Road Trip with the Roehms Essay
During the second week of January, my dad and I hit the road for South Texas. There were at least two reasons for this trip: 1) for some strange reason, I want to go to every place that Robert E. Howard mentions having gone to, and 2) Doctor Howard appears to have had a bit of a fascination with the lower Rio Grande Valley; perhaps there are buried documents in the region that could shed some light on the Howards’ movements. This second reason meant that we would have to stop at quite a few county seats, and we only had a week. We left early on Saturday morning and spent the night at a Best Western hotel in Las Cruces, New Mexico (a place Howard visited). After driving all day on Sunday, we got to do a little exploring before the sun went down. Our first stop was Eagle Pass, Texas (below).
In his circa June 1928 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard says that he “didn’t see such a hell of a lot of Eagle Pass but I saw Piedras Negras,” which is the Mexican town just over the border. As much as I would have liked to see that town, my wife had instructed me before I left: “No going to Mexico!” Given what’s been going on south of the border, I heeded her advice. Eagle Pass is much the same as most border towns I’ve visited in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. From Eagle Pass we headed east to Carrizo Springs, the county seat of Dimmit County, and spent the night at a newly-built Best Western.
In the morning, we took a little jaunt south, to Catarina, which Howard said in the same letter mentioned above “is overrated all to hell.” In another letter, undated to unknown recipient, he says, “Four years ago the site of Catarina was a wilderness of greasewood and mesquite. Now it’s booming like hell—and may slump as quick.” As the photo below shows, Howard nailed that one; however, there is quite a bit of oil activity in the area and Catarina may rise again.
From Catarina we backtracked north and spent some time going over documents in the Carrizo Springs courthouse. The 1910 U.S. Census has Doctor Howard’s sister, Willie Howard McClung, living in Dimmit County. We found no trace, but at our next stop, just a bit further north in Crystal City (county seat of Zavala Co.), we found the document that I reported on last time. After making our copies and checking out the area once owned by the McClungs, we continued east to Jourdanton, the county seat of Atascosa County, just south of Poteet.
In January 1910, Doctor Howard registered his credentials in Bexar County, the county north of Atascosa, and listed his address as Poteet. Registered in Bexar but living in Atascosa, perhaps there would be a trace of Doc Howard in the latter county. Nope. We found no trace, again, and we weren’t going to Bexar’s county seat, San Antonio. Why not? Allow me to explain.
After several years of visiting county seats in Texas, my dad and I have come up with something we call Roehm’s Axiom: The larger the county seat, the less helpful it will be. Last year, Hill County, Limestone County, Montague, Clay, Gaines were all extremely helpful, even if most had little or no useful information, but when we got to Wichita Falls, the red tape was up. Jourdanton is a ’tweener, small enough that they try to be helpful, but large enough that they are a tad too protective of their records. San Antonio would be a nightmare. So, after leaving the county seat, we went up and had a look at Poteet. The genealogy library was closed, so after lunch we headed south to George West (below).
In his circa August 1931 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard lists a few places he’d gone to, including San Angelo, Sonora, Junction, and Kerrville:
I went on to San Antonio, seventy miles to the south, then continuing south to George West, about a hundred miles from San Antonio — turned east again there to Beeville, and back home by way of Goliad, Victoria, Gonzales, Austin and Brownwood. It wasn’t really much of a trip, as it extended only over about a thousand miles altogether and I was gone only a week.
So, we also went to George West, had a look at the old downtown, and then went east to Beeville (Bee County), where we spent the night at a Best Western. Also had some fine Scotch eggs at the local Irish pub. In the morning, we hit the courthouse. Nothing. Then we drove over to Goliad, county seat of Goliad, and found nothing in the county documents. Having previously visited the other towns on Howard’s list, from Goliad we went south to Rockport, a little beach community on the Gulf. In his circa October 1931 letter to Lovecraft, Howard says, “I remember a night I spent at Rockport, a little port not very far from Corpus Christi. I stayed in a big rambling hotel close to the water’s edge.” So we toured the old town and looked for “rambling” hotels.
In his circa December 1932 letter to Lovecraft, Howard mentions a couple of other places on the Gulf:
It’s too bad sea-food affects you so adversely, particularly since you live in sea-port town. I fear you would suffer on the Corpus Christi waterfront; what with the rotting fish and shrimp along the beach, the fishing boats full of finny things, and the shacks where bait is sold in large quantities, the odor has occasionally nauseated even me, and I am even less susceptible to such things than the average. A ship ought to be able to make that port in a thick fog with no port-lights showing, by simply following the smell! The smell along the wharfs of Galveston, Aransas and Rockport is none too sweet, but that of Corpus Christi surpasses them all put together.
I’d already been to Galveston, but after leaving Rockport, we took the ferry over to Aransas Port, drove through Mustang Island State Park, and then went over the bridge into Corpus Christi, the county seat of Nueces County. After navigating to the old section of town, we decided to skip the courthouse: see Roehm’s Axiom above. I took a few pictures (one is below), had a nice chat with a bag lady, and then we were off.
In his circa February 1931 letter to Lovecraft, Howard says, “One time I remember I visited the old Santa Gertruda Rancho (Captain King’s South Texas hacienda) and there remembered I’d carelessly left my Kodak at the little town of Bishop a good many miles away.” So, after looking around Bishop, we went southwest to Kingsville (county seat of Kleberg County) and toured the King’s Ranch Museum and had a look in the courthouse. Finding nothing there, we went south and west to Falfurrius (county seat of Brooks County), where we spent the night at the Best Western. In the morning, we hit the courthouse, found nothing, and headed south on the “Falfurrius-Edinburg Road.”
In his December 1930 letter to Lovecraft, Howard describes the scene:
I can think of no more striking one than the sight that meets one’s eyes when entering the Rio Grande valley on the Falfurrias-Edinburg road. The way lies seventy miles through level monotonous waste-land — an arid, sandy desert, grown scantily with grease-wood bushes and chaparral, unrelieved by any hill, tree or stream — then without warning you ride out of the desert edge into the irrigated belt. Abruptly the whole scene changes; green fields, with broad irrigation ditches winding through them lie smiling in the sun, and blossoming orange-groves wave in the soft breeze; the road becomes an avenue of palms, flanked on either hand by the tall straight trees with their broad leaves whispering in the wind — and the little towns are so thick you can see from one to the other, almost, looking straight down the unwinding road — at least, that was the Valley six years ago.
With the exception of the thickness of the towns, Howard’s description is still pretty accurate, as seen below.
We arrived at Edinburg a little before noon and hit the courthouse. Edinburg is the county seat of Hidalgo County. While we didn’t find anything useful there, Roehm’s Axiom was violated—in the extreme. The land records had all been scanned and electronically indexed. A quick search for the names on my list revealed nothing and we were finished there in a few minutes. It was a different story in the vital records department of the County Clerk. All of their birth records have also been digitized, but you can only search through them by name, not by attending physician. I asked to see the old books that their records had come from and was denied. Over at the District Clerk’s office, the place where Physicians’ Registries are usually held, we struck out again, but this office bent over backwards to help us. Finding nothing, we left a phone number and hit the road to Weslaco.
As Howard’s September 7, 1924 letter states, there were in fact “Palm-trees waving in the gulf-breeze.” We toured the old town’s history museum, went down to the border crossing at Reynosa, then took the Border Highway all the way down to Brownsville (below). Since the staff at Edinburg had been so helpful, we decided to disregard Roehm’s Axiom here, the county seat of Cameron County. Big mistake, and, no surprise, nothing was found.
We ate a Whataburger, jumped back on the Border Highway, and cruised through the towns of McAllen and Mission, stopping just long enough to take some photographs. Edinburg, McAllen, Mission, and several other towns are all part of a traffic-infested metropolis that we were anxious to be out of, nothing at all like the post oaks region we like so much.
After Mission, civilization thins out a bit and we landed for the night at the Best Western in Rio Grande City, county seat of Starr County. Under a thick morning haze, we drove to the courthouse and had a look: nothing. As we were heading over to an annex building to look at more records, my phone started chirping—Edinburg was calling. I was asked if I was still in the area and if I wanted to go to the warehouse and look through their old books. Well, of course. So we looked through the Starr County Annex—nothing—and backtracked to Edinburg (below). Digging through old tomes looking for Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite things to do; even when nothing is found, I can at least cross things off my list. Nothing was found in Edinburg.
From there, we went back to Rio Grande City to look at the old town. Speaking of this border town in a February 1932 letter, Howard told Clyde Smith that the “Architecture and everything is Mexican. It’s just like being in Old Mexico.” As Howard had done, we went down the road to Roma, of which place he had nothing nice to say. We spent the rest of the day, and part of the evening, driving north. We landed at the Best Western in Del Rio and had the best Tex-Mex of the whole trip. The next morning we headed home.
With the exception of the scrap we found in Crystal City, Howard’s history is no better for our efforts in the South Texas courthouses. For me, though, the trip was well worth it. I’m pretty sure that I have now been to every place that Howard mentions going to in Texas (and New Mexico, too). Anyone who says that Howard was “home-bound” or complains that he never left Texas needs to look at a map: practically all of the east coast states could fit within Texas’ border; at 262,400 square miles, it’s larger than France (including the island of Corsica) at 211,209 square miles, for Pete’s sake.