Texana Book Reviews -- August 1996
(by Mike Cox)


Travelling in Texas
(August 30, 1996)

Millions of Americans are going to be on the road over the Labor Day weekend. Want to join them?

If you plan to be traveling by car, chances are your final destination this weekend will be somewhere in Texas. Unless you live on the other edges of Texas, most Texans need longer than a three-day weekend to make it very far into any of the other 49 states.

Another assumption: Given that most Texans live in urban areas, it follows that travel planning for many will center on rural locations. Of course, this can be unsettling. Spend the night in some place like Fort Davis and you'll have a nagging feeling at first that something isn't right, that something is missing. Oh, yeah, the sirens. And noise, traffic, lines at restaurants and theaters. (No problem here, Fort Davis doesn't have any theaters, unless you count the audiovisual room at the visitors center at Fort Davis National Historic Site.)

Fort Davis is nicely covered in a well-done travel book issued by a publishing house in Castine, Maine which specializes in travel books. The book is "Country Towns of Texas" by Eleanor S. Morris. It sells for $9.95 in softcover.

Frankly, this is a much better book than I thought it would be when I first opened it. It was immediately clear that the author had actually spent some time talking to people in the various small Texas towns she picked for inclusion in the book. "Country Towns of Texas" is not a rewrite of Chamber of Commerce material.

Morris covered 12 small Texas towns in the book: Castroville, Columbus, Fort Davis, Fritch, Glen Rose, Goliad, Johnson City, Lexington, Llano, Pilot Point, Salado and Woodville. Each chapter is a readable essay which gives an honest feel for the place. At the end of each piece is the address and telephone number of that town's Chamber of Commerce for those needing the more traditional travel information.

One of the reasons I like to travel so much is that no matter how much I think I know about Texas, and life in general, I always learn something new on a trip. Here's some philosophy from Morris' book you can ponder without even having to drive to Columbus, where a resident expressed this thought:

"Age doesn't count in a small town; you're all aging together . . . . I go to the post office and I see friends from age two to twenty-five and they all look the same, since I see them every day. I don't age, they don't age, because we age gradually with our community, our friends, who become practically family."

Another recently-published travel book features suggested destinations for couples. "Texas Getaways For Two" was written by Paris Permenter and John Bigley. Published by Two Lane Press, Inc. of Kansas City, the 189-page softcover book sells for $14.95.

The authors cover most of Texas in their book, but place destinations in categories more appealing to couples. Chapter topics include bed-and-breakfast getaways (Jefferson, Fredericksburg, Georgetown and the King William District of San Antonio); "Nightlife in the Big City," "Pure Luxury," "Adventures for Two," "Water Fun," "Shop 'Til You (Both) Drop," "Cozy Communities," "Forgotten Getaways" (Texarkana, Waco and Lubbock, to name a few); "Run for the Border" and "Coastal Getaways."

The book even suggests festivals more suited for twosomes than family reunions, including the Texas Renaissance Festival and assorted wine fests.

Though the angle of this book is travel destinations for couples, you don't have to be traveling as a couple to find interesting things to do in any of the communities listed. For one, two or the whole family, "Texas Getaways For Two" is a useful travel book.


The Grizzly Bear in the Southwest
(August 23, 1996)

In June, several people reported seeing a small bear on the golf course in Alpine, the "capital city" of the Big Bend.

One person even got a snap shot of the bear. A short time later, someone else took more than a snap shot of the bear. On the east side of Sul Ross Hill, the three-year-old bear was found shot to death.

As the Desert Candle, a bimonthly newspaper "for the Denizens of and Visitors to the Big Bend," reported in July, "The sad truth is that bears and towns don't mix any better than wolves and ranchers."

The brief article noted that several bears are known to live in Big Bend National Park along with an unknown population in the Davis Mountains to the west of Alpine. "They are rarely seen until they wander onto a highway and are hit by a car or shot by a hunter," the article noted.

Well, it's a good thing the Trans-Pecos country doesn't have any more grizzly bears. The bear killed in Alpine recently was a black bear, which though nearly hunted out over the years is making something of a comeback west of the Pecos River. Grizzlies, on the other hand, are not as easy going or as easy a mark as the more common black bear.

The University of Oklahoma Press has just reissued the definitive book on grizzlies in this part of the country, "The Grizzly in the Southwest." Written by David E. Brown, the 274-page softcover sells for $15.95.

First published in hardcover in 1985, this book -- with a new introduction and preface -- is an excellent overview of the life and virtual demise of one of America's most magnificent and dangerous creatures. Thanks to their ferocity and size, grizzlies also clawed and bit their way into American folklore.

Grizzlies like high country, which means they never were too common in Texas. But early-day Southwesterners tended to look on a bear as a bear as a bear, so some Texas bears described generically may have been grizzlies.

The last known grizzly killed in Texas was in the Davis Mountains in a gulch near the head of Limpia Creek on Nov. 2, 1890. C.O. Finley and John Z. Means did the honors and may well have killed the last grizzly in the state. Thirty-nine years later, in 1931, tracks believed to have been made by a grizzly were found on the Texas-New Mexico border in the Guadalupe Mountains, but the bear itself was never seen.

Grizzlies did not come by their names randomly. They were --are still in some remote sections of the nation -- rather ill-tempered. As Brown wrote, "The grizzly is not a social animal. An adult generally treats other bears as interlopers and will kill or drive away any bear encountered, grizzly or black, that is smaller, is not a potential mate, or is not protected by its mother." Remember, Brown is talking about other bears here. Grizzlies have been particularly unfriendly toward humans over the years. And vice versa.

Which, of course, is why so few grizzlies are left in the continental United States today.

Brown begins his book with a poignant quote from bear expert Aldo Leopold, who in 1949 wrote of a government trapped who took the last grizzly on Escudilla Mountain (in Arizona) and in the Southwest. The trapper, Leopold wrote, "knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together. . . Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bears. It's only a mountain now."

The day may come when the grizzly is back in the Southwest, but it probably won't be any time soon. The only hope, says Brown in his new introduction, is the reintroduction into wild habitat of grizzlies who have learned to be afraid of man. But whether man will ever learn to be unafraid of grizzlies is another question.


Texas and Texans in the Civil War
(August 16, 1996)

What happened in the summer of 1860 as the nation was sliding toward civil war came to be called "the Texas troubles."

Beginning in early July, fires of unknown origin broke out in various North Texas towns, particularly in Dallas. It was a very hot, dry summer and whether the fires were the result of spontaneous combustion or the work of an arsonist was never established with absoluteness.

The result of the fires, however, is well documented. Some newspapers laid the fires to abolitionists, those favoring an end to slavery. Rumor had the fires as the first step in a general slave revolt. Tales circulated that water wells were being poisoned, bottles of strychnine supposedly were being purchased and there had been several attempted murders.

The speculation fanned the figurative flames of paranoia. Soon vigilante groups were being organized. Citizens made arrests. No due process was afforded and many "cases" were ending in suspended sentences -- the defendants ending up on tree limbs. An estimated 50 lynchings took place.

One of those hanged was a minister, who a posse had chased all the way to Missouri. He was returned to Fort Worth where a mob lynched him. Not content with the man's death, unknown parties three weeks later unearthed his remains. His bones were stripped of any remaining flesh and his skeleton displayed on the roof of a grocery store.

This tragic episode is covered in the first chapter of historian Ralph A. Wooster's "Texas and Texans in the Civil War." Published by Eakin Press, the 320-page book sells for $27.95 in hardback.

As the title suggests, this is a general overview of Texas' role in the Civil War. Wooster covers the crisis that ended in Texas' secession (it was the only Southern state to do so by popular vote), the early part Texas soldiers had in the conflict and the eventual intrusion of hostilities into Texas.

Fighting in Texas was minor compared to elsewhere in the South. Hostile action in Texas was confined to coastal areas until May 1865, when Texas troops fought and won a battle in the Rio Grande Valley. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, the war was already over.

A particularly interesting chapter deals with life in Texas during the war. Though there were no major land battles, the war had a tremendous impact on the state, as Wooster demonstrates.

Aside from being a solid general survey of the Civil War as it pertained to Texas, Wooster's book is worth the price for its bibliography alone. The author lists 34 pages of sources, from unpublished primary sources to books and articles. This is one of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Civil War material dealing with Texas ever published, if not the most.

The Civil War, like most major events in history, is a short name for a collection of millions of stories and thousands of big and little successes and failures.

One of those failures, as a person and in his career, was Henry Hopkins Sibley, a Louisiana-born West Point graduate who served as a general officer in the Confederate Army.

Sibley is the subject of an excellent biography, "Confederate General of the West," by Jerry Thompson. First published in 1987, the book has been reissued by Texas A&M Press as a trade paperback priced at $16.95.

The 399-page book documents Sibley's rise in rank, first as an officer in the U.S. Army and then as a Confederate, and his failed invasion of New Mexico. That invasion, a Confederate attempt to establish a corridor to the West Coast and un-blockaded maritime commerce, was one of many events that could have altered the outcome of the war had it been successful. But, as Thompson points out, Sibley's boozing and overall incompetence helped save the Union he was fighting to dissolve.

Also of interest to Civil War buffs will be "The Civil War in Apacheland," edited by Neil B. Carmony. Published by High-Lonesome Books of Silver City, N.M., the 215-page book sells for $21.95 in hardback, $12.95 in paper.

This book is the annotated diary of George Hand, documenting his experiences as a union soldier in California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas from 1861 to 1864. Hand was one of the soldiers who helped defeat Sibley in his attempt to take control of New Mexico.

"The Civil War in Apacheland" is a soldier's look at day to day life in the war, which often consisted of marching, sleeping in the rain and cold, getting by on coffee and bread and waiting for orders. It's a fascinating read, ably edited and annotated by Carmony.


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