It began, as life’s best days often do, with little thought and almost no planning. Eager only to escape the city and enjoy the long-awaited Texas spring, a friend and I prepared the simplest of picnic lunches, then headed south and west, into Brazoria County, to see what we could see.
As it happened, there were delights aplenty. We discovered Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) filling the ditches with color.
Near Nash Prairie, colonies of delicate Prairie Nymph (Herbertia lahue) overspread the open fields. Tiny members of the iris family, they complemented the Paintbrush as beautifully as the more famous Texas Bluebonnets.
Passing through the settlement known as Bailey’s Prairie, we stopped to examine a set of three historical markers arrayed before a low brick wall. They marked the site of the Munson family cemetery, memorialized the old Bailey Plantation, and acknowledged the man who established that plantation, James Briton Bailey (1799-1832).
One of the earliest settlers in this part of Texas, Bailey received his league and a labor of land as a grant from the Spanish government in 1818. (Totals vary according to the source you choose, but 4,587 acres often is cited.) After Mexico freed herself from Spanish rule, Bailey’s land was included in Stephen F. Austin’s colonization grant from the Mexican government.
Despite the fact that Bailey made it into the area two years earlier than Austin, there are reports that Austin considered Bailey a squatter rather than a settler. He ordered Bailey off the land, but Bailey refused to leave. After extensive negotiations and a certain amount of drama, Austin “sold” the disputed land to Bailey, who remained there until his death — a part of the Old Three Hundred.
Leaving the Munson cemetery and its tangled shadows behind, we traveled through Bailey’s old plantation, first to East Columbia, then onward to West Columbia, the very heart of Austin’s Colony and the site of the first Capitol of The Republic of Texas. Along the way, we discovered a thicket of historic homes, an old riverboat landing on the Brazos River, and live oaks draped with the most beautiful Spanish moss imaginable.
By the time we discovered the Sweeny-Waddy log cabin, we’d already had our lunch, but we agreed it would have made a fine place for a picnic. We did take time to read the historical plaque affixed to the front of the cabin, and marveled at all that it’s seen.
John Sweeny, Sr. (d. 1855) moved his family from Tennessee to Brazoria county, Texas, about 1833. With the help of slaves, he cleared his land and established a large plantation. This log cabin, originally located about 9 miles southwest of this site, was built soon after Sweeny’s arrival, and housed the slave family that included Mark and Larkin Waddy. The Waddys continued to live in the cabin after they were freed at the end of the Civil War.
Despite a profusion of wildflowers, a wonderful lunch and an afternoon filled with historical tidbits, I returned home still lacking a firm answer to the question that’s intrigued me for several years: where is Brit Bailey buried? **
Realizing I’d never asked a friend who lives in West Columbia about the location of Bailey’s grave, I sent her an email. In return, she provided some additional details about his life, and recommended a pair of books that would help to flesh out the story.
One of the books, James A. Creighton’s A Narrative History of Brazoria County, was available only in hardcover. Published by the Brazoria County Historical Commission in 1975, it was a little scarce, even among booksellers, and prices ranged from $50 to $175. Finally, I found a used copy that was selling for $24.95 because of “writing on interior pages.” I write in books myself, so that wasn’t a problem. I placed my order, and soon the book was in my hands.
When I opened the front cover, I was amused to discover the book once had been the property of the Butt-Holdsworth Library in Kerrville. I’ve been in that library, and it seemed singularly appropriate that my copy of Creighton’s book should carry its stamp. Presumably, it had been placed in one of their book sales, unless a library patron with a passionate interest in Brazoria County had wandered off with the book and then “forgot” to return it.
Flipping through the book, I wondered at the bookseller’s note that it “contained writing.” The pages were clean, without a single notation in the margins. Then, I found an inscription on the reverse of the title page. Brief as it was, it appeared to be the reason for the book’s reduced price.
“This book gained by “hook and crook” for Randy Johnson, a fellow student of man and events.
Nolan E. Fry, August, 1987″
If there had been only the inscription, or only the library stamp, I suspect that would have been the end of it. But taken together, they piqued my curiosity.
I began an internet search for Nolan Fry and Kerrville. After multiple dead-ends, I added “obituary” to my search terms, and discovered the obituary of John Lewis Pevehouse, a man whose own life had been deeply rooted in Texas history. He died in Corsicana on August 28, 2007. Nolan Fry and his wife were mentioned in the obituary as family members, and listed as residents of Houston. Surely, I thought, it would be possible to find Mr. Fry in a city of only twenty-six million.
Between LinkedIn pages and archived news clippings from civic organizations, I eventually found a business that seemed promising as a lead. I called twice without leaving a message. What could I say? That I was attempting to track down a man I didn’t know, whose name I’d found in an old library book?
After I placed a third call, a gentleman was kind (or curious) enough to call back. When I asked, “Is there a Nolan Fry associated with your business?” he paused, then said, “Why are you asking?”
I explained as briefly as I could. Then, he chuckled and said, “Let me see what I can do.” Ten minutes later, I was talking to Nolan Fry.
We had a delightful conversation. I learned that Lewis Pevehouse had been his stepfather, and that Nolan had worked with Randy Johnson at a Houston financial institution. Some of their work involved family trusts, and some of it involved Brazoria County. He had given the book to Randy as a gift during that time, knowing that he was interested in the area and its families.
Although I hadn’t expected it, I was pleased when Nolan volunteered Randy’s full name, and told me he was living in Kerrville. A few more clicks of the keyboard, another call or two, and I was chatting with Randy himself. I’m not sure which of us was more astonished.
Randy had donated the book to Kerrville’s genealogical library, and was just the slightest bit miffed to find they had sold it. As he put it, “If I’d known they were going to put it in their book sale, I never would have donated it to them.” “Not to worry,” I said. “I’m going to order another copy for myself and then, the next time I’m up in Kerrville, I’ll make a gift to you of your own book.”
We went on to chat a bit about Kerrville, and my personal connections to the town. As we did, the story became even more improbable. Randy not only knows the old Spicer Ranch, where my little corner of the hill country is located, he lives only a few miles away on a road I often travel — the very road where my beloved cactus, Godot, began life on my friend Enid’s back porch.
Today, Randy’s copy of Creighton’s book is tucked into the bag I’ll carry the next time I go up to Kerrville. We’re planning to have lunch, and may well find other connections in the course of conversation.
In the meantime, my duplicate copy of A Narrative History has arrived. In pristine condition, it appears never to have been opened, let alone read. On the other hand, it is inscribed, having been signed by the author. It’s just one more unexpected footnote to this utterly remarkable tale.
As for the book’s contents, I’ve read every word it contains about Brit Bailey, and I still don’t know where he’s buried.
But I have remembered anew this truth (with apologies to William Shakespeare): there are reasons to prefer printed books over electronic readers — far more reasons than are dreamt of in our quest for the new.