Saving Texas’s only natural lake

August 3, 2007

Aptly named, Salvinia molesta threatens to choke Caddo Lake to death. As Caddo Lake is the only natural lake in Texas, and a site of outstanding beauty and great natural treasure, the friends of Caddo Lake are fighting back.

Spraying Salvinia molesta on Caddo Lake - NY Times photo by Michael Stravato

The New York Times features a lengthy story on the lake and the fight to save it in this week’s Science section (July 31, 2007 – Science is part of the Times every Tuesday).

Every Texas social studies teacher should know Caddo Lake and its stories as well as anything else. It’s the stuff memorable classes are made of.

1. It’s the only “natural” lake in Texas, though it is formed by a dam. The “only honest lake in Texas,” in the local lingo. The original lake was formed by a monumental log jam on the Red River, probably trees blown down by a massive hurricane several hundred years ago.

2. Caddo Lake is named after the Caddo Tribe, the tribe whose word for friend, “tejas,” gave the state its name. (See my earlier post on Caddoland.)

3. Caddo Lake straddles what was once “no man’s land,” or the Neutral Territory, a buffer zone between English/French, then American, and Spanish, then Mexican settlements. It was a haven for criminals, scalawags, filibusterers and revolutionaries. The area plays a large role in the decades of fighting to steal Texas from the Spain, and later from Mexico. Texas history is much better understood when one knows the lake.

4. Caddo Lake once was the means to make Jefferson, Texas, a port city. Until Col. Shreveport dynamited the logjam that made the lake in 1873, Jefferson was a bustling center of commerce. Today Jefferson boasts some wonderfully preserved historic remnants of that era, many converted to bed and breakfast inns, a great weekend getaway. Fishing is good, photography is great.

5. Ladybird Johnson was born nearby, and her family still lives in the area.

6. The Hughes Tool Company had its beginnings on Caddo Lake, where Howard Hughes, Sr., tested his drill bit, “the rock eater,” designed to cut through mud and rock to where the oil was; this is the home of the fortune that Howard Hughes, Jr., inherited, to build to one of the greatest fortunes in the world. That the younger Hughes was a rake, a mechanical genius, an air pioneer, daring movie producer, and weird as hell only makes the story better. Hughes named his movie production company after the lake, Caddo Productions.

6. Contrary to most of Texas’s political leanings, local people around Caddo Lake have rallied to efforts to protect the lake and conserve its rare beauty. The area is designated for protection as a Ramsar Treaty critical wetlands site — a designation that most conservative Texans ridicule and fear (at one point the Texas Republican Party platform opposed conservation easements to protect the lake bizarre). Latter-day Caddoans welcome the designation, and when we toured the area they sang the praises of Don Henley, the rock and roll musician who is aiding their efforts to save the lake. It’s an odd combination for any political work — uniquely Texas. (Here’s your chance to play the Eagles for your classes, teachers!)

7. When it comes to Texas botany, zoology, and biology in general, Caddo Lake provides the local angle for water quality, water shortages (one proposal is to steal water from the lake for Texas cities far away), wildlife management, and of course, the invasion of exotic species.

8. Everything about this area screams Texas quirkiness. Uncertain, Texas? An often-told story (accurate?) is that when the town applied for a post office, there was a dispute about what to call the town. The fellow who filled out the application wrote “uncertain” in the blank for the town’s name — and that’s how the U.S. Postal Service approved it. Another story holds that the name “Uncertain Landing” caught on because the landing was treacherous mooring for boats. You got a better story about your town’s name? I doubt it.

Save the article from the Times, teachers! You’ll be glad you have it later this year.

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True story: Yellow Rose of Texas, and the Battle of San Jacinto

April 15, 2007

After suffering crushing defeats in previous battles, and while many Texian rebels were running away from Santa Anna’s massive army — the largest and best trained in North America — Sam Houston’s ragtag band of rebels got the drop on Santa Anna at San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836. Most accounts say the routing of Santa Anna’s fighting machine took just 18 minutes.

San Jacinto Day is April 21. Texas history classes at Texas middle schools should be leading ceremonies marking the occasion — but probably won’t since it’s coming at the end of a week of federally-requested, state required testing.

Surrender of Santa Anna, Texas State Preservation Board Surrender of Santa Anna, painting by William Henry Huddle (1890); property of Texas State Preservation Board. The painting depicts Santa Anna being brought before a wounded Sam Houston, to surrender.

San Jacinto Monument brochure, with photo of monument

The San Jacinto Monument is 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument

How could Houston’s group have been so effective against a general who modeled himself after Napoleon, with a large, well-running army? In the 1950s a story came out that Santa Anna was distracted from battle. Even as he aged he regarded himself as a great ladies’ man — and it was a woman who detained the Mexican general in his tent, until it was too late to do anything but steal an enlisted man’s uniform and run.

That woman was mulatto, a “yellow rose,” and about whom the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was written, according story pieced together in the 1950s.

Could such a story be true? Many historians in the 1950s scoffed at the idea. (More below the fold.) Read the rest of this entry »

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