story

The Legend of La Llorona

All through October, the Texas Standard team is tracking Texas cryptids. As we’ve dug into some of these legends, we’ve noticed a few patterns. First of all, many of the cryptids associated with Texas have roots in Mexico.

And there are also some similarities in the back stories of these creatures or characters. Ayden Castellanos has noticed this especially in the legends involving female haunters. He hosts the “Susto” podcast about latin and hispanic folklore.

“I like to call them ‘the cryptid femmes’ because there are so many entities or creatures or spirits who are women or femmes and I think it’s an interesting trope, I’ll say, because, a lot of them, the commonality is that they are going after cheating men, drunkards, abusive men,” Castellanos said.

The story of La Llorona falls into this category.

(This story first aired in 2018).

Farmer Logic

If you’ve spent any time around farmers — you may have noticed a similar, pragmatic approach to life many share. Texas Standard Commentator WF Strong says it’s something he’s long observed.

Things Redneck Dave said to me on the drive across Texas

Technology has a role in helping us remember the past. Whether it’s a Facebook memory or a similar push from your photos app. But milestones have long played the same role — anniversaries, holidays, big changes in life.

Maybe it’s a relationship or your last great vacation.

Texas Standard commentator WF Strong has been recalling a certain road trip that took him 400 miles across the state… Along with him was his older brother, who he calls “Redneck Dave.”

This commentary first aired in April, 2020.

What a Handshake is Worth

How much is a promise worth? How much is it worth if you guarantee the promise with a handshake? What is the value of one’s word? In Texas, once, all these taken together were worth over ten billion dollars in a court of law. Texas Standard commentator WF Strong has the story.

Tom Hoskins and his Thousand Points of Light

It could be said that Texas is a state of natural philosophers. Many people have maxims or aphorisms at the ready for every situation. Tom Hoskins was one such person. He made it his late-in-life mission to record all of the adages he came across in a collection he called “Hoskilonians: A Thousand Points of Light.” Texas Standard commentator WF Strong has some of them.

How Ranchers Used Barbed Wire To Make Phone Calls

These days, if you’re out working on a ranch and you need some backup, you just pick up your cell phone. If you’re in a remote area of Texas with bad service — you might also have a walkie talkie handy. But not so long ago, the options were a little less sophisticated. Still, you might be surprised that there were phones around. Texas Standard commentator W.F. Strong has the story.

Artist Tom Lea’s ‘Sarah In The Summertime’

As Valentine’s Day is approaching, I thought I’d share a romantic story about one of Texas’s greatest artists, Tom Lea.  This is a love story, expressed in one painting, titled “Sarah in the Summertime.”  I’ll tell you the story of that painting and how it came to be.

Tom Lea was a true renaissance artist in the sense that he was both a gifted painter and writer. He was a muralist and a novelist. His murals are, to this day, in public buildings in Washington, D.C., El Paso, his home town and Odessa. President George W. Bush had one of his paintings hanging in the Oval Office. Lea’s novels, “The Brave Bulls” and “The Wonderful Country” are considered Southwestern classics.  His two-volume history of the King Ranch can be found in any home with a good Texas library.

Tom met Sarah in 1938, when he was working on his celebrated “Pass of the North” mural in El Paso.  He was invited to a small dinner party where she was also a guest. Sarah was from Monticello, Illinois, and in town visiting friends. He was immediately enchanted by her and decided that evening that he wanted to marry her. Tom had the good sense not to confess to that wish right there. No. He waited until their first date two nights later to pop the question. She didn’t say “yes” until he met her parents. Several months later, they were married. It was a storybook romance that spanned 63 years.

Tom and Sarah were only apart for one extended period of time during their marriage, and that was during World War II, when he was an artist for Life Magazine, embedded with the U.S. Navy. He documented the realities of the war in drawings and paintings, the most famous of which was “The Two Thousand Yard Stare.” Naturally, Tom missed Sarah terribly every day.

Here I will let the famous novelist take over the narration. He wrote:

I had a snapshot of Sarah which I carried in my wallet during the whole war. I looked at it, homesick, all over the world. When the war was over, the first painting I began was a full-length, life-size portrait of Sarah in the same dress, the same pose, the same light as the little snapshot.

I worked a long time making a preliminary drawing in charcoal and chalk, designing the glow of light and the placement of the figure against a clearness of blue sky, the mountains like Mount Franklin, the leafy trees and green grass and summer sunlight, before I transferred the drawing to the canvas. It was a detailed and precisely measured drawing. For instance, Sarah’s height of 5 foot 6 in high heels was drawn on the canvas exactly 5 ft 6. The painting was done with devotion and without haste. First the background, then the figure, and finally her head. I remember that I worked 26 days painting the pattern of all the little flowers on the dress. … 2 years after I began work on it, longer than any other painting ever took me, I signed it framed it and gave it to Sarah. I see it everyday in our living room and I see Sarah [too]. 20 years have passed. “Sarah in the Summertime” means more to me that I could ever put on canvas.

Adair Margo, his agent and decadeslong friend, and founder of the Tom Lea Institute, told me that Tom Lea would never let that painting leave the house, not for any showing or exhibition. Only once was she able to convince him to put it in a local exhibit, but only for a few hours, and it had to be back that night.

Tom and Sarah are buried side by side in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. There’s one headstone with divided inscriptions for each. On Sarah’s side it says, from Tom, “Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side. It is the side to see the day coming. Not the side to see the day is gone. The best day is the day coming, with work to do, with eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.”

Texas Cowboy Moves to Montana

by W. F. Strong (adapted from folklore) 

I think we’re in need of humor more now than ever before. So I thought I’d share with you this bit of classic Texas folklore. You may well have heard it before and, if you have, I’m sure you won’t mind hearing it again. If you haven’t heard it, well, you’ll have the pleasure of hearing it for the first time. Nothing better than novel humor, providing it’s well told. I’ll do my best.  

A Texas Cowboy who had just recently moved to Montana walked into a bar up there and ordered three mugs of draft beer. 

He took a seat in the back of the room by himself and commenced to drinking all three beers by taking a sip out of each one in a consistent sequence so that he finished them all at the same time.

Then he walked back up to the bar and asked the barkeep for three more.

Well, the bartender, wanting to be helpful, said, “You know, partner, a mug of beer can go a bit flat fairly soon after it’s drawn. You can buy ‘em three at time, if you like, but I can bring ‘em out to you one at a time to keep ‘em cold, fresh and crisp.”

The Texan replied, “Well, you see, I do it this way because I have two brothers. We were always close until a few months ago when we all, sadly, had to leave Texas for a while because of job transfers. One went to Georgia, the other to, sorry to say, New York. We agreed to always drink as I’m doing now to honor our good times together until we can all get back to Texas. So, I’m drinking one beer for me and two for my brothers.”

The barkeep was touched by the man’s custom and pushed three mugs of beer to him, and said, “This round’s on me.”

The Texan took a liking to the place. Felt like home. He came in there all the time afterwards and always followed his three beer tradition. The regulars became aware of it after a while and admired his unique commemoration. Sometimes bar patrons would even hoist a beer up in his direction and offer a toast. “To the brothers!” they’d say.

One day, the Texan came in and ordered two beers, sat down and began drinking them in turn. Everybody noticed and the bar got quiet, unusually silent.

The bartender felt he should say something so he walked over to the cowboy’s table and said quite sincerely, “I’m sorry about the loss of your brother, truly sorry.”

The cowboy looked confused a minute and then figured out what the bartender was thinking. He laughed and said, “Oh, no, no.  Nobody died or nothin’. It’s just, you see, me and my wife joined a really strict church last week and I had to swear off drinkin’.”

Then it was the bartender’s turn to look confused.  

The Texan explained, “Well, that didn’t affect my brothers none.”   

Sam Houston And Me

By W. F. Strong

A couple of weeks ago I got into an argument with my stairs and I lost. The stairs insisted there were 12 steps and I thought 10 would do. I broke my tibia and fibula. The good news is that I ended up at the bottom of the stairs, conveniently located for the EMS to pick me up and rush me into emergency surgery. I’ll be 97 percent good as new in four months.

As I was lying in recovery at the hospital, I realized that my injury was similar to that which Sam Houston suffered at San Jacinto. Same shattered tibia, inches above the ankle. Of course his was penetrated by a musket ball in battle and mine was penetrated by the hubris of thinking I had the agility of a teenager. Still, the result was much the same, and I thought immediately of my advantages over Sam. I had only to lie there wrapped in the loving arms of morphine and watch the Houston Astros (ironically Sam’s namesake team) play the Nationals. That was all I had to worry about. Sam had to push through the pain of his broken leg and open wound because he had a new Republic to create and protect, an undisciplined army to command, a dictator to keep alive at all costs, and political foes to keep an eye on.

Here are three things of interest to know about Sam’s wound:

First, he ignored it. After the battle was over, though he was suffering great pain and his boot was filled with blood, he met with his commanders to make sure they understood that two Mexican armies were still in the neighborhood within striking distance. Vigilance was essential to securing this newly-won independence. Once confident that all was well for the time being, he said, “Gentlemen, I have been shot. I must go tend to this wound.”

The second interesting thing is that there is a famous painting showing Sam Houston talking to Santa Anna, under a tree while reclined on a rug. His lower right leg is bandaged. The painting was titled, “The Surrender of Santa Anna” by William Henry Huddle. It hangs in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Beautiful work. Many a fine biographer, influenced by that painting, wrote that Sam’s right leg was broken. But his wound was actually to his left leg. That painting had the power of a photograph, I suppose. It’s a trivial difference, but interesting that the perception lasted so long. It was only in 2002 that Richard Rice discovered an 1853 letter that Sam wrote to his wife in which he said that his left leg still troubled him from the “old San Jacinto wound.”

The third interesting thing is that Sam’s wound at San Jacinto got worse, probably infected – though they didn’t yet know about germs. Sam developed a fever and his doctor wanted to send him to New Orleans for expert treatment. David G. Burnet, then Interim President of Texas, didn’t want to grant him leave. He wanted him to stay with the army, but Sam’s doctor and friends convinced Burnet that he was in danger of dying if he didn’t go. So Burnet relented.

Sam was met in New Orleans like an American hero. He fainted on the docks from his fever. They carried him to the hospital on a stretcher. According to biographer James Haley, when his stretcher passed by a beautiful, violet-eyed 17-year-old there on the docks, she reported that she felt the “eerie sensation of destiny sweep through her.” I guess you have to say young Margaret Lea’s intuition was good. Three years later, when she was twenty and Sam was 48, they were married and eventually had eight children. They had their happily ever after, which may have never happened had he not been wounded at San Jacinto. Cupid works in mysterious ways.

I’m sure Sam thought his wound was a stroke of bad luck that came at the worst time. But the Greek idea of the fates makes sense here. Not all bad luck is truly bad. Sometimes bad luck is just a means of moving you to a better road.

Hopefully that is true for me, too. I would not likely have thought to write this if I hadn’t taken an unfortunate tumble down the stairs in my rush to eat golden brown pancakes one perfect Sunday morning. A convalescence is a terrible thing to waste.

10-and-a-Half Frightening Facts About the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Originally aired: Oct. 31, 2016.

Texas is number one in a great many things: oil, ranching, rodeo, cotton. But you may be surprised to know that we are also number one in horror. That’s right, our very own charming little low-budget film, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, is considered by many critics to be the best (and most horrifying) horror movie ever made.

At the time of its release in 1974, the famous film critic Rex Reed said that it was the most “terrifying” movie he had ever seen. When the celebrated master of horror, Wes Craven, first saw the movie, he wondered “what kind of Mansonite crazoid” could have produced such a thing. Stephen King praised the movie. He said it had achieved “cataclysmic terror.” And my favorite critique comes from Anton Bitel who said that the “very fact that it was banned in England was a tribute to its artistry.”

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would help you appreciate this hallowed film; here are 10-and-a-half things you may not have known about the film.

1. Ed Gein is the name of the real criminally insane killer who inspired the character of Leatherface. He did not wear a leather mask. What he wore was worse: a mask made of human skin.

2. Ed Gein only killed two people, not dozens. Hardly a massacre. He did not use a chainsaw. He used a gun.

3. Gein did his killing in Wisconsin, not Texas. I know, disappointing right? Wisconsin Chainsaw Massacre just doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it.

4. So where did the chainsaw idea come from? Tobe Hooper, the director, said that he was in a Montgomery Ward store a few days before Christmas. The store was annoyingly crowded with aggressive shoppers. As he stood in front of the chainsaws he had a disturbing epiphany. He realized that if he started up one of those chainsaws the sound alone would part that sea of shoppers giving him a quick path to the exit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how iconic art is born.

5. One last thing about Gein. He inspired not only Leatherface, but he was also the demented muse for Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs”.

6. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, for the actors at least, was that it was filmed in the middle of the scorching Texas summer. You can see the sweat dripping off, even streaming off, the actors. Hooper said everyone suffered mightily because there was no stopping to wait for cooler weather. And even though
some days were well over 100 degrees, they had to press on to get filming done in a month, come hell or high water – and hell is what they got.

7. In his much-praised book, “Chain Saw Confidential”, Gunnar Hansen, who played the character of Leatherface, said that the name of the depraved family in the first film is Slaughter, not Sawyer. If you look above the Coca-Cola sign at the gas station you will see “W. E. Slaughter BBQ.”

8. Hansen also said that the power of the chainsaw myth they created on film persists with such tenacity in Texas that people would not believe him when he said that no such chainsaw crimes ever happened in the state. People would say something like: “No, they happened. My cousin worked on death row over in Huntsville and saw Leatherface himself get the chair.” But this is understandable because the film falsely marketed itself as “based on a true story.”

9. The film cost less than $300,000 to make, and eventually grossed $30 million in the U.S. The movie had its opening in Austin, appropriately, since its director was a University of Texas professor and documentary cameraman. Though it is hard to believe, he tried to keep the gore and violence of the film to a minimum so he could get a “PG” rating. That didn’t work. He got an “R” rating.

10. Horror and humor are allies. The movie even spawned a hilarious Geico ad that has run the last couple of years – the one where four people are running from a killer and debating where to hide. One suggests they take the running car and another says that’s a horrible idea and suggests that they hide behind the chainsaws. Even Leatherface is astounded by their filmic ignorance.

10.5. The film’s gas station is now a kind of bed and breakfast in Bastrop. It’s called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s “Last Chance Gas Station”. You can get BBQ and spend the night in a cozy cabin. Chainsaw alarm clocks are certainly available. I understand the BBQ ain’t half bad. At least the owners are not, like those in the film, focused only on serving their fellow man.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.

The Lady In Blue

One of the most important figures in Texas’ religious history never set foot in Texas at all. She never in her life traveled beyond her tiny village in Spain, yet she stirred religious fervor from the Concho River to the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Our story begins in 1602 when Maria was born in the pueblito de Ágreda. She was a lovely child born to Catholic parents of noble rank. Barely beyond her toddler years, Maria showed an unusual devotion to a life of prayer and piety.

When she was ten, she already wanted to join a convent. When she was 12, her parents finally blessed her wish to join the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Tarazona. Before that could be arranged, though, Maria’s mother had a vision in which God instructed her to convert their mansion into a convent. She and her daughter would both become nuns. Her father would join a local monastery, following in the footsteps of his sons who were already friars. In four years, this all came to pass.

At 18, Maria took her vows and became Maria de Jesus – Mary of Jesus de Ágreda. The habit of her order was a dark cobalt blue. Now a nun, she spent more time than ever alone in prayer. Maria’s religious devotions intensified. Her sisters worried about her frequent fasting, frail health, and life of extreme deprivation. Yet for her it was a glorious time: she said God had given her a divine gift. It was the gift of bilocation. She could be in two places at once. Through meditation she could appear to God’s children in faraway lands and teach them about Jesus. She said she first appeared to the Jumano tribes of present day Texas in the 1620s. She did this for about ten years, from the time she was 18, to 29. And according to legend, the Jumano Indians of the time confirmed that the Woman in Blue, as they called her, had come among them.

The first proof is offered in the story of 50 Jumano Indians appearing on their own at the San Antonio de la Isleta Mission near present-day Albuquerque, asking the Franciscan priests to teach them about Jesus. When asked how they knew of him, the men said that the Lady in Blue had come to them and taught them the gospel. She had instructed them to go west to find holy men who could teach them more about the faith and baptize them. They, as the legend goes, pointed to a painting of a nun in the mission and said, “She is like her, but younger.”

The priests were stunned because they had no missions or missionaries in that part of what is today West Texas. They certainly knew of no nuns who had attempted missionary work there. How could this be? The head cleric in New Mexico, Esteban de Perea, asked two priests to go home with the Jumanos to verify these claims about the Lady in Blue. They traveled to the region that is today San Angelo and found that many of the Jumano said she had indeed come to them many times over the years. The priests immediately baptized 2,000 Jumanos, they say, because of Maria de Ágredas.

Historians Donald Chipman and Denise Joseph wrote that the Jumanos said Maria came to them “like light at sunset… she was a kind and gentle person who spoke ‘sweet’ words to them that they could understand…”

The respected religious historian Carlos E. Castaneda – not to be confused with the one who wrote about the Teachings of Don Juan – said that Maria preached in Spanish but the Jumanos understood her in their tongue, and when they spoke in their tongue, she understood them in Spanish.

Such claims resulted in the custodian of the Franciscans in New Mexico, Father Alonso de Benavides, traveling all the way to Ágreda in Spain to interview Maria to verify her authenticity. According to him, she told him of things in Texas and about the world of the Jumanos that only one who had been there could have known. Her bilocation claims were considered credible then, and even now, the Vatican seems to agree and is considering her for canonization.

Chapman and Joseph tell us that, according to Jumano legend, “when she last appeared, she blessed [the Jumanos] and slowly went away into the hills. The next morning the area was covered with a blanket of strange flowers that were a deep blue” – blue like her habit. These were, they said, the first bluebonnets. And perhaps the Jumanos found comfort when these flowers returned each year, adorned in their blue habits, assuring them that the Lady in Blue was always with them.

For a more complete history of the Lady in Blue, see “Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas” by Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, published by UT-Press, 1999.

What’s In A Name – The Rio Grande Valley

When some people first arrive in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas they often ask, “Where are the mountains?” It’s natural. Generally a valley is between mountains or at least hills. But the Rio Grande Valley is most accurately a delta region, as level as Lubbock. The highest roadway point is the 80-foot summit of the causeway bridge that goes to South Padre Island.

So how did a delta become the Valley? Marketing. Back in the early 1900s when developers were selling beautiful orchard acreage to northerners in New York and Chicago, they found that naming the area the Rio Grande Valley was a powerful selling strategy. It was also marketed as “the Magic Valley” – and I have no problem with the magic part. After all, there are dozens of varieties of exotic birds and butterflies that migrate through here each year. Some species winter here, too.  The vibrantly colored birds and butterflies do make it a magical. And there are the crops, too. Early on, visitors saw that sugar cane and cotton and citrus orchards, irrigated with plentiful Rio Grande water, grew like magic in the Magic Valley.

The strategy worked. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the RGV from northern states last century for the subtropical climate and relaxed living. Some came just for the mild winters they were called “Winter Texans” (and still are). “Winter Texan” was another successful PR term that seemed much more warm and personable than the slightly pejorative, “Snowbird.” From the point of view of a Texan, there could be no greater compliment than to crown visitors a “Texan” for the time they are here.

The Rio Grande Valley is comprised of many small and medium-sized cities.  Many have interesting name origins. South Padre Island translates to “Father Island.” It was named for a catholic priest – Padre José Nicolás Ballí. He inherited the island from his grandfather who received it as a land grant from King Charles III of Spain in 1759.

Brownsville could have been called Texasville if the original fort built there had kept its first name, which was Fort Texas. The makeshift fort was quickly constructed in 1846 to lay claim to the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas.  The Mexican army bombarded the fort and Major Jacob Brown, originally of Boston, was killed. He was the first casualty of the Mexican-American war. So the fort was renamed Fort Brown in his honor and the town that grew up around the fort was named Brownsville.

Harlingen was named for the town of Harlingen in the Netherlands. Its founder, Lon C. Hill, thought the town’s river, the Arroyo Colorado, could be a commercial waterway to the sea, and Harlingen a city of canals, similar to its namesake in Holland. It’s pronounced differently. The Harlingen in Holland has a different “g” – Harlingen.

Weslaco is almost an acronym. It was founded by W.E. Stewart, owner of the W.E. Stewart Land Company, which was a real estate development company. So you take Stewart’s initials and the first letters of “land” and “company” and you get “Weslaco.”

Edinburg was named for Edinburgh, Scotland. Well, technically named in honor of John Young, a businessman from Edinburgh, Scotland. Both are university towns, but are spelled differently and pronounced differently, too. The Edinburgh in Scotland has somewhat of a silent g and h at the end. The one in Texas has no ‘h” but does pronounce the “g.” Edinburg. Don’t know the reason for spelling and saying it differently, but this is Texas – it’s what we do. We take the names and make them our own.

The Mystery Of The Osage Murders

One of the best books I’ve read this year is “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” I was late to this literary party. This nonfiction work has been a super-bestseller for well over a year now. It has been on the Paperback Nonfiction bestseller list for 49 weeks. Dave Eggers writes in his New York Times Book Review that author “[David] Grann has proved himself a master of spinning delicious, many-layered mysteries that also happen to be true. … It will sear your soul.”

I won’t spoil this book for you by revealing any part of the whodunit. I’m more interested in the who pursued ‘em.

You have three levels of tension here. First, there is the Osage tribe – the richest people per capita on Earth at the time, around 1920. They were the only tribe that owned mineral rights to the worthless land they got from the federal government as their very own reservation in Oklahoma. Why not? It was worthless scrub-brush land that was mostly sandy and rocky with random clumps of grass. When oil was discovered, though, they became, collectively, unfathomably rich. J. Paul Getty, for instance, was in a bidding war Harry Sinclair for Osage oil leases. Soon after the money started piling up, the Osage started dying, mysteriously, and in large numbers.

The second level of tension is that they were being murdered, seemingly randomly. “Serial killer” was not yet a term in the crime lexicon, but as a reader, you arrive at that conclusion quickly. You feel it must be a serial killer. But not one singular method was used. Some Osage were shot, some poisoned, some blown up in their homes with dynamite. Sixty had died by the time that J. Edgar Hoover took the case for the feds. It was up to him to find the killer or killers.

Here’s the third level of tension. Hoover was just acting director of what was called the Bureau of Investigation at the time. He was only 29 years old. The case was a blessing and a curse. If Hoover could solve it he could elevate the this new agency to a formidable and powerful national police bureau. If he failed, he would be pushed out; his career hung in the balance. Hoover was wanting to create an FBI that was modern, full of smart college graduates skilled in the use of the latest scientific techniques like fingerprinting, but the last agents sent to solve the mystery either made no headway, or were themselves killed. To solve this case, Hoover needed to send to Oklahoma the kind of agent he wanted the agency to shed.

Now, at this point you might be saying, as my dear sister-in-law said to me when I told her this story, “Why are you, Mr. Texas, talking about Oklahoma?” I’ll answer you as I did her: “Hold your horses, I’m fixin’ to get there.”

Hoover had to bite the bullet and bring in the cowboys. He sent for Tom White, his bureau chief in Houston, who was an ex-Texas Ranger, to take charge of the case. As Hoover said, “He needed a man who could handle men.”

It wasn’t exactly a “one riot, one ranger” situation, but it had elements of it.

Grann describes him this way: “Tom White was an old-style lawman. He had served in the Texas Rangers near the turn of the century, and he had spent much of his life wandering on horseback across the Southwestern frontier, a Winchester rifle or a pearl-handled six-shooter in hand. He was 6 feet, 4 inches and had the sinewy arms and eerie composure of a gunslinger.

Years later, a bureau agent wrote that he was as “God-fearing as the mighty defenders of the Alamo. He was an impressive sight in his large, suede Stetson. … He commanded the utmost in respect and scared the daylights out of Easterners like me.”

Of course, it was a white Stetson he wore.

Hoover explained to White that he needed him to direct the investigation without a hint of scandal, and as quietly as possible. He told him there could be “no excuse for failure.” Hoover told him to call in as many agents as he needed, and so White called in those men that Hoover considered the cowboys (two were ex-Texas Rangers) – men who were good at “infiltrating wild country, dealing with outlawry, shadowy suspects, going days without sleep, maintaining cover under duress, and handling deadly weapons if necessary.”

So there you go. The plot is set. The characters are in place. A great Texas story awaits, even though it’s set in Oklahoma. If you don’t care to read the book just now, you can wait for the movie, which, rumor has it, will be directed by Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio. De Niro is said to be in talks for a role as well.

I’m W.F. Strong. These are Stories from Texas, by way of Oklahoma. Some of them are true.

The Luckiest Letter in Texas

This is the story of what was luckiest letter ever mailed in Texas. It took about six months to reach its destination, which was Louisiana. But to say it was mailed is a bit of a stretch. It was handed to some people to be given to others and it bounced around a while, sat idle for months at a time and then miraculously moved on. Texas was, at the time, under Spanish rule, but the letter was written in French. It was a Hail Mary mailing. Truly an act of desperation. The fact that it arrived at all was a miracle within a miracle, and it saved the sender’s life.

François Simars de Bellisle was just 24 when he left France to come to America in 1719. He was headed for Louisiana on a small ship. As was often the case in those days, his captain overshot their destination. He missed Louisiana entirely and ended up near present-day Galveston where the ship ran aground off Bolivar Peninsula. But the captain thought they were relatively close to Ship Island near New Orleans, a little error of 300 miles. What Google Earth could have done for these early travelers!

Bellisle and four other French officers took meager supplies — biscuits, guns, minimal ammunition, swords — and went ashore to determine their location and seek help to guide their ship to port. They slept well that first night and when they got up the next morning their ship was gone. They had been abandoned.

They walked east and made it to what was likely the mouth of the Sabine River where they could go no further because of deep mud. They headed back the way they had come. Though they had some success finding oysters and killing small birds — they even killed a deer — they began, one by one, to succumb to starvation. Within two months, Bellisle had buried all of his friends. He was alone and hungry in this new land and, naturally, desperately depressed.

Bellisle believed he was living his last days. He was on the west side of Galveston Bay, out of bullets and reduced to eating boiled grass and worms out of driftwood. Then, one clear morning he saw the first Native Americans he had seen since being stranded. They were Akokisa and his only hope for survival. The Akokisas greeted him by taking all of his goods and stripping him of his clothes, leaving him naked – a state he would remain in for over a year. The only good thing that happened that day is that they fed him. But he was enslaved, ordered about mercilessly, beaten regularly and used as a beast of burden. How ironic that his name Bellisle meant “beautiful island,” but that is not what he found that day.

They took him west with them toward the Brazos River to hunt buffalo. He had to walk, naked and barefoot, carrying their supplies. But he did record later that, despite his wretched condition, he couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful prairies they passed through for over 150 miles. He wrote, “This is the most beautiful country in the world. The earth is black. Grass grows there to a prodigal height, and in abundance, which is a certain sign that the earth is good.”

Upon returning to the bay, he realized that his situation was dire. He would die if he stayed. So he retrieved one of the few pieces of paper he had in his belongings and wrote a letter. He asked his hosts give it to the white chief they told him was rumored to live to the east.

He had nothing to write with so he carved a crude pen out of wood and made ink out of charcoal and water. He wrote a letter begging for rescue from anyone who would might receive it. A couple of his tribe took the message east but never attempted to find the rumored white chief. They just passed along this strange artifact to other tribes as a curiosity. It went from tribe to tribe, perhaps traded for one thing or another, but all the while moved northeast. Then the miracle occurred. Members of the Hasinai Native Americans, which had close ties to the French, happened to see the letter and knew that it was something the French would like to see. So they took it to the commander of the French garrison at Natchitoches, Louisiana, a week’s journey away. The commander, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, wrote a letter in return, and ordered the Hasinais to bring the castaway back, whether dead or alive.

When Bellisle’s rescuers reached the Akokisa camp, they gave Bellisle the letter that informed him that the Hasinais would escort him to Natchitoches. His captors didn’t want to let him go, but they feared the Hasinais and so they relented. Bellisle said the final night in camp waiting to leave the next morning was the longest of his life. It still took him months to get to Natchitoches, but at least he was free. He had sent what was the land version of a message in a bottle, and it had caught the best currents and washed up on the perfect shore. His literacy, and luck, saved him.

The source of this story comes mostly from Bellisle’s memoirs, published in part by Henri Folmer in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Oct. 1940), pp. 204-231.

Three Texas Pride Stories

I’ve been sad lately noticing how the oral tradition seems to be dying. Twenty years ago friends would often come up to me on the street and say, “Hey, I got a story for you.” But now they just come up to me and hold out their phone and say, “Seen this?” And laugh. Not the same.

Today I thought I’d do what I can to fight this trend. I’m going tell you three short stories – or jokes – that showcase our Texas pride. You can even pass them on, if you think them worthy.

The first one I heard from my father when I was about 10. It was my first exposure to this genre – and I loved it. It went like this:

“A man from Kentucky was talking to a Texan and bragging about all the gold they had in Fort Knox. The Kentuckian said, “You know we have enough gold in Fort Knox to build a wall of solid gold, six foot high, all the way around Texas?”

The Texan said, “Is that so? Tell you what, you go ahead and build your wall – and if we like – we’ll buy it.”

The next story comes from John Gunther’s book, “Inside U.S.A.” You remember Gunther, who was famous for the quote, “If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, why embarrass him by asking?”

Gunther says that a man from Boston was visiting a friend in Texas. The Bostonian was tired from traveling and went to bed early. As he pulled back the blankets, he was shocked to find a 12-inch lobster waiting for him. Rather than let the Texan get the better of him with this practical joke, he picked up the lobster and took it into the living room where his friend was reading the paper.

He held up the lobster and said, “You sure do have big bed bugs in Texas.”

The Texan peered up over the paper, squinted at the lobster and said, “Well, must be a young ’un.”

The last story, truly a Texas classic from the 60s, concerns a prideful Texan who died and went to Heaven. Saint Peter was giving him an orientation tour of Heaven, to get him acquainted with beauties of the place.

He first showed him some snow-covered peaks reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and the Texan said, “Well, they are nice if you like your mountains all covered in snow that way. I like mine with a light dusting now and then and otherwise hot and dry like we have ‘em in Big Bend.”

Next, Saint Peter took him by the elbow and flew him up to a peak overlooking a gorgeous mountain river. He said, “You ever seen a more beautiful blue than that?” The Texan said, “No, but you want to see the most beautiful turquoise river ever, you need to see the Devil’s River in West Texas. Sorry to mention him, but that is the name of it. And don’t get me started on the Guadalupe for beauty and beer that was…”

Saint Peter interrupted him and pointed to the Alpine forest waving in the gentle mountain breeze before them. The Texan said, “Impressive, but nothing can steal my heart away from the Piney Woods of East Texas. You ever seen the Big Thicket?”

Exasperated, Saint Peter flew the Texan over to the very edge of Heaven and had him look over the side. Far, far below there was dense fire, and smoke as far as he could see. Saint Peter said, in an almost threatening tone, “What do you think of that?”

The Texan said, “That is impressive and clearly out of control, but I tell you what, we got some ol’ boys down in Houston who can put that out for ya.”

Texas Standard: February 13, 2017

Texas on ICE: for weeks they were unconfirmed reports, now evidence of immigration sweeps across Texas and 10 other states, we’ll have the latest. Also: mind the gap. Who’s gonna fill the hole between two competing spending plans, for Texas and what does it mean in real terms? And a price bubble in the middle of the Texas desert, set to pop? Plus how do you write about a war when the final chapter is far from over? Veterans of the War on Terror offer a rare insiders view. And a sweeping investigation of the state of human trafficking in the lone star state. All that and much more, today on the Texas Standard:

The Weird Connection Between Tony Romo and Tony Roma’s

When Tony Romo joined the Dallas Cowboys back in 2003, some people confused his name with that of Tony Roma’s, the restaurant chain. They thought maybe Tony Romo was related to the Tony Roma family, perhaps heir to the baby back ribs fortune, even though there was an important one letter of difference at the end of the names. Everybody knows by now that there is no relationship between Tony Romo and Tony Roma’s, but there is quite a deep connection between the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Roma’s that few people know about.

Back in 1976, the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X in Miami, a game the Cowboys lost by four points. After the game, Clint Murchison, Jr., owner and founder of the Dallas Cowboys, went to dine at the only Tony Roma’s restaurant in existence at the time. It was in North Miami. He was so impressed with the ribs and the cole slaw, that in legendary Texas style, he said to himself, “I like this restaurant. I think I’ll buy it and move it to Texas.”

These quick draw decisions were not unusual for Murchison. He was once forced to spend a good deal of time with bankers in New York City and soon found himself frustrated that he couldn’t get a decent bowl of chili or good smoked brisket. So, he did the only rational thing a rich Texan could do. He opened his own restaurant there in Manhattan. He called it The Dallas Cowboy. It served classic Texas chili and smoked brisket. Problem solved.

Back to Tony Roma’s. Clint Murchison couldn’t buy the original Tony Roma’s because Tony wouldn’t sell it. But Clint did buy the franchise rights. Within just a few years, there were Tony Roma’s in Manhattan (giving Murchison a second place to get food he liked when he was stranded in New York), Hollywood, Dallas – and the headquarters soon moved to Dallas (well, Plano to be exact) where it remained until just last year.

It could be said that Clint Murchison, Jr. started two great franchises in his life – the Dallas Cowboys and Tony Roma’s. The Dallas Cowboys are today the most valuable team in the NFL. In fact, at $4 billion, Forbes says the Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in the world. Worth more than New England or Green Bay. Worth more than the New York Yankees. Worth more even than Manchester United or Real Madrid.

Jerry Jones must be given his due for creating a good deal of that value, but Murchison did build the Cowboys into a marquee name in the NFL before he sold the team. As for Tony Roma’s, it is privately owned so I don’t know its value, but I do know the restaurants have gross sales of over $300 million a year. That’s a lot of ribs, y’all. And now they’ve added lamb ribs to their newest menu.

Just as the Cowboys are known worldwide, Tony Roma’s is, too; 150 restaurants in 30 countries on six continents. You can eat at Tony Roma’s in Madrid, in Tokyo, in Bangkok, Lima, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, where there are eight to choose from, or at locations right here in Texas. Yes, Clint Murchison, Jr. gave us the sacred tradition of watching the gladiators of the gridiron on Sunday afternoons and he gave us the food to watch ‘em with, too. Now, that’s a mighty fine accomplishment. A mighty fine man.

Tony Romo may have no official relationship with Tony Roma’s. But I think he should buy a franchise so we can say I’m going to Tony Romo’s Tony Roma’s. That would be hard to say three times real fast, which I’m sure you’re gonna try as soon as you’re done reading, which is now.

What It Means to Be a Texas Gentleman

One of my favorite, but now largely unknown speakers in American history was Robert Green Ingersoll. Redwater, Texas was originally named Ingersoll – after him. He was a philosopher and a popular intellectual, the most sought after orator of his time. He left us many fine proverbs. One of my favorites is this:

“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”

Being graceful in victory is easy, but in defeat, to be dignified and composed and still hopeful for a better day, requires deep character.

As the country prepares to make the transition from one president to another, I’m reminded of an example of this kind of rare decency in defeat. It comes from George H. W. Bush. In 1992, he had just lost a bruising presidential campaign to a much younger, far less experienced Bill Clinton. It must have been excruciatingly painful for Mr. Bush. After all, it was said that he had the longest resume in the Western World. How could he lose to someone who was, at least on paper, less qualified for the job? But he accepted his defeat with grace.

As these fine Texans, George and Barbara, were moving out of the White House and the Clintons were soon to move in, George left a letter for Bill on the Oval Office desk. It has received a good deal of attention online over the past months, but it is a remarkable testimony to good character and it certainly deserves a re-reading. The letter is dated January 20, 1993. It says:

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good Luck – George

Texans have long valued a true southern gentleman. If anyone ever needs a clear definition of what that means, have them read this letter from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton.

The Story Behind Texas’ Favorite Butter

Texas has a great number of Texas brands:

Southwest Airlines.
Texas Instruments.
Lone Star Beer.
Dell Computer.
Imperial Sugar.
The King Ranch.

Now, The King Ranch is a brand that came, quite literally, from a brand. King Ranch even has its own brand of Ford Pickup.

The King Ranch also helped launch another old Texas brand, Falfurrias Butter.

It is a little circuitous, but this is how it all came about. Richard King’s partner, Mifflin Kenedy, sold 7,000 cows to Ed Lasater, who then created the dairy that launched Falfurrias butter. Thirty-five years later, the King Ranch bought Lasater’s land, along with many head of cattle, to create the Encino division of the King Ranch.

But that’s not the story I’m here to tell. I’m here to talk about a great old brand of Texas butter.

Falfurrias butter was first made in Falfurrias, of course, in 1909. People have wondered whether the butter is named for the town or the town for the butter, but they were actually both named after Lasater’s ranch, which was named for a grove of trees called La Mota de Falfurrias. Lasater said that that unique word, Falfurrias, came from the Lipan Apache language and, loosely translated, means “Land of Heart’s Delight.”

The butter was certainly the town’s best known export in those early days, and likely remains so today. Even the school mascot, the Jerseys, was named after the butter’s real creators – the Jersey cows. At one point Falfurrias was home to the largest Jersey cattle herd in the world.

And so that gave special meaning to the once popular bumper sticker there: “Watch Your Step – You’re in Jersey Country.” I’m not sure the author of that intended the double meaning, but it certainly provided a good deal of local levity until it was recalled.

Falfurrias butter remains a popular niche brand of butter. In Texas, it’s sold at all the major grocery stores, and some smaller ones, too. It has been quite popular in northern Mexico for generations.

A friend tells me that as a child in Saltillo he remembers his mother bringing back the mantequilla dulce de Falfurrias as a special treat for the kids anytime she traveled to Texas.

A Texas Marine in WWII recalled that as he was wading ashore in the battle for Okinawa, a Falfurrias Butter crate bumped up against his leg in the surf. He found it comforting, an assurance from home that all would be well. And so it was.

Falfurrias Butter outgrew Falfurrias. It became so popular that it was eventually bought by the Dairy Farmers of America, but rest assured it is still made in Texas.

It is made by Keller’s Creamery in Winnsboro, Texas, and has grown at a Texas-sized pace of 40 percent over the last few years. That’s a lot of biscuits and baked potatoes, y’all.

When you drive through Falfurrias today, on state Highway 285, you can still see the vintage Falfurrias Butter sign on the side of the old Creamery Building. The town newspaper, Falfurrias Facts, occupies the building today.

In the interest of full disclosure ethical transparency, I have to reveal that I am also an export of Falfurrias, and even though I know on which side my bread is buttered, so to speak, I assure you that it does not affect the veracity of this commentary.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.

This story originally aired on June 15, 2016.