One afternoon in the 1980s I was returning from a business trip in Austin heading back home to Houston, Texas. About twelve miles south of the town of Bastrop on Highway 71 toward Houston is a cutoff to the small town of Smithville. I had not been there in a number of years andthought I would go back to see if the Bar B-Q restaurant that I remembered as a kid was still there. I could remember how good the Bar B-Q had tasted back then and wondered if it was just my recollection from a happy time in my life or whether the Barbecue was really all that good. Turning off the highway to the right takes you into town toward Main Street. When I made that turn I could see buildings that I remembered from my childhood that were still standing. All of them seemed to be there, even though some were painted differently and had different facades. I noticed that as I made the turn onto Main Street the old theater on the eastern corner of the intersection was no longer a theater, but was now a storage building for antiques. The front of the building had been changed and where the ticket booth had been was a set of double doors. The fire escape was gone as well, but I could see the marks on the building where it had been. At the end of the street was a gazebo in the place of the old two story railroad station where I used to get off the train from my trips from Houston and there was also a smaller building next to it which I found out was the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce. I could see an old railroad passenger car in the train yards beyond and only the brick skeletal remains of what was left of the roundhouse where the steam engines had been repaired for so many years.
I finally reached the building where a Bar B-Q establishment had been and sure enough it was still there. The building was Mikeska's Grocery back when I was a kid and had since been turned into a Bar-B-Q restaurant. The owner had changed the name back to "Charley's". It had been known as "Fuzzies" for the past several years. I purchased a delicious looking rib plate and sat down at one of the small tables that was provided. On the table, as in most small Texas Bar B-Q restaurants, was a roll of towel paper, an ash tray, and salt and pepper shakers. As I was eating my meal an old black gentleman came in, ordered his food, and sat down at a table close to mine. One of my memories of Smithville was of an old black man named "Puddin" who was in town every day. A childhood friend had grandparents we used to visit and we would talk to "Puddin" every time we went to town. He would tell us stories about the railroad and we would always give him a quarter for his time. It was expected that we would offer the quarter. If we failed to mention it, he would! This went on for many years while I was growing up and spending summers, Christmas vacations and various other weekends in Smithville.
In the restaurant, I went over to the old gentleman who was eating his Bar B-Q and asked him how long he had lived in Smithville. He replied that he had lived there all of his life, so I asked him if he knew "Puddin." He replied that he did. He said his name was Puddin Carter. He mentioned some other old men that he had known at the time. He proceeded to tell me about his own life and how hard it was to make ends meet from the meager social security payments that he received every month. As I was about to leave he turned to me and asked if I had a little money that I could spare him since times were hard. I had not had a stranger ask me for money in a long time and never in a restaurant. Somehow the question for a handout was not a problem for the old man. It did not seem to be bother him at all to ask me if I could spare him some money. To ask a white man for a handout for money seemed perfectly natural to him. I assume that he felt comfortable asking me, because we both shared old memories even if we were strangers. The question took me by surprise at first and I didn't reply to him right away. I excused myself and went to the restroom since I had a trip of a couple of hours back to Houston. In the restroom I thought about the scenario that had just taken place. It reminded me of times in the past when we gave "Puddin" quarters for his stories. It was a natural phenomenon for both me and the old black gentleman in the Bar B-Q restaurant. The event that had just taken place was not something foreign to either of us. Many people today would probably not understand what had just occurred, but there was no lack of understanding on either of our parts. We had been joined together through time, both understanding our roles from the past although the present presents an entirely different picture of relations between people both black and white, or does it? I gave him a five dollar bill and drove back to Houston.
It took a couple of years after the occurrence at the Bar B-Q restaurant before I began to realize the significance of the event. The more I thought of that incident, the more that I wondered exactly how much the town of Smithville had changed. Relations between blacks and whites have gone through many changes in the state. Race relations in the microcosm of the world that I grew up in Texas and the world of today are vastly different, but many of the old ideas have not changed at all. Young people growing up today can not know how it was for the disenfranchised people of Texas towns and cities of only a generation ago. They listen to the stories of their elders both black and white and can only imagine the feelings that were involved. They can empathize but not really experience the events that took place. The accounts of past injustices that are told to the listeners are only stories for them. It is hard for young people of today's generation to internalize and personalize the feelings of those old stories unless it actually happens to them first-hand. To an extent those old feelings are still felt by many, hidden by more modern accepted actions, but they are still there never the less.
This story is about those feelings, the things that go unsaid except in a whisper and only then to those who are trusted as having similar points of view. This is a story of the way it was, how I found it in the '80s and the prospects of the future in a small central Texas town, Smithville.
Smithville was truly the epitome of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." There was no other place more like the life in Wilder's Grover's Corners. The greatest negative criticism of Wilder's book also has its parallel in Smithville. Wilder refused "to deal with controversial elements of Grover's Corners - particularly, bigotry, alcohol abuse, and sex discrimination. He seem to gloss over the segregation of Polish and Canuck citizens, who appear to reside in a lesser section of town across the tracks, where the Catholic Church is located. Like the three families with Cotahatchee blood, the non-WASP residents of the town seem to blend harmlessly into the landscape - "out of sight and out of mind" (Carey, 1991, p. 44).
My Early Trips to Smithville
I have many pleasant memories of my trips to Smithville with one of my childhood friends. We stayed at his grandparents house on Gresham Street, not far from the Katy train yards. The train yards were always evident, since back then the steam locomotives would be coming and going at all hours of the day and night. This was in the mid 1950's and everything that I experienced was a new adventure. His grandmother would make every visit to Smithville quite a treat. She would always welcome us with plenty of Southern hospitality. One of the special treats that I remember her making for us were hot sugar cookies right out of the oven and brown gravy. We would place a few cookies on a large dinner plate and smother them with the brown gravy that she made so well. I think of that special treat today in a different way. I didn't think of the white sugar cookies and the brown gravy that accompanied them as having any significance other than a delicious treat, but thinking back they were an unlikely combination, one that few would ever think to join together. The same is true of the residents of that beautiful little town.
Sometimes my friend and I would travel to Smithville by car from Houston with his parents and on other occasions I would catch the Katy passenger train by myself. This was quite an adventure for a kid of my age. The train station in Houston at the time was under the bridge by the M & M Building next to the bayou where North Main turns into Main Street. Smithville back then was like Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town." It had all of the characters of the play and more. Everyone in town had their place and knew exactly where that place was. There was a true social hierarchy in the town. The rich lived in the big houses close to the river or on "doctors" row", the middle class lived in the medium sized houses in the rest of town on the north side of the highway that passed through town, more working class white people lived between the highway and the railroad tracks, and the poorer whites and all of the blacks lived on the south side of the tracks. In fact, the area on the south of the tracks had even been given a special name - "Buntetown." Even the name "Buntetown" had been corrupted through the years as "Bunnytown." Perhaps as a parody on the residents of the area.
The Bunte Addition, as it was called, was originally opened in 1895 by August and Meta Bunte. They began by selling small tracts of land throughout the 1880's between their farm and the railroad tracks. These sales continued up until 1917. Later on many of the residents of Buntetown lived there, because it was the only choice for them, either because of their economic condition or because of their race. The town of Smithville was truly a segregated community as were all communities in the state. The interesting fact is that many things have not changed much in the forty years since I first began visiting the town. This became apparent when I stopped to eat Bar B-Q and encountered the old black gentleman. It was as if time had stood still for him in that beautiful little town.
I have seen many changes in society by living in Houston for those past fifty years, but it didn't seem like the same changes had taken place in Smithville, Texas. Relations between different races and ethnic groups of people have changed a great deal in the big city. People from countries that were little known or unheard of in the 1950's have become an integral part of community life. No longer are people of different races prohibited from interacting with each other on a daily basis. I remember when we were a segregated community - a segregated nation. Growing up I remember the signs indicating the difference between "colored" and "white" conveniences. Restrooms and water fountains were all labeled so we would know which one was designated for our particular use. All of the city buses had movable signs high above each of the rows of seats with "white" written on the side facing the front of the bus and "colored" written on the other side designating what seats were reserved for each group. The signs could be slid back and forth on a track so that the placement of the signs could be rearranged depending on the route of the bus. On many bus lines black people were allotted only a few rows of seats in the back of the bus. Black people couldn't eat at white establishments nor sleep in white hotels or motels. Schools were established for each of the two designated races. If you were Hispanic or Asian you could choose either facility for your use, since there were no laws prohibiting those two ethnic groups from using any public facility. During that time life in Smithville was no different.
In Smithville as well as in many small Texas towns people who were not considered "white" were treated as second class citizens. I remember going to the store that has become a Bar B-Q restaurant when I was a kid that I did on my way back from Austin. Black folks could not eat in the main dining area with the whites. They could buy Bar B-Q from the establishment, but had to enter through as side entrance in the alley. There were about four booths behind a half-wall where the "colored" patrons could purchase Bar-B-Q and eat. The jobs that were held by blacks were limited back then if they were in the white community. The downtown movie theater had a small door on the side of the main entrance where the "colored" patrons had to enter. This door led directly to stairs which went upstairs to the balcony. "Colored" folks could not sit with the "white" folks on the first floor seating. Service jobs and some of the jobs on the railroad were reserved for people who were black. The job of porter, section men and a few others on the railroad were held exclusively by black people. Also if they worked in town it was best if they got back to Buntetown by dark. A black person could not walk the streets of Smithville after dark without questioning.
Smithville has changed from what it was in the 1950's. There were not many "people of color" living on the north side of the tracks in the town in the 80's. Most resided in Buntetown where they had for years. Many of the Czechs are no longer living on the outskirts of town and have pretty much been assimilated into the community, many holding prominent positions in the town . There is no trace of the Native-American, Spanish or Mexican influence in the area although there are Hispanic newcomers who came to the town for economic opportunity. The railroad still goes through the town, but the old two story train station is no longer standing. Instead it has been replaced by the Railroad Historical Park in which is located the Chamber of Commerce. The Railroad Historical Park is dedicated to the importance the railroad served to the growth and prosperity of the town of Smithville.
The Smithville Heritage Society Museum
Much of the history of the town is displayed at the The Smithville Heritage Society Museum which is located at 602 Main Street. It is open to the public on Tuesdays from 10:00-11:30a.m. and from 1:00-4:00p.m.
Carey, Gary (1991).Cliff Notes on Wilder's Our Town. Lincoln, NB: Cliff Notes, Inc.