Ross Sterling, Texan

[ Texas ]

Ross Sterling, Texan

A Memoir by the Founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company

By Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman

Edited and revised by Don Carleton

Preface by Dolph Briscoe, Jr.

An autobiography by former Texas governor and oilman, Ross Sterling.



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6 x 9 | 280 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72368-9

Born on a farm near Anahuac, Texas, in 1875 and possessed of only a fourth-grade education, Ross Sterling was one of the most successful Texans of his generation. Driven by a relentless work ethic, he become a wealthy oilman, banker, newspaper publisher, and, from 1931 to 1933, one-term governor of Texas. Sterling was the principal founder of the Humble Oil and Refining Company, which eventually became the largest division of the ExxonMobil Corporation, as well as the owner of the Houston Post.

Eager to "preserve a narrative record of his life and deeds," Ross Sterling hired Ed Kilman, an old friend and editorial page editor of the Houston Post, to write his biography. Though the book was nearly finished before Sterling's death in 1949, it never found a publisher due to Kilman's florid writing style and overly hagiographic portrayal of Sterling.

In this volume, by contrast, editor Don Carleton uses the original oral history dictated by Ross Sterling to Ed Kilman to present the former governor's life story in his own words. Sterling vividly describes his formative years, early business ventures, and active role in developing the Texas oil industry. He also recalls his political career, from his appointment to the Texas Highway Commission to his term as governor, ending with his controversial defeat for reelection by "Ma" Ferguson. Sterling's reminiscences constitute an important primary source not only on the life of a Texan who deserves to be more widely remembered, but also on the history of Houston and the growth of the American oil industry.

  • Foreword by Dolph Briscoe, Jr.
  • Introduction by Don Carleton
  • Chapter 1. Double Bayou
  • Chapter 2. The Flip of a Coin
  • Chapter 3. The First Two Oil Wells
  • Chapter 4. Taking Over Standard
  • Chapter 5. A Personality Company
  • Chapter 6. Pulling Stakes at Fifty
  • Chapter 7. Deerslayers Deluxe
  • Chapter 8. Highways of Destiny
  • Chapter 9. The Unbonding Plan
  • Chapter 10. An Unpolitical Politician
  • Chapter 11. Pour It On
  • Chapter 12. The World Loves a Winner
  • Chapter 13. The Supreme Honor of My Life
  • Chapter 14. Crisis in East Texas
  • Chapter 15. Drowning in Ten-Cent Oil
  • Chapter 16. Holding the Bull
  • Chapter 17. Whistling in the Dark
  • Chapter 18. Flying Words and Eggs
  • Chapter 19. The Battle of the People
  • Chapter 20. It Was a Great Show
  • Chapter 21. Martial Law's Finale
  • Chapter 22. Back in the Chips
  • Chapter 23. The View from the Western Slope
  • Epilogue by Ed Kilman
  • Notes
  • Index

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During the summer and fall of 1947 and the first half of 1948, Ross S. Sterling, a former governor of Texas and a significant pioneer of the American oil industry, told his life story to Ed Kilman, who was at that time the editorial page editor of the Houston Post. Sterling and Kilman were old friends. Born in 1896 in Ennis, Texas, Kilman had worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist at the Post since 1925. For a few years in the 1920s, Sterling owned the Post and Kilman had been his employee. Kilman also worked as Sterling's unofficial press agent, speechwriter, and private secretary during Sterling's two political campaigns and during his one term as governor.

Eager to "preserve a narrative record of his life and deeds," Sterling hired Kilman to write his biography. In work sessions at his office in downtown Houston and at his home in that city's River Oaks subdivision, Sterling answered Kilman's questions about his past and told anecdotes about his business and political career. The former governor also provided Kilman with important personal papers, news clippings, and other documents. Kilman recorded at least one of these interview sessions with an early magnetic tape recorder.

According to Kilman, Sterling "cooperated freely in the work, supplying much documentary material and filling in the gaps with verbal interviews. He read the first draft and made numerous interlineations, correcting errors and suggesting changes."

Sterling was eager to see the final revised manuscript, which Kilman completed in October 1948. The former Texas governor, however, suffered a debilitating stroke one month before Kilman finished the last draft. Incapacitated for several months, Sterling died on March 25, 1949. He never read the final manuscript.

Kilman and Sterling planned to publish the final 388-page typescript as a standard biography. The vast majority of the text is a simple conversion of Sterling's own words into a third-person narrative voice. In addition, Kilman interviewed a few of Sterling's friends and associates, who are quoted in the original manuscript. Because of his long professional association with Sterling, Kilman added a few of his own observations to the narrative.

With a working title of "Sterling—Texan: The Life Story of Ross Sterling," Kilman's manuscript is a wholly uncritical presentation of Sterling as a Horatio Alger figure. In a letter to a potential publisher, Kilman wrote that he had presented Sterling's life story "in a way that should give pleasure and pride to his family and friends." The writing is more typical of a nineteenth-century style already long out of date by the mid-twentieth century. "Galveston!," Kilman has the nine-year-old Sterling declaring when he arrives in that city during his first trip there. "Gee, Dad, I betcha Jean Lafitte sailed his pirate ships right up to this very landing!" Despite these stylistic issues, Kilman did a fine job of getting Sterling to tell his story and to share some of his views with refreshing candor.

In the aftermath of Sterling's death, Kilman tried without success to sell his manuscript to at least two publishers. According to Kilman's wife, Alice, Mrs. Sterling gave him permission to find a publisher because she knew how much her husband wanted to see the book in print. At least one of those publishers offered to print the book if Kilman would pay for it. Ross Sterling's children, however, declined Kilman's request for money. Kilman eventually gave up the effort. During a visit that I had in Houston with Sterling's son, Walter, in 1978, he admitted that the manuscript was a realistic rendering of how his father viewed his life and that it was as accurate as one could expect. "My father dictated the entire thing," Walter told me, "so it was definitely his version of the past." Walter Sterling also said that he thought Kilman's writing was "childish" and "silly." As for Kilman's request for additional money from the family, Walter Sterling told me that he and his siblings felt that Kilman had been given adequate pay and that if the book was worthy of publication it would make its way on its own merits. The family had no interest in paying for a vanity book.

Although his Sterling manuscript remained unpublished in his lifetime, Kilman successfully published one book that he authored and three other books that he co-authored. All were on Texas history. One of those publications, co-authored with Theron Wright, was Hugh Roy Cullen: A Story of American Opportunity (1954). The Kilman and Wright biography of Cullen, another Houston oilman, was written in a style very similar to the manuscript on Ross Sterling, with Cullen obviously dictating his story to the co-authors. Kilman continued as an editor and writer for the Houston Post until 1961, when he became editor emeritus. He died in 1969 in Houston. His papers, which contain one of the typescripts of his biography of Sterling, are in the archives of the Houston Public Library's Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC).

I first discovered the existence of Kilman's manuscript when I acquired his papers in my role as director of HMRC in the late 1970s. At the time, I was researching my book Red Scare, so I was interested only in Kilman's activities as the editorial-page editor of the Houston Post during the late 1940s and early 1950s. After I found the unpublished manuscript in Kilman's papers, however, I realized that it was an important primary source on the life and career of a significant figure in the history of Houston and of Texas, as well as the history of the American oil industry. I toyed with the idea of having it published as written, which led to my discussions with Walter Sterling. He did not object to having the manuscript published. Unfortunately, the publishers who reviewed the work did not want to publish it without extensive rewriting. Kilman, of course, was deceased, so I dropped the project.

In the mid 1980s, when I was researching my biography of independent Texas oilman J. R. Parten, I discovered Sterling's copy of the manuscript in his papers at what is now the University of Texas Center for American History. The knowledge of its existence remained in one of the back files of my mind from then on.

A few years later, I became friends with former Texas governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr., whose father had been a close personal friend as well as a partner of Sterling's in a ranch and cattle business. During Briscoe's childhood, the Sterlings often visited his family at their home in Uvalde. Governor Briscoe has fond recollections of Governor and Mrs. Sterling. One of Briscoe's most cherished memories is of the night that he spent in the Governor's Mansion when Ross Sterling was the state's chief executive.

When I told Governor Briscoe about the existence of the manuscript, he urged me to have it published. Aware of the paucity of information on Ross Sterling in the literature of the story of Texas, Governor Briscoe was keen to do something to help restore Sterling to history. He generously agreed to subsidize the publication. After a thorough evaluation of the manuscript, Governor Briscoe and I agreed that Kilman's stylistic excess was a problem. We decided that Sterling's voice should be restored to the narrative and that the manuscript should be rewritten completely and transformed into an autobiography. Sterling dictated most of the text directly to Kilman and it is relatively easy to see where Kilman converted entire paragraphs from the first person to the third person voice.

Accordingly, I have revised Kilman's text entirely and I have converted Sterling's testimony back to the first person. I have deleted most of Kilman's commentary as well as most of the direct quotes from individuals Kilman interviewed. The material I have deleted includes a few "jokes" that play on insulting racial stereotypes. I appreciate the argument that because these racially prejudiced stories are typical of the jokes that were told by many white Americans at the time, they are historical and should remain in the text; but there is no way of knowing whether Ross Sterling actually told these jokes or if Ed Kilman added them, they seem to be gratuitous, and they do not shed light on any particular event. We can safely assume that Sterling and Kilman shared the same racial views held by the vast majority of their contemporaries, and there is additional evidence remaining in the narrative to support that assumption. For those reasons, I chose to remove them from the text.

Wherever I thought it might be useful to the reader, I have added information, largely biographical, in a series of explanatory endnotes. As can be seen in the endnotes, my efforts were greatly aided by the Texas State Historical Association's six-volume New Handbook of Texas and the Center for American History's biographical vertical file collection. The Handbook is the essential starting point for research on any subject related to the history of Texas.

The complete and unrevised copy of the Kilman manuscript (including all material deleted from this book) on which this book is based is housed in the Ross Sterling Papers at the Center for American History of the University of Texas at Austin, where it is available for research. Walter Sterling, who at the time was a member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, donated his father's papers to the university without restrictions on their use or publication.

This book would not have existed without the work of Ed Kilman. That is the reason he shares and deserves credit with Sterling as co-author.

I want to thank Governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr., of Uvalde, Texas, for his generous support and his energetic enthusiasm for this project. I appreciate his help and I treasure our friendship. I also want to acknowledge the help of Governor Briscoe's able assistant, Barbara Woodman. Dr. William Bishel, the talented acquisitions editor of the University of Texas Press, worked closely with me throughout the process of getting this book in print.

It was the lure of gold nuggets that brought my father, Benjamin Franklin Sterling, to Texas in 1849. My father had caught the gold fever from the Forty-Niners, and it set his pioneer blood on fire with the urge to leave his Mississippi home and join the rush to far-off California. My grandparents poured cold water on the flame. They felt that an eighteen-year-old youth, even one as rugged and self-reliant as my father, had no business gallivanting across two thousand miles of wilderness on his own. But my father was so insistent that they finally offered a compromise proposition.

"If you're dead set on going west," his father said, "go to Texas. That's not so far from home, and it's a great new state with wonderful opportunities for a young man. Go look it over, and if you like Texas, maybe we'll move there too."

So my father saddled his pony and rode out to the four-year-old Lone Star State. He traveled to Houston and then up the Trinity River to Dallas, which in those days was a settlement of a few log houses. He also visited a military outpost called Fort Worth, and ranged as far northwest as Wichita Falls. Father fell in love with the Texas country. He returned to his home in Lawrence County, Mississippi, and brought his entire family back to Texas, settling first in the village of Chester in Tyler County.

My father's family consisted of six boys—Frank, James, John, William, Bob, and Quincy—and their sister, Margaret. My grandfather, William Sterling, ran the first water-powered grist mill in Tyler County, on Village Creek. He was affectionately known as Uncle Billie.

My father worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. In Houston, he helped build the Barnes House, a famous hotel of later years, on the site of the first permanent Capitol of Texas, where the Rice Hotel now stands. Eventually he settled at the town of Liberty, on the lower Trinity River, where he took on a Mr. Ridley as a business partner. Their business, Sterling and Ridley's Saddlery and Cabinet Shop, became an established enterprise in Liberty. It was in Liberty that my father met Mary Jane Bryan, who was the daughter of Luke Bryan, a hero of the battle of San Jacinto. Mother was from Morgan City, Louisiana, a member of a family that, like the Sterlings, had roots in Virginia. Mother and Father were married in 1858. They built a home at Liberty and began rearing a family.

When the Civil War began, Father became a lieutenant in a Confederate Army company formed in Liberty County. He trained the first Texas outfit to cross the Sabine. Its commander was Mother's uncle, Captain King Bryan. A few days before the company was scheduled to leave for the front, Captain Bryan persuaded my father to resign from the Confederate Army and stay at home with his family. He told my father that his wife needed him worse than Confederate president Jeff Davis did. But Father could not withstand the patriotic urge. He organized another company and joined in the fight. He served throughout the war and was in the siege of Vicksburg.

When General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, my father returned to Southeast Texas. While cutting wood along Buffalo Bayou for the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, he contracted malaria, or bayou fever, as South Texans called it. He continued "puny" for a year, and then someone suggested that the salt air of the bayshore would be good for his health. So my father leased a 160-acre farm on Double Bayou, a few miles from the mouth of the Trinity River, and moved the family and worldly goods there from Liberty on a flatboat. He poled it down the river to the bay and then up Double Bayou from the mouth to the farm. That was in about 1867.

After a year on the farm in the sea breeze restored his health, Father wanted to move back to Liberty, but Mother vetoed that notion. "You're healthy here," she told him, "and here we're going to stay."

So they bought the place and settled down on the Double Bayou. A broad tree-shaded stream named for its two forks, Double Bayou meanders through fertile coastal plain to tidewater. Our farmhouse stood near a place on the bank where ancient tribes of Indians had once camped and left their flint relics. Our farm spread beyond the bayou, toward the historic town of Anahuac.

I was born on that farm on February 11, 1875. My father named me Ross in honor of the dashing Sul Ross of Civil War and Indian fighting fame. I was the eighth child born to my parents in seventeen years. There were four more yet to come.

The work of feeding and clothing all those offspring, and the need to wrest a living from the soil for the whole tribe, meant that Father and Mother could give none of the children more than a sort of assembly-line attention. By the time I learned to get around, I found out that if I did not look out for myself I would be left behind or miss my share. I was well equipped for that responsibility because I was the largest and most robust of all the children.

As soon as I was old enough to feed the cows, horses, hogs, and chickens, I had to assume my share of the farm chores. When I could handle a hoe and pick cotton I took my turn in the field. My father established a little general merchandise store near the bayou, and I found work to do there as well.

With my brothers and sisters, I attended a little one-room county school, about a mile from home and about halfway between Double Bayou and Galveston Bay. During rainy spells, a large marsh on the way to school filled with water, blocking our path. We children had great sport piling into an ox-drawn wagon and voyaging through the vast expanse of water that must have been all of one hundred yards across.

At the backwoods school, one teacher administered the three R's to an enrollment that ranged from fifteen to twenty-five pupils. My brothers, sisters, and I made up a major portion of the student body. Sessions seldom lasted longer than four months of the year. I was a fair pupil, but I had my share of schoolboy fights. Once I had to stand in the corner, but no teacher ever gave me a whipping.

I grappled with the fundamentals of reading, writing, spelling, and ciphering; but I was more apt to learn from people and their deeds than from books. From my uncle Luke, I learned with pride of the Texas revolution of 1836 against Mexico and its triumphant climax on the field of San Jacinto, a long day's horseback ride up the bay from Double Bayou. From my parents and old-timers of Chambers County, I heard how the nearby historic old town of Anahuac, a Texas port of entry under Mexican dominion, in 1832 had been the scene of the first clash between Stephen F. Austin's Texas colonists and the minions of the tyrant Santa Anna.

My mother died in 1888, five days after my thirteenth birthday. I never went to school after that. I became a full-time hand on my father's farm and in the store, along with three of my brothers, Bryan, Frank, and John. Sam, the eldest brother, was married and did not live on the family farm.

I took to the water like a duck. As early as I could remember, there was a sailboat in my family, and as a very young boy I became an expert at the sport of handling a tiller and a mainsheet. With our family, sailing wasn't so much a sport as an industry. We freighted the products of our farm and neighboring farms down Double Bayou to its mouth, and then across some thirty miles of bay to Galveston. Everything the Double Bayou community raised to sell went to market in that boat on its weekly voyages: vegetables, corn, cotton, melons, chickens, eggs, and sometimes a calf. Most of the merchandise for the store and clothing and supplies for our family and their neighbors came from Galveston on our boat. Galveston was our nearest important shopping center, and it was a day nearer to Double Bayou by water than by land.

In 1895 my father and my brothers and I built a broad-beamed forty-six-foot sloop and named her the Sterling. We made the vessel some little distance from the bayou and wheeled it to the water on six rollers, segments sawn from a big sweet gum tree, drawn by six yoke of oxen. It was launched sidewise on greased log skids.

With some difficulty, we put a forty-eight-foot mast, which was a trimmed-down tree trunk, into place on the boat. This accomplished, we rigged her, hoisted the heavy mains'l with its rings around the mast, and were ready to go.

The gaff-rigged Sterling was designed to carry nine tons. There were times when the hold and the deck were loaded to capacity. Once she shipped six horses across the bay, but that required special railings. She was a beautiful, fast-moving craft; with her extraordinary spread of canvas, she outran everything that would race with her. All the boys were sailors, but John and I were the only members of the family who could manipulate the heavy sail single-handed.

The Sterling came to be known far and wide. It was an object of admiration and envy all over Galveston Bay. John and I, who usually manned the helm, became known to all the skippers of the motley mosquito fleet that moored in the community basin at Galveston. The approach of our sloop heeling in the wind was a standing challenge to any sailing vessel for a race, and most of the skippers learned that the homemade boat could show them a clean wake.

The hardest task in sailing the Sterling was navigating the five or six miles of Double Bayou between the mouth and the Sterling landing. If the wind was with her she could sail up or down the stream, but she could not beat against a headwind; the bayou was not wide enough for the long boat to tack in. In that case, we had to tow her with a line from the bank. If the wind or tide was strong, we resorted to a Cordell line—a rope tied to the top of the mast so as to clear the treetops along the bank and pulled by one or two horses.

The sailing, freighting, and trading didn't get me out of my share of the drudgery of farming. Barefoot, wearing patched faded overalls and a torn straw hat, I plowed many a furrow with our mules Kitty and Bill on our farm.

It was there that I first caught a vision of success that was to be the dominant influence in my career. Chopping cotton and digging potatoes and picking beans along with my father's hired field hands, I discovered that by exerting a little extra effort and enterprise I could get ahead of my competitors. I reduced the matter to a mental formula, like a principle of physics: "If I hit four licks while the other fellows are hitting two or three, they just can't keep up with me." That became my life's working philosophy.

I was only about seventeen when my father virtually turned the management of the farm over to me, even the hiring and firing of hands. I started work before they did in the morning and quit after they did at night. I worked along with the men, and if one lagged too much, I would tell him to go get his pay. One day, I had a gang chopping cotton and wanted to finish the field before a threatened rain came. The men kept dawdling and stopping to talk while I pushed ahead. Finally, I warned them that they had better get to work or they wouldn't earn their money. The seasoned farmworkers thought that was funny, coming from a gangling teen-aged kid. They ignored my admonition. My patience at an end, I told them to go to the house to get their pay. They laughed insolently, but they weren't so gay when my father fired them.

One rainy day when I was twenty-one, my brothers and I were putting a centerboard in the sailboat. It was a massive, heavy board twelve feet long and some six feet wide, weighted with big iron bolts. I was lifting this cumbersome thing into place in the "trunk" of the boat when my foot slipped and I fell. I wrenched my back, but I finished out the job. The next morning, however, I couldn't get out of bed. For more than a year, I could do no lifting or heavy labor. My freighting and farming days had ended suddenly.

That back injury shaped my destiny. But for the injury, I might have gone on raising crops at Double Bayou indefinitely and sailing them across the bay on the good ship Sterling.

My father put me to work as a clerk in the family store. Storekeeping was tedious and confining for a robust outdoor youth, but it was business, and I had an inborn instinct for trade. Soon after I went to work full time at the store, I circulated a petition to have the federal government open a post office in our little settlement. At that time, we had to go to Anahuac for our mail, and the round trip killed most of a day's time. My petition was successful. The new post office was established in our store. The postal authorities named the postal station Graydon. My father was the first postmaster. The mail was brought on horseback on a Star Route from Liberty to Wallisville on the mouth of the Trinity, then on to Double Bayou and Graydon, then by boat to Smith's Point and on to Galveston.1

I eventually grew restive cooped up in that isolated little country store. I itched to get out into the world and make my fortune or at least to earn more than the $10 a month my father was paying me.

From worldly-wise customers who came to the Sterling store, I heard that the legal profession was a good one for a young man, so I decided to become a lawyer. I saddled my horse and rode all the way to Beaumont, some seventy miles away, to see about studying law in the office of Judge Jackson.

Judge Jackson asked me how much schooling I had completed. I admitted that I had quit school at the age of thirteen without finishing the grammar grades. "Then," he told me, "maybe you'd better learn stenography and typing first, and then try to get a job in a law office, so you can study law while you're working."

I went back to Double Bayou, bought an Oliver typewriter, and began practicing in the store, but I couldn't learn shorthand there without a teacher. Before I solved that problem, other interests intervened, and the ambition to learn stenography and be a lawyer went glimmering.

Uppermost among those new interests was Miss Maud Abbie Gage, the daughter of Frederich H. Gage of Hamilton, Illinois. She had come to Texas from Kansas in 1898, with her mother and stepfather J. H. Short. Her mother was in ill health and her doctor had advised a change of climate. She had acquired forty acres of land in Chambers County in payment of a debt, so she moved there for her health, as my father had done.

The Short family landed at Galveston and then came to Double Bayou on our boat, the Sterling. My brother John was the skipper. A norther accompanied them to Texas, blowing the water out of the bay. The tide was so low that the sloop couldn't sail up the bayou. Mrs. Short was carried ashore, and Maud waded through the shallow water.

Maud and her family took up temporary quarters in the little schoolhouse where I had gone to school. A few days after her arrival, Maud came to our store and met my father, my brothers, and me. She became a regular customer, and her shopping visits were bright spots during our workdays.

"I don't care which one of you does it," my father told my brothers and me, "but I'd like to see one of you get that girl for a wife."

"Maybe you don't care which one of us it is, Dad," I replied, "but I do."

Being there in the store gave me an advantage over my brothers, and I seized it. Soon Maud and I were keeping steady company. I took her to the square dances at Double Bayou, Wallisville, Anahuac, and Smith's Point. We rode horseback to the shindigs. Maud and I sometimes danced all night to the hoe down music of fiddle, guitar, organ or piano, while a leather-lunged caller sang out the do-si-do and "swing your partners." John and Bryan Sterling sometimes did the fiddling, while Maud played the piano or organ. At midnight, we would take an intermission for cake and coffee.

On my twenty-first birthday, my father gave me a silver dollar as a present. That was not the only money I had. Out of my $10 monthly income, and by an occasional bit of trading here and there, I had accumulated $l30 and a horse and saddle during my first year in the store. My board and room were free, and I did my own laundering except collars and shirts, so there wasn't much to spend money for.

Maud and I were married on October 10, 1898, at her parents' home a mile or so across the prairie from Double Bayou. I was now a stalwart 165 pounder—about 100 pounds lighter than I was to be in full maturity. By this time, I was enjoying the opulence of an income of $30 a month—$1 a day, rain or shine. Maud brought a dowry of $65 in cash to our marriage. She went to town and bought furniture with most of that but turned over the balance of $8 for me to put into the business.

I took over the merchandising business and built another store down the bayou from my father's place, right at the landing where the sloop Sterling loaded and unloaded her cargoes. This ship-side location obviated the necessity of draying goods between the boat and the store. I also became postmaster, and my bride assumed the job of assistant postmaster.

We built a little house half a mile from the store. It was a long, narrow building, with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. That is the house where Walter, our first child, was born. Marriage and the prospect of supporting a family rekindled my ambition to move to greener money-making fields. Ever since my first trip to the big city of Galveston in 1884, I had wanted to go there to seek my fortune, just as my brother John had done. My sister Mrs. Cora Barrow also had moved to Galveston. In September 1900, I found a prospective purchaser for my store, Johnnie Jackson, who lived in Chambers County. Jackson said he would ride over on Sunday, September 9, to take a look at the layout.

This appointment prevented me from accompanying my wife on a trip to Galveston on our sloop to spend a weekend with our relatives on Friday, September 7, 1900.

Maud spent Friday night with my sister Cora, while my brother Jim, who had piloted the boat, stayed on the sloop, tied up with the mosquito fleet at the foot of Eighteenth Street. On Saturday, a gusty wind blew up from the northeast, bringing squalls and a high tide. On that day, the historic 1900 hurricane struck the island, wrecking most of the city and taking several thousand lives.

As soon as the worst of the storm was over, my brother John saddled his horse and rode down to the waterfront to see if Jim had survived. The island was inundated by a tidal wave, and the horse nearly had to swim while picking his way through the debris of demolished houses. He found the sloop Sterling sitting up on the wharf, where the tide had washed her. His worst fears for our brother's safety apparently were realized because Jim wasn't there. The boat had sustained only minor damage. The water was still so high that she was floating on top of the wharf, the keel resting slightly on the floor. John was able laboriously to push the heavy hulk back into the slip. While he was sweating at this task, a stocky form came sloshing down the waterfront. John gave a cry of joy. It was Jim.

John had given our brother up for lost, among the countless bodies strewn everywhere among the wreckage of Galveston. But Jim had taken refuge in a nearby Spanish freighter, where he had ridden out the hurricane. Except for the loss of a night's sleep, he was none the worse for the ordeal, but Jim's young first mate had disappeared during the storm. He was never seen again.

My brothers went to Cora's home. All were safe there, and Maud was watching anxiously for them. She told Jim that she wanted to return home right away to see if I was all right. Some of our Chambers County neighbors visiting in Galveston also were anxious to find out how the folks at home had weathered the storm. So they all waded down to the dock on that desolate Sunday afternoon and boarded the Sterling. She was the first sailboat to leave Galveston after the hurricane.

The wind was still blowing pretty hard from the south, and the savage seas were rolling high. Jim reefed the mainsail, and even then the vessel bucked and heeled so badly that Maud had to help him sail. So high was the tide that they didn't have to worry about the chain of reefs across the bay, through which the sailor normally had to pick his way carefully. The boat had taken a severe lashing in the hurricane; it was leaking so badly that the passengers had to keep pumping water almost constantly all the way across the bay.

Double Bayou had caught the full force of the blow. My family and I were safe, but every place in the settlement was damaged. Just before the storm, Jackson had agreed tentatively to buy the store, but he sustained such heavy losses that he was unable to go through with the deal at the time. A year later, however, Jackson returned and paid me $4,500 for the place. I was a twenty-six-year-old country boy, so that was a small fortune in my eyes. Money in hand, I prepared to move to Galveston.

My father thought I was making a mistake in leaving Double Bayou, and some of my friends and neighbors shared that view.

"You don't understand what's in my mind," I told my father. "If I owned everything between here and the bay, and everything between the Bay and Liberty, I wouldn't be satisfied to stay. I feel like I'm wasting my time." Eventually, Father admitted that he had felt the same way fifty-two years before, when his parents in Mississippi tried to talk him out of leaving home to explore the wild and woolly west.

Don Carleton is Director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the Ross Sterling papers.

“There is no scholarly biography of Ross Sterling, who is deserving of more attention by historians of the energy business and Texas politics. This work will make a significant contribution to our knowledge of Texas history in the first half of the twentieth century. For the most part, Sterling is candid about his life and relationships, and he provides fresh information about his role in the founding of Humble Oil and the controversy surrounding his loss to Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson. The text is very readable and should appeal to a general audience. Dr. Carleton has done a solid job of editing the text, and his introduction and footnotes add value to the work.”
—Thomas H. Kreneck, Associate Director for Special Collections and Archives and Graduate Lecturer in Public History, Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi