Someday, each of us will lay our worldly burden down. each of us, someday, will take that long last ride to rest in the fields of those who have gone before….
Not that any of us are all that anxious to get there, of course. But I’d be preachin’ to the choir if I pointed out to you what a stirring experience it can be to visit a graveyard prior to one’s own appointment with the everlasting. We feel, perhaps, the most powerful connection to the past at the burial places of our ancestors. As Bill Harvey observes in his 2003 book, Texas Cemeteries, “A casual walk through a cemetery, any cemetery, provides a subtle sense of place and time…. Cemeteries provide direct and often poignant links to our story, and no other section of a town more accurately records the legacy of its citizenry.”
Moreover, a graveyard stroll may gracefully reinforce the notion that even the mightiest Texans must someday meet their maker. Take Dallas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, for instance. A devout consumer of health foods and “cures,” who once crawled around on all fours to demonstrate “creeping,” his exercise regimen, for a reporter, Hunt sought to break the presumed world’s record for longevity of 167 years. Sadly, the wellness wildcatter left this world in 1974, a mere whippersnapper at 85.
Though we may not be eager to join Hunt and other storied sons and daughters of the Lone Star State, paying our respects at their burial sites can lift our earthly spirits. You might achieve a heightened sense of history at the resting place of one who shaped, or nudged, its course. Most likely, you’ll also return home rarin’ to squeeze in some serious livin’ before your own name is called up yonder.
No Texan, historians agree, strode the world stage with greater import than did Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973). Serving as vice president in 1963, Johnson grasped the helm to steer a reeling nation after President Kennedy’s tragic death in Dallas. Elected to a full term in 1964, LBJ led the country through the turbulent Vietnam War era and a period of great social change, highlighted by landmark advances in civil rights.
When he moved back to the “Texas White House” in 1969, he often visited the family cemetery, near the Pedernales River on his ranch, today the LBJ National Historical Park. “I come down here almost every evening when I’m at home,” Johnson once reflected. “It’s always quiet and peaceful here under the shade of these beautiful oak trees.”
The granite headstone marking President Johnson’s resting place and the stones of his ancestors’ graves can be viewed from outside a low rock wall. “The ashes of the president’s two beagles—named Him and Her—are also buried in the cemetery,” says Sherry Justus, public affairs specialist for the LBJ National Historical Park.
More luminaries repose in the Texas State Cemetery, on East Seventh Street in Austin. “The Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin, rests here, as do Bigfoot Wallace, botanic physician Gideon Lincecum, folklorist J. Frank Dobie, Governor John Connally, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, and “two-for-the-price-of-one” governors Ma and Pa Ferguson.
Another trailblazer in public life, Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), was also laid to rest here. As the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South, she inspired millions with her impassioned, dignified oratory during the 1974 Watergate hearings and in a keynote address to the 1976 National Democratic Convention.
In 1979, health concerns caused Barbara to leave Capitol Hill and accept a teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin. “Her class in political values and ethics was so highly sought by students that entry was by lottery,” writes Bill Harvey in Texas Cemeteries. “Those of us fortunate enough to have won a seat in her class were forever changed.”
A marker in the Texas State Cemetery honors Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson Hannig (1814-1883). She is buried, however, in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, along with hundreds of other folks with interesting tales, such as Governor James Hogg and gunslinger Ben Thompson. (Displaced by recent hotel construction, Susanna’s Austin home, the oldest extant residential structure in the Capitol City, currently sits under tarp and on skids, awaiting its own resting place.)
At Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, there’s no need to search for Governor James Hogg’s daughters Shesa and Eura. Despite the old Texas joke, they never existed. But Hogg’s real daughter, Ima (1882-1975), rests in peace near her father. After inheriting a fortune from the family’s Brazoria County oil gushers, Ima Hogg became one of Texas’ most significant philanthropists. Her many projects included the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin, the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site near West Columbia, and Bayou Bend, her elegant Houston estate, filled with art and antiques and now a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
All who appreciate not only remembering but seeing the Alamo might well pay respects at the San Antonio graves of Clara Driscoll (1881-1945), in the Masonic Cemetery, and Adina de Zavala (1861-1955), in St. Mary’s Cemetery. Both women battled valiantly in the early 1900s to save the shrine of Texas liberty from further ruin and even possible destruction. Clara, who funded the Daughters of the Republic of Texas’ purchase of the mission fortress, became known as the “Savior of the Alamo.” She was one of the few persons to lie in state in the shrine. Adina, the granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, once barricaded herself in the “long barracks” portion of the compound to prevent its razing.
Another woman who made an important sacrifice for Texas, Elizabeth Crockett (1788-1860) rests in peace in Acton Cemetery (near Granbury), which contains the state’s smallest (0.01 acres) state park, Acton State Historic Site. Towering on a pedestal above her grave, a statue of Elizabeth gazes west, as though watching for the return of her wandering husband, David. When Davy lit out for new opportunities in Texas in late 1835, he left his family in Tennessee, intending to send for them once he was settled. After he perished in the Alamo, almost 20 years passed before Elizabeth and her son Robert headed for Texas in a covered wagon to claim the two sections of land awarded them for Davy’s service in the Texas Revolution.
Near the graves of Elizabeth, her son Robert, and daughter-in-law Matilda lie several old graves whose limestone-slab coverings make them resemble above-ground coffins, or “false crypts,” as Bill Harvey terms them. The stone coffins made quite an impression on my mother when we visited Acton Cemetery in the early 1960s, as she would occasionally mention them for decades.
The cracked and weathered tombstone of Oliver Loving (1812-1867), in Weatherford’s Greenwood Cemetery, marks one of the most legendary passings in Texas. In 1866, Loving teamed with famed Panhandle rancher Charles Goodnight to drive cattle from Palo Pinto County to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Their route, which followed the trail of the Butterfield Overland Mail and extended to Denver, became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. On an 1867 drive, Loving was attacked by Indians after riding ahead to take bids for the herd. With the help of Mexican traders, the badly wounded Loving made it to Fort Sumner, where he died of gangrene.
As a dying wish, Oliver requested of Goodnight that his body be returned to rest in Texas soil. If you saw the fictionalized account of the story in the TV series Lonesome Dove, you’ll remember that powerful scene in which Tommy Lee Jones drives the coffin containing Robert Duvall’s character back to Texas in a buckboard, set against a backdrop of a golden sunset big as all creation.
Accounts vary as to who actually rode back to Texas with the body, but one cowboy who may have made the trip, Bose Ikard (1843-1929), also rests in Greenwood Cemetery. When Bose, a former slave, died, his lifelong friend Charles Goodnight placed a granite gravestone with the following inscription: “Served with me four years on Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with the Comanches, splendid behavior. —C. Goodnight”
Other Old West icons are more recently departed. Fans who come to DeKalb searching for the grave of actor Dan Blocker (1928-1972) invariably ask, “Where’s Hoss buried?” To millions of Americans who tuned in to TV’s Bonanza every Sunday night for 14 seasons between 1959 and 1973, Blocker was Hoss Cartwright, who lived on the frontier-era Ponderosa Ranch with father Ben and brothers Adam and Little Joe.
No matter that the fictional Ponderosa sprawled elsewhere, Hoss was Texas-size. At 14 pounds, Dan entered the world as the largest baby ever born in Bowie County. In 1934, the Blockers moved to the West Texas hamlet of O’Donnell, where they ran a small grocery with the slogan, “Where Ma Saves for Pa.” Today, a large, Hoss-hatted bust of Dan, sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, graces downtown O’Donnell.
Fewer folks may find their way to his grave these days, but the memory of big-hearted, modest Dan Blocker lives on in both O’Donnell and DeKalb. “He’s buried with just a flat, common marker,” says Ola Steuart of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. “If you had known him, that would make sense.”
Watching Dan’s big, open face each week, we came to feel like we knew him. Musicians, folks who give verbal and aural expression to our collective soul, can have the same effect on us. When one dies young, as did Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez (1971-1995) and blues-guitar whiz Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990), the chorus of grief crescendos to epic proportion.
Fans make pilgrimages to Selena’s grave, in Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi, by the thousands year round. Each March 31, they commemorate the Grammy-winning artist’s untimely death (she was slain by a disturbed former employee) at age 23. Devoted followers leave candles, roses (especially white roses, Selena’s favorite), stuffed animals, Selena dolls, and personal notes at her black marble gravestone, which features a bronze sculpture of her beautiful face.
Though she became a role model for Hispanic youth, people of all races and ages come from far and wide to pay respects. In 2001, news reports described the therapeutic value Selena’s music had on a 30-year-old New Zealand woman stricken with terminal cancer. At the time, she was trying to raise the $4,000 plane fare to visit Selena’s grave.
My rock-musician son and his bandmates once tried to find Stevie Ray Vaughan’s grave, in Dallas’ Laurel Land Memorial Park, in the middle of the night. But a passing patrol car put the brakes on their nightcap tribute to the guitar hero. Many who do find their way to Vaughan’s resting place leave candles, religious figurines, or guitar picks.
Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin at age 35. Western Swing vocalist and bandleader Milton Brown (1903-1936), who succumbed to injuries from a car wreck on the Fort Worth-Jacksboro highway, also had a major impact on American music.
“Though not as familiar to today’s Western Swing fans as Bob Wills,” explains Cary Ginell, author of the 1994 biography Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing, Milton “was largely responsible for establishing the genre in the early 1930s.” He “converted traditional fiddle bands into dance bands designed to entertain in dance halls as opposed to individual homes.” Born in Stephenville in 1903 and raised in Fort Worth, Brown sang with the original Light Crust Doughboys before forming his own group, the Musical Brownies, in 1932.
A fan paid for Milton’s granite tombstone, which features twin radio towers and a microphone bearing his initials. Occasionally, a Western Swing enthusiast still shows up at the country cemetery at Smith Springs, near Stephenville, to spend a quiet moment with the original king of country jazz.
Another influential musician, Blind Lemon Jefferson (1890s-1929), also left this world in his thirties. Born and buried near Wortham, south of Corsicana, Jefferson was by most accounts blind from birth. He began developing his plaintive blues style as a teenager, playing on the streets of Wortham, Mexia, and other area towns. At 18, Blind Lemon moved to Dallas, where he was discovered in Deep Ellum by a Chicago record company scout. The 70 records he made sold about 100,000 copies each, and his influence extended to Louis Armstrong and Harry James. But Blind Lemon died young, and alone, in a Chicago snowbank. The circumstances remain a mystery.
In one of his best-known tunes, Jefferson beseeched listeners to “see that my grave is kept clean.” But for decades, his resting place was not even marked. When devotees arrived in Wortham from back east in the early 1960s to conduct a strange rite of tribute (with brooms that had been “baptized” in the Mississippi River, and a plan to bury a message in a bottle), they mistakenly performed the ceremony at the wrong grave. Things got better in 1967, when musicologist John A. Lomax Jr. and bluesman Mance Lipscomb presided at the dedication of a historical marker at Blind Lemon’s grave, and 30 years later, when a group of blues connoisseurs placed a marble headstone. “Lord it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,” reads the inscription beneath the name and dates. “See that my grave is kept clean.”
Out in El Paso, the Concordia Cemetery grave site of notorious pistoleer John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895) draws gawkers from ’round the globe. Born in Bonham, the son of a preacher began supplementing undertakers’ incomes as a teenager. By the time he went to prison in 1878 for killing a deputy in Comanche, Hardin was credited with having dispatched some 30 souls to the world beyond. As the legend goes, John Wesley was so mean he once “shot a man for snoring.”
Pardoned in 1894, he was admitted to the Texas bar and hung his legal shingle in El Paso, where Constable John Selman served him a lethal dose of hot lead in the Acme Saloon. “On the anniversary of his death, August 19th,” says Melissa Sargent of Six Guns and Shady Ladies, an Old West group, “we reenact the shooting at Hardin’s grave site.” In the late 1990s, a group of Hardin’s descendants sought to return the gunman’s body to Nixon (east of San Antonio) for reburial beside the grave of his first wife, but El Pasoans rebuffed the effort with injunctions and a fresh layer of concrete over the grave.
Legend also surrounds the grave of Bessie Moore (1854-1877)—a.k.a. “Diamond Bessie”—in Jefferson’s Oakwood Cemetery (see Speaking of Texas, May 2001). Finely dressed and adorned with diamonds, she arrived in the river-port city in January 1877 with Cincinnati jewelry heir Abe Rothschild, who registered the couple at the Brooks Hotel as Mr. and Mrs. A. Monroe. But Abe returned from a picnic alone and soon left town. Days later, after a snowstorm subsided, Bessie was found in the woods with a gunshot wound to the head, sans diamonds.
In Ohio, Abe attempted suicide, but shot himself in the eye, and lived to face the music back in Jefferson. In the “trial of the century,” a future Texas governor, Charles A. Culberson, and other blue-chip lawyers defended the accused killer. The jury convicted Rothschild and sentenced him to hang, but an appeal overturned the verdict. At his second trial, Abe’s “dream team” won an acquittal.
In the 1890s, a handsome stranger with an eye patch (Rothschild, perhaps?) placed roses at Bessie’s grave and thanked Jeffersonians for providing her a proper burial. A local man provided a headstone in the 1930s, and in the 1960s, a garden club paid for an iron fence around the grave. Each May since 1955, a play, The Diamond Bessie Murder Trial, has been performed as part of the annual Jefferson Historic Pilgrimage.
These, of course, are just a few of the stories you can discover in Texas graveyards. Take a stroll amongst some of the aged stones, and muse upon the tales their denizens may tell. And remember the best part—afterwards, you get to go home!
Final Resting Places
1. Johnson City–The Johnson Family Cemetery is in the LBJ Natl. Historical Park, about halfway between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on US 290. Bus tours take 1.25 hours and are given 10-4 every day except major holidays. Tickets ($3) are purchased at the adjacent LBJ State Park. Self-guided tours of the park are available after 5 p.m. until dusk. Write to LBJ Natl. Historical Park, Box 329, Johnson City 78636; 830/868-7128, ext. 244; www.nps.gov/lyjo.
2. Austin–Texas State Cemetery is bounded on the south by E. 7th St. The main entrance and visitors center are on Navasota St. Pick up a walking-tour guide (Mon-Fri 8-5) at the visitors center (512/463-0605) or at the Austin Visitor Information Center (201 E. Second, 78701; 512/478-0098). Oakwood Cemetery is bounded on the north by Martin Luther King Blvd., just east of I-35. Pick up a walking-tour guide at the cemetery’s visitor center, near the Navasota St. entrance (Mon-Fri 8-11; 512/478-7152) or at the Austin Visitor Information Center.
3. San Antonio–The Masonic Cemetery is at E. Commerce and Monumental streets. Clara Driscoll’s grave is marked by a large mausoleum and historical marker just to the left of the entrance at Commerce. St. Mary’s Cemetery is at Palmetto and Wyoming streets. Adina de Zavala’s grave is marked by a modest, flat headstone near the middle of the small cemetery.
4. Acton State Historic Site–To reach Acton Cemetery from Granbury, go 4.5 miles east on US 377 to FM 167, then go south on FM 167 2.4 miles. Write to Acton State Historic Site, c/o Cleburne State Park, 5800 Park Rd. 21, Cleburne 76031; 817/645-4215; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/acton/acton.htm.
5. Weatherford–Greenwood Cemetery is at Front and E. Water streets. The Weatherford Chamber of Commerce has a free map that shows the locations of the graves of Oliver Loving, Bose Ikard, Mary Martin (famed as Peter Pan), and other notables. Write to the Weatherford Area Chamber of Commerce, Box 310, 76081; 817/596-3801 or 888/594-3801; www.weatherfordchamber.com.
6. DeKalb–Woodman Cemetery is on US 82, on the east side of DeKalb (DeKalb is west of Texarkana). Near the main gate is a map that locates Dan Blocker’s grave. Write to the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, Box 219, 75559; 903/667-3706.
7. Corpus Christi–Seaside Memorial Park, where Selena is buried, is bounded by Ocean Dr., Robert Dr., Gaines St., and Airline Rd. Write to 4357 Ocean Dr., 78412; 512/992-9411.
8. Dallas–Laurel Land Memorial Park, resting place of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is at 6000 So. R.L. Thornton Frwy. (I-35), 75232; 214/371-1336. H.L. Hunt is buried at Sparkman/Hillcrest Memorial Park, 7405 W. Northwest Hwy., 75225; 214/363-5401
9. Smith Springs Cemetery–From the intersection of US 281 and Loop 377 in Stephenville, take US 281 northeast for about 3 miles, and turn left on Co. Rd. 455. The cemetery is on the right. Go through the gate, and Milton Brown’s grave is on the left, in the back, beside a large cedar tree and a mesquite tree. Not long ago, there was a wreath with Milton’s picture by the grave.
10. Wortham–Wortham is just south of Corsicana, at the junction of Texas 14 and FM 27. Wortham Cemetery containing Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave, is on Texas 14, just north of the cemetery sign. You enter through a metal gate and drive over a cattle guard. The grave site is by the chain-link fence in the back.
11. El Paso–Concordia Cemetery sprawls along I-10 east of downtown. To visit, exit I-10 at Copia St., go north 3 blocks to Yandell Dr., turn right, and enter the narrow gateway between stone pillars on Travis St. To find John Wesley Hardin’s grave, drive to the arched entry to the cemetery’s Chinese section, on your left. About 50 yards to the northwest (toward the Franklin Mountains), slabs of red sandstone surround the gunman’s grave. A free guided walking tour of some of the 60,000 grave sites in Concordia is scheduled for 11-3 on Oct. 18. Write to the Concordia Heritage Assn., Box 3153, El Paso 79923-3153; 915/842-8200.
12. Jefferson–Oakwood Cemetery is at E. Webster and N. Main streets. The entry road leads right to Diamond Bessie’s grave, about three-quarters of the way down the road. The small grave site is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Write to the Marion Co. Chamber of Commerce, 118 N. Vale St., Jefferson 75657; 903/665-2672 or 888/467-3529; www.jefferson-texas.com. For information on the play The Diamond Bessie Murder Trial, write to Diamond Bessie, Box 301, Jefferson 75657; 903/665-6075.