We’d left home intending to visit Lost Maples State Natural Area. Because the relatively small pocket of New England-like foliage draws thousands of visitors each year, we’d scheduled a midweek trip, hoping to avoid the hordes of leaf-peepers who descend into the canyon each weekend. To our chagrin, the line of cars waiting to enter the area was substantial, and electronic signs along the road suggested the wait might be longer than an hour.
Not inclined to spend any time in a line, even for maple leaves, we began to wander, plan-less and happy, down one road, then up another: feasting on chicken-fried steak and coconut cream pie, admiring an assortment of rivers and creeks, and exploring old family cemeteries.
Deciding at last to visit Medina via Ranch Road 337 — part of the so-called “twisted sisters” loop beloved of motorcylists — we were heading north on 187 when we saw the sign. I still was trying to process what I’d read when my friend said, “Did you see that?” I had.
Noticing our reduced speed, she said, “You’re going back, aren’t you?” “Of course I am,” I said. “We can’t convince anyone we actually saw that without some kind of proof.”
By the time I’d stopped the car, my friend was laughing. “I know about highway adoptions, and I know Lost Maples. I know about sheep dip and philosophy. But what in the world is a “Sheep Dip Philosophers and Whittlers Association?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but we’re going to find out. I want to join.”
Asking hill country friends about the sign brought no answers, and a casual internet search turned up nothing of interest. Eventually, the impulse to identify the group faded, but when I came across the photo in my files one day, I decided one more attempt to solve the mystery wouldn’t hurt.
Searching for information on “Texas philosophers” — a term considered by some to be oxymoronic — I made a serendipitous discovery. A “Philosophical Society of Texas” was established on December 5, 1837, only months after Texas became a Republic.
The twenty-six charter members who gathered in the capitol at Houston included men whose names still resonate. Sam Houston is best known, but residents of Texas, and especially those who drive Houston’s downtown streets, will recognize Wharton, Lamar, Gray, Allen, and Smith. Even those living across Galveston Bay are connected to the Society; Chambers County was named for Thomas Jefferson Chambers, a charter member who served as a Major General in the Texas Revolution.
Their goals were grand. The full text of their “Memorial” can be read here, but these selections give a sense of their intent and the flavor of their language.
We, the undersigned, form ourselves into a society for the collection and diffusion of knowledge, subscribing fully to the opinion of Lord Chancellor Bacon that “knowledge is power.”
Our object more especially at the present time is to concentrate the efforts of the enlightened and patriotic citizens of Texas, of our distinguished military commanders and travelers, of our scholars and men of science, of our learned members of the different Professions, in the collection and diffusion of correct information regarding the moral and social condition of our country; its finances, statistics and political and military history; its climate, soil and productions; the animals that roam over our broad prairies or swim in our noble streams; the customs, language and history of the aboriginal tribes that hunt or plunder on our borders; the natural curiosities of the country; our mines of untold wealth, and the thousand other topics of interest which our new and rising republic unfolds to the philosopher, the scholar, and the man of the world.
Despite its lofty goals, the Society had been formed by men with other, more pressing responsibilities. By 1845, when annexation into the United States brought an end to the Republic of Texas, the group no longer was active.
In 1935, as part of Texas’s centennial observances of statehood, the organization was revived. Now administered by The Texas State Historical Association, it continues to limit its invitation-only membership to two hundred people born in, or residing within, the geographical boundaries of the Republic of Texas: people who have contributed to the achievement of the original aims of the society.
There have been changes. Today, women are included as members — the current First Vice-President is Kay Bailey Hutchison — and new concerns are on the agenda: the “Proceedings” available to the public on their website vary from oceanography, to immigration, to architecture and the arts.
Despite The Texas Philosophical Society’s interesting history, its members clearly weren’t the ones cleaning that two-mile stretch of road in Bandera County. Feeling I’d exhausted the internet, I began making phone calls to hunting lodges and guest houses in the area.
After only two calls, I had my answer. The Lost Maples Sheep Dip Philosophers and Whittlers Association met — reasonably enough — on the front porch of the Lost Maples General Store. On the advice of a local rancher, I called the store, where an affable woman with an inclination to chat answered a few more questions.
“Who are the members?” I asked. She said, “Anyone who wants to be.” That didn’t sound very exclusive, but it did sound easy.
“How would I go about joining?” “Well,” she said, “you don’t have to sign up or anything. Just come on over to the store, and set a spell on the porch. Some people get their picture took.” “That’s it?” “That’s it. Course, if you want to stay and talk a little, that would be fine. Or you could drink a beer. You could whittle, I ‘spose, but I don’t b’lieve I’ve ever seen girls whittlin’.”
After that conversation, I couldn’t wait to get to the store. I’d been passing it for years, but never had stopped. Now, it was time.
Even though it’s been upgraded from a general store to a country store, I found the original Association sign still hanging on the porch. There used to be a bench beneath it; now, there are some fancier chairs. Whenever someone decides to sit down, the Association is in session.
It’s hard not to imagine that those meetings — semi-spontaneous, with high irregularity and just a little beer — have helped the Lost Maples Philosophers and Whittlers maintain their Association even longer than the original Philosophical Society of Texas.
Like uncounted Texans before me, I came; I sat; I thought. Then, I drank a beer, talked to some bikers, and thought some more, until one of my grandmother’s favorites sayings came to mind. “Sometimes, I sit and think,” she’d say, “and sometimes I just sit.”
Out in Bandera County, there’s nothing wrong with that: not even for a philosopher.
Comments always are welcome.The photo showing me in “The Philosopher’s Chair” also is posted in “”Who I Am” on my new site, “Lagniappe.”