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Texas Tales

published: November 12th 2010
by: Mike Cox

If Hubert Harvey hadn’t fatally stabbed that young Austin man on Halloween night in 1916, he might have lived to see the fine new Texas Highway Department building go up where the Travis County Jail once stood.
    But that’s not how it worked out. At 1:50 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1918 Sheriff George Matthews sprang the trap on the gallows inside the jail and Harvey paid for his crime at the end of a rope.
    Harvey, 34, had the distinction of being the last of nine men legally hanged in the castle-like stone jail, built for $100,000 in 1876 at the corner of 11th and Brazos streets — present location of the Dewitt C. Greer Building, headquarters of what is now the Texas Department of Transportation.
    Who knows? Maybe Harvey’s spirit has something to do with the mysterious footsteps and strange noises some TxDOT employees have reported hearing at night when the building is supposedly empty. But for anyone who believes in ghosts, there are plenty of suspects.
    John Wesley Hardin, Texas’ deadliest 19th century outlaw, cooled his heels in the still-new jail until his transfer to the state prison in Huntsville. John Ringo, another famous outlaw, did some time in the Travis County slammer before moving west to Arizona.
    A more genteel inmate was William Sydney Porter, a popular young man with a penchant for puns, pilsner and games of chance. Later known world-wide as O. Henry, the short story writer got to reflect on the literary life for a while after being booked on a federal bank embezzlement rap in 1898.
    Until 1923, under state law the sheriff of the county in which the condemned person had been convicted bore the responsibility of carrying out an execution. After that time, executions were by electrocution at the state prison in Huntsville.
    For the superstitious, these are the other potential Greer Building “haints”:
    -Taylor Ake, 18, hanged for rape, Aug. 22, 1879.
    -Ed Nichols, 21, hanged for rape, Jan. 12, 1894.
    -William Eugene Burt, hanged May 27, 1898 for killing his wife and two children. Police found their bodies in a cistern at 207 E. 9th St.
    -Sam Watrus, 30, hanged Jan. 27, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery.
    -Jim Davidson, 30, hanged Nov. 24, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery.
    -Henry Williams, 30, hanged May 2, 1904 for murder and rape.
    -John Henry, hanged July 12, 1912 for murder.
    - Henry Brook, hanged May 30, 1913 for murder.
    While none of these men ever had to worry about the infirmities associated with the passage of time, by the late 1920s, the jail had begun to show its age. And so had the adjacent county courthouse at 11th and Congress. When Travis County officials decided to construct a new courthouse at 11th and Guadalupe in 1930, the plans included a larger, state-of-the-art jail on the top floor of the new building.
    The Highway Depart-ment, crammed in a state office building across the street from the old jail, saw the impending move as an opportunity to get land for a new headquarters. Negotiations soon began with Travis County to buy the property.
    “We wish to renew our recommendation that the State Highway Commis-sion be permitted to erect a building to house the State Highway Department in Austin,” read the fifth of nine recommendations made in the department’s seventh biennial report. “Such a building,” the 1930 report continued, should include “a laboratory, research department, and ample other space for carrying on its activities, now and in the future.”
    Despite the transportation agency’s interest in the jail property, some Austinites suggested the old jail should be remodeled and transformed into a public library named in honor of O. Henry.
    In the end, practicality trumped preservation and the state razed the old jail. The department used free labor to clear the site, ordering a class of Highway Patrol cadets then in training at Camp Mabry to do the job.
    At a cost of $455,151.74, the new building opened in the summer of 1933 — only three years after it was requested. Impressive as the new Highway Building was, nearly another 20 years went by before the agency got around to installing air conditioning. That cost $170,642 in 1951.
    The building has seen various rennovations since then, but no ghost busting.
***
    More than 300 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, the community of Hughes Springs owes its existence to a fanciful pirate story and one man who believed it.
    Born in Tennessee and raised in Alabama, Reece Hughes first saw Texas in 1829 when he crossed the Sabine to hunt buffalo. The expedition proved short-lived.
    “This little band of adventurers was soon driven out of Texas by a much larger force of hostile Indians,” son Howell Rose Hughes wrote a century later.
    Nine years later after his first visit, Texas having wrested its independence from Mexico, Reece Hughes returned with his younger brother. They settled in Red River County, but an intriguing tale Hughes had heard on his first trip to Texas lured him to what is now Cass County.
    As his son remembered it, “an old sea pirate who bore the name of Trammell” had buried “a great stong box of gold coins” near an Indian village on the trail that later bore his name – the Trammell Trace. Others gilded the legend, claiming Trammell had once been a member of Jean Laffite’s not-always-jolly band of saltwater brigands. After Laffite got run off Galveston Island by the U.S. Navy, the tale continued, Trammell decamped for St. Louis with his share of the loot. Hounded by hostile Indians while on the way to Missouri, he buried his treasure in Northeast Texas.
    Hughes and his brother set out to find Trammell’s treasure, following the trail to an old Indian village along a mineral rich spring-feed creek in a handsome valley about a mile east of present Hughes Spring. On March 28, 1839 they pitched a tent and started chopping trees for a log cabin about a mile from the spring.
    “If they ever found the golden treasure for which they were searching I have no record of it,” Hughes’ son wrote. “But they built their log cabin, cleared their little farm, and planted a crop of corn and peas and some garden truck.”
    That fall, convinced that in putting down roots in Texas he had found another kind of treasure, Hughes left his brother in charge of their farm and rode back to Alabama to bring his father and other family members to Texas. As his son later remembered, others “seized with the Texas fever” joined the party and soon all “began to prosper wonderfully.”
    Nicholas Trammell, the reputed pirate who played an unintended role in the beginning of Hughes Springs, certainly would have understood another fellow’s desire to live prosperously.
    A Tennesseean like Hughes, Trammell had migrated westward to Arkansas as a young man. After working as a French and Indian interpretor for a time, he settled on the White River and began selling salt. Coming from a family of traders and trail-blazers, Trammell in 1819 began cutting a trail from the early-day Texas community of Jonesborough on the Red River to Nacogdoches. Soon he relocated to that town in the pine trees along the Camino Real, the old Spanish road from Louisiana to South Texas.
    While nothing in his still-sketchy biography suggests he ever participated in piracy on the high seas or buried treasure in East Texas, Trammell fell a bit short of “Citizen of the Year” status. As the late artist-historian Jack Jackson pointed out in Trammel’s “Handbook of Texas” entry, the pathfinder was about as good at finding trouble as blazing new trails. A fondness for horse racing led to difficulties over unpaid wagers and Trammell occasionally stood accused of slave and horse thievery.
    After getting caught up in Nacogdoches’ Fredon-ian Rebellion in 1826, Trammell thought it expedient to return to Ar-kansas. There he operated a tavern and continued as a trader. But, as Jackson wrote, “His mysterious comings and goings gave rise to many legends.”
    When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Trammell led 10 companies of volunteers from Arkansas through Texas to take part in the conflict. It was about this time that someone referred to him in print as “old Nick Trammell, notorious highwayman and slave smuggler.”
    Jackson theorized that on his way south to Mexico, Trammell must have passed through the Guadalupe River valley and liked what he saw. When the war ended and Texas’ status as the 28th U.S. state had been assured, Trammell moved his family to Gonzales County and remained until his death in 1856.
    About the time Trammell had marched off to war, Hughes – by then a wealthy planter – founded a town he named after the springs named for him. Hughes Springs did well for a time as people came to enjoy the supposed curative value of the mineral water bubbling up from below, but by the mid-1870s, its economy wrecked by the Civil War, the pace had slowed considerably. A new townsite came with the arrival of a rail line in 1878, but Hughes Springs has remained just a small, pleasant East Texas town, a place built on one man’s lust for pirate gold and another man’s less-than-golden reputation.
***
    Ever wonder how a legend gets started?
    I had a small role in the creation of what has become one of Texas’ most enduring pieces of “fakelore” -- the story of the invention of the chicken-fried steak.
    It all began back in the 1970s with a friendly argument between me and my still good friend, Larry BeSaw.  Larry grew up in Cooke County, where for a long time his parents operated a classic mom and pop café.
    Eschewing the food service industry, Larry had sense enough to pursue a career in journalism, which is how we met. Both of us drew weekly paychecks as staff writers for the Austin American-Statesman.
    Larry’s childhood exposure to classic Texas fare helped him develop a lifetime appreciation of good groceries, particularly chicken-fried steaks. And that’s where Larry and I did not see ribeye to ribeye.
    While my grandparents fried steaks (which people of their generation tended to call “chops”), I grew up with an appreciation of a well-smoked but medium-rare grilled steak. Why have a lesser cut of meat dolled up with flour and then cooked in grease if you could enjoy a juicy piece of red meat as God intended it, warmed just enough so that it no longer mooed?
    Over countless cans of adult beverages, Larry and I debated the relative merits of a rare steak versus a chicken-fried steak. Nei-ther of us could sway the other.
    We worked for a daily newspaper, but during the holidays, with the exception of the occasional calamity, the flow of news usually slows considerably as people take off to be with their families. Knowing an easy way to fill space when she saw it, in early January 1976, Jane Ulrich, the newspaper’s lifestyle editor, commissioned Larry to write a story on chicken-fried steak.
    Back then, CBS’ Sixty Minutes had a weekly feature called “Point-Counter Point” in which two people with strong but opposing views not-so-politely ex-pressed their opinions to viewers. When I heard that Larry would be writing that story, I proposed writing a “Counter Point” view on our ongoing culinary differences.
    Happy at the prospect of filling even more space, Jane readily assented. Hearing of our project, colleague Arnold Garcia offered to weigh in with his argument that menudo trumped either one of our meat preferences. Real-izing she had now managed to fill the entire front page of her section, Jane said that would be fine and dandy.
    Garcia and I wrote essays which deservedly have been forgotten, (well, I was sort of proud of my assertion that the Titanic crew member tasked with keeping an eye out for icebergs had just eaten a chicken-fried steak before beginning what would be his final watch) but Larry went on to produce what has proven a timeless classic.
    In support of his thesis that chicken-fried steak is superior to any other method of beef preparation, Larry created from whole cloth a 100 percent bogus history of the chicken fried steak. As he reported, the dish was invented by one Jimmy Don Perkins, an unemployed draw bridge oiler working as a short-order cook in the South Plains town of Lamesa.
    The momentous event, the Big Bang of the Texas greasy food chain, occurred in 1911 a local café called “Ethel’s Home Cooking.” Larry offered that the eatery got its name because whenever anyone asked about Ethel, the proprietor answered that she was home cooking.
    Not that Jimmy Don was all that smart. He merely proved yet again the importance of the lowly comma by misinterpreting the waitress’s hastily scribbled order reading “chicken, fried steak” and chicken-fried a steak.
    Ben Sargent, who went on to win a Pulitizer Prize for his political cartoons, drew the illustrations that accompanied the piece, which appeared on Jan. 11, 1976.       Judging by word-of-mouth feedback, our editors and the newspaper’s readers liked the story. That was that, we all assumed.
    At the time, the American-Statesman and many other Texas newspapers carried a syndicated weekly Texas history column by the late Jack Maguire called “Talk of Texas.” Imagine our surprise, when two or three weeks following the appearance of our story package, Maguire told his many readers the story behind the creation of the chicken-fried steak. Of course, he forgot to say where he stole it from. And he apparently didn’t get that it was just a joke.
    After that, the tale spread faster than spilled cream gravy. Former American-Statesman humor columnist Mike Kelley was the first to point out in print that the story of the birth of the chicken-fried steak was complete fiction, but that has not stopped the falling dominos of literary larceny.
    Larry has a growing collection of articles telling the Lamesa tale as truth. The Dawson County Museum in Lamesa has a framed copy of our chicken-fried steak story on display and there has been talk of having Larry come to Lamesa to judge a chicken-fried steak cooking contest. He says recent buyers of the bogus story include the online encylopedia Wikipedia, the august Washington Post and the stately Smithsonian Insti-tution, which in an exhibit on Texas foods at least used the word “purportedly” in recounting Larry’s story.
    “Of all the stories I’ve written over the years,” Larry says, “I hate to think the one piece of writing I’ll be remembered for is a lie. I just wish I got royalties, or even credit, every time some other writer steals that story.”
SLS

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