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June 2009 cover image loblolly pines at Sam Rayburn

Destination: San Augustine

Pines and the Past

Travel time from:
Austin – 5.25 hours
Brownsville – 8.5 hours
Dallas – 3.5 hours
Houston – 2.75 hours
San Antonio – 6 hours
Lubbock – 9.5 hours
El Paso – 14.25 hours
by Rusty Middleton

Most Texans don’t know the history of San Augustine, but the town’s residents live it every day.

San Augustine is one of the most important, yet least recognized, towns in Texas. Once, it was as widely known as San Antonio. Today, relatively few Texans have ever heard of it.

That’s an ironic fate for a town that played such a crucial a role in our state’s history and development. Virtually every historic figure in early Texas, from Stephen F. and Moses Austin to Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and many others, spent time here, some of them a long time.

If you came to Texas in the early 19th century, you very likely came through San Augustine. It straddled the most important route in and out of early Texas, El Camino Real de los Tejas, or more simply, the old San Antonio Road (today’s Highway 21). San Augustine was the first town immigrating American settlers saw, and it was already old when they arrived.

Established in 1717, San Augustine was the far-eastern extremity of Spanish influence. Those are just a few of the countless historical facts about San Augustine. We found that putting faces on those facts was the best part of understanding this truly unique community.

My wife and I arrived in San Augustine armed with literature and Internet research, eager for exploration. What we encountered went far beyond the breezy language of brochures and terse statements on historical markers. We found a piece of our living past. It’s just that we didn’t know that quite yet.

Our three days of discovery began in the downtown San Augustine historic district, where it’s easy enough to walk around reading the markers and looking at the old buildings. Here we learned, to our surprise, that San Augustine was Sam Houston’s home for much of his life and that he came here to recover from his wound from the Battle of San Jacinto. But this was only sticking our toes in a deep historical pool.

There is layer upon layer of the past in San Augustine and the surrounding area. So much so that it takes time to absorb the scope of its complex history. While much of San Augustine’s historic designations focus on the Texas revolution and Texas Republic, there are also the Spanish era, Anglo-American colonization, the ­Mexican era, the days of the Confederacy and then early statehood.

Christ Churck Episcopal

At least 65 historic markers and designations (and many more without official designation) are scattered all around San Augustine County. These plaques tell often-interrelated stories that span almost three centuries.

We soon found that one way to make the past come alive is to head for the cemetery. We had plenty to choose from. There are 13 cemeteries with historic designation in San Augustine County and one of the best is City Cemetery, near downtown. Here the depth of San Augustine’s past really began to sink in. There is the family plot of Stephen Blount, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. In another area is the headstone of James Pinckney Henderson, first governor of Texas. There are many more names to contemplate, both famous and ordinary.

We continued our tour on foot and found historic homes and churches everywhere.

When you walk these quiet, picture-postcard streets lined with towering trees, it soon becomes apparent that today’s San Augustine retains an almost surreal early Texas ambiance. What could never translate from the literature is the feeling these old houses exude. These old buildings, some majestic, some humble, have stories to tell. Generations of lives, stretching back in some cases well into the 19th century, have played out in these homes. In fact many of the descendants of these earliest Texans are still here. You can talk to them. They live with one foot firmly in the present and the other in a powerful and compelling past. It’s not because they don’t have cable TV and Internet access; they do. It’s because they live in a culture that still contains strong elements of the way people used to relate to each other. Conversations are never rushed. People listen more. They are more considerate, more mindful of others in a quiet way. Multitasking is an interesting concept they have heard about.

Betty Jean Cartwright, widow of Baxter Cartwright, a direct descendant of the first Anglo settler in San Augustine around 1820, loves to tell stories about her family. “We really feel the presence of the past and our own family history here,” said Cartwright, the owner of a local real estate company. “It is something we are aware of every day.”

A little later it suddenly became apparent to us that these were the same Cartwrights who, until fairly recently, owned the house where we were staying, The Columns Bed and Breakfast. Her husband’s parents built the house in 1902, making it a relative newbie in San Augustine. “My husband was born in that house,” said Cartwright wistfully. Thankfully San Augustine is not a place where tourism marketing has arrived to tell you how to think and what to appreciate. In fact, San Augustine needs no hard sell. It speaks quite eloquently for itself.

We found that you only need to pay attention, absorb the atmosphere and let it bounce off today. A visit to San Augustine can be a powerful meditation on both our past and our present.

You can go to San Augustine for the ­history alone and come home entirely satisfied, but if you only did that, you would have missed some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities in Texas.

San Augustine sits right between two national forests, the Sabine and Angelina, which themselves surround two of the biggest and most productive reservoirs in the nation, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. Here, bass fishing is practiced as art form — or is it a religion? On almost any given weekend there are fishing tournaments on either lake.

Along with numerous other excited spectators, we stopped to watch the afternoon weigh-in for a tournament at Jackson Hill Park and Marina on Lake Sam Rayburn. The parking lot was full. Down near the marina, a line of fishermen, holding their catch in water-filled plastic bags, waited to record their day’s success. After the ­weigh-in, with points deducted for any dead fish, the live ones were immediately put back into the lake.

Even for smaller tournaments like this one, the turnout was good and the competition hot. Some fishermen don’t bother with a boat and can do quite well from the bank. Others power around the lake in $40,000 fishing machines and own dozens of rods and reels. Some of the largest tournaments involve thousands of participants. For example, in April of 2009, the Biggest Fish tournament on Sam Rayburn paid out $1 million in total prize money, with $250,000 going to the top scorer. With money like that involved, bass fishing, for some, has become a well-paid profession complete with corporate sponsorships and logo-covered jackets.

Most, though, are like John Rankin, tournament director for American Bass Anglers, a sportsman’s organization that sponsors fishing events around the country. Rankin, who has a day job, says he does it because he just loves to fish and get outdoors on the weekends.

“It’s a hobby for me and most people who participate in these events,” said Rankin, “although they like to win some money, if they can.” Rankin handed out several hundred dollars in prize money to the top fishermen that day. The fishing is also generally good for other species beside bass. There are catfish and striped bass and crappie among others. Using funds from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, TPWD periodically stocks both lakes with hatchery fish.

Even if you aren’t into fishing there’s plenty of other outdoor fun in the national forests around San Augustine. A variety of campgrounds, small lakes for fishing and canoeing, and wilderness areas for solitude dot these federal lands. There is also horseback riding and hunting and off-roading in some areas.

We had hiking and birding on our minds and, after looking for bald eagles at the Sandy Creek Recreation Area, decided to head for Boykin Springs in the Angelina National Forest.

Boykin is an outdoor recreation gem. There’s a 9-acre lake, springs, plenty of camping and some nice trails.

The 5 1/2-mile (round trip) Sawmill Trail from Boykin Springs to the Aldridge Sawmill Historic Site is one of the best in East Texas. Almost as soon as we left the campground we became enveloped in the serenity and calming silence of the soaring longleaf pines. Sharp-shinned hawks flitted by occasionally as we scanned for early migrating warblers. Much of the trail follows a charming little creek complete with burbling waterfalls. There are also views of the slow-moving Neches River that open up along the way. Wary red-eared slider turtles, warming themselves in conga lines on downed tree trunks, slid back into the water as soon as they saw us coming. At the end of the trail you get to see the remains of an early sawmill.

It’s a perfect day hike, easy enough for young children. There is one consideration, however. Some hurricane-damaged footbridges have not been replaced thus far. Some detours are necessary, but they are easy to navigate. After the hike, it was time for us to go home. Our three days ended way too soon.

DETAILS
•   Angelina National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas/recreation/angelina/angelina_gen_info.shtml, 936-897-1068)
•   Sabine National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r8/texas/recreation/sabine/sabine_gen_info.shtml, 409-625-1940)
•   San Augustine County Chamber of Commerce (www.sanaugustinetx.com, 936-275-3610)

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