Looking for Russell Cushman art ?: http://russellcushmanart.blogspot.com/

Monday, August 18, 2014

2 Bit Palomino- Like an aged wine...

An expectant crowd of music lovers spreads out at Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville. 

I had heard Andi and Peter Renfree first as "The Renfrees" at the Corner Cafe several years ago. They came back the next year re-invented as "2 Bit Palomino," with a new guitar picker and keyboardist, and unveiled their new songs... But being in transition, I chose to reserve my judgment and wait for more input before writing about them... Then a mutual friend invited me to see them at Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville.

2 Bit Palomino is a veteran threesome of Houston-based singer-songwriters who have found an original sound and written some catchy, solid songs. These are songs that make you remember those things in your sub-conscious that have been pushed aside by the tyranny of the urgent; things we need to hold on to.  

They were named the Vocal Group of the Year in 2011 and 2013 by the Academy of Texas Music. My favorite song is an epic song they sing, made famous by Chris LeDoux, and written by Andrea C. Renfree, Willie McCullough and Clay Canfield, called The Buffalo Grass. I promise, it sounds better than... it sounds... Anyway I'll bet this song had something to do with the fact that Howlin' Dog Records just signed them to a contract. The three are quite pleased with their new situation and looking forward to cutting the new album. Persistence and excellence have paid off.

Andi Renfree strolls among her crowd at Bernhardt Winery before she performs. With casual, down to earth ease, she explains how far her faith was stretched, how far she had to step out on faith, before the band was seemingly "instantly" rewarded with milestones of success in their respective careers.  Now they are going to enjoy the coming journey with appreciation that has been fermented like a fine wine. 

Bill-       Andi-      "Ren"
Bill Ward, the songwriter- guitarist and keyboard player, explains that he just performed in front of the Alamo. Now THAT is a Texas moment. He is doing his second performance in as many days, with a grueling drive in between. And the real work is just beginning. Only talent and commitment and down-right hard-headedness would have gotten them this far. And now, almost running on empty, they generously give us, who sit casually in our lawn chairs, an evening to remember...

Peter Renfree

2-Bit Palomino sings about No cowboys in Dallas, buffalo grass... and even about a whore. Bill sings a protest song. He finds no comfort that everyone agrees with his protest, that there is no more middle class in America. So it must not be a protest song... he explains, if everybody agrees with him... Their sensitive, sincere message strikes a chord with the audience. America is changing right before our eyes. The songs hit us where we sit; regular folks seeking a measure of peace and serenity in the middle of somewhere. And for just a moment,  remembering.

As in the days of yesteryear, songsters are the voice of our social conscience- and our consciousness. And for the moment, there is music, and friends, and Grimes County wine.

It has been a perfect evening. Too perfect. Native Americans would intentionally place a random bead in their bead work, a concession that only God can make perfection, and to keep themselves humble. I looked around and found the Bernhardt's "random bead"... a little light bulb had gone out.

You probably wonder about their name... it is also the name of one of their great songs... about that mechanical rocking horse we all begged to ride for a quarter as children, in front of the grocery store... Meanwhile 2 Bit Palomino has grown and matured into a promising act, and will be away, more than ever, on the road or in Nashville or whatever, and we are fortunate to have had an evening with them. And now they can get rested up for the challenges ahead. Good luck to them, and God Bless! And thanks for refreshing my memories!

Confessions about BERNHARDT WINERY, Plantersville, Texas.

I have prided myself in covering most music venues and anything worth knowing about in my neck of the woods... but I will confess to avoiding the woods. 24 years ago when my little family left Plantersville, after calling it home for around 18 years, it was with the firm conviction that coming there had been the most serious mistake of our young lives. So it will be no surprise that going back... to cover any deserving story, is bitter sweet. Or to be more accurate, choking on crow.

It was a hard pill to swallow, that right across from the Price pasture where I used to hunt and photograph bluebonnets and run my Labrador retriever, is the sign and the road leading to one of Grimes County's prime attractions. Plantersville has enjoyed the upgrade brought by such neighbors as the Bernhardt Winery, as some of us shrugged and shook our heads. "More newcomers... they will never make it..." 

So now you and I can quit ignoring the stunning truth- that Grimes County is now the home of several excellent wineries, and Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville is the flagship of the fleet. Let me demonstrate why...

Natural Beauty.

Bernhardt Winery is situated on county road 204 in far eastern Grimes County, just north of Hwy 105. The surrounding countryside is so pretty that it explains why I moved here... and stayed here in Grimes County over forty years ago. Distant vistas and mammoth trees greet visitors to this oasis, which prides itself on being a site of peace and serenity. And the wine doesn't hurt. Bernhardt offers their award winning wines ice-cold, as you sip and listen to Texas' most celebrated musicians. Shake Russell. Ezra Charles. On this visit we were entertained by the original future hits of 2- Bit Palomino. 

World Class Music. 

A veteran crowd of picnickers congregate on a gentle slope which stops at a gargantuan pecan tree, which protects a small outdoor stage from the sun. It might be Bob Livingston, who has performed in over 30 countries around the world for the State Department, or the best of local talent. This Autumn they plan a series of tribute bands, from the Eagles to Willie to Elvis to the Beatles to Motown. 

And the wine flows. The music fills the valley. The sun goes down... 

And Jerry Bernhardt reads some of his winsome poetry and... all is right with the world. He explains that the place is for getting back in touch with nature... and beauty. If I'm not totally accurate about what he said... I'll blame the wine...And he asks everyone to be quiet and just listen for a moment to the sounds of the country. Cicadas obligingly turn up the volume, and crickets rub their legs with enthusiasm. He makes a toast. I look around. Yes, this is Plantersville. Back when I first moved here, me and my coon hunting, skoal dipping, whiskey sipping buddies would have cracked up at such eloquence.

Delicious Wine.

As I explained to the kind lady offering me a sampling of wine, I'm a beer guy. But the wines I tasted were very rich and refreshing. We bought a blush wine that disappeared quickly. You come. You be the judge. I know music- and they have the best music in Texas, and as our entertainers for the evening joked, the more we drank the better they sounded. And probably the better the whole experience is... or seems. Whatever, Plantersville has more going for it than the Texas Renaissance Festival. Right now it has the two most impressive entertainment venues in Grimes County.

Thanks to the vision of the Bernhardts, time, good taste and financial commitment has rewarded this lovely place with a solid attraction. And hundreds of people are making it a regular part of their lives.  I sure plan to.

But thank goodness, it is still Plantersville.

If you want to more details about Bernhardt Winery, call (936) 894-9829 or go to their website:

ValHALLa! An Awe-inspiring Peek at Navasota River Halls

My friend Michael Havens has begun to rent his fabulous facility west of Navasota as an event center. Navasota River Hall is huge, richly furnished and decorated, and an exciting new asset to the region.

Carved cedar tree trunks hold up a timber framework which shines under the tin ceiling. The cozy lighting makes each area intimate, even though it is a huge (16,392 sq ft!) facility. A large stage will facilitate most bands, who will appreciate the excellent sound system, and there is a spacious serving room for caterers.

Here are a few shots of a beautiful wedding for the Prescotts, held there Saturday...

Bridesmaids wait their turn...

The pastor had a lot to say to the couple...  about being servants to one another...

If you don't like wood... you'll HATE this place! 

There was room for three hundred people to dine afterwards... 

And just as many to dance.... after the wedding chapel was cleared!

This place is sure to become Party Central for the Brazos Valley!

An 80 foot bar... You have to see it to believe it...

And over-the-top ranch decor... a Texan Valhalla!

This Brazos Valley event hall should be called VALHALLA!

Michael Havens can be reached at: (936) 499-8699

Monday, August 11, 2014

Serendipity- and Bob Livingston Returns

If you hung out around Navasota a few years ago, you will remember a little place called Serendipity’s. Later Phil Heibeler, the owner sold the business and then got it back, and re-invented it and renamed it The Corner Café. Phil’s new vision was a café with Live music, and he featured about two years of excellent Friday evening mini-concerts he called a singer-songwriter series. I actually began this blog to try to help him promote the music scene here in Navasota, the “Blues Capital of Texas.” Every Friday night I was there at the Corner Café photographing and staying up very late writing the blogs while they were fresh on my mind.

In the process some of the musicians enjoyed my comments and used them on their websites. My photos went all over the Internet, and Phil had me blow some up and put them on his café walls. They looked good there, and I felt real cool coming in the place and feeling the art and the fun and the live music even when it was not there. Then Phil went out of business again, and left for greener pastures. He sold me the big enlarged photos I had made for his cafe, and suddenly I had these huge cumbersome things all over my studio. I’m talking 30” x 40” canvases of George Ensle, David Lutes, Susan Herndon, Bob Livingston and Brian Ashley Jones.

These folks are not exactly huge stars, but they are in my universe. Still, I was not sure what needed to happen to them, I just did not want them to leave Navasota, like the rest of our music history.
Anyway, all that to say that one of the big plans was to have each of the artists back some day and they could sign their canvases. You know, with one of those big gold pens. Of course other than one of them, that never happened. Now fast-forward a couple of years.

Sunday I was keeping the store at Blues Alley, something I rarely do any more, and had an average day and was about to close when two dudes strolled in. They arrived all smiles and commenting what a great town Navasota seemed to be… one of the prettiest towns in “East Texas” one of them offered. This identified them as Austinites. Everyone around here knows we are in CENTRAL TEXAS.  OK, we are on the edge... of three distinct geographical regions... Still, I had to agree that Navasota is one of the prettiest towns around... I bragged a little and tried to sell them a cheap guitar...

One of them asked about the Corner Café.  I shared the tragic loss of the wonderful little music venue we enjoyed for several years. And then one of them said, almost under his breath that he had performed there. I pondered that, for I had seen most of the shows. 

Bob Livingston

The only one of the performers he could have been was Bob Livingston, but Bob is taller, younger and clean shaven.
Bob Livingston is sort of a living piece of Texas music history, a Texas songwriter, once a member of the Lost Gonzo Band and running the roads with Michael Martin Murphy, Gary P. Nunn and other Texas Music Legends. This guy was no Bob Livingston. “You say you played at the Corner Café? What is your name?”

“Bob Livingston.”

Well you can imagine that, after insulting him mercilessly, I adapted quickly and invited Bob Livingston up to my studio to see my collection of Texas musicians… and he graciously offered to sign my canvas of his former countenance. It was a great mini-moment… One of the long Lost Gonzos had been found, right in my studio! Felt kinda like Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the Moon. He even posed for a picture.

Songwriter and world traveler Bob Livingston poses with his obsolete portrait. I urged him to keep the beard. I was hoping he would give me the hat. I'm pretty sure he is thinking... "What a moron!"

And I had not been scheduled to keep the store like that, in YEARS. So Phil, that’s two down… three to go. Thanks to... your serendipity. 

This might take a while, but I‘m thinkin’ we gotta GO FOR IT!

Sunday, August 10, 2014


The best year ever in my opinion.

The two day festival started on Friday, Aug 8th, with a cigar box guitar workshop at Navasota Blues Alley in downtown Navasota, led by the wizard of such music, Justin Johnson.

Justin Johnson does wonders with the humble diddly bow at Blues Alley.

Then Justin opened the festival out at the Grimes County Expo Center...
Justin Johnson

Afterwards Brad Absher took the stage with a full blown band and lit up the room. He has TWO saxophone players and an ivory tickler who brings his own (quite heavy!) piano. Very solid band called SWAMP ROYALE.
Brad Absher at far right up front with his sax men 

Tony Vega finished off the first night with tight energy for a three piece band. They set the expectation for the weekend... which delivered GREAT BANG FOR THE BUCK!

Tony Vega

Saturday, Aug 9

The Saturday events kicked off with a fun acoustic set done by Back Porch in E Flat, (or something like that!) who graciously replaced Dr. Michael Birnbaum who was unable to attend. These guys each played multiple instruments. The bass player was blowing on a harmonica and tapping a top hat. A small crowd of hard core blues fans sat in chairs up close to the stage to get a better look, and time stood still... and flew by!. 

Back Porch E Flat

Then, FINALLY, one of my favorite musicians ever, Doug Macleod brought his resonator mastery to the Blues Fest. I told him this must be heaven, because I was sure this is what it will feel like, getting to enjoy such fabulous music and sharing it with your friends. Doug is a National Treasure. He writes his own songs.. and they have a very useful message in this day and time. His slide guitar prowess shares few peers.

Doug Macleod

BAD BRAD and the FAT CATS came on and instantly connected with the crowd, quickly gaining the attention of this seasoned blues crowd and getting smiles. Brad is bad, but I mean that in a good way. This guy will go far as long as people want real blues.
Bad Brad and the Fat Cats

Then everything got crazy.  Texas Johnny Boy and his all-star band blew out the cob webs with his typical high energy blues assault. This man is a blues animal. You can tell he lives to play and plays to live. 

Texas Johnny Boy

Annika Chambers came on like gangbusters as they say and showed why is she has left a wake of devoted fans all over the Houston area and beyond. She is a passionate performer, singing and frolicking on stage with a rare combination of power and abandon.
Annika Chambers

And then there was the incomparable Ezra Charles and his fabulous band. In my mind the best act we have ever seen. Charles has found his dream team and nurtured them into a rollicking brass section that sings and struts and mixes it up with the crowd. By the time he got through playing, everyone was EXHAUSTED!

It will be hard to top this year's sterling stream of shows. Some old traditions were broken to create the best line-up they have ever had. I'm one who thinks the sacrifice and the change was worth it, and hope they stick to their new plan... and that is offering up the best blues fest in the country! SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!







Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jack Green: The "Tex Electric and Jubilee Speaker"

Grimes County has produced or been the home for famous Texas singers, actors and lawmen. But before most of them came to their fifteen minutes of fame, we gave the world a great motivational speaker.

Jack Green was born in Anderson, Texas in 1867. One of the first freeborn blacks in Grimes County, Jack became the archetypal “boot-strapper,” making his life and love the fields of inspiration and education. He went to the little one-room schoolhouse provided for him and the other children of recently freed slaves, whenever there was not planting or harvesting to do. He became a Christian when just a boy, and he actually finished High School at age 16, something very rare for a black youth, in 1883. He must have had wonderful encouragement from his family and the community, because the next year he attended Prairie View A&M College in 1884, when just 17 years old. Soon he was back in Grimes County teaching what he had learned. For most of his life he was known as “Professor” J. W. Green.

I am trying to find out more about Jack Green, as he must have had a fascinating career. I have two posters about him made around the turn of the Century, and they tell us that he was active in his church, the Masonic Lodge, and other religious organizations. He advertised that he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, F.H.N.M., Prince Hall affiliation, whatever that was. Sounds important. But more significantly, he became a popular public speaker, travelling in eleven states throughout the South. From Texas to Indiana to Tennessee, Jack Green was called the “Tex Electric and Jubilee Speaker.”

One poster touted that this “well known” lecturer had taught school in Grimes County for several years, and had been active in many church building programs, and had served for 41 years as Worshipful Master of his lodge.  Another poster claimed apologetically that he was “without a rival on a practical lecture.” His last place of service was noted as Deacon and Supervisor of Coaxberry M.B.C.W.M., of Ulmer Lodge, in Richards, Texas.

And perhaps most noteworthy, considering the racial tension and oppression which defined those times for this first generation freedman, was the thin notation at the very bottom of the poster; 

“All are invited regardless of race, denomination. There will be nothing said to offend anyone present.”

We have to wonder what happened to this noble statesman, what kind of impact he made on this community, and how he fared during the ethnic cleansing and subjugation in the early 1900’s…

A photo of Jack Green recently discovered for sale on Ebay (and restored).

Perhaps someone knows, and will share his story with us.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pick up your ax! Cutting to the (COMMON) CORE

A great serpent crawled into America’s classroom while trusting parents told themselves that others knew what was best. 

Under the guise of raising educational standards and grooming more competitive citizens, we have all watched our schools become charmless institutions, obsessed with a merciless quest for higher test scores and verifiable teacher accountability. But after decades of this relentless and unwinnable racket, grades and morale are worse than ever. And now finally we have a tangible antagonist to point at and vent our frustration on, something called “Common Core.”

Glenn Beck recently hosted a simulcast in theaters across the United States where he amassed a variety of activists from all over the country, ready to organize and strategize, under the slogan, “We will not conform.” Intended to be the launching of a nationwide campaign to make Common Core a blip in history, ax-bearers gathered in theaters from coast to coast, ready to challenge the monolithic American educational beanstalk. Beck and Michelle Malkin and others shared their frustrations and victories fighting the latest tangible threat to what is left of the America we once knew- a threat to the most basic and essential asset for a free and thinking people; Education.

Known as Common Core in most states, Texas opted to concoct its own educational Leviathan. But its name is not important, but the organized genius behind it is.

Whatever you call it, it is a cunning racket of educational improvement orchestrated by haughty supervisors, who never allow for much success. They have made their jobs secure by constantly raising the rigor and keeping satisfactory improvement just out of reach. This merciless raising of standards has been justified because some countries supposedly have better scores than the United States. So Common Core or its equivalent have made a nightmare out of our educational system, and state after state has seen recent citizen backlashes against it. People all over the country are starting to realize that the people they trusted were not only unworthy, they were greedy and corrupt, and they do not have our children’s best interests in mind.

Some school districts have become rife with blame and suspicion, and educators have been harassed or fired because of unsatisfactory test scores. The children watch and suffer in silence as their favorite teacher is humiliated, their best friend held back, or a whole school is put on notice. Failure has become the great enemy and the inevitable obstacle for many. All of this so some folks in Austin can boast that they are preparing another generation for the world market. But the real market is right there in their offices, as multi-million dollar deals are made around expensive and experimental educational strategies. The educators, consultants and publishers have become a wealthy quagmire of self-dealing bureaucrats.

The Beck simulcast revealed some interesting perceptions; there is a lot of money and influence at stake. It will not be wrestled away without a fight.  The same people who designed the curriculum and the texts also designed the tests. Strangely, students are actually evaluated on what they did not know, not what they had been taught. A certain amount of failure keeps everyone on their toes… and re-testing and re-re-testing has become an expected part of the process. And the testing is not cheap. These publishers lined their pockets with our money while our children suffered the worst theories ever conceived in education. And the scores and the results are a travesty.

There is much work to be done to correct decades of abuse and misdirection in our education system. Parents must get involved with what their kids are doing at school. It is important they keep evidence of examples of bad educational policies. No more benefit of the doubt. Towns must take back their schools. The educational Gestapo in Austin must be put out of business. The TEA must be re-invented to reflect our values and designed to nurture and not to torture. And it starts with making our senators and legislators know that we are aware, we are mad, and we are going to do whatever it takes to take back control of our schools.

Note: For more on how these devastating policies affect Navasota Schools, click below.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The P. A. Smith Hotel- A Grand Possibility

Three stories high and double-wide, the P. A. Smith Hotel was centered in the middle of the "Railroad Street Strande." This was a post card from around 1900. LEFT CLICK on the images to bring them up larger.
P. A. Smith Hotel- 111 Railroad St., Navasota, Texas

After the town of Navasota was located and surveyed by 1854, the tracks brought the railroad by 1859. The Houston & Texas Central Railroad had arranged for the budding village to accommodate the rails, and soon entrepreneurs were setting up tents and building permanent “rock houses.” One of the first of such buildings was a hotel where Noto’s stands today, built by Mrs. Louisa Loftin. It was probably completed by 1860 or 1861, (another source says 1864) either way just in time to suffer the effects of a crashing economy due to the Civil War…

Mrs. Louisa Loftin was a apparently a widow and one of the first residents of Navasota, and apparently had considerable ambition for a woman in those days, aiming to give the other hotels in town a run for the money. She hired J. W. Peterson to build her hotel and soon J. H. Stacey was hired to build a row of rock houses along Railroad Street, which became the center of activity. Structures were erected for Loftin & Fisher, John K. White, R. H. Giesel (also spelled Geisal & Geisel), and A. J. Hall.

Philip Aurene "P. A." Smith was a New York born, Illinois schoolteacher, who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.  When the War Between the States broke out, he had sympathies with the South and joined the Confederate army, serving in Parson’s Partisan Rangers. As a Yankee “Copperhead” Smith was obviously an independent thinker, having rejected the persuasions of his Republican friend and president. After serving in the cavalry in Texas he ended up in Navasota by 1869, where he purchased the silent presses of the "Texas Baptist" in Anderson, and established the Navasota Weekly Tablet. Later he bought out widow Lancaster's interests in her husband's newspaper, The Texas Ranger. Smith also owned a furniture store, a cotton business and invested in Real Estate. Besides being a devoted Democrat and journalist, P. A. Smith also built and managed the Navasota Opera House, which stood where the City parking lot at the intersection of Farquhar and Washington are today. .

Around 1900
After building up her trade for several years, Mrs. Loftin started a larger project on neighboring lots 5 and 6 of Railroad Street.  Around this time she married P. A. Smitha man with considerable abilities and designs himself, in 1875.  As they joined visions a huge edifice was erected on these lots, constructed by men known to us as Misters Wiley and Riley. Built of native sandstone  (rubble: not quarried), the name was changed to P. A. Smith Hotel, as the new Mrs. Smith graciously allowed his name to be put on the business. Some sort of trade must have been agreed upon, as (the carpenter?) John Wiley was given a permanent residence on the third floor, from the very beginning of the hotel. This towering stone landmark, which became the centerpiece of downtown Navasota, was finished in 1876, and turned out to be the grandest structure ever built in town, only eclipsed recently by the reconstruction of the old 1903 City Hall.

The Hotel only served as such for a little over a decade, then after Mrs. Smith died in 1890 the upstairs became the Smith family residence for many years. P. A. Smith died at age 74 of typhoid fever in 1903. In 1944 it was conveyed to Mr. Martin Allen. He sold it to Eddie Conally/Coneley?, who eventually deeded it to the Grimes County Historical Survey Committee in 1974, placing it in the fickle hands of the Grimes County Historical Society.

Railroad St. about 1890. This was the end of the P. A. Smith as a commercial enterprise. Afterwards downstairs rooms were rented as offices.

The GCHSC had high hopes and major plans to restore and utilize the P. A. Smith Hotel as a community cultural center with historical exhibits and events.  P. A. Smith Hotel Restoration, Inc. was incorporated and became the official manager of the project, led by Gene Bouliane.

Illustration from P. A. Smith restoration project

They also knew how to organize and more importantly, how to raise money. Impressive corporate and private funds were donated, with a major gift made by a local bank ($6,000) and also an undisclosed amount by Mr. Gene Bouliane, and receipt of matching Texas Historical Commission and Federal ($22,500) grants, and a local bank loaned $32,000 for interim financing, putting way over $60,000.00 in improvements into the property. I know all of this because my father, Ralph B. Cushman Jr., was the contractor hired to oversee the restoration, and I inherited much of the papers he compiled as the contractor and as a board member.

Demolition, architectural and engineering studies ate up some of the funds, then much the stone was re-chinked, windows rebuilt and the roof repaired, until funds began to dwindle. The project proved to be a massive undertaking, and since no work had been done on the building in decades, the neglect had created hundreds of lurking money pits. The "Histerical" folks began to be impatient, anxious to see a functioning facility...

Sadly, after the enthusiasm about the American Bi-Centennial waned after 1976, so did the interest in the hotel. Small town politics began to raise its ugly head, as many of the movers of this project were newcomers. It was obvious a new breed was moving in, shaping the town, making lasting contributions and commitments. But in short order the dreamers, donors and volunteers were disposed of, in various ways, mostly just plain ingratitude and insolence, and the membership remaining after the purging abruptly changed their mind.

I don’t know exactly when, but around 1979 the hotel was sold off, at a loss to Mr. and Mrs. Urquhart, and the proceeds from the liquidation divided and used to fund the Grimes County Historical Commission, (a county-focused historical and preservation information organization) and to jump start a new organization- the Grimes County Heritage Association, led by Georgia Best, (formerly secretary of the P. A. Smith Hotel Restoration Inc. ) which immediately moved into the newly donated R. A. Horlock house on East Washington Street…

I do not know the exact number, but most parties involved agreed that the purchase price for the P. A. Smith Hotel was less than that spent on its restoration, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000.00.  The Urquharts later sold the building to Dean Arnold who has maintained and used the old hotel for a wood-working factory for a couple of decades.

 The P. A. Smith Hotel is the building with aqua trimmings. 

And now, it is abandoned and for sale again, along with two other buildings on Railroad Street.  Such a disappointing reality for the highest hopes of the Smiths, the Grimes County Historical Committee and the Arnolds, all of whom toiled with good faith and no small amount of investment…

Still, I have to believe the right folks have not owned it yet. So far a couple of serious investors have looked at it and loved its possibilities, but ran into a wall of non-cooperation with the City over establishing a railroad quiet-zone. Ironically, the same industry which brought the old hotel to Navasota, now retards its future.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

UNSOLVED MYSTERY: Who Shot Sheriff Royal?

Sheriff A. J. Royal of Pecos County: Murdered with no official suspects
I have never understood why so many movies have been made using bogus stories when there are so many great and true stories waiting to be told... or great questions to be asked. Here is a real Old West “Who done it.”

One great unsolved mystery was the death of Sheriff A. J. Royal of Pecos County. This was a man who needed killing so bad that there were a half-dozen good prospects as suspects in his assassination. Most of them were lawmen, and a few were Texas Rangers. And as time went on, the mystery only deepened and the list grew.

Sheriff Andrew Jackson Royal was a bad ‘un. A stunning mixture of politics and rapaciousness, he routinely threatened the citizenry and misused and abused his power as Sheriff. He was known to use his pistol like a flyswatter on pesky citizens. Sometimes he used the butt, other times bullets. His deputies were often bad men like Barney Riggs who were the stereotypical western thugs who used their badge of office to lord over everyone.

Deputy Barney Riggs (center) and gang

 Inmates such as Jose Juarez sometimes disappeared from Sheriff Royal’s jail never to be seen alive again. Royal routinely tried to arrest any citizens who were a threat to his political machine, with trumped up charges. After an intense manhunt to capture Victor Ochoa, a notorious Mexican revolutionary, U. S. Deputy Marshal George Scarborough left the prisoner in Sheriff Royal’s custody. Opportunistic, Royal then illegally released Ochoa from his jail, an international criminal, who promised to get him the Hispanic vote.

When he ran for re-election in 1894, Royal posted armed “deputies” at each polling place to intimidate his enemies. His legacy was a rotten muskmelon in the veritable armpit of Texas, so it is no surprise that the people of Pecos County unseated him when they got a chance. A petition, signed by Judge Williams, W. P. Matthews, John Odom, Jim and Morgan Livingston, Howell Johnson, R. B. Neighbors, Shipton Parke, and George Miller was fired off to solicit the help of the Texas Rangers. The people of Pecos wanted their county back.
Judge O. W. Williams of Pecos County. The honorable judge once got in a brawl with Sheriff Royal and had to threaten to kill him if he did not stop gouging his eye out.

History reveals that these men intended to remove Sheriff Royal one way or another. These were the men he had threatened repeatedly, and these were the men whose names have popped up over and over in the accounts of his assassination.

Not long before he was killed, Royal had nearly beaten Herman Koehler, the County Treasurer, to death. Koehler was the peaceful owner of a saloon which happened to be competing with his. After Royal lost his bid for re-election, he threatened to kill a bunch of his political adversaries and refused to give up his office, and that’s when the Rangers were called in.

As usual, when the Rangers appeared, all quieted down. Royal had to concede and move on. But he did it with loud threats and his enemies were afraid for their lives. The whole town was on the edge of its seat. Rumors ran as wild as mule deer bucks in the rut. Someone was going to pay.

We know now after so many years that rumors would persist, in various forms, that suggested a prominent group of townsmen had gathered and conspired to have Royal killed out of fear, and the conviction that they would never be able to sleep in peace again. Royal was mad, he was known to kill with little regard for the law, and he had assured them he would. It was kill or be killed. The Rangers were in Pecos for the second time in a few weeks, but on an impossible peace- keeping mission.

A powder keg was about to blow as the Rangers arrived in Pecos. Already Royal was named in several indictments by the Grand Jury. He was the complainant in as many more. All we know for sure is that one mid-morning a couple of Rangers stepped out of the courthouse, leaving another asleep in their quarters, and a mysterious gunman confronted Royal in his office as he was finally cleaning out his desk. With two men sitting beside him, the assassin got his attention, then leveled a shotgun and blew Royal away. And no one was ever indicted or prosecuted for the murder. Nobody had an idea who it might have been.

So I thought it would be fun, if not instructional to list the suspects… and we can take a vote. Don’t let my captions sway you, your guess is as good as anyone’s, and probably much more objective than most of the folks involved.
Bass Outlaw lived up to his name, even though he served as a Texas Ranger. But he could not have murdered A. J. Royal.

Years later, some informed parties seemed to agree that the deed had been done by a Texas Ranger. But which one? Two of them had an alibi, having gone down to the saloon to whet their whistles. One legend said it was Bass Outlaw. That would be handy to pin it on him, as he was the most famous “bad” Ranger. It’s something he might have done. But he was already dead by then.

The Rangers who could most obviously have been involved were those assigned to Pecos during that period, and most of them had stellar careers; Sgt Carl Kirchner, Pvt Joe Sitter, Pvt William Schmidt, Pvt Ed Palmer, and Pvt J. W. Fulgham.

Sgt Carl Kirchner, Texas Ranger, was in command at Pecos when some ugly stuff went down.

And then there were the leading citizens, Royal’s known political enemies, all signors of that petition, whom he planned to kill; Judge O. W. Williams, W. P. Matthews, (the County Clerk) Shipton Parke (County Commissioner), Morgan Livingston (County Commissioner), and Howell Johnson (former County Attorney and newly elected Justice of the Peace), any combination of which would have had the motive and the means to eliminate Royal.
Ranger William Schmidt... The only thing suspicious about him may be his name... recalled by a co-suspect thirty years later.

Any of Herman Koehler’s relatives would have been justified in doing Royal harm, as poor Herman never recovered from his beating and died soon afterward. There were numerous Mexican American families who had lost loved ones mysteriously to Royal’s regime. There were the witnesses for the State during his prosecution for assault, his merciless pistol whipping of defenseless Elza White; and R. L. Anderson, James Livingston and Shipton Parke(again!), who served on the Grand Jury which indicted him, as well as  R. N. Baker, and Frank and Francis Rooney. Royal had sworn vengeance on all of them. Not one to be hesitant to bite the hands that fed him, he owed several of them large sums of money. One was Herman Koehler, and it seemed he had decided to reduce his debt by reducing his debtors.

And then suddenly A. J. Royal was dead.

Old man Charles A. Crosby, County Clerk and a political ally who shared an office with the Sheriff, was right there, but nearly blind and not likely to have shot the Sheriff so boldly, as there was no means of escape, and he easily could have missed and brought destruction upon himself. Apparently Crosby and Royal had their backs to each other, Crosby facing the door. “Back to back they faced each other…” Another possible assassin could have been another man supposedly loyal to Royal, the recently resigned Justice of the Peace H. L. Hatchette, who failed in his bid for County Attorney. He was also in the room at the time of the killing. From his position, Hatchette reportedly could not see the killer standing in the doorway, but said Crosby could have.  But Crosby could not see and claimed he did not recognize the voice of the killer...”And if you don’t believe it’s true, go ask the blind man, he saw it too.”

It is perhaps a coincidence, or a sinister design that most of the possible suspects in the assassination were in or around the courthouse when the crime was committed. If they were in fear for their lives, why were they all there? Within moments after Crosby came out in the smoke-filled hall and announced the Sheriff’s death, Judge Williams was there, and later recalled seeing Johnson, Parke, both Livingstons, both Rooneys, John Odom and Rangers Palmer, Schmidt and Kirchner. When it comes to suspicion for murder, “the more the merrier.” Of course if they knew the killer, or were aware of his mission, they would be quick to respond so as to appear innocent...

Judge Williams admitted that he had a shotgun on the premises, hidden in a vault, (as did others, who were expecting violence) but when he inspected it, it was still loaded, although it looked as if it had been fired … but not that day-  in his estimation...

Several of these men had already come to blows with the defeated sheriff. There is no question that the critical mass of all of this enmity evolved into murder. The question still remains… who shot Sheriff Royal?
Captain John R. Hughes on the bottom right, Joe Sitters on the upper left. Both had no love lost for Royal, but both had impeccable careers as rangers.

By the time Captain John Hughes had sent his Rangers to Pecos for a second time, there is no doubt that Sheriff Royal had become a royal pain in the Ranger behind. It would not be like Hughes to send his men in without a plan… even a contingency plan. Conveniently, the statements afterwards provided everyone present with an alibi. Meanwhile Royal got tucked away, shot down in cold blood and nobody cared. Nobody was even indicted, much less prosecuted. All these Rangers and yet nobody had a clue, nobody went and tried to track the killer. It is all too much to digest.

I believe it may well have been the Ranger rumor mill which has fed this event and its aftermath for so long, and which was able to officially conceal the actual crime. Locals always pointed to the Rangers as the culprits. In fact few of them had any problem with his assassination as Sheriff Royal was so despised and feared. In his old age, Judge O. W. Williams, himself a possible suspect, claimed he had gotten a written confession from one of the Texas Rangers, who wanted to get his guilt off of his conscience. He said his name was Smith…
Ranger Frank Schmid. We do not know exactly where he was at the time of the killing.

This might have been several Rangers serving in west Texas in that period. If we allow the old judge to slur his speech a little, Smith could easily have been Schmid or Schmidt.  That immediately brings Frank Schmid to the fore, as well as William Schmidt, who was supposedly the Ranger making the rounds at the local tavern with Sgt Kirchner.

It seems many believed that either the Rangers killed Sheriff Royal or were helpful in some way towards his demise… or the cover up of his assassination.

Killin' Jim Miller

But what most writers seem to ignore was the obvious suspect, and I do not understand why. Killin’ Jim Miller, the legendary “Deacon Jim” should have been a prime suspect. Everything about the killing pointed to him; Professional, surgical, in the back, with a shotgun. And Miller had a decent motive. It is true he may have been the hired assassin, and killed the Sheriff for the money, but he also had a dog in the hunt. Here is where the thing smells to high heaven…

Jim (James Brown) Miller was absolutely active in this very area. Recommended by the good church going folks of Pecos, he started out as a deputy under Sheriff Bud Frazer of Reeves County.  But he killed a Mexican prisoner who supposedly “tried to escape” (a kind of euphemism among the Texas Rangers since the McNelly days) and Frazer became leery of him. He was fired. Since then he had been in a running war with Bud Frazer and his family next door in Reeves County for years.  There were several gun battles. Frazer was a dead shot, but never suspected that Miller, scoundrel that he was, was unsporting enough to wear a bullet-proof vest. With the help of Mannie Clements and Martin Q. Hardin, (both related to John Wesley Hardin) Miller made Frazer and his family miserable if not fear for their lives.

Sheriff Bud Frazer. Shared the same fate as Sheriff Royal, although he had more chances to avoid it. When it came to enemies, he picked the very worst in the West.
After Royal’s mysterious death Miller finally killed Frazer (shotgun, back of the head) and he tried to run off all of Frazer’s kin, including Barney Riggs, Sheriff Royal’s number one hatchet man. They never faced off, but there is no doubt about their sentiments. And here the smell begins to eke out: one of the witnesses, and thus on hand and useful to his defense, was none other than George Scarborough. Yes, Deputy U. S. Marshal Scarborough. The same Deputy U. S.  Marshal who had been repeatedly frustrated with Sheriff Royal and his corrupt regime. The outlaw Ochoa had been Scarborough’s prize until Royal traded his freedom for votes. We will never know the connection, but this one coincidence tells me there are more.

Deputy U. S. Marshal George Scarborough, who must have wanted to wring Sheriff Royal's neck. He knew Jim Miller well... and later served as a witness for the defense in his murder trial. Imagine, sticking up for the murderer of a fellow lawman... who basically assassinated him from behind.

Whatever his motivation, or the legalities, Killin’ Jim Miller was cleaning up the Pecos Valley.  And he may well have been in cooperation with some local lawmen, like U. S. Deputy Marshal Scarborough, who could not do what he would do. Later Miller was believed by Captain Hughes of the Texas Rangers to have assassinated Pat Garrett, another bad egg who made many enemies and owed everyone a lot of money. Miller was often hired to settle scores with notorious corrupt lawmen, when there was no legal satisfaction available through proper channels. This we know… This is what he had done in Oklahoma when he was finally caught by vigilantes, who would gladly do what lawmen would not… hang him.

So… cast your vote. Fortunately, this canvas is non-binding. But I am curious what you guys think about this wonderful, smelly, unsolved mystery of the west.

NOTE: I owe much of the credit for this article to Clayton W. Williams, and his book Texas' Last Frontier.