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


Humble Oil's Texas Sketchbook
(September 20, 1996)

Some parents these days are worried about whether a camel wearing sunglasses and a bunch of computer-generated bullfrogs are somehow enticing their children to smoke cigarettes and drink beer.

Maybe these two advertising creations are targeting kids, or perhaps the only goal is for adults to recall these offbeat characters the next time they pull up in front of a convenience store. Only the responsible ad agencies and their clients know for sure.

I can say that a public relations effort by one powerful Texas-based corporation certainly helped shape my life back in the late 1950s -- in a positive way. Like most Baby Boomers, I learned about smoking and alcohol from the people we used to credit with having the power to mold children -- adults, not clever advertisers. But, as I was reminded recently, it was an oil company that helped fuel my budding interest in Texas history.

I was nodding off in the easy chair in front of the TV, bullfrogs croaking in the background, when Austin writer and historian Ken Ragsdale called shortly before 10 o'clock one night last week.

"Didn't wake you up, did I?" asked Ragsdale, an active man in his 70s. "I just got back from my four mile walk and wanted to let you know I've got some stuff I want to give you. Been cleaning out my office. You can have it or throw it away."

The next day, Ragsdale helped me load several large shopping bags in my Baby Boomer Buggy, a sports utility vehicle with a state-of-the-art child seat in the back.

That night, I began digging into the bags. Ragsdale had given me some nice things for my Texana collection, including something in a white envelope that caused me to pause. The arrival of a similar envelope more than three decades ago had been as exiting as the happy day a few years earlier when my baking soda-powdered U.S.S. Nautilus from Kellogg's had finally shown up in the mail.

On the left side of the envelope, the distinctive lettering read: "Your Copy of Texas Sketchbook." Below that was a drawing of the famous Rose Window at Mission San Jose in San Antonio. Beneath that it said, "Humble Oil & Refining Company."

Inside the envelope was a pristine copy of the "Texas Sketchbook: A Collection of Historical Stories from the Humble Way." The 102-page softcover book, first published in 1958, was illustrated by the late artist E. M. (Buck) Schiwetz.

Humble, a Texas oil company created in 1911 which in the 1970s became Exxon and in the 1980s had bad luck with an oil tanker named the Valdez, published thousands of copies of this book and distributed them for free to anyone who wanted one, including school kids.

I used to sit and read this book in a gray Naugahyde chair with jet black iron arms and legs, a classic piece of 1950s furniture my grandparents had. It was not comfortable, but it took spilled Welch's grape juice in stride. Schiwetz's drawings portraying various aspects of Texas history were a high octane additive for my young imagination, forming impressions that have lasted a lot longer than that funky chair.

The somewhat cynical middle-aged man holding the book looked at it differently than the chubby 10-year-old in that chair had years before. Where was the powerful, insidious corporate message in this publication? No giant business would publish and freely distribute a book without some angle. Let's see. The Fifties. An anti-Communist message? No. Anti-regulatory message? No. Buy gas from us? No.

No, nothing like that. The anonymous corporate PR type who wrote the short foreword said only that the stories in the book, which ranged from a piece on old Spanish missions to an article on the history of the Texas Navy, had been published previously in the company's every-other-month magazine, the Humble Way. They were being printed in one volume because of "interest and inquiries from readers."

The stories, the author continued, "are not tall tales of Texans who speak perhaps too pridefully of their state, but simple stories of pioneers and pioneer places. Each was checked and approved by the Texas State Historical Association."

I looked at the foreword one more time. Surely I was missing something here. Then I found it. The last paragraph: "May all who read (the Sketchbook) find it a fitting memorial to the past, an inspiration to the present, and a hope for the future."

With that clever 1950s corporate propaganda in mind, I'm going to save this copy of "Texas Sketchbook" for my daughter Hallie, hoping she'll find it more interesting than camels and bullfrogs.


Texas Rangers: The Legend Begins
(September 13, 1996)

If you've read much about the history of the Texas Rangers, you're probably familiar with this story:

Jack Hays, the first of the Ranger captains to achieve widespread fame, is out on western fringe of the young Republic of Texas with some of his men. One version of the story has Hays out scouting for Indians, the other has him on a surveying expedition.

At any rate, he finds Indians. Actually, they find him. A band of Comanches manages to surprise him, alone, atop Enchanted Rock in the northern part of what is now Gillespie County. The rest of Hays' men are camped near the base of the big granite uplift, a singular landmark.

For several hours, the intrepid frontiersman manages to hold off the Indians, who badly want his scalp. They are aware that he is not just another white trespassing on their land. He is the dreaded Devil Jack, slayer of many of their friends and acquaintances. They want revenge.

Hays is careful with his fire, picking off Indian after Indian as they rain arrows on his position in a cave-like natural fortification atop the rock. Still, he's running low on powder and lead.

Finally, as would be the case in scores of B-Westerns that would follow after movies were invented, the cavalry -- in the form of Hays' colleagues -- comes to his rescue after they hear the shooting and chases off the Indians still able to run.

A great story, truly a splendid tale of early-day Texas heroics.

Too bad, then, that it apparently never happened.

Nearly 150 years after it was first told in print, the story has been seriously debunked by historian Frederick Wilkins in a new book on the early-day Rangers, "The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers, 1823-1845." Published by State House Press of Austin, the 239-page book sells for $24.95 in cloth, $16.95 in paper. It also is available in a deluxe leather-backed, boxed and signed collector's edition at $60.

The author waited until the appendix of the book to ambush the Enchanted Rock fight legend in an essay called "Battles -- Or Legends?" Wilkins traced the first appearance of the story to a book by Samuel Reid published in 1847, and then points out that he has not been able to find any documenting evidence, only telling after telling of Reid's story of the fight. The author writes that he could not find any official reports, correspondence or contemporary newspaper coverage of the supposed fight.

While archival material from this period of Texas history is scarce compared to other time periods, it would be reasonable to assume something official would have been written about it. On the other hand, encounters with Indians were common in the 1840s, as frequent as drive by shootings are today. Certainly, as one veteran homicide cop -- now retired -- used to tell me, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In the same essay, Wilkins targets another famous Ranger-Indian fight, the supposed Battle of Bandera Pass. Again, who knows for sure? What is known, and well demonstrated by Wilkins, is that Hays and other rangers of his era were involved in plenty of documented fights.

Wilkins offers plenty of detail on the early Rangers. His story begins with the colonial rangers, the men who protected Stephen F. Austin's colony against Indians. The author carries the development of the rangers through the Texas revolution against Mexico and Texas' near-decade as an independent republic.

"The Legend Begins" is a well-researched book which offers a lot of new information on the early Texas Rangers, the ones who, as the book's title says, got the Ranger legend started.


How to Find a Book
(September 6, 1996)

One of the most frequent questions from readers is a simple one: How can I get a copy of the book you wrote about?

An admitted bookaholic does not need to ask this question, of course. As is the case with any junkie, someone who is hooked always knows how to get another fix. Even those readers who are not compulsive about it generally know how to find a book.

But there still are a lot of people for whom a book is a mysterious thing, something they are impressed with but don't quite understand. These are people who do not read a lot, but who are still interested when they hear about a book that may have something in it for them -- genealogists who think a particular title might have something on their great-great grandpa, or someone looking for a book on the history of the county where they grew up.

For people like this, the question of how to find a book is a reasonable one.

The obvious place to look for a book you want to own, of course, is a bookstore. The good news is that book stores are large and plentiful in the more populated areas. In fact, there are more book stores than ever, though fewer and fewer are independently owned. Most cities larger than 50,000 in population -- the magical cutoff point for locators of chain and franchise outlets -- will have one of the national bookstore chain outlets. The bigger the city, the more stores.

But try finding a bookstore in a small community.

So, the first piece of advice is to contact a bookstore. If you live in Giddings, check Austin. If you live in Happy, go to Amarillo. If you live in Newton, go to Beaumont. Or check the phone book and call one of the big stores.

Thankfully, even the smaller towns have libraries. Go to your local library and check its catalog or ask a librarian. You can get the author, title and publisher of a book this way. Armed with the name of the publisher, either from telephone books or from the library's reference section you can get the address and telephone number of the publisher. Most of the big houses have 800 numbers for people wishing to order books.

The library may even have the book you're looking for. In that case, you can look it over for free and decide if you really want to own a copy or take it home and read it.

Another idea: Check the book sections of large papers like the New York Times and some of the nationally-published book review journals, such as New York Review of Books. Several mail order firms specialize in providing in-print books and have ads in these book review publications. Just call their 800 number and tell them the book you are looking for.

Some in-print books, however, still may not show up in this search process. These are the locally published books, such as county histories done by local historical societies or books published by mom and pop operations having no alliance with any of the wholesale houses which distribute books nationally.

If you're looking for a book like this, try the library in the county where you think the book was published. Local Chambers of Commerce also know who's who in the smaller communities and are usually helpful.

Still can't find the book? If you've gone through all these steps and still can't find anything out about the book, it probably is out of print, though a thorough library check would have revealed this fact. How to find an out of print book is a whole different column.


Book Reviews from Previous Month: (August 1996)

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