1899 – 1975
Between the end of Reconstruction (1876) and the beginning of the Progressive era (1900) Texas hardly shared the ostentatious wealth that gave the period the title Gilded Age in America. Yet the state did reflect a mixture of changes common to the developing western frontier and the New South. The population of Texas grew rapidly from 1,591,749 in 1880 to 2,235,527 by 1890 and reached 3,048,710 in 1900. In addition to the natural growth of already resident population, a steady migration came from other states, primarily in the South.
The Texas economy of the late nineteenth century experienced tremendous growth, mixed with serious problems and major changes. Agriculture continued to dominate the state economy, with a majority of Texans engaged in farming or ranching. Ranching, like farming, experienced impressive growth, as Texans drove more than three million cattle north to the railroads in Kansas between 1875 and 1885, after the Indians had been forced from the plains and the buffalo almost destroyed.
To me, Little John was a big man and he fit the description of a East Texas farmer like Merriam Webster had written it just about him. His hands were calloused, cracked and rough as a piece of barn wood, from doing farm chores everyday. His boots were as big as the boat that he liked to fish from. He was a man of very few words, I guess by the time I knew him he had said about all he had to say. He spent the wee hours of every morning rocking slowly back and forth in an old metal lawn chair with a smoldering pipe clinched tight between his lips, little puffs of smoke slowly disappearing into the dawn along with his thoughts that he would just let drift away.
I never remember my Grand Father (Little John) wear anything but a pair of kaki work pants and he always wore some kind of jacket. The old crumpled Stetson hat that sat a top his head was as crusty as he was and it was an eyewitness to every thing that Granddaddy did everyday.
His temperament was as calm as a summer morning; Granddaddy accepted life and people for what they were and like a Las Vegas gambler played all the cards that he was dealt. Emotion was not a pair of pliers that he kept in his toolbox, I never heard him raise his voice except when he was arguing with an Armadillo, or did I ever remember him use second gear in his Old International pickup, nor did I once see the needle on his speedometer ever dare come close to thirty miles per hour. Whenever we would go anywhere it always took us all day to get there, it wasn’t until I was grown and he was gone that I learned that the drive to town was only two miles long.
In 1899, on the outskirts of Henderson, Texas Loy E. Dorsey (Little John) was born in a smoke house, it was the first structure that his Daddy built on the homestead. The only time he ever ventured very far away from East Texas was when he went off to fight in the First World War. From what little Granddaddy told me, I gathered war was something a Texas farm boy like him really wasn’t meant to see.
As another family story goes, my distant ancestors left the land of the Penny Whistle and Yankee Doodle Dandy when the were rumors of Civil War began circulating on the city streets. A would be Union soldier thought it a wise idea to try and muscle my Greatest of Grand Mother’s work horse away from her, it was for the war effort, he said. As fate would have it that soldier had chosen the wrong woman to tangle with and she wasn’t about to give up her plow horse. Two days later, in a ditch on the side of the road the local constable found the young Yankee Private with a fresh bullet hole in the front of his head.
With three little kids in tow, it was a tense time for a single woman out on her own before the Civil War. She didn’t know where she was running to, or if she was going to actually get anywhere. For the Yankee trackers, her trail went cold before she reached North Carolina; and she ditched her New York accent by the time reached Georgia where traded it in for a new name.
By the time the final winds of war had finally blew into Atlanta, and it was burning to the ground, my Great, Great Grand Parents had their wagon loaded with everything that they owned. Their minds were set on some where west of Mississippi, and a little piece of their hearts was buried in a cemetery along side of a Louisiana rutted road.
By the early 1880’s the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Kickapoo, and Shawnee Indians of East Texas were all living in log cabins and their Tee Pee’s were but a distant memory, the piney woods of East Texas looked like a peaceful place for a wayward family to set up a home. It was there that the Dorsey’s slowed their wagon to a stop, took out some shovels and axes and began to clear the hallowed ground. My Great Granny’s grin couldn’t have any bigger when she saw all the work that her boys had done. Seven more kids later and no room in the house to bare a baby, my Grand Father and his twin brother made their way into this world below a hanging smoked ham. The two Dorsey brothers that were born that day were forever known as Big John and Little John, although John never appeared anywhere in either of their real names.
In the early twentieth century, Christian revival meetings were commonplace and usually consisted of several consecutive nights of services conducted at the same time and at the same location. Most often these religious events took place in large circus size tents. From 1909 to 1914 Ben M. Bogard conducted Baptist style revivals full-time in seven southern states. As an Ordained Missionary, Brother Bogard’s exploits are well documented in and around Texarkana, Texas.
On one final revival evening near Texarkana, after recently baptized mothers had tucked their sleepy eyed babies tightly into the buck boards for the night, a bunch of the local boys, doing what bored boys will do, decided they would swap out all of the sleeping babies. By feeding time the next morning the baby re-distribution was discovered… Granny never even bent a lip when she told that sacrificial story, she would lean way back in her rocking chair and with her eyebrows cocked high on her forehead, she would wag her wrinkled finger frantically and say, “it took two days to undo that dirty deed.”
Although they lived in the Deep South, the Dorsey’s were well known for picking their own cotton and paying their own way. In the nineteen fifties and sixties I spent every summer with the window rolled down in my Granddaddy’s International pick up, roaming the back roads of East Texas at about 10 miles per hour.
My Granddaddy was one of those men that did about everything there was to do. He was an honest man and taught me about all there was to learn about hard work and respect, and how to treat others the way I wanted to be treated.
When I think about all the uncertainty and the dividedness in the world today I try and remember my Granddaddy sitting out on his East Texas front porch, grinning to himself, silently puffing on his pipe, and in little whiffs of smoke sending all the worlds troubles slowly drifting away.
It was on a sunny day while I was in San Diego, right before I was to be shipped overseas that Little John Dorsey decided it was time for him to slip away. Standing alone by the ocean I tried to remember all the special things that my Granddaddy taught me, and all thanks that I never took the time to say.
Disclaimer; When I was young, mostly in the 1950’s and 60’s in East Texas, I spent a lot of time sitting on old wooden front porches while it rained, listening, wide eyed while my aging relatives would whittle and relay stories they had been told. They had names like Uncle Corny and Aunt Beatrice and would speak of places like “The Glory Hole.” They were all vivid storytellers, and for a kid of six or seven growing up it was the best kind of entertainment I could have ever asked for.