, barrel stave making, chimney building, peckerwood sawmills, logging, turpentining, town life, church services and picnics, funerals and golden weddings, and dances and other amusements. Accompanying each suite of images is a cultural essay by Thad Sitton, who also introduces the book with a historical overview of life in the Big Thicket. C. E. Hunt provides an informative biography of Larry Jene Fisher.
“What I done and what I been accused of covers everything, you put ’em both together.” Wyatt Moore of Caddo Lake exaggerates, but perhaps not very much. During his long life at Caddo Lake, Moore was at various times a boat operator, commercial fisherman, boat builder, farmer, fishing and hunting camp operator, guide, commercial hunter, trapper, raftsman, moonshiner, oil field worker, water well driller, and mechanical jack-of-all-trades. Still, he always found time for his lifelong study of the natural and human history of Caddo Lake. Here, in words as fresh and forceful as the day they were uttered, is his tale.
Moore, who was given the gift of a unique story to tell and great power to tell it, was the historical interpreter of his strange homeland of Caddo Lake. Twenty-three miles long, some forty thousand acres at high water, stretching across two Texas counties and one Louisiana parish, Caddo Lake’s fresh waters merge into a labyrinthine swamp punctuated by inlets, holes, and geological oddities like Goat Island, Whistleberry Slough, Whangdoodle Pass, and the Devil’s Elbow. Here among these lost reminders of steamboats and old bateau men is Moore’s world.
Born in 1901 at Karnack, Texas, Moore grew up in a time when kids wore button shoes and in a place where pigs and chickens roamed the backyard. He drank his first whiskey at age eight, gigged fish, trapped, and hunted for pearls as a boy, and grew up to an easy assurance on the lake that comes only to those long accustomed to its ways. A walking library of the history of Caddo Lake, Moore delved into almost every nook and corner of it, and wherever he went, whatever he did, he sought to learn more about his subect. Sought out by writers and journalists—among them James Michener and Bill Moyers—because of his laconic wit and remarkable command of the region’s story, Moore became known as a resource as precious as the lake itself. Moore’s story is eloquently introduced by Thad Sitton in an opening essay that chronicles the history of Caddo Lake. Striking photographs of Moore at home and at work on the lake beautifully amplify his life story, and an exuberant word-and-picture essay of Moore expertly building the traditional boat of the region, a bateau, reinforces the vivid image we have of this remarkable man.
Friends of the Dallas Public Library Award, 2006
Best Book on East Texas, East Texas Historical Association, 2007
In the decades following the Civil War, nearly a quarter of African Americans achieved a remarkable victory—they got their own land. While other ex-slaves and many poor whites became trapped in the exploitative sharecropping system, these independence-seeking individuals settled on pockets of unclaimed land that had been deemed too poor for farming and turned them into successful family farms. In these self-sufficient rural communities, often known as "freedom colonies," African Americans created a refuge from the discrimination and violence that routinely limited the opportunities of blacks in the Jim Crow South.
Freedom Colonies is the first book to tell the story of these independent African American settlements. Thad Sitton and James Conrad focus on communities in Texas, where blacks achieved a higher percentage of land ownership than in any other state of the Deep South. The authors draw on a vast reservoir of ex-slave narratives, oral histories, written memoirs, and public records to describe how the freedom colonies formed and to recreate the lifeways of African Americans who made their living by farming or in skilled trades such as milling and blacksmithing. They also uncover the forces that led to the decline of the communities from the 1930s onward, including economic hard times and the greed of whites who found legal and illegal means of taking black-owned land. And they visit some of the remaining communities to discover how their independent way of life endures into the twenty-first century.
Cotton farming was the only way of life that many Texans knew from the days of Austin's Colony up until World War II. For those who worked the land, it was a dawn-till-dark, "can see to can't," process that required not only a wide range of specialized skills but also a willingness to gamble on forces often beyond a farmer's control—weather, insects, plant diseases, and the cotton market.
This unique book offers an insider's view of Texas cotton farming in the late 1920s. Drawing on the memories of farmers and their descendants, many of whom are quoted here, the authors trace a year in the life of south central Texas cotton farms. From breaking ground to planting, cultivating, and harvesting, they describe the typical tasks of farm families—as well as their houses, food, and clothing; the farm animals they depended on; their communities; and the holidays, activities, and observances that offered the farmers respite from hard work.
Although cotton farming still goes on in Texas, the lifeways described here have nearly vanished as the state has become highly urbanized. Thus, this book preserves a fascinating record of an important part of Texas' rural heritage.
Around a campfire in the woods through long hours of night, men used to gather to listen to the music of hounds' voices as they chased an elusive and seemingly preternatural fox. To the highly trained ears of these backwoods hunters, the hounds told the story of the pursuit like operatic voices chanting a great epic. Although the hunt almost always ended in the escape of the fox—as the hunters hoped it would—the thrill of the chase made the men feel "that they [were] close to something lost and never to be found, just as one can feel something in a great poem or a dream."
Gray Ghosts and Red Rangers offers a colorful account of this vanishing American folkway—back-country fox hunting known as "hilltopping," "moonlighting," "fox racing," or "one-gallus fox hunting." Practiced neither for blood sport nor to put food on the table, hilltopping was worlds removed from elite fox hunting where red- and black-coated horsemen thundered across green fields in daylight. Hilltopping was a nocturnal, even mystical pursuit, uniting men across social and racial lines as they gathered to listen to dogs chasing foxes over miles of ground until the sun rose. Engaged in by thousands of rural and small-town Americans from the 1860s to the 1980s, hilltopping encouraged a quasi-spiritual identification of man with animal that bound its devotees into a "brotherhood of blood and cause" and made them seem almost crazy to outsiders.
Winner, San Antonio Conservation Society Citation, 2005
Runner-up, Carr P. Collins Award, Best Book of Nonfiction, Texas Institute of Letters, 2005
Until the U.S. Army claimed 300-plus square miles of hardscrabble land to build Fort Hood in 1942, small communities like Antelope, Pidcoke, Stampede, and Okay scratched out a living by growing cotton and ranching goats on the less fertile edges of the Texas Hill Country. While a few farmers took jobs with construction crews at Fort Hood to remain in the area, almost the entire population—and with it, an entire segment of rural culture—disappeared into the rest of the state.
In Harder than Hardscrabble, oral historian Thad Sitton collects the colorful and frequently touching stories of the pre-Fort Hood residents to give a firsthand view of Texas farming life before World War II. Accessible to the general reader and historian alike, the stories recount in vivid detail the hardships and satisfactions of daily life in the Texas countryside. They describe agricultural practices and livestock handling as well as life beyond work: traveling peddlers, visits to towns, country schools, medical practices, and fox hunting. The anecdotes capture a fast-disappearing rural society—a world very different from today's urban Texas.
Winner, T. H. Fehrenbach Award, Texas Historical Commission
Sawmill communities were once the thriving centers of East Texas life. Many sprang up almost overnight in a pine forest clearing, and many disappeared just as quickly after the company "cut out" its last trees. But during their heyday, these company towns made Texas the nation's third-largest lumber producer and created a colorful way of life that lingers in the memories of the remaining former residents and their children and grandchildren.
Drawing on oral history, company records, and other archival sources, Sitton and Conrad recreate the lifeways of the sawmill communities. They describe the companies that ran the mills and the different kinds of jobs involved in logging and milling. They depict the usually rough-hewn towns, with their central mill, unpainted houses, company store, and schools, churches, and community centers. And they characterize the lives of the people, from the hard, awesomely dangerous mill work to the dances, picnics, and other recreations that offered welcome diversions.
More than a mode of gathering information about the past, oral history has become an international movement. Historians, folklorists, and other educational and religious groups now recognize the importance of preserving the recollections of people about the past. The recorded memories of famous and common folk alike provide a vital complement to textbook history, bringing the past to life through the stories of those who lived it.
Oral History is designed to introduce teachers, students, and interested individuals to the techniques, problems, and pleasures of collecting oral history. The authors, themselves experienced educators, examine the uses of oral history in the classroom, looking at a wide range of projects that have been attempted and focusing on those that have succeeded best.
Besides suggesting many possible projects, they discuss the necessary hardware and its use: recording equipment and procedures, interview outlines and preliminary research, photography and note-taking in the field, transcription and storage of information, legal forms, and more. For the teacher, the authors offer helpful advice on training students to be sensitive interviewers in both formal and informal situations.
How can oral histories collected in the classroom be put to use? The authors discuss their uses within the curriculum; in projects such as oral history archives, publications such as the popular Foxfire books, and other media productions; and in researching current community problems. Useful appendixes survey a variety of reference tools for the oral historian and describe in detail how a Foxfire-concept magazine may be developed.
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