Ready to peek into Christmas Past, Texas style? Let me take you on a virtual visit to the George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond where they’ve lassoed a wonderful event to share just that!
The annual Christmas at the Ranch event was a bit different this year due to additional safety protocols, but the staff couldn’t have created a more welcoming and fascinating day for their guests.
Founded in 1824, the George Ranch showcases the four homes of four generations of this Texas family, and this time of year they’re dressed up for the season.
My first stop was at the visitor center, where I was provided with a map of the ranch and demonstration schedule. The park is laid out in a mile long loop (yes, a MILE), and visitors can ride a tractor pulled tram from one stop to the next. But I highly suggest combining riding and walking when weather permits, to enjoy the natural surroundings.
I rode the tram to my first stop, the 1830s Jones Stock Farm dog trot cabin, and was greeted by the volunteers dressed in period costumes. The cabin and buildings are replicas of Henry and Nancy Jones’ homestead – one of the earliest settlements of Northeast Mexico. Nope, it wasn’t even Texas yet!
One gentleman shared the background of the family and information about the cabin, and another charmer played beautiful music on his guitar and told a few tall tales that were impossible to resist.
A young woman had the unenviable, sticky task of demonstrating how to clean a deer hide in a yard populated by adorable hens, but managed to do it with a smile while explaining that when the thin hides were worked until thy were translucent, they could be used to cover the cabin windows during the winter months (since glass wouldn’t have been available).
In the breezeway of the dogtrot a young man worked at weaving on a loom, taking breaks to serve visitors Mexican hot cocoa that was brewing over one of the hearth fires – and was a treat on the chilly day.
In the nearby hog pen, one of the volunteers scratched the back of one of the docile 300-pound Berkshire pigs that are part of an initiative to preserve heritage breeds. Seems these fragrant residents are descendants of a rare breed that came to Texas from England in the 1830s. I know people who can’t trace their lineage as well!
After a quick look at the chicken coop (always interesting to me since gathering the eggs was my job when visiting my grandmother’s farm), smokehouse barn and outdoor kitchen, I worked my way back to the road to hop on the tram again.
Next stop: the 1860s Ryon Prairie home – picture perfect with garlands of evergreens draped across the porch rails.
Mary Moore “Polly” Ryon was the oldest of the Jones’ daughters. She inherited th majority of her family’s wealth, and amazingly was on of the largest land holders in the region by age 18! She and her husband William built a cattle ranching empire after the Civil War.
One young woman showed me around the knot garden and chicken coop until it was my turn (social distancing, ya know) to go inside the house.
Inside two young docents explained the uses of the men’s and women’s parlors, and directed me toward the kitchen where more volunteers were baking cookies for the visitors in a period stove.
I decided to walk the rest of the property rather than ride the tram since it was a beautiful day and I didn’t see any reason to rush.
Susan Elizabeth Ryan was Polly’s only surviving child and sole heir of Polly’s estate. She married banker civic leader John Harris Pickens Davis. The Victorian era home sits in a complex that includes a sharecropper’s farm, the family cemetery with graves dating between the 1820s to 1916 and the Oldenberg blacksmith shop. It seemed ironic to me that Polly isn’t in the family cemetery (she’s at Morton Cemetery in Richmond). But the existing monuments are beautiful and well cared for.
In the blacksmith shop, kids were invited to try their hand at “forging” knives from chunks of clay with rubber mallets.
In the side yard of the home, a sweet volunteer led visitors in creating Victorian style Christmas ornaments from paper as keepsakes of their visit.
The last home to tour was the 1930s George Ranch House (designed by famous Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton) and complex, where a barbershop quartet was entertaining passersby with Christmas carols.
Mamie George and her husband A.P. were the last descendants of the Henry and Nancy Jones family to oversee the ranching operation. Their influence and support is still seen across the community in libraries, schools, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a community center and countless other contributions.
Their home is still decorated with their furnishings, right down to the ornaments on the Christmas tree! I loved Mamie’s collection of ceramic cowboy boots from her travels lined up on the mantle.
Once all of the home tours were checked off of my list, I headed to the arena and barn area for the cattle working demonstrations.
The cowboys demonstrated some basic cutting and lassoing techniques while explaining how and why these things are still down on the working ranch. Afterward, one of the cowboys walked the onlookers over to a dipping vat and related how they were used in the past – and why they aren’t any more (thank heaven!).
Whether you’re looking for a day out by yourself like I was, or for something for the entire family to enjoy together, I highly recommend a visit to the George Ranch. It’s beautiful, fascinating…and you might just pick up a little Texas history along the way.
‘Tis the season for ghostly fun…and boy did we find some in Richmond!
As a cemetery historian and author of a couple of books about cemeteries and ghosts, October is understandably a busy time of the year for me – filled with giving tours and presentations. So it was a special treat last night when my husband and I took time for ourselves to TAKE a ghost tour of the historic district of Richmond, Texas. It’s one I’ve been wanting to see for years, and now I can’t wait to go back with friends next year!
Richmond is filled with history, which usually – in turn – means that through the years tragedies and unfortunate events have affected the lives of those who lived there. We found out that even the clock tower of the Fort Bend County Courthouse (where we got our marriage license many moons ago) has a story of death and a haunting attached to it.
We were lucky enough to have Jessica Avery, programs coordinator for the Fort Bend Museum, as our tour guide – assisted by a charming group of other museum employees and volunteers.
One of the things I appreciate about ghost tours organized by historical society groups is that they have a respect for true history as their basis. (Read that as “they don’t just make up a bunch of stories and get their references to history muddled – -I’ve seen that done way too often.) Though the Fort Bend Museum does historical tours of their properties throughout the year so you can learn about the historic aspects of them, their ghost tours focus on the tales and legends associated with the places. So . . . much . . . fun.
And no, I’m not going to share the stories they worked so hard to gather here. I want you to hear them for yourselves in the spots where they occurred!
It was an easy-paced walking tour as we followed Jessica through the streets nearby Moore Mansion and into old downtown Rosenberg as she pointed out different sites and shared their stories. Used to documenting with school groups, she has a lovely, clear speaking voice that was easily understandable even over the occasional street noise. The museum staff has visited with local business owners, so they’re able to share their unexplained experiences and sightings as well.
Several charming small buildings that belong to the group such as the McFarlane House are included, and attendees are encouraged to peek inside the windows! Charming by day, certain places with so much past can contain rooms where even the most serious-minded history experts may become so unsettled they have to gather their things and leave when darkness falls.
One of the properties even has a gravemarker in the front yard. What’s better is that it belongs to Texas hero Deaf Smith “The Texas Spy!” His name may sound familiar to you if you took Texas history in school. I had no idea such an illustrious person’s commemoration would be found inside the white picket fence of the property. There may even be more unmarked graves beneath the house, which was moved to the property much later.
Our final stop of the evening was at the fascinating 1883 Moore Mansion, home base for the Fort Bend Museum. And they definitely saved the best for last!
If you haven’t heard it before – but you probably have if you read my blog – funerals “back in the day” were held at home, and the staff had set up an entire Victorian funeral scene in one of the rooms complete with a mounting wreath, coffin, samples of mourning jewelry and announcements, and draped mirrors and pictures. Beautifully done, and very appropriate for the Halloween season.
The house was lit throughout only with battery operated candles and hand held flashlights, which added to the mood. Our guides gave us a tour upstairs and downstairs while telling us some eerily intriguing tales, then let us wander through the large home by ourselves for a bit.
Sign up early – they do sell out. You can choose to do a Halloween tour of the Moore Home or a ghost tour of the area. We chose to do a combo tour of both because . . . who wants to choose?
The Fort Bend Museum has events throughout the year for all ages. You can check the upcoming plans here.
The first tale I’ll share this October is probably one of the most famous to native Texans, and takes place in Bailey’s Prairie.
If you happen to be motoring south on Highway 35 and see a bouncing orange glow . . . it’s probably Old Brit Bailey in search of his jug of whiskey!
James Briton “Brit” Bailey was more than a real person. He was a real character. Known for his eccentric personality, love of drink and penchant for brawls, life was never dull in his presence. At six feet tall (quite a height for the time), was an imposing figure with his jet-black hair and broad brimmed hat.
“Brit” was born in North Carolina on August 1, 1779 in North Carolina. After fighting in the War of 1812 the pioneer came to Texas in 1818 with his second wife, Dot, six children and his slaves, settling in what came to be known as Brazoria County. Several years later Stephen F. Austin would arrive with the “Old Three Hundred” to settle parcels of land in the area.
Not one to pass up a fight or give ground on a cause he believed in, Brit was also a veteran of the Battle of Jones Creek in 1824, and the Battle of Velasco in 1832.
Locals love to share a story about the rowdy rancher that captures his personality. It seems that he shot at a traveling preacher’s feet to watch him dance. After the episode when the men were sharing a drink, the preacher took the opportunity to grab Brit’s gun and made the same demand. Roaring with delight, Brit jumped onto a table and energetically danced a jig while onlookers applauded.
His temper was as legendary as his humor, and one night he apparently set fire to all the buildings on his own property except the main house.
On December 6, 1832 Brit passed away quietly in his own bed from fever that many think may have been cholera.
Peculiar instructions in his will provided one more surprise for the community. He had requested to be buried standing up (now that took a deep hole!), facing west with his rifle over his shoulder, powder horn by his side, and a jug of whiskey.
Brit didn’t want anyone passing by his grave saying, “There lies Brit Bailey” and he figured if her was standing up….they couldn’t!
He was buried in a grove near his home and though all his instructions were followed, his jug whiskey was omitted from the coffin. His widow objected to that item, saying he had imbibed enough in his lifetime.
According to legend his ghost in the form of a strange light roams his old homestead at Bailey’s Prairie looking for the lost jug of whiskey. Many describe it as having an orange glow and bobbing around about four to six feet above the ground – the eight a lantern might be held on horseback.
Back when the story originated, it was said that Old Brit searched the prairie every seven years, but either people weren’t paying attention or he’s getting thirstier because now Bailey’s Light is seen on a regular basis.
Naysayers theorize the glow is caused by puffs of natural gas escaping from the ground, but you’ll be hard pressed to convince witnesses of that.
Bailey’s Prairie, Brit Bailey Boulevard (FM 521) and even a local chapter of the DAR are named for this unique figure in Texas history.
Texas State Historical Markers telling Brit’s story can be found just outside the gates of Munson Cemetery. Unfortunately, someone has vandalized the emblem off of Brit’s marker. (Hope that Brit chased them!)
Are you brave enough to search out Bailey’s Light on a dark night on the prairie?
Subject a real person: Confirmed
Location: Bailey’s Prairie, Brazoria County. Stretch of Highway 35 between Angleton and West Columbia
Best time to see phenomenon: Twilight
For more Texas ghost stories check out
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Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.
In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.
Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.
As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.
When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.
One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.
Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.
Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.
Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.
The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.
Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.
The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.
The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.
Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?
Texas traditions can originate from almost anywhere in the world, thanks to our diverse history of immigration. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of Mexico’s customs have been brought north of the border. The most colorful, and thought by many to be mysterious, celebration is Dia de los Muertos.
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When I first approached a group of friends about having a Dia de los Muertos party, they were a bit hesitant. “Isn’t that kind of morbid?” “Isn’t that a celebration of death?”
The simple answer is no – it’s something much more upbeat than you may think.
Luckily, a few of them had seen the Disney Pixar movie “Coco” that familiarized American audiences with the celebration through a powerful story about family, community, tradition and remembrance. Think about Memorial Day, and the concept doesn’t seem so strange.
The gist is to celebrate the lives of our ancestors, rather than mourn their passing, by incorporating food, drink and activities they enjoyed in life. Family members create “altars” in their homes with photos of loved ones surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and mementos. Others visit family cemeteries to decorate ancestors’ graves and share stories about their lives. The days of the celebration surround the Catholic “All Souls Day” on November 2. (So it isn’t really a ‘Halloween thing” like many think.)
Many of us no longer live in the communities of our ancestors, so circles of friends tend to become our new families. That’s why I thought having our own Dia de los Muertos celebration together would be a fun chance to celebrate all of our families and have some fun and great food at the same time! (Plus, I have some talented friends, so we’re always up for a reason to celebrate together!)
You can easily put together your own party as well.
Be sure to incorporate photos of loved ones who’ve passed, and share their stories. It keeps their spirit and your family lore alive.
I not only included photos of my mother, who we lost last year to Alzheimers, but also made tissue paper flowers for decorations – a craft she taught me as a child.
Attention to the smallest details can make a theme like this really come together. The talented Evangeline Event Designs made adorable sugar skull invitations and colorful menu cards, and I found some adorable small decorative accents, as well as a beautiful embroidered skull dishcloth at Hendley Market. The bright Fiestaware plates and platters are from Yesterday’s Best.
No Mexican theme meal is complete without tamales. We loved these from Pennie’s Tex Mex Takeout.
Alicia from The Kitchen Chick made chorizo with apricot sauce, Bob Armstrong queso (from the “Queso!” recipe book she carries in her store), and an amazing Blackberry Mezcal Smash Cocktail.
Our friend Stacy, otherwise known as the Hurried Hostess, made amazing fruit tacos and a churro bar. Yum-ola!
But the item that really had us all gasping in disbelief were the gorgeous cookies created by Jennifer from Good Gosh Ganache. I mean, really…look at these beauties!
Our friends Hailey and Tamara used their styling talents to help our buffet look amazing. Making this event such a group effort made it even more special.
Many communities in Texas offer the opportunity to experience Dia de los Muertos, including San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Victoria and Austin. Check your local community calendar to see if there’s one near you, and celebrate!
“Jumped headlong from a window of the Confederate Home…”
The line made me gasp out loud.
To back up a little, I was in search for background information about Christian Henry Thieme before a recent trip to Austin to locate his grave.
The Galvestonian was born in Germany in 1827, immigrated to Texas in 1860 and was a member of th e Catholic church He enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 34, once telling an interviewer that he had been “a private in Company B, in Cook’s heavy artillery. My first captain was Coura, and first major was Cook.”
I knew that he and his wife Elizabeth had a family of three daughters, and they all had survived the 1900 Storm. Yet at some point, Christian ended up in the Confederate Men’s Home (for disabled veterans) in Austin.
During the 1900 Storm, Christian and Elizabeth lived with their daughter Selma Nelson and her family at 710 Church Street. Although they didn’t lose any family members in the tragedy, they were sure to have witnessed grievous sights.
The traumatic events caused him to become mentally unbalanced, forcing his family to send him to the home in Austin the following April.
Suffering from rheumatism and old wounds far from home, he was dealt an additional blow when his wife died in November. She is buried in Galveston’s Oleander Cemetery, but her marker has been lost to time.
I thought I may have found all available information about him, and then came the discovery of a newspaper account of his death on June 23, 1910.
“Christian Thieme, an aged Confederate soldier, killed himself today by jumping headlong from a window of the Confederate Home. Thieme became mentally unbalanced at the time of the Galveston storm. Melancholia caused him to talk constantly of killing himself. Formerly an express man at Galveston, he lost all his property in the tidal wave and was force to come to the Confederate Home. None of his relatives can be located.”
Stunning. And infuriating…because his family still lived in Galveston and couldn’t have been too difficult to locate.
So I went to visit him and find his marker.
It stands in a sea of military markers in Confederate Field at the Texas State Cemetery, with his last name misspelled as “Thiemer.” Gleaming white as if wanting someone to remember his story.
And now he has had at least one visitor from home.
Texas State Cemetery, Confederate Field, Section 1 (F), Row B, No. 18.
Many gravestones don’t begin to tell the story of a life or death, just listing the barest of facts. But every so often I see one that illustrates a chapter of the life (or end of life in this case) that ensures the marker was created just for this specific individual. These are the type I wish every grave had, to help us appreciate the person memorialized.
This spectacular carving portrays a father holding a young child in his arms and standing at his wife’s gravesite. I’ve never seen one like it in person.
Even with over 150 years of weathering, the details are astounding. He holds a top hat in his left hand and his child in his right. The drapes of the child’s dressing gown hang down behind it’s father’s arm. Facial features of the man are still somewhat discernible, and his wife’s grave is marked with a headstone and footstone. One knows immediately that he has been left alone to care for their small child.
It marks the resting place of Clarissa Wells Collins in Austin’s historic Oakwood Cemetery.
Clarissa, a native New Yorker, married Travis County constable and farmer Thomas C. Collins in January 1856, when she was 30 years old.
They were blessed with a daughter, who they named Clarissa Ann (“Annie”), in July 1860 but just four months later Clarissa passed away.
On Halloween 1864 Adelaide “Addie” Swisher, Clarissa’s sister who had married James Monroe Swisher at her sister’s home in 1857, died as well presumably from postpartum complications. Her name is listed on Tom’s gravestone, along with the name “Little Lillie,” their three year old daughter who died the same year.
The following year Tom enlisted in the military and was stationed in Austin.
He joined his wife in death in April 1871.
Their young child, who is referred to in documentation alternately as Annie or Clara, ended up being raised by her aunt Ann Marie Wells in Brooklyn far from where her parents were laid to rest. She lived the rest of her life on the east coast, and I wonder if she ever came to visit their graves and stood before this stone. It’s doubtful.
So much sadness in such a short time.
But Tom’s love, and grief, is immortalized here in marble and encourages those who pass by to learn their story.
I came to Oakwood specifically to look for this marker, and made an additional discovery that made my day.
As I was photographing it, I looked at the bottom right corner and found the signature of the carver… Allen & Company Marbleworks of Galveston. Especially thrilling, since Allen owned the state’s first marbleworks, founded in Galveston in 1852 on Center Street between Strand and Mechanic. His business has now been owned by the Ott family for five generations.
The gravestone had traveled a long way to come here.
I love a good connection to Galveston history, and somehow seem to find them wherever I go.
I’ve been getting quite a few requests to do more cemetery history tours in Galveston in the past couple of months. So…..
I’ve scheduled a tour through Eventbrite to make it easier for individuals to sign up!
This is the cemetery tour that has been featured on “Texas Country Reporter,” “Texas Chronicles,” the local news, magazines and newspapers. I’m ready to show you that the true stories from the past really can be stranger than fiction!
We’ll meet in the Historic Broadway Cemetery District, where I’ll introduce you to some of Galveston’s past citizens, from heroes to villains, notorious to noteworthy. We’ll focus on Trinity Cemetery, where’s something here for everyone: stunning artwork, hidden symbolism, Civil War history, surprising trivia and even one resident ghost.
Follow this link to purchase your tickets, or to find out more details about the tour:
See you at the cemetery!