Memories of a 20th Century South Texas Brush Country Family

Above:  Older brother George Pyron with me when I was a baby.  Notice the family car, a Model T, in the background, by the ‘four trees.”

Memories of a 20th Century South Texas Brush Country Family
Bernard Pyron

The story of the Blake Pyron family in the 20th century is one of cattle,
oil, grocery stores, rattle snakes,  running hounds after coyotes, and – grandfather
A.M. Pyron, who had been in the Confederate army, and when a young man had lived
among Texas trail drivers in the Mustang Creek and Sweet Home area of Lavaca county, Texas. Grandfather died at 86 when I was only one.

My older sister, Mary, in this essay on her memories of our family, provides information which I never knew because I was the youngest of four children. For example, I only remember Doctor Ware’s name as T.P. Ware. Mary says it was Preston Ware, and I now have a vague memory that was
his first name. He helped in the delivery of me, and perhaps also of Louise
and Mary. I am not sure where George was born, but I am sure he was
born at home, like the rest of us. Rural and village people in that
period did not go to hospitals to have babies, something which may
seem strange now that everyone is born in a hospital.

I have a memory of people coming into Somerset on Somerset Road, which
ran just to the West of the Pyron lands (330 acres in the thirties and
forties) in wagons pulled by two horses. And I can remember the
cowboys in town, especially on Saturdays, and the jungle of their
spurs. I remember a time when Uncle Casey came and got a cow which
was killed or severely injured on Somerset Road. It was on our place
along the road. He came with a kind of sled pulled by horses and put
the cow on it and pulled it to his place, apparently to butcher it.

I remember in the thirties that the oldest grandchild, who we called
Billy, or William Pyron Kenny, sometimes
worked cattle on our place, that is, on the four and a half acres we
had of the 15 or so acres
of the A.M.Pyron homestead tract. Billy was often dressed in chaps, with
cowboy boots and
a huge hat – no six shooter though. I do remember sitting in our Model
A along the sidewalk
of the Kenny store in Somerset watching Daddy talk to Jesse James, who
did have a six
shooter in a holster on his belt. This is the Somerset Jesse James,
who was a student of Mother’s back in 1915. Once Mother had her students write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Jessie James wrote that he wanted to become  a  “notorious desperado.”   Jessie had an older brother named, guess what? Yes. Frank James.  The third  James brother was Luther James, who ran coyote hounds and sometimes hunted with my Father and older brother, George.  Jesse James was killed in the Somerset coal mine by George Leonard during World War
II. He was an uncle of the High School Superintendent when I was in
High School, Bill James.

I clearly remember the sound of Uncle Casey’s pumping engine, about
three quarters of a mile to the east. The engine was loud and fired
in a regular slow beat. His engines pulled cables that ran along the
ground, some into Daddy’s 63 acres bordering the pump station to
the west. I remember the rods along the ground that moved back and
forth to pump the oil
wells on our land. Our land was across the road from the land of Gus
Kurz, father of Billie Kurz, high school classmate and one time girl
friend. The father of Gus Kurz, Carl Kurz, discovered oil on his land,
which bordered grandfather’s 640 acres.

Mary is accurate on the Pyron history, as far as I can tell. I
remember they had lived
in Robestown, way down in the Brush County for a while, apparently
sometime in the
twenties before I was born. The lived in Lytle once too, and I
remember a story of Daddy with George as a small boy walking from
Lytle to Somerset when the moved back to Somerset – and Daddy put
George up on the milk cow he was pulling, all the way for 8 miles to
Somerset. I think he had a Model T then but he had to move the milk
cow to Somerset and just pulled her all the way on foot. On a photo of
George with me as a baby maybe six months old the family Model T sits
in the background. a reminder of what era this was.

MARY PYRON BUSH’S  PYRON STORIES

“One morning I awoke early with the feeling I needed to go back over
the old picture of Grandpa Pyron, the dog-eared one taken about 1920
showing him with a mustache. Suddenly, a picture formed in my mind of
a gray mustache,stained by tobacco. I had been unable heretofore to
find an image of Grandpa Pyron prior to his stroke in my memory,but
then I recognized the mustache. I remembered the smell of the chewing
tobacco, I remembered the smelly spittoons and I remembered the
cutting machine that resembled a miniature paper cutter. At the
store, chewing tobacco came in a rectangular bar. The proper way to
chew tobacco was to first cut bite sized chunks of tobacco from the
plug. Grandpa was a proper man; so he cut his tobacco in a proper
manner. Of course, an individual could cut off a chew from his plug
with his pocket knife. That was acceptable. What was not acceptable
was to take the whole bar to your mouth and try to bite off a piece
with your teeth.

Whether grandpa smoked cigarettes or cigars, I can’t remember. Daddy
smoked cigarettes when we were small children but he quit and never
attempted to smoke again. His younger brother, William Milton, known
always as Casey, smoked, at least until he had a heart attack sometime
possibly in his late fifties. Casey rolled his own cigarettes from a
Bull Durham sack of tobacco. As a child I was fascinated to watch his
skills. Casey was a master story teller. He remembered every deer
hunt, every wolf hunt he had ever been on and could make each hunt
interesting and lively. He would take out his sack of tobacco,
retrieve a cigarette paper, then place it in the exact curl he wanted
in his left hand, pour in the tobacco, wrap up the cigarette while
still relating his exciting story, with only a telling pause to lick
the paper, bend the end of the completed cigarette, find a match and
light the thing—all a total and complete execution of intense drama.

It is possible Aunt Delia, his wife, did not enjoy tobacco smoke.
Neither Casey’s house nor ours when we were children had indoor
plumbing. I remember the floor in Casey’s privy was littered with
cigarette butts. He smoked in his yard, in the covered back porch
where he slept for years and in our back yard on the open porch where
we all gathered in the evenings to hear the grown ups recount the
events of the day and retell their stories.

Casey worked for an oil company, he was a “pumper.” He was assigned to
operate several pump houses in the area, to see that the oil tanks at
the wells were filled so that the oil could be picked up periodically
by a tank truck where the oil was then delivered to the refinery. It
was his job each day to start the big booming pump, to check the pump
rods that carried the energy from the large pump to the jack at the
well which then produced the strokes that brought the oil from the
ground to the surface. He worked outdoors every day and his
complexion was dark, a reddish brown color which matched the color of
some of the Plains Indians. He had brown eyes, dark hair with bushy,
dark eyebrows. His nose was prominent,with a high bridge similar to
the proverbial Roman nose.

When we walked in the pasture we were always conscious of the sound of
the pump engines, we could hear the swish of the long rods as they
moved backward and forward at the stroke of the engine beat. We
quickly learned the power of the beat of the pump because it didn’t
take long to know you couldn’t walk on the moving rods.

Even after the well had been drilled and had the pipes and jack in
place, the derrick was left at the well because it was necessary from
time to time to “pull” the well—put in different pipes, relocate some,
plus other such work. Work on the rigs was dangerous. Daddy’s sister
Ida, had married an oil field worker who fell to his death from a
derrick not too far from town. I don’t remember how the work load
designations were made—I just remember the “pumper” and the
“roustabout.”

Grandpa Pyron, after he discovered oil and had retired, still ran
cattle on his property. He allowed daddy and Casey each to develop
their own small herds. Grandpa loved the land and often walked from
his house to his pastures, always carrying a worn down garden hoe
which he had bent straight with the handle to form a cutting tool as
well as a walking stick. Mostly, he used the hoe for protection
against rattlesnakes. For some reason the brushy area near our house
was infested with rattlesnakes. Daddy did not keep all the rattles
from the snakes he killed in and around our yard, but I remember a
box, cmbe.Z shaped, which was full of rattles. (My note: This garbled
word to the left, is an indication I used optical character recognition
software on this and did not type it all out myself).

Not far from our house some land had been cleared for a field. I
remember once when I was young, probably about 4 years old, I was
running up and down in a hole left after a very large tree had been
removed. At the bottom was an attractive item which appeared to a
child to be a man’s necktie. I moved to pick up the thing, when
suddenly it moved, swirled into a curled position and began rattling
loudly. I don’t know what saved me, possibly George was nearby and
recognized the snake and called for help. Mother periodically had
frightening nightmares—we could hear her tremulous calls, not unlike
the call of a screech owl in the night. Always a snake was after her
or one of her children in her dream.

Once we heard the rattle of a snake under our house. The floor was
about 18 to 24 inches off the ground with siding covering all the way
down to the ground. There was one small trap door for an entrance
under the house. Daddy took a flashlight and a shotgun with him and
crawled into the dark reaches of this precarious space. He promised
us that the snake would rattle when he got near and he would be able
to locate it in the dark. After a virtual eternity with mother beside
herself with anxiety we heard the blast of the gun. Daddy didn’t
yell, “I got it”, there was just silence. We had to think perhaps the
gun had accidentally discharged and daddy was hurt. Then daddy
appeared at the trap door, laid the gun on the ground and said he had
killed the snake. We had a hoe nearby; so he reached under the house
and pulled out a huge rattlesnake. Something that always interested me
was the reflex action of the snake after it had been killed, even when
its head had been cut off. It moved, in and out, attempting to coil,
and this went on for a long time. We were told the snake would
continue to move until the sun went down.

Today we have easy access to bird books so we can identify birds, we
have books on trees, flower books to help us learn the names of the
plants. Daddy had an uncanny knowledge of nature’s critters and the
names of plants. He understood and observed nature. He could tell
the time in the night by the movement of the stars. After he retired,
he spent a lot of time carrying cracked corn to the fence row near the
house where he fed a nice covey of bob-white. A roadrunner had made a
nest year after year in a small tree at the front of the house.
Regularly, the birds made their trips to the back of the house into
the pasture. They passed daddy each time while he sat outside in the
yard. It gave daddy great pleasure to anticipate the roadrunners’
movements. He called the bird, Paisano—in Spanish, fellow countryman.

Perhaps it was a difficult adjustment for people who had farmed and
tended cattle to become merchants. Grandpa built the store and the
Pyron Brothers were in business—Casey and daddy. Aunt Mary, our
family spinster, tended the books, an important job since most of the
business was credit. I remember the store wall, where things were
located. Most of the groceries were on shelves behind the counter.
The customer would ask for an item or items which were brought forward
to the counter until the order was filled. Mostly, I remember where
the candy counter was located. More than anything I enjoyed watching
the candy salesman, probably from the Jenner’s Candy Company in San
Antonio, open his leather cases and show the various items that could
be ordered. One special selection I recall was a miniature ice cream
cone that was stuffed with a colorful marshmallow filling. Of course
there were Hershey kisses, jelly beans, suckers and candy coated nuts.
One of the popular, but dangerous items, was a special candy that was
filled with surprises. Sometimes you would bite into the candy to
find a ring, or a jack from a set of jacks, but mostly, we found
marbles, some colorful glass ones, but more than often the surprise
was a tan colored marble made from clay which were placed inside the
semi-circle we drew on the ground. The object was to shoot out these
marbles. Ralph Nader would have had a field day with that candy!

Pyron Brothers Store In Somerset, Mid Twenties

Delivery service was expected by many customers. They phoned in the
order, then someone had to leave the store to deliver the groceries.
Also, much of the merchandise had to be picked up from the wholesale
houses in San Antonio. Daddy had to trade in his Model T sedan for a
small Ford truck. Aunt Delia’s mother had sick spells often and Delia
had to drive out a distance to care for her; so it was decided daddy
should be the one to get the truck. I didn’t mind riding in the back
of the truck when we drove to the Blackjacks, but I felt uncomfortable
in town when we drove past a schoolmate. Susanne, I could always
understand how you felt about “Old Blue.” Regardless, that situation
for me didn’t last too long because after my second year in school we
moved to Robstown because the business was bankrupt, not like our
bankruptcy situations today.

In the winter when the pastures were bare and the cattle had little to
eat, daddy suffered for the cows. He could never bear the thought
that man or beast should go hungry. He had a noisy kerosine burning
“pear burner”, as we called it. At the top was a fuel tank with a pump
attached to add pressure to the fuel. A long metal pipe carried the
kerosine down to a burner which could be ignited. By pumping more air
into the fuel a better flame was available. The burning process was
very noisy. Cattle in the pasture could hear the pear burner and
associated the sound with food. By moving the flame over prickly pear
the thorns were burned away, thereby providing sustenance for hungry
cows. Sometimes the cows were so hungry they ate the cactus when it
was still hot. Although the operation was dangerous, daddy was
cautious. It was easy to ignite nearby grass and start a bad fire.
Another problem cattlemen faced in those days was losses through screw
worm infections. Sometimes blow flies attacked the tender skin of
baby calves after the umbilical cord was detached, but mostly, the
problems developed after castration. Blow fly larvae are horrible
wiggle worms which had to be treated immediately.
Screw worm medicine, colored red and distributed in a long neck glass bottle was
the best treatment available at the time. After an application, the
larvae, or screw worms could be dug out of the affected area with a
stick or a blunt instrument. Casey raised hogs for several years.
The same conditions applied to hogs as well as cattle. Casey would
come by periodically and ask me to help him. He called me, “Libbus.”
He would hold the hog on the ground while I dug out the worms. I
didn’t like the job but there was satisfaction in knowing I was
helpful. Through work of U. S. scientist in the Agriculture
Department the screw worm is under control.

During the hard times of the early 1930s, we witnessed a sad situation
which to me has never seemed right. The bottom had dropped out of the
cattle market. In order to possibly improve prices, the government
stipulated that cattlemen should round up their cattle, shoot a
certain percentage so there would be less cattle on the market,
thereby driving up the price. President Roosevelt had asked for and
been granted unlimited executive powers. Congress did not have to act
on such measures. I can’t remember the details (if I am judged on my
work here, call me lazy. Research would be tedious, but I could be
more exact.), but I believe a government agent came and checked the
cattle that were designated for the kill. This eliminated the
possibility the cattlemen would include culls and sick cows. I don1t
recall who shot the animals, but their bodies were burned. How much
the government paid for each animal I can’t recall. Anyway, the
reason the episode remains in my memory is because Grandma Pyron was
so upset about the whole situation. She kept repeating, “It’s wrong,
it’s wrong.” We believed that basically Roosevelt was our savior, but
there were some actions taken that were drastic.

Two operating oil refineries in Somerset provided work for a number of
people. However, gasoline prices were so low, finally one of the
refineries closed. Not too far from our school were at least three,
possibly four huge, huge storage tanks filled with oil or gasoline, I
can’t remember which. One night one of the tanks blew up. There was
speculation lightening had caused the explosion because there had been
a storm that night. The windows at the school on the side near the
fire had been blown out. Of course, there was no school the next day.
The smoke rose high in the air, leaving a smoke trail that extended
for miles and miles, reported by the news as nearly a hundred miles.
The oil company had experts on the scene to try to protect the
remaining storage tanks. One fire fighter said there would be a
second explosion.

The experience remains vivid in my memory. Louise and I were outside
playing with our neighbor cousins, Casey1s daughters, when suddenly we
saw a huge wall of fire shoot high into the air. We ran because to us
it seemed the fire would consume us. Those spectators who had
gathered at the sight had moved in as close as the intense heat would
allow, they also had to run to save their lives. Several cars that
had been parked too close were enveloped in flames when the fire wall
came down. Our doctor, Preston Ware, lost his car in the fire.

There are such varied and interesting activities for children growing
up today I wonder whether it seems as long each year until Christmas
for them as it did for us? Dolls were not on my want list. Louise
loved them and loved to play house. Making mud pies and sipping
imaginary tea from a tiny tin cup didn’t appeal to me. Poor Egie had
to make mud pies by herself. I did enjoy paper dolls. We couldn’t
wait for the new Sears and Roebuck catalogue each year because we
could cut out the people in the old catalogue and make them our play
like families. We created interesting families; we could take the lid
of a shoe box and imagine we were taking our families on a bus trip.
Our families were all pretty with handsome men.

George had a little metal truck that was exciting. He was tall enough
to push it on the two by four that formed the top of our yard fence.
It was a long way around on this grand highway. One truck wasn’t
enough for the three of us; so Louise and I used bottles for our cars.
We could always go down to the dumping place in a ravine near the
house and find a bottle that looked just like a car. The regular 8
ounce medicine bottle had a flat bottom while the ton was a nice oval
shape like a snazzy 4 door sedan. The bottle neck was the
radiator-George had grand schemes for the town lay out. He built
roads with a garden hoe. We brought in scrap blocks and made
interesting houses. One Spring George built a dam so we could have a
lake near our town. Following the first rain, mother had trouble
holding us back until the storm was over and we could check on the
dam. Sure enough, there was some water there, for a while, at least.

There were three families in our Pyron compound that used the dump. We
liked the blue bottles Milk of Magnesia came in. It didn’t have a flat
side, but it was pretty. There were lots of bottles fiat on both
sides: vanilla bottles, liniment bottles, etc. These could either be
used as trucks with no tops or they were touring cars with the canvas
top folded back. Remember, the early cars had detachable canvas curtains that could be
hooked on the sides where glass side windows are now used. Although
visibility was limited with just a small peep hole, the rain and the
cold was kept out. Grandpa Pyron had built a large 2 car garage not
too far from his house. During this particular period in our
childhood I remember a huge black touring car in the garage. Johnny
Hilton, Aunt Ida’s son, who lived with his mother at grandpa’s house
following the death of his father, Dr. Hilton, drove the family around
town or where-ever they needed to go. Then Johnny became a grown man
and left on his own , leaving the car to deteriorate in the garage. I
wont say what make it was because I don’t know. The back leather seat
was huge, it would hold at least 6 kids. We loved to play in it when
Aunt Mary wasn’t around. The radiator cap was fascinating: it was
large, round with a thermometer to gage the heat. We had to be
careful when we entered the car, the top had disintegrated long
before, because we might sit on an egg. Grandma had setting hens,
black and white Dominiquer chickens and the garage was one of their
favorite places to lay their eggs. Aunt Mary was sure their breed of
chickens out performed mother’s Rhode Island Reds.

From time to time, a traveling show would stop in town for a week or
so. Inside a large tent portable bleachers were set up and actual
talking movies were shown. Usually Aunt Delia took us, probably
because she was the only grown-up who could sit through the western
movies of that period. Aunt Delia was addicted to the Romance novels
of that period. Sometimes when I ran out of books to read I would
borrow one of hers. Always the cover had been removed from the book.
I asked Ruth, her daughter, why the covers had been removed and she
said Aunt Delia did that so that Casey would not notice when she had
bought a new book.

It wasn’t too long before George realized that he was too grown up to
play with his little sisters; so we had to find other games to play.
Louise and I plus Casey’s daughters, Ruth and Virginia, played out the
movies we had seen. Ruth chose to be Tom Mix; Louise was Hoot Gibson
and I chose to be a character I had liked in one of the movies— his
name I have forgotten because he never made it in big-time westerns.
It wasn’t too difficult to find toy six-shooters, and at times we had
make-do guns. I managed to nail leather reins on our stick horses.

We had toys. When daddy worked for Mr. Morrison, one of the bottling
companies, Coca Cola, I believe, gave toys as bonus incentives to
merchants. We had nice red wagons and there were several scooters. I
haven’t seen a scooter in a toy store for a long time. We enjoyed
playing on them. A toy children of today wouldn’t understand was the
metal hoop that was guided by a bent metal strip, used inside the
hoop. The hoops probably came off old wagon wheels, they were smooth
inside-Once the hoop had been set in motion, you could keep it rolling
and control it by using the bent strap.

For part of Bernard’s childhood he had hound dogs galore to play
with. Daddy would never have expended the time nor the expense
required to maintain a good pack of wolf hounds for his own pleasure.
Mother once told me that daddy was concerned about George gowning up
in a small town where it was easy for a young boy to become influenced
by a gang of boys who were not bad, but who participated in activities
daddy and mother could not condone. So, he brought in good dogs that
could do well on hunts. Apparently, George was pleased because he
entered the game with determination to learn all he could about hound
dogs. He subscribed to the magazine, “Hunters Horn” and read each
copy religiously. He knew the genealogy of every dog they had. I can
remember the sheets of paper he used to copy the blood lines. There
was a picture of a dog he had drawn on the cover of each of his school
books.

On Saturday nights when the weather was right a hunt was planned.
George had everything ready, the dogs loaded in the trailer, the chuck
box filled when daddy got off from work. Often other hunters in the
area would agree to meet at a certain place and the hunt was on. There
was a certain competitive feeling among the hunters concerning
their  dogs. A good hunter could recognize the bark of his dog
when it was on a trail. If the hunters were together enough they all
soon learned the bark of a particular dog, especially if it were a dog
that was aggressive and found the scent of a wolf quickly and stayed
on the hunt. Young dogs sometimes were a problem. They were excited
about the hunt and if turned loose too soon, they more than likely
would find the scent of a rabbit and would chase it, much to the
chagrin of the owner. To train the young dog, the owner would wait
until the older dogs had picked up the scent of game and were on a hot
trail, then they would release the young dogs.

Sometimes the dogs followed a trail that led far away from the camp.
There was nothing to do but wait. It was then the chuck box became
important. Coffee was brewed, hot and strong. Daddy always had good
thick slices of bacon which were cooked over the fire, then placed in
slices of bread to be eaten. If he had time during the day he would
make fresh bacon, take fresh pork, cut off the rind or thick skin,
slice it and season the meat. The chuck box and its contents became an
attraction for townspeople who weren’t hunters but who enjoyed being
outdoors with the lure of a camp fire.

There were few wolves in the area and more often than not the only
chase the hounds could find was a coyote, or perhaps a fox. The
hunters could recognize the prey’s pattern and knew what the dogs were
chasing. More and more as time went on the hunters had to drive a
distance to find good hunting grounds. A wolf could lead a pack of
dogs for miles and miles. The trained dogs stayed on the trail. When
the camp was broken and the dogs had not returned, that meant a
search the next day, Sunday, for the missing dogs. After a number of
years trailing dogs and caring for them, George found a new
interest—Ruby Nell Kurtz. Daddy was older, mother wasn’t well; so the
hunts ended. Bernard ended up with just one dog. Jack, a lovable water
spaniel.

Above: Father Blake B. Pyron On His Brush Country Pony, about 1915

Above: Grandfather A.M. Pyron after he got out of the Confederate army, but before he went to Texas in 1867.