Big Foot, Texas Article

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Childhood Eden attracts old and young

By Joe Holley
Express-News Staff Writer

On a summer afternoon in 1954, my grandmother was waiting on a customer in her Red & White Grocery when she heard two short rings on her phone, the party-line signal that the call was for her. She hurried through the store's back door to the bedroom — her house was attached to the store — picked up the phone and heard the operator tell her to wait for a long-distance call from, of all places, New York City.

Patricia Wert, 55, of San Antonio documents this year’s Bigfoot reunion for her family. She is a descendant of the Winters family. Below, Laxton Winters, 84, sits in the Bigfoot Museum. He is the last surviving member of the Winters family, which was among the town’s largest.
Photos by Maria J. Avila/Express-News

The caller, from NBC, wondered if she would be willing to fly to New York — all expenses paid, of course — and appear on a TV quiz show called "The Name's the Same," hosted by Dennis James. The show's panelists would attempt to guess the unusual name of her hometown in Texas.

Well, this was the 1950s, and people didn't just pick up and fly off to New York on a whim — even to appear on national TV. Besides, she was a widow lady who had a store to run.

But her friends urged her to go, and my Aunt Edith was willing to look after the store, so a couple of weeks later Nora Stevens boarded a plane in San Antonio and flew off to the Big Apple.

Arlene Francis, Arnold Stang and the other panelists plied her with questions about her hometown, and one of them finally guessed Big Feet, but not Bigfoot. My grandmother, a lifelong resident of Bigfoot, flew home in those pre-Regis days $80 richer.

Saturday, about 130 people — many from San Antonio and one from California — showed up for a reunion. They visited and reminisced and enjoyed a potluck lunch, including tomatoes and okra and watermelons fresh from local gardens. But the Bigfoot I remember, and certainly the town my mother remembers, is populated for the most part by ghosts these days.

The tall, old live oak that divides Farm Road 462, Bigfoot's "main street," still stands, but my grandmother died in 1967. The old building that for many years was her house and store has been razed and the lot leveled; I was happy to hear the county plans to build a park, picnic shelter and jogging trail where the store used to be.

The cement-block post office across the road from the store, where my grandmother's best friend, Lizzie Thomas, was postmistress for 50 years, has been boarded up for a long time.

Lizzie's green-sidinged house down the road is boarded up as well, everything inside just as it was when she died more than a decade ago. Both my Aunt Edith and Uncle Happy — his real name was C.B. Perron, but everybody called him Happy — passed on a few years back.

And the shirtless, shoeless boys my brothers and I were during our summers in Bigfoot — they don't exist any more either.

Not fading away

And yet despite time's changes, it was heartening Saturday to discover that Bigfoot is not really drying up and disappearing.

"When we moved back out here 10 years ago," Ernie Wilkins, 64, told me, "we might have 20 cars pass by our place. Now we may see three or four hundred."

More and more families with children are living in and around Bigfoot. Some folks live in Bigfoot and work in San Antonio or other nearby locales. Don Murphy, 40, lives with his family in Bigfoot and works in construction in Lytle.

The community center gradually is getting more younger people involved, and the Bigfoot School is open again. It's now an alternative school for Jourdanton and other towns in the area. And Jack and Arlene Bush have opened a convenience store, the first new business in town in years.

The Bigfoot Museum, a log cabin filled with Big Foot Wallace mementos, vintage photo albums, farm implements and a large rock weathered into the shape of a foot, gets maybe 500 visitors a year.

"We'd get a lot more," Doris Harvey said, "but we can't get enough volunteers to help us keep it open every day."

Folks attending Saturday's reunion strolled across the road to wander through the museum and listened to music by Country Swing, a traditional country band Bill Boyd and Joe Nixon formed 54 years ago.

"We had our first rehearsal in 1946, right here in this room," Boyd said, standing in front of the stage in the school auditorium.

Bigfoot, population about 290, has never been any bigger, although Toby Tomlin, 84, a classmate of my mother's, says it once was a bit livelier.

"My dad used to tell me," he said, "'When we used to go to Bigfoot on Saturday evening, you didn't go too late, or you wouldn't find a place to tie your team.'"

Tomlin, who's lived around Bigfoot his whole life, always has stories to tell me about my mother when she was a kid.

"Mildred was always really shy," he said. "But she was always really smart. When I needed to know about algebra that first year, she's the one who taught me."

'Let her stay a little while'

My mother started first grade at Bigfoot at age 4, the same time her sister Edith, two years older, started. Milly — Little Hon, her father called her — cried, because she wanted to go, too.

"Let her stay a little while," the teacher told my grandmother that first day. "When she gets tired, I'll give you a call, and you can come get her."

She never got tired. Twelve years later, she graduated at 15, valedictorian of Bigfoot High School's class of 1933. Her grades earned her a scholarship offer from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, but the family home had just burned to the ground, and her father, Pete Moore, had just died at 47 after a long, debilitating illness. There was no money in those Depression years.

My grandmother and the Bigfoot school superintendent decided between themselves that Draughon's Business School in San Antonio was more realistic for her.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," she told me once, wistfully. I wish she could have been.

"When did you get to be an old woman?" I heard Toby Tomlin laughingly ask her at the reunion a couple of years ago.

"About the same time you got to be an old man," Mom told her old friend.

The fact is, though, she gets younger when she's around these people she's known her whole life. I can see it. She's at home in Bigfoot, even though it's been nearly 70 years since she moved away.

The town is named after the old Indian fighter and Texas Ranger Big Foot Wallace, but how the name came about is a matter of conjecture.

Sign on the wall

According to the story most old-timers accept, Wallace, who lived in the area a few years before his death in 1899, sent a little neighbor girl named Virginia Bramlett to Connally's General Store to buy him a plug of tobacco.

Along the way, Little Gin, as she was called, lost the money Wallace had given her, but the storekeeper gave her the tobacco anyway and wrote on the wall of the store, "Bigfoot 10 cents." Eventually the name on the wall became the name of the community.

How William Alexander Anderson Wallace earned his nickname also is a matter of conjecture.

Wallace, who came to Texas from Virginia in 1836 at age 17 to avenge the death of his brother at the Goliad massacre, was a big man who no doubt had a big foot, or he may have killed an Indian with a big foot. No one knows for sure.

My memories of Bigfoot — the town — pick up in the 1950s, when my brothers and I spent a portion of our summers with our grandmother, Mammy, as we called her.

Sifting for bottle caps

The Bigfoot I remember — in those years when it never rained — was hot, dry and sandy, the sand so thick in places it spilled out into the road. I remember grass burrs everywhere, and water so red, it stained bathtubs orange and turned tea murky.

There really wasn't a whole lot to do. I remember one late afternoon, after the sand in front of the store had cooled, sifting through the dirt for flattened-out bottle caps. In the evenings, again after things had cooled off a bit, we'd horse around on the school playground equipment, or play football in the road.

We would wander down to Happy and Edith's and play with their fat, old dog Chula. It was a big day when the Red & White truck came out from San Antonio to restock the store.

We loved being in Bigfoot. We'd hang around the store, where we were allowed either a soft drink or candy bar or Popsicle in the morning and one in the afternoon, when it was so hot that Mammy would finally turn on the noisy, old water cooler in the front window.

We'd sit on the red wooden benches on the long front porch and listen to Ethel Winters or Tom Coggin or Clarence Thomas or the Winters boys tell tales or talk about what was happening down in the oil fields south of town.

About 10 every morning, Lizzie Thomas would have the mail put up at the post office across the road, and cars and pickups would pull up before the post office and Mammy's store. People would get their mail and then wander over to the store to visit with their neighbors over a Coke or a Big Red.

I also remember the soughing sound of mourning doves in the evening, and the quiet at night. I remember how my grandmother could rarely finish a meal without the jingle of the bell on the store's screen door announcing a customer.

I remember racing to church on Sunday mornings, trying to slip in ahead of the elderly lady who, when my brothers, cousins and I weren't around, considered it her God-given duty to distribute the hymnals and paper fans. The fans had a color picture of Jesus on one side and an advertisement for a Devine funeral home on the other.

"What is it you like about Bigfoot?" I asked Ivan Wilson at the reunion. Wilson, 72, started preaching at the Bigfoot Church of Christ in the 1940s, when he was a student at Southwest Texas State.

He kept on preaching when he was in the Air Force at Lackland AFB, and his brother James still preaches at Bigfoot. Although Wilson and his wife, Lola, live in Corpus Christi, they get back to Bigfoot every chance they get.

"Everything here is natural," Wilson replied, having to shout over the lively sounds of Country Swing. "There's no put-on. It's a very homey place."

That's the Bigfoot I remember, the Bigfoot that still is, it seems. That "very homey place" is what I have in mind when I tease my wife, Tara, about retiring to Bigfoot someday. She's not yet persuaded.

jholley@express-news.net

Staff Writer Joe Holley grew up in Waco, but he and his brothers spent part of every summer in Bigfoot, the tiny Frio County community where his mother grew up. Over the weekend, he and his parents, Horace and Mildred Holley, went back to the Bigfoot reunion, held the fourth Saturday in June every year at the Bigfoot School.

TXGenWeb, Frio County - Big Foot, Texas Article updated on 08/10/2005

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