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Big Thicket People

Big Thicket People
Larry Jene Fisher's Photographs of the Last Southern Frontier
Foreword by Maxine Johnston

An irreplaceable collection of photographs that documents ways of living off the land that once were common across the entire South.

Series: Bridwell Texas History Endowment

March 2008
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156 pages | 7 x 10 | 88 b&w photos |

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.

  • Foreword (Maxine Johnston)
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Plain Folks (Thad Sitton)
  • Chapter 2. The Photographic Legacy of the Renaissance Man of East Texas (C. E. Hunt)
  • Chapter 3. Photo Sequences, With Introductory Essays
    • Southerners in the Big Woods
    • Porch Portraits
    • Dogs
    • Camps
    • Deer Hunts
    • Farming: From Hand to Mouth
    • Syrup Mills
    • Rooter Hogs and Southern Stock Raising
    • Tie Makers
    • Stave Makers
    • Chimney Daubings
    • Peckerwood Sawmills
    • Major Logging Operations
    • Turpentining
    • Town Life
    • Church Picnic at Pine Ridge
    • Funerals and Golden Weddings
    • Fundamentalist Church Services
    • Dances and Other Amusements
    • Lance Rosier and Family
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

Larry Jene Fisher (1902-1956) has been called "the Renaissance man of East Texas." He worked as an aviator, musician, photographer, playwright, filmmaker, and passionate researcher. He lived in Saratoga, Texas, while making these photographs.

Thad Sitton is an award-winning historian who specializes in life in the Texas countryside before World War II.

C. E. Hunt is a writer and is active in conserving the natural and cultural heritage of Texas.


The Southern backwoodsmen who lived in the Big Thicket of East Texas had no agreed-upon name for who they were and what they did for a living. They described themselves to the census takers of 1900, 1910, and thereafter as farmers, stockmen, tie makers, loggers, and other things, seemingly at a loss to choose a single occupation from the many activities they engaged in to get a living from the woods and swamps. (They tended to list themselves by what they had been doing most lately; one man reported his vocation as "frog gigging.") They were nothing special, they told outsiders, just "plain folks."

During the 1930s, organist-turned-photographer Larry Jene Fisher settled at the village of Saratoga in Hardin County among these plain folks and began twenty years of recording the backwoods lifeways of Big Thicket people. Not long after his arrival, Fisher photographed a work party of neighbors building a "mud-daub" chimney on Virgil Rosier's log house near Thicket, Texas.

As in this case, the community social event of the "chimney daubing" came at the very end of log cabin construction. A pole-and-stick chimney frame previously had been built on the north end of Rosier's cabin; now a social party of men assembled to make light work of a heavy task. They gathered dirt from a nearby "mayhaw flat," mixed it with water and a binder material of grey moss in a low box, then treaded it into the proper consistency with their bare feet. At this point, skilled mud daubers took positions at either side of the log frame while other men tossed them bread-loaf-sized "mud cats," hand-formed from the mixing box, to be "daubed" into the chimney. As hours passed, the chimney rose toward the eaves, while the party of mud daubers labored, talked, and joked, and Larry Fisher recorded the process. In landscapes deficient in native building stone, mud-daub construction was a basic part of the bag of tricks rural Southerners used to wrest a living from the wilderness, but almost nobody had photographed these old folk techniques. Later, Larry Jean Fisher would record images of many other neglected occasions of Southern backwoods life—deer-hunt camps, stockmen earmarking "rooter hogs," rural church congregations engaged in "dinner-on-the-grounds," syrup processing, and "tie hackers" and "stave makers" at work in the deep woods.

A well-traveled outsider from North Texas, Larry Fisher had the perspective to recognize that he had arrived at one of the rare places across the South where wilderness, and the old lifeways based on wilderness, persisted. There were a few others beside the Big Thicket of Texas, almost equally unrecorded—parts of the Appalachian highlands, the "Scrub" of north Florida, the "Ten Thousand Islands" west of the Everglades, and other places. In 1930 a good many smaller pockets of Texas wilderness and wilderness ways also persisted in areas generally given over to cotton farming, railroads, and progress. More often than not these were swampy bottomlands—for example, the many miles of river bottoms that local people called "the Bends" along the San Antonio River in Refugio County, Texas, and the "Between the Creeks" area south of the Sulfur River in northern Titus County, Texas.

A diverse lifestyle of small farming, free-range stock raising, and subsistence-based hunting, fishing, and gathering characterized such zones of surviving frontier culture all across the South, with the primary marker being the absence of a stock law. And this "free range" meant a great deal more than the simple right to range one's stock on others' land. People fenced out woods stock from their cotton, corn, and cane fields with zigzag rail fences or barbed wire, but outside the fences the hogs and cattle from many families mixed and merged on the open range. From 1930 to 1960 local traditions not only gave southeastern Texans the right to trespass and to range livestock on others' property, but they could, in addition, go on other people's land to hunt, fish, trap, cut firewood, collect hickory nuts, harvest bee trees, build stock pens and fishing shacks, and improve the common range by setting the woods on fire. A perimeter fence around one's property was an un-neighborly act, violating the customs of the free range, so virtually nobody had one (even if they wished for one). At the outer limits of generally accepted free-range rights were such practices as fur trapping, stave making, tie hacking, and shingle making—all of which were disapproved by some users of the open range because they were done for profit and not for personal use but which were still common, especially on the lands of absentee landlords.

Not surprisingly, a lot of land squatting also typified these zones of surviving free range and frontier lifestyle. Traveler John A. Caplen from Georgia crossed a portion of the Big Thicket in 1887 and well described the wilderness and its denizens. Very similar words could have been written about parts of the Thicket as late as Larry Fisher's arrival.

In a ride of 150 miles through these two counties, [Hardin and Polk] there is one continuous dense growth of tall pines, oaks, magnolias, and numerous other forest trees. As far as the eye can see, it is the same; the tangled undergrowth and fallen trees block and interpose an almost impassable barrier in the way of any kind of vehicle. In many places we have to get down our hands and knees to crawl through the thick, close-knitted growth of baygall bushes and cane breaks. Not a human can be seen for miles.

Very few of the descendants of the old settlers own any land. For the last forty years they have been in the habit of settling upon any land fit for cultivation. After finding a good, rich land (hammock) the piney woods settler will commence felling and cutting the trees and underbrush away from where he will have a log rolling. The people have been in the habit of using every man's land for their own for so many years that they have come to believe that the land has no owners.

And why not? As a former squatter explained to a visitor around 1960: "I can't tell you how long we used that land for nothing. That's the reason we didn't own none of it—we didn't have to buy it, we already had it! We didn't want to pay taxes on it, when we already had it."

Land squatting lasted as long as the tradition of the free range in some places, including in the Big Thicket. Superiors transferred Game Warden Clarence Beezley to Hardin County from his native Central Texas in 1950, and Beezley found East Texas customs astonishingly different. For example, free-range hogs still roamed the courthouse lawn at Kountze, and local courts refused to convict "outlaw hunters," no matter the game warden's evidence against them. After experiencing much "culture shock," as he called it, Beezley aptly summed up what was different about the Big Thicket in two related points: the survival into the middle of the twentieth century of a tradition of "living off the land," and the "Indian idea that the land belongs to everybody."

Subsistence lifestyles based on use rights of other people's land lasted much later in the Big Thicket than in other parts of the country. Citizens of Hardin County and Polk County did not vote for a comprehensive stock law until 1957, the year after photographer Larry Jene Fisher's untimely passing, and only then did the death knell finally sound for the old lifeways. Ellen Walker lived until 1974, and near the close of her long life she narrated the following detailed account of growing up in a frontier Big Thicket at the turn of the century. Her testimony recalled the lifeways of the early 1900s, but the patterns of daily life she described might easily have come from the 1850s (or from 1930). No wonder that Larry Jean Fisher tried so persistently to photograph their remnants. Walker recollected:

When I was a girl there was big timber on the high ground, virgin pines five feet through, and just a little underbrush. In other places it was so thick you couldn't get through without a hack knife, and ever' kind of animal you heard of, nearly. Turkey go in herds, just like a bunch of chickens. Deer aplenty, and I've seen wild horses that didn't belong to nobody, couldn't catch 'em. I guess there's been wild hogs in here always, and wild cattle. Anybody could go and kill one when he wanted to. They'd go out and kill a wild beef, kill one and divide it with the neighbors. Didn't everybody have a gun, and a lot of 'em that had guns didn't have enough money to make bullets.

There was plenty of blackberries and may haws and worlds of black walnuts and chinquapins. There was worlds of wild flowers in the woods. Wild honeysuckle was my favorite. Over yonder, that big cypress brake was just covered in palmettos. Ma used to make fans out of 'em. Sometimes she made 'em out of turkey feathers, from the wing and tail. That made a good 'un.

We raised what we eat, had a garden. Always had a patch of corn and sweet potatoes, sugar cane and maybe some peanuts. We'd raise peas and when they'd get dry Ma'd put somethin' in 'em to keep the weevils out. Had all kinds of meat: venison, turkey, squirrel. We'd cure bear meat. You can cure it just as good as you can hog meat, and you can season with it, too. You can eat all you want of it and drink the lard, and it won't make you sick. I liked bear meat, but in the summertime, I wanted venison. We could get that any day we wanted it, and turkey too. I loved squirrel just any time, and we eat rabbit, and sometimes coon in the wintertime, when they was big and fat. We'd cut venison up in strips and dry it on a scaffold in the sun, jerky. When it dried, put it in a sack and hang it up. We didn't farm but a little. We had a horse and a plow, but we done it mostly by hand.

We had an old hand mill and ground our own cornmeal, and we made good hominy. Made it with fireplace ashes. We'd make our soap out of hickory ashes. Make you a hopper and put the ashes in it and let it stay four or five days. Pour a little water on it and after a while it'd go to drippin'. Put a pot under it to catch it. Put your grease in there and go to cookin'. It'd make good jelly soap, never very hard. When we killed hogs we'd make enough lye soap to do all year, stored it in big old gourds, sugar gourds, maybe eight inches across.

I've still got my mother's iron skillet, has legs and a lid. We'd cook our bread in it, put the lid on and put a little fire on top and on the bottom. That's where I learned to cook, on a fireplace.

Nearly everybody had some fruit trees and we'd preserve our peaches, use homemade sugar, made it ourselves from sugar cane. We always growed enough cane to make our own sugar and syrup. We growed nearly everything we needed except coffee. We'd buy a big sack of green coffee beans and roast it ourselves.

There were some salt licks where people got their salt, and there was salt springs where people would go and camp out maybe for a week and get enough salt to last all year.

Made our shoes out of wild cowhide; used a wooden trough for tanning. Soak the hide in alum water and red oak bark, bark turn it yellow. Lay the hide on a log and beat it with a club, while it is wet, to get the hair off and make it soft. Don't dry it in the sun; that would make it stiff. Daddy made the sole first and then put the top on with wooden pegs. Had an awl, punch a hole, and put a peg in there, and them pegs didn't come out neither.

Ma made all our clothes, the thread, the cloth, all by hand. Made cloth on Grandma's old loom, made it out of cotton or wool. They'd dye it different colors. Get bark off of trees to dye it. And they raised their indigo bushes. They'd dye blue with it, the prettiest blue you ever did see, and it wouldn't wash out. Indigo grows in the Thicket now. We used to have revivals in the summer, last a week or two, and the girls would dye their dresses two or three different colors during the revival so it would look like a new dress.

Europeans had not arrived in the New World with the fine-grained survival skills for the Southern big woods suggested by Ellen Walker's account. The three shiploads of settlers sent out by the London Company starved to death at Jamestown during the winter of 1607-1608 in the midst of a wooded landscape teeming with game—large herds of deer, bears in every thicket, flocks of turkeys, and fish so plentiful that horses sometimes refused to wade creeks where they were running. Unable to pen or feed their hogs and cattle in late autumn, Jamestown settlers released their stock into surrounding woods to die and were astonished to find them fat and prosperous the following spring. Hogs had prospered on the acorns of numerous oaks and cattle on the cane of canebrakes. The Jamestown settlers had done much less well than their livestock, however. In the spring of 1608, only 38 men remained alive of the original 105.

By a decade later, as historians Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge noted, the Jamestown settlers had learned a "rudimentary knowledge of frontier technique." Friendly Indians taught them to plant corn, hunt deer and wild turkeys, catch fish, and clothe themselves in the skins of animals. Another half century later, forest adaptation had progressed much further, and the Southern frontier produced real woodsmen. Billington and Ridge concluded:

In 1682 both Virginia and Maryland began employing patrols of mounted border rangers to ride constantly along the frontier, ready to fend off minor raids or give warning of major attacks. Clad in buckskin, carrying guns and long knives, mounted on spirited ponies, and steeped in the lore of the Indian and the forest, these rangers were true frontiersmen whose wilderness skills testified to the amount learned by the English since the first colonists starved to death amidst plenty at Jamestown.

The settlers who moved into southeastern Texas in the mid-nineteenth century were the inheritors of over two centuries of accumulated experience of hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, and stock raising in the southern forest. Folklorist William A. Owens, who interviewed the children and grandchildren of the Big Thicket pioneers in the 1930s, described a typical arrival.

Camping out under trees while they worked, they built log houses, covered them with hand-split boards, and chinked and daubed them with red clay. They built stick-and-dirt chimneys. Fireplaces were for heat and cooking, and for light at night, the only light except for the red smoky glare of a lightwood knot. They cleared only as much land as they could work with one horse hooked to a Georgia stock or Kelly turning plow, enough land for a little cotton, a little corn—for a patch of sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. Their cattle grazed on the open range. So did the razorback hogs. There was elbow room and to spare. They had no wish to obliterate the wilderness.

Early definitions of the Big Thicket included a large part of southeastern Texas. The pioneers' Big Thicket (or "Big Woods") extended all the way from the coastal prairie north to the Old San Antonio Road that passed through Nacogdoches, and from the Sabine River west to the Trinity River (or even to the Brazos). Later estimates placed the "real" Big Thicket somewhere between the Neches and the Trinity rivers on the east and west and the Alabama-Coushatta lands and the town of Beaumont on the north and south.

When William A. Owens began his fieldwork in southeastern Texas during the 1930s, he found few people willing to admit to living in the Big Thicket. It was always located "down yan ways a piece." He thought he understood the reason: "By too many the Big Thicket was thought to be the worst of the backwoods." As one elderly man told him, "there's a heap of bad blood in here ain't never been bred out." By the 1930s rural Southerners who persisted in living the old backwoods lifestyle had accumulated a variety of derogatory labels, mostly applied to them by townsmen. These included hillbillies, sandhillers, crackers, and rednecks, among others. Natives of Hardin and Polk counties in Owens' fieldwork area often divided Big Thicket inhabitants into "pineys" and "swampers," with the former somewhat looking down their noses at the latter. Based on his interviews, Owens thought he discerned a historical basis to this. At first, the stream of western migration had bypassed the Big Thicket to the north and south. Over time, migrants settled the better-drained pine hills of the Upper Thicket and around the edges of the Lower Thicket—sandy, drier, more open woodlands that resembled their previous lands back in Alabama and Mississippi and were more amenable to traditional crops of cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and peas. Only after a generation or two did the children and grandchildren of the pioneers venture out to settle higher ground, "hammocks," in the swampy, less familiar, and somewhat forbidding Lower Thicket. This latter-day peopling of the wilderness went on even after 1900. As A. Randolph Fillingim told an interviewer, around 1904

Daddy moved into the Big Thicket, the real Hardin County Big Thicket. South of Kountze seven miles, we chiseled out—I say chiseled out because it was a pain to put that land in cultivation—a little field, with virgin timber on it and no market; we had to cut and burn it. The Big Thicket wasn't touched except for a few acres each family whittled out for growing corn for the horses and hogs. It was so thick and so much big timber on it, it was just impossible to have a big farm. Now we had about eight acres and there was four of us boys to do that, clear it and put it in cultivation.

Fillingim did not exactly say so, but this may have been "lost land" acquired by "squatter's rights," an old tradition around the Big Thicket. Swampy bottoms had long held little value, and absentee landowners often left their holdings unvisited for decades at a time—hence, "lost land." A homestead of a few improved acres openly occupied for ten years could establish a claim to 160 acres of somebody else's land by the "law of adverse possession," otherwise known as squatter's rights. Brown Wiggins of the Big Thicket accurately explained: "If you went and settled on a place and went to living there, anywhere in these woods, if you paid taxes on it and they didn't bother you for ten years, the court would give you a title to 160 acres. Some of these squatters would get 160 acres off most any big land owner before he would know it."

In truth, the Fillingim and Wiggins homesteads and others like them did not even need as much as 160 acres, so long as the customs of the free range persisted. Until 1960 families in the Thicket earmarked hogs and branded cattle and turned them loose to roam and fend for themselves across thousands of acres of other people's land. As at Jamestown, the hogs ate mast (and many other things), and the cattle consumed bottomland switch cane and the thin grass under the pines. Stockmen kept their free-range hogs and cattle in tenuous semi-domestication by feeding them occasional treats of corn and salt. At least twice a year, usually in the spring and fall, stockmen went out with herder dogs on "hog hunts" and "cow hunts" to locate and work their hogs and cattle in the deep woods. They marked and neutered young animals, doctored sick ones, and selected meat stock for butchering and sale. Often stockmen drove them to a nearby pen in the woods to do this, but sometimes they worked them on the spot.

Stockmen varied among themselves about how much time and trouble they took with this working of stock. Rougher stockmen with wilder hogs might choose to accomplish all these things at once, usually in the late fall, "hog killing time." While his dogs bayed the furious hogs, the horseman might reach into the bunch with a cord loop on a cane pole, snag the unmarked pigs of the year one by one, and haul the squealing swine to his saddle for swift castration and ear marking. Then he might draw a rifle from his saddle sheath and shoot all the "meat hogs"—"barrs" (barrows)—he needed for smokehouse or sale, releasing all the rest.

An adaptation to the big woods, this Southern stock tradition practiced in the Big Thicket little resembled the stock tradition of the classic western cowboy. Hogs, forest animals, often were more important than cattle to the southern stockman, though both species were raised in the woods and in much the same way. Stockmen used horses for transport and for protection in working their dangerous semi-feral animals, but rarely for roping. Southern cowboys (and hogboys) favored stock whips, flat English work saddles, and herder dogs. Dogs, not horses, were the key; they used their fine sense of smell to locate hogs and cattle in the trackless Thicket, to "bay them up," to drive them to the nearest stock pen, and to protect the stockmen when—as often was the case—they worked their dangerous animals on foot. Up to around 1910 and the virtual elimination of Big Thicket bears and cougars, stock dogs often did double duty as predator hounds.

In truth, residents of the Big Thicket valued their dogs almost beyond anything else. The multi-purpose stock dog, especially the favored "black-mouthed cur," served as an essential tool (the essential tool, many would say) of the Southern frontier lifestyle. A. L. "Leak" Bevil, former county judge, stockman, and bear hunter explained to an interviewer:

Folks in this country had to have dogs and had to have vicious dogs. A good cur dog, properly trained, was worth just about whatever you had to pay for him, for you used your dog every day for everything. A man used his dog to pen his cattle; he used his dog to pen his hogs; he used his dog to protect him at night; and he used him to hunt. He was used for hogs, bear, deer, cattle, panther, everything.

For forty years before Larry Fisher's arrival at Saratoga in the 1930s, the plain folks of the Big Thicket had lived in an uneasy relationship with the coming of major industries—railroads, big timber companies, and the oil boom that centered around Saratoga, Batson, and Sour Lake—but these things had impacted their way of life far less than in other places across the South. Avoiding the depths of the Thicket, railroads were built through the region in the 1880s, followed immediately by sawmill towns that located along the new tracks and constructed branch railroads to lumber surrounding pine forests. Lumber operations like the huge Kirby Lumber Company amassed large timber holdings by 1910, but Kirby and other lumbermen mostly ignored the hardwood creek and river bottoms and the swamplands. Much of the Big Thicket wilderness, especially in the Lower Thicket, remained intact. The lumbermen wanted pines, especially the longleaf variety which grew in open stands on higher ground and wonderfully lent themselves to heavy-industrial logging by tram railroad and steam skidder. Just after 1900, beginning with Spindletop near Beaumont, flash oil booms erupted around Saratoga and Batson in the Lower Thicket, but the hundreds of oil derricks and thousands of oil boomers came and went in a very few years. By the time Larry Fisher settled in Saratoga, the place had become a backwoods village once again. Boom and boomers had departed, leaving behind oil field wreckage and thousands of nearby acres damaged by oil pollution and the dumping of salt water.

Fisher saw this destruction in the 1930s when he first flew over the Big Thicket in a small plane on his way to the coast, but the cut-and-get-out loggers and pump-and-get-out oilmen had only nibbled at the edges of a great wilderness that yet maintained intact. Looking down, Fisher saw what naturalists later called "the Biological Crossroads of North America," a forest that contained elements common to the Florida Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp, the Appalachian region, the piedmont forests, and the large open woodlands of the Coastal Plains. Some large areas even resembled tropical jungles in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Vera Cruz. No wonder, then, that when the East Texas Big Thicket Association began its lobbying for a national park after 1927, it mapped a huge 430,000 acre expanse for inclusion. Larry Fisher's photographic skills soon were recruited to the Big Thicket cause.

As the wilderness had survived in 1930, so had much of the frontier lifestyle based on herding, small farming, hunting, fishing, and the free range. Assessing their situation, wary of local traditions, the bonanza-era lumber companies had not tried to establish fence lines and stock laws and had dealt gingerly with their many squatters. Even John Henry Kirby, the so-called "Prince of the Pines," feared forest (and sawmill!) arsonists and in any case needed the sons of the pioneers to augment the workforce of his woods crews and sawmills. Kirby's numerous landmen negotiated with the thousands of squatters on his vast holdings and rarely took them to local courts, which had proven all too willing to rule for squatter's rights. Since the cut-and-get-out lumbermen wanted only the pines, a common deal was the right to cut all the marketable timber on the property for nothing in return but a clear deed for the squatter.

Big Thicket families contributed many younger sons to the woods crews of lumber companies, and some of them became sawmill gypsies, moving from mill town to mill town for forty years, but other family members remained on the land and continued to live the old frontier lifeway described by Ellen Walker. Thicket dwellers also adapted piecework occupations utilizing woods skills but servicing the industrial present, and many of these woods products had free-range origins—that is, they came from other people's land. In one classic case, locals gathered pine knot fuelwood from lumber company land, then sold it to the lumber companies by the stacked cord along lumber company tramways. In the early days, Thicket hunters supplied sawmill commissaries with bear meat, bear oil, wild honey, and venison, and in later years with acorn-fattened woods hogs, driven to town with herder dogs. Trapping for fur continued in the Thicket, waxing and waning as an economic activity with the vagaries of fashion and the price of pelts. Big Thicket people used their backwoods skills to make or gather shingles, white oak staves (for the foreign wine industry), hickory barrel hoops, Spanish moss, pine knots (for lumber company woods locomotives), charcoal, and other things, including rather large quantities of moonshine whiskey—a classic double-run beverage cooked in hidden stills.

Perhaps no woods product was as important, or involved so many people, as railroad ties. From the 1880s to World War II, railroads and lumber companies needed millions of ties, and several generations of Big Thicket axmen augmented their cash flows by hewing ties, sometimes on their own land, sometimes on the free range. After she married, Ellen Walker often made ties with her husband. Walker recalled:

It was three-and-a-half miles from our house to where we cut. We had a baby then, and I had to take the baby with me. Took my old coat, spread it down and put her on it. She'd set there and I'd watch her. I'd score hack and my husband would take his broad ax and bust the slabs off and level it up. We made about twenty a day. We got ten cents for the regular ties and twenty cents from them long 'uns. I enjoyed making them ties. We sold 'em to the Santa Fe Railroad and they paid off good. I was 53 when we quit making ties.

Larry Jene Fisher accompanied friends into the woods to photograph tie hackers, stave makers, charcoal men, trappers, turpentiners, and other rare and vanishing traditionalists. Only the numerous Big Thicket moonshiners declined to be recorded at their ancient craft. Sometime in the late 1930s another outsider joined Fisher in recording frontier lifeways in the Big Thicket. This was young folklorist William A. Owens, who Fisher first met on a visit to Texas A&M University.

Fascinated by Big Thicket people and environments, Fisher and Owens were kindred spirits, and they must have crossed trails many times in the next twenty years. Fisher recorded his impressions of the Big Thicket and the changes caused by World War II and the onrush of civilization largely in his thousands of photographs, but Owens described their common fieldwork experiences in words.

Owens (and doubtless Larry Fisher) discovered the swampers and pineys of the Big Thicket to be independent, individualistic, and wary of strangers up to who-knows-what, but they were also quick to shift from suspicion to frontier hospitality. Big Thicket people seemed highly social, ready to travel long distances to a house party or a church revival. Owens interviewed one old fiddler who recalled dances at his home where "so many folks crowded in we didn't have room for fiddlin' and dancing, too." The fiddlers moved overhead to the rough twelve-by-two roof joists. "We clomb up there and set a-straddle where we was out'n the way o' the dancing. You never in your life heered sich fiddling and stomping. It purt nigh lasted all night."

Owens and Fisher found Big Thicket people to be at least as sociable as they were solitary, often with each extreme in turn. One native claimed that Hardin County men preferred to live far enough apart to be able to urinate unobserved in their own front yards. Another noted a famous local fiddler, much sought after to play at house parties, who sometimes went around with one hand in a phony bandage to escape excessive requests.

Up in the hills and down in the swamps, Owens located "back settlements" of rural traditionalists still functioning during the 1930s, their frontier ways still alive. The Great Depression hung on, times were hard, but old subsistence techniques still worked. People practiced "living on the place," as in the days of Ellen Walker's childhood, though now perhaps with greater difficulty. One after another, the sawmills shut down, and the empire of John Henry Kirby fell into decline and bankruptcy. Unlike in most of Texas, deer could still be found in the Big Thicket to put meat on the table, but wildlife populations diminished under relentless subsistence pressures. Woods hogs provided an important source of food, and Owens noted squabbles breaking out between herders and herders, herders and suspected hog thieves, and herders and corn farmers. Old time "neighborliness" ran thin. The possibility of stock lawsbecame a hotly contested political issue. "Armadillos, moving north and east at the time in great numbers, provided a source of meat for those who could stomach them, and quite a few confessed they could," Owens noted. "Like their pioneer ancestors, Thicketers had learned to live on what their land provided. If it was only armadillos, they would live on them, fixed up a little with pepper sauce and eased down with turnip greens and blackeyed peas."

Owens soon completed his fieldwork and departed, but Larry Jene Fisher continued to live in Saratoga and photograph the Big Thicket during the war years and into the early 1950s, while the rural lifeways that so fascinated Fisher and Owens passed slowly away. Owens returned to the Thicket during the 1950s only to discover great changes in the land and people. He wrote:

The Thicket appeared to have dwindled. New roads had been cut, new houses built. The people had changed even more. Young men had gone off to war and returned with memories of far-off places and different ways of living. They had returned to new advantages. Rural electrification had brought lights to houses once lit only by a lighted knot. Most of the homes had radios. Jukeboxes blared in dives on what had been lonely stretches of roads. Women had been able to replace the washpot and rub board with an electric washing machine on the front porch.

All had not changed, at least not yet. Owens generalized elsewhere: "The pines have been mostly cut away, and the hardwoods are going fast. State and national highways through the area bear a heavy traffic of people who have never heard of the Big Thicket. Change is apparent, but not everywhere. There are still pockets of untouched land, settlements of old-time people, but in another generation they, too will be gone."

Owens's fellow Big Thicket researcher, Larry Jene Fisher, was gone, too—dead of pneumonia in 1956 at the age of 53. Owens took writer Roy Bedichek to meet Big Thicket naturalist and field guide Lance Rosier at the Vines Hotel in Saratoga, only to learn of Fisher's death. Rosier's Aunt Mattie Evans, proprietor of the Vines, mourned Fisher's untimely passing. Fisher and his photographs had meant a great deal to R. E. Jackson and others involved with the movement for Big Thicket preservation, as well as to Aunt Mattie. "When she talked about the Big Thicket she became tearful," Owens remembered. "Larry Fisher had recently died of pneumonia. Some of his things were still in a room in the hotel, including many of the pictures he had made of plants and flowers. She mourned for him as a friend. She also mourned that there was no one else who could or would do the work he was doing for the Thicket. Lance agreed with her."

Several years later Lance Rosier guided painter Michael Frary to a remote spot near Menard Creek in the Thicket, just as he had guided his dead friend Larry Jene Fisher in earlier times. Judging from Fisher's images, Frary's experiences with Rosier must have exactly paralleled those of photographer Fisher.

Lance took us to see fields of carnivorous plants, four or five different varieties. He showed us where bears had scratched the bark on trees; he showed us beaver dams, "bee" trees, sassafras trees, iron wood, huge magnolias, [the] biggest holly tree in the world, sweet gums—ten feet in diameter—rattan and wild grape vines hanging from limbs of trees one hundred feet above the ground. Lance identified with every living thing in the Thicket.

When I returned it was practically dark and everyone was sitting by the fire. Lance was explaining the sounds of the approaching night. He related each sound to a specific insect or animal and told something of interest about each one. As he did this, I began to "see" into the forest even though it was dark.


“Larry Jene Fisher's pictures are beautiful and insightful records of a time that, as Sitton points out, is the end of a time. . . . For which reason, these pictures and Sitton and Hunt's commentaries are priceless reminders of a piece of history, where some of us came from, and what we were and how we lived. . . . This is a jewel of a book.”
F. E. Abernethy, Executive Secretary and Editor (1971-2004), Texas Folklore Society, and author of Tales from the Big Thicket, among many other publications


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