THE FOUNDERS OF YOAKUM

Straddling two counties—Lavaca and DeWitt—Yoakum, Texas, finds itself in a somewhat unique position in the state, geographically. According to an article by Taylor Tompkins in the Victoria Advocate newspaper dated February 22, 2018, many of its residences and industries are in Lavaca County, while most of the downtown commercial district is to be found in DeWitt County. This a tad confusing since the National Register of Historic Places has recognized the Yoakum Commercial Historic District as being in Lavaca County. In all likelihood, this historic downtown district is to be found in both counties.

The total land area of the city is a tad less than five square miles, the approximate equivalent of the antiquated measure known as a “league of land.” From an aerial perspective, the city appears to be bisected by the DeWitt-Lavaca County line, with approximately one-third of its land area in DeWitt County to the southwest and two-thirds in Lavaca County to the northeast.

This unique situation was caused by the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway when they built the town on 200 acres of land donated to them by descendants of the original settlers, John and Mary Ann Riley May, in 1887, long after these county boundaries had already been established. (Note: Some sources state that the amount of land donated was the May family’s entire league of land. This is undoubtedly incorrect given that John and Mary Ann May had three sons, who in turn had a total of 20 children among them. That original league of land, approximately 4,428 acres, was most likely carved up among the many May heirs and descendants long before the railroad ever arrived on the scene. Where the “league of land” donation interpretation probably came into being was where the railway right of way across the May family’s property was concerned.)

The fact that the size of present-day Yoakum happens to equate to the same amount of land as the outdated term, “league of land,” is pure coincidence, a more likely result of periodic annexations of surrounding land. Moreover, Mary Ann Riley May, the matriarch of the family, and her second son, Patrick Henry May, both died in 1887, the same year some member(s) of the family donated the 200 acres to the railroad, probably in honor of one or both of these ancestors, perhaps hoping that the railroad would honor their ancestors by incorporating the family surname into the new town’s name, e.g., Mayville. Mayburg, or some variation thereof. This was not to be.

Instead, the new railroad town was named after the railroad’s vice-president and general manager, a native Texan named Benjamin Franklin Yoakum, himself the namesake of one of the Founding Fathers of our country, a not uncommon practice in those days when families were larger. According to a Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) biographical entry written by Mary M. Orozco-Vallejo about Mr. Yoakum in 1952, “His career was one of the most colorful of the many men in railroad history. He knew each branch of work: engineering, traffic, operating, and finance.” Later in his career, in 1905, Yoakum became the chairman of the executive committee of the Yoakum Line, the result of the merger of the Frisco and Rock Island Lines. “At the time [this] was the largest railroad system under a single control.” I wonder what “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, reputedly the most important American railroad magnate of the 19th century, would have to say in response to that.

Moreover, Wikipedia states, “In 1909, when Yoakum controlled 17,500 miles of railroad, Railway World magazine called him an ‘empire builder’ who had done as much for the Southwest [United States] as legendary James J. Hill had done for the Northwest.” The takeaway here, obviously, is that the City of Yoakum’s genesis lay in being named after one of the giants of the railroad industry during that era of American history known as “The Gilded Age.” Not too shabby a namesake, that!

But before Benjamin Franklin Yoakum came along with his railroad, there were John May and his wife Mary Ann, who had immigrated from County Down, Northern Ireland, settling in Missouri circa 1815 through 1828, the span of time over which their three sons—John Joseph, Patrick Henry, and Benedict—were born there.  Hearing of opportunities in Texas, the May family pulled up stakes from Missouri and relocated to a site on Brushy Creek, where they made their new homestead in what is now South Texas. In 1835, the Mexican state of Coahuila granted John May a league of land. The Mays built a traditional “dogtrot” log cabin sometime during the 1840s, which is now known as the May-Hickey House. It has been accorded the honor of being only one of two structures in Yoakum to be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL).

Other early settlers and neighbors of the Mays included Patrick Sawey, John Douglas, and a widower by the surname of O’Dougherty. Because they were victims of the incident known as “The Runaway Scrape” during the Texas Revolution after the fall of the Alamo, Yoakum is registered as one of the official stops on the Texas Independence Trail.

The quarter century between 1836 and the outset of the Civil War in 1861 was relatively inconsequential in the environs of the Mays’ little settlement. The colony had no official name, no noticeable increase in population, no change in its basic agricultural makeup. During this period, both John and Mary Ann May died—he in 1844, she in 1854. They were buried in Brushy Creek Cemetery.

There is disagreement among historians as to the colonists’ relations with the Native Americans who were indigenous to the region, primarily the Tonkawa tribe. Some historians say the Tonkawas had aided the Mexicans during the Runaway Scrape, burning and looting the settlers’ farms and homes as they fled from Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s marauding army. But given some subsequent anecdotal research, it seems more likely that the Comanches, the avowed enemies of the Tonkawas, or some other more warlike tribes were the culprits in that incident.

In an article written by Jeffrey D. Carlisle in 1952, entitled “Tonkawa Indians” and published in the Handbook of Texas on the TSHA’s website, Mr. Carlisle states: “The arrival of Anglo-Americans, Stephen F. Austin’s colonists in particular, apparently ushered in a period of cordial relations [as opposed to what the Tonkawas had previously experienced under Spanish and Mexican rule]. The Tonkawas often aided their new Anglo allies against the Comanches. . . . The Tonkawas remained staunch allies of the English-speaking settlers in Texas. They continued to help the Texans and later the United States during their wars with other Indian tribes.”

Since Stephen F. Austin’s first colonists, known collectively as “The Old Three Hundred,” began arriving in Texas in the early 1820s, 15 years prior to the Runaway Scrape, they had likely developed good relations with the Tonkawas long before that episode. So let us lay these Indian depredations at the feet of the more warlike Comanches, not the more friendly Tonkawas, as was more likely the case.

This point of view about the friendly relations between the Anglos and the Tonkawas is further bolstered by the fact that Margaret Hallett, founder of nearby Hallettsville during this same period, had run a trading post where Tonkawas freely traded their pelts and hides. The Tonkawa chief thought so highly of the widow Hallett that he made her an honorary member of the tribe, giving her the nickname, “Brave Squaw.” When she died nearly three decades later, Tonkawa Indians decorated her grave.

LONGHORNS, THE CIVIL WAR, AND THE CHISHOLM TRAIL

The Spanish conquistadors introduced cattle to North America via Mexico and what later became Texas in the 1500s. Their purpose, obviously, was to provide food for their men during their explorations of Mexico and Texas. Those cattle that they did not eat were left to roam the range and multiply. The breed commonly referred to as “Texas Longhorns” were a result of the accidental crossbreeding of these wild Spanish cattle’s descendants and the cows of early Anglo-American settlers, including English Longhorns.

An article entitled “Texas Longhorns: A Short History,” written by the historynet.com website staff, describes this breed of cattle thusly: “The easily identifiable result [of the Spanish and American crossbreeding] is a wild, slab-sided, ornery, multicolored bovine weighing between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds and having a horn spread of 4 to 7 feet. A Longhorn was considered mature at 10 years, and by then averaged 1,200 pounds. The combination of these characteristics made Longhorns hearty and self-reliant. One of their drawbacks was their meat. It was known to be lean, stringy and tough, but was still better than beef from Criollo [Spanish] cattle.” It was this breed of cattle that was to prove Texas’s economic salvation in the dark days following the Civil War. That this animal is the symbol and mascot of the largest state-supported university in Texas comes as no surprise.

Both DeWitt and Lavaca Counties were among the majority of those Texas counties that had voted to secede from the Union in the February 23, 1861, Referendum on Secession. This was in all likelihood more a sign of solidarity with the other slave-holding states in the South than it was in support of the institution of slavery itself, which most Texans, particularly the German immigrants, opposed. On March 1st, 1861, Texas was accepted as a state by the provisional government of the Confederate States of America. The Texas state governor and great hero of the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston, resigned his office on March 16th, in protest of secession.

The Civil War and the draconian Reconstruction period that followed it devastated the Texas economy. The area around what later became Yoakum evolved into an important gathering spot for the great cattle drives that sprung up in Texas after the Civil War. It was in fact a beginning terminus for the most famous of these, the Chisholm Trail. By war’s end it is estimated that some five to six million unbranded wild Longhorns roamed the Texas range. The industrial North needed meat, and Texas was only too willing to oblige. Right place, right time.

Unlike the image most folks have of Jesse Chisholm, who was most famously portrayed by none other than the great Western movie star John Wayne, the man himself was actually a half-breed Scot-Cherokee Indian (ca. 1805 – 1868) who was an important trader and plainsman of the era. Fluent in 14 Native American languages, he played a vital role in negotiating many treaties between Indian tribes and the Texan and American governments, most of which were, sadly, later broken by the U.S. government.

Chisholm’s Scottish father deserted his Cherokee mother in Eastern Tennessee when he and his two brothers were still quite young. His mother brought her brood to Arkansas in 1810 with Tahlonteskee’s group to live among the Cherokees gathered there. Tahlonteskee was a principal chief of the first Cherokee Nation. Chisholm was brought up as an Indian, not as a cowboy modeled on John Wayne. In the late 1820s, he relocated to Oklahoma to live in the Cherokee Nation settlement near Fort Gibson.

A photograph of Chisholm, taken circa the mid-1860s and courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society, depicts a grizzled, mustachioed man with a fierce, determined, dark-complected demeanor and tousled white hair–not someone you’d care to tangle with. Chisholm had blazed a trail in 1864, not for cattle, but for hauling trade goods to Indian camps some 200 miles south of his trading post near present-day Wichita, Kansas. He was a man to cater to the needs of his own people.

For 20 years Chisholm had worked with Sam Houston, who had himself lived among the Cherokees on his way to Texas from Tennessee. Together, they furthered relations between various Indian tribes and the encroaching white settlers. By 1858, Chisholm’s involvement with Texas had pretty much run its course and he stayed mostly in Western Oklahoma.   

During the Civil War Chisholm worked both sides of the street, first as a trader/intermediary between the Confederacy and the Indians, then as an interpreter for Union officers. Quite clearly, Chisholm considered himself a member of the Cherokee Nation, not a citizen of the United States or the short-lived Confederate States. Make no mistake about it, Chisholm was an Indian by birth, by blood, and by choice. It is noteworthy, however, that he married a white woman, the daughter of a fellow trader.

It was at the terminus of Chisholm’s trading trail that, in 1867, Texas cattleman O.W. Wheeler and his partners decided to turn their herd of 2,400 cattle from their original intended destination in faraway California, to a shorter, more northerly route to tiny Abilene, Kansas. Here a railhead and stockyard had been constructed in cooperation with the railroad by an Illinois entrepreneur named Joseph G. McCoy, specifically for the purpose of shipping cattle to northern and eastern markets. Wheeler’s first trail-blazing herd followed Chisholm’s trail established three years earlier from the Red River, the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma.

Though known by many other names over the period of its existence (1867 – 1884), the entire length of the trail, from the Rio Grande River to central Kansas, eventually came to be known as the “Chisholm Trail.” Ironically, I could uncover no shred of evidence that Jesse Chisholm himself ever drove a single cow or steer to market over the trail that bears his name, John Wayne’s and Hollywood’s spin on the man and his legend notwithstanding.

By the end of its era 17 years later in 1884, it is estimated that over five million cattle and one million mustang horses had been driven to market via the Chisholm Trail, the greatest migration of livestock in world history. From an economic perspective, Texas was in a “bull market” (pardon the pun). And the area around what was to become Yoakum, Texas, was the trail’s southernmost terminus, not a bad claim to fame, that.

In Ogallala, Nebraska, there is a mural in a U.S. Post Office that commemorates Yoakum’s role as the once-upon-a-time terminus of the Chisholm Trail. And today, a Texas State Historical Marker stands in the Chisholm Trail Memorial Park in Yoakum recognizing “The Trail Drivers of Southwest Texas Who Passed This Way 1867 – 1887.” It is history such as this that makes a fella kind of proud to be a native-born Texan! You can almost hear Willie and Waylon singing in the background, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”

THE GAME CHANGER: A RAILROAD TOWN FROM THE GIT-GO

All that remains of Yoakum’s magnificent San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway Depot are some beautiful old postcards—many of them collectors’ items–depicting a bygone era when the two-story, multi-chimneyed structure graced the downtown commercial district. This passenger depot was fitting for its time–the late 19th and early 20th century–when Yoakum was home to many railroad shops and a roundhouse, making the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway one of the biggest employers in the area.

The city of Yoakum owes its creation, in large part, to Mr. Uriah Lott, who dreamt of building a railroad from San Antonio to Aransas Pass. By default, Yoakum won the right to become his railroad hub, because the nearby cities of Cuero and Hallettsville were unwilling to donate the land necessary upon which to build the much-needed railroad shops. That’s when the May family stepped up in 1887 and offered Mr. Lott’s nascent railroad 200 acres for the railroad yard, requisite maintenance shops, roundhouse, and the right of way across their league of land for tracks to Houston and Waco.

Thus did Mr. Lott’s dreams come true on July 28, 1887, when the town of Yoakum was born with the aid of seven million dollars in financing from Mr. Mifflin Kenedy. Originally a Quaker from Pennsylvania, Kenedy had in his lifetime been a teacher, sailor, river steamboat captain, owner of a steamship line, and rancher. With the financial backing of Kenedy, Lott laid somewhere between 600 and 700 miles of track (sources differ), with the main line running from San Antonio to Houston and two additional lines from Yoakum to Waco and Yoakum to Corpus Christi.

Correspondingly, as a result of all the new jobs created by the railroad, Yoakum’s population grew exponentially in a very short span of time. Yoakum had become, almost overnight, “the Hub City of South Texas.” It had also been transformed from a primarily agricultural-based economy to one focused on transportation and commercial interests. Its future indeed looked bright ahead. Within a very brief period, Yoakum could boast of a general store and a post office, and it was incorporated less than two years after its founding. Before the end of the 19th century, the town had numerous businesses—a cotton mill, three cotton gins, an ice factory, a bank, various types of stores, and three newspapers. There were also several churches, a public school system with 700 students, and a population of 3,500, up 100% over the previous (1890) census.

THE 20TH CENTURY AND BEYOND

As Yoakum turned the corner of the 20th century, the by-word became “diversification” due to the financially strapped railroad, which had been bought out by the gargantuan Southern Pacific Railroad. Despite this bailout, however, railroad traffic continued to decline. Fortunately, though, the town got an economic shot in the arm in 1919, when Mr. C.C. Welhausen bought a small tannery, the first of several in Yoakum, which he named Tex-Tan. Here he manufactured saddles, bridles, harnesses, belts, billfolds, and leather novelties. Tex-Tan was later bought out by the Tandy Corporation. Presently there are ten other leather companies in Yoakum. This new industry earned Yoakum the title, “Leather Capital of the Southwest.”

Wisely, the city fathers sought out yet another industry they could develop locally. Hailing back to the town’s original agricultural roots, in 1925 the Yoakum Chamber of Commerce convinced local farmers to begin growing tomatoes as a mainstay crop. This project turned out to be huge success, a real feather in their cap, and the first annual “Tom-Tom Festival” was celebrated in 1928. The tradition continues to this day, nearly a century later, though its name changed after World War II to the Leather Tom-Tom Festival.

Privately, the folks at Hochheim Prairie Insurance had been developing their business model since 1892. It was a slower paced, more methodical, gradual growth than either the railroad, the leather business, or the tomato industry. Having a lot of German blood running through my veins myself, I was simply amazed when I read the story of how 30 or so, mostly German, immigrant families came together 130 years ago in an association to mutually insure one another’s properties from losses due to fire, flood, tornadoes, hurricanes, and whatever other catastrophes could be visited upon them by Mother Nature. It was the old-fashioned concept of neighbor helping neighbor.

Each of these frugal, industrious, hard-working immigrants paid in $1 per family to start their association, which today is one of the premier insurers of rural properties in Texas, though their reach does not stop there. For Hochheim is a full-service insurance company, offering a full range of products. Their specialty, however, remains their understanding of the complexities of RURAL properties. An old saying seems appropriate here: “Always go home from the dance with the one who brung you.”

 Their story can be read in its entirety on the internet, which I encourage you to do. Just type in “Hochheim Prairie Insurance Company History” on your browser’s search bar. The included video is most impressive. Hochheim Prairie Insurance Company now has satellite offices in College Station and El Campo in addition to a half-dozen or so insurance agencies in the Yoakum vicinity.

Though the company is now headquartered in Yoakum, one must take a short drive down the road —9.4 miles west to be precise– to the Stagecoach Inn in Hochheim, Texas, from which the company derives its name. This literally “rock-solid” dwelling was built in 1856-57 by German immigrant Valentine Hoch. The word “Hochheim” translates from the German to “High Home.” Mr. Hoch constructed his solid two and a half-story house on a hill from hand-quarried native stone from the Guadalupe River, which he personally quarried, transported, and used for construction himself.

The house eventually came to also serve as an inn on the stage road connecting Austin to Indianola, in those days a port rivaling Galveston. The house was purchased in 1899 by Valentine Bennet (possibly a descendant?) and restored by his grandson, Ross Boothe, Jr., in 1954. It has earned a coveted Texas State Historical Marker, which is mounted on an exterior wall of the structure. Beneath this marker is mounted another one, the even more prestigious National Register of Historic Places, awarded in 1974.

When it comes to preserving its history, Yoakum has done a superb job, evidence of community pride in a past dating back to the Texas Revolution. Toward that end, one need go no further than the Yoakum Heritage Museum, which is housed in a home built in 1912. It contains railroad memorabilia and period photos, as well as a room devoted to leather goods and the tanneries for which the town is so famous.

Aside from the 1856 Hochheim Stagecoach Inn, which is located in DeWitt County, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places are the 1895 Baker House and the ca. 1897 Yoakum Commercial Historic District, both of which are located on the Lavaca County side of the county line that bisects the city. As stated in my opening paragraph of this article, the location of this latter area is cited by the Victoria Advocate as being in DeWitt County. Presumably, it lies in both.

Among the buildings in the downtown commercial district is the 1926 Grand Theater, which was remodeled several years ago and shows current release films. During its extensive renovation by the new owner, it was converted from a single screen theater to one that now houses two screens, a sign of the multiplex age we live in. From their website, it is obvious that Tammy Steinmann, the new owner, is immensely proud of the old Paramount chain theater she has so lovingly updated.

The other buildings designated by the Texas Historical Commission as Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks besides the ca. 1840s May-Hickey House are the 1912 Park Place School Building, the 1910 Orth-Fitch House, and the 1932 Municipal Power Plant, which has been repurposed as the Carl and Mary Welhausen Library.

Texas State Historical Markers not already mentioned elsewhere include the: 1892 Yoakum National Bank; 1920 Asberry School; 1893 First Methodist Church; 1871 St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery; ca. 1870s von Hugo-von Clausewitz Family Cemetery. Also worthy of note are the 1869-76 Ruins of Brushy Creek Church, which was destroyed by fire, and the abandoned Hochheim General Store. As of the most recent census, Yoakum has a population of something in the neighborhood of 6,000 souls, more than twice that of the Lavaca County Seat in Hallettsville. How many of Yoakum’s folks are in Lavaca County, and how many are in DeWitt County, is anybody’s guess.  Fortunately, there are a sufficient and diverse number of churches and denominations to take care of those 6,000 souls. I reckon only the good Lord above can keep track of who’s who and who’s where in Yoakum, Texas. I just know that that job is far above my pay grade.