the rambling boy
J. Frank Dobie, the father Texas literature
By LONN TAYLOR
My wife, Dedie, and I recently went on a ramble to South Texas to pay homage to J. Frank Dobie, the father of Texas literature. We went to Oakville, a town in the brush country 80 miles south of San Antonio, to a literary event called Dobie Dichos. In the 1890s, when Dobie was growing up on a ranch just a few miles away, Oakville was the county seat of Live Oak County, a bustling place with a courthouse, a two-story stone jail, a dozen stores, two hotels, two churches, a school, and a cotton gin. The railroad bypassed it, and in 1919 the county seat moved to George West, 18 miles away. Today there is nothing at Oakville except the two-story stone jail, a Baptist church, and a cafe called Van’s.
The lot next to the old jail building, once occupied by the courthouse, has several majestic live oak trees on it, and a dozen or so old board-and-batten cottages and commercial buildings have been moved onto it to create a sort of frontier village, complete with windmills and cisterns and a 1939 Plymouth sedan painted to resemble a police car. This was the setting for Dobie Dichos. As dusk fell a group of Texas writers invited by Bill Sibley, the organizer of the event, climbed up onto the back of a rusted flatbed truck permanently parked in front of one of the cottages and read their favorite passages from Dobie’s works to an audience of 200 people seated in folding chairs under electric lights strung between the oak trees. Before the readings started everyone had gorged themselves on bowls of chili con carne and thick slices of pan de campo, the Dutch oven-baked bread that has become the national dish of South Texas. The event had a relaxed, down-home atmosphere about it and I think everyone had a good time. I know Dedie and I did.
I was one of the eight readers. I read some excerpts from the chapter “A Little Near” in Dobie’s last book, Cow People. This chapter is about how close with a dollar some of the old-time ranchers were, and it includes the story about how Dan Waggoner once charged a group of cowboys who had brought some of his stray horses home a nickel for a bunch of shallots he had given them permission to pull up from his garden in order to flavor their noon meal, with the result that no cowboy who heard the story ever did Dan Waggoner another favor.
Other readers took different approaches. Ann Weisgarber, a novelist who lives in Sugarland, read passages from The Longhorns and speculated about what those words might mean in terms of Dobie’s own life, something I would never dare to do. Cowboy poet and singer Don Cadden of Alpine delivered a masterful recitation of “Diamond Bill, Confederate Ally,” Dobie’s tall tale about a tame rattlesnake that went to the Civil War. Kim Lehman, an Austin storyteller and teacher, performed “Brother Coyote and Brother Cricket,” using different voices for the two protagonists and almost singing Dobie’s description of the battle between the insects and the four-footers. Luke Reed and Gil Prather provided an interlude of cowboy songs halfway through the program.
William Jack Sibley, a San Antonio playwright and novelist whose family has ranched in South Texas since before the Civil War, organized the first Dobie Dichos six years ago in conjunction with the George West Storyfest, an event that takes over the town square of George West for the two days following the Dichos. Sibley is a wiry and energetic fellow who was all over the Dichos grounds, greeting guests, adjusting lights, and bouncing up and down the stairs to the flatbed truck to introduce each reader. He told me that he got acquainted with Dobie’s books as a boy, reading them on visits to his grandparents’ house in George West. “One day,” he said, “it dawned on me, my God, he’s from here! He’s writing about here! It was the first time I’d ever read a book about a place I knew. And so in 2010, when Mary Margaret Campbell asked me to help with Storyfest, I said, we’ve got to do something about Dobie. He’s the great storyteller from here and he needs to be honored. So the next year we did the first Dichos. We had Robert Flynn and John Philip Santos and Elizabeth Crook and Don Graham, the Dobie expert from UT, and we’ve never looked back.”
The morning after the Dichos, after a delicious breakfast of biscuits, gravy, and pan sausage at Van’s, we made a personal pilgrimage to Lagarto, about 18 miles from Oakville. Lagarto is where my family’s history briefly intersected with that of the Dobies. My great-grandfather Sidney Border tried to grow cotton there in the 1890s after his wife died, leaving him with 6 children at home. He gave up his freighting business, which required long trips away from home, and took up cotton farming so that he could look after his children. He lived at Lagarto for 4 years until moving on to more fertile soil in Wharton County in 1895. My grandmother was 14 when they moved there and she talked a lot about Lagarto when I was growing up. I have always wanted to go there.
Lagarto turned out to be nothing but a dip in the road where it crossed Lagarto Creek, with chaparral stretching in all directions. It was difficult to see how anyone could ever have grown cotton there. But in the 1890s Lagarto, like Oakville, was a thriving community, with stores, a gin, churches, a hotel, a newspaper, and even a college, Lagarto College. Today a paved lane leads back into the brush to a two-room schoolhouse built in the 1920s and a historical marker commemorating Lagarto College. The road ends at a locked ranch gate.
According to my grandmother J. Frank Dobie’s uncle Jim Dobie, the subject of several of Dobie’s stories, courted her older sister Mary when they lived at Lagarto. I do not know whether it is possible to make the historic facts jibe with this family story, but I do know that on the way to Lagarto we passed the smallest historical marker I have ever seen, a piece of metal about 14” x 4” stuck on a pole on the FM 534 right-of-way. The text said, “Dobie ranch 2 miles north. Dobie birthplace.” Whoever put up the money for that one must have been, as Dobie said, a little near.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.