Folklorist Jamie N. Birch, who traveled alone on horseback through the extended pine woods of East Texas in the summer of 1901, heading north toward Arkansas after his brief stay in Houston, documented his impressions of the landscape through a series of fragments in his journal:
more trees than people around by a hundredfold or more, more trees than trees, it feels—looking ahead—riding thru
white yellow mornings
abrupt opening of glens in the trees bearing small lonely houses made from the pines cut down to create these circles
inexplicable unsteady agriculture
cows roaming in the woods in the dawn, all in mammalian silhouettes, like old world ghosts or where we’ll all end up
friendly people cast out among the trees very alone out here
rivers & creeks & rivers & creeks
the humidity a hot wet rag filling up my mouth, my eyes, everywhere over me, riding thru the trees, can hardly inhale
last night: a woman in a glen standing by a fire in the yard, her face in light, her home a little shadow (waving me over)
the sun it hurts so much—wet, bright—but the night is then harder too, you find, a person is all these people can offer
i lost my husband and child in the river not far from here, she said, do you hear it just now, i can hear it running by everywhere, i think, what of you, do you hear it from here?
(no) i heard the fire rising before us, the bones she burned
her husband and son were floating pine logs on the river, eastward toward Louisiana, to sell: drowned some miles off
searched the river for days, she said, hunting them all hours until one morning i found their bodies not ten feet apart, bloated on the bank, wide-eyed, sky-gazing off in the shade
bone of cattle, hog, bird, and deer—things add up, she said
they were too heavy to haul back alone, she said, horse died some time before, so i loaded them down with small rocks, sliding a many past their throats, and sunk them in the river
now i don’t know where to or what to, and so read my bible pretty country, i told her, first time here, just passing thru yellow white or white yellow morning
endless country, unbelievable sky
The tract of land later on christened Telephone originally became of interest to men with money on their minds in 1912, once the HEWT railroad line had arrived up east enough. It was late winter. Being evergreens, the trees still loomed up very plush then, very green.
Over the first decade of the century, the industry of lumber had designated itself as the prime industry of Texas.
Nearly all of East Texas was once this big unbroken forestland of tall, incredible, sorrowful pine. Virgin longleaf pine, giant things, that stood without branches on their trunks often times for fifty feet up, so a person could see for miles, standing in the woods.
It was not called the forest it was called the woods.
The Piney Woods, which Telephone eventually came to sit outside of.
Daytime, in the woods, was known as “a small night.”
Before 1912 and the beginning of the mill days, before the results of the railroad, there existed a community of agriculture scattered about the landscape known at that time as only the pine barrens. There were small plots of bottomland cleared for cotton or corn. There were free-range cattle roaming through the pine trees in the early morning hours, feeding on switch cane and undergrowth. There were semi-feral hogs rooting everywhere and eating everything—acorns, berries, grass, carrion—and killing, too, the farm dogs that tried to herd them. There were men encouraging growth by setting the ground ablaze.
Their fires did nothing to the towering pines. This period before big business wasn’t, by any means, a simpler or better time.
The HEWT railroad opened, in 1912, upon a pocket of people still work-wearied, still poor, a population of people unable to speak openly of their worries to one another, still killing themselves, men and women alike, strung up in the dark of barns in the dawn.
William Mays Hall, the son of one such backwoods farmer at the onset of the century, remembered the years before the lumber industry entered the Piney Woods like so:
“It’s like I had to be born twice in my life, that’s what it’s like. So there was when I first came alive, as a boy and on into a young man, when there was no idea of time as being something that could move or change anything. The trees stood up so old and tall then, so quiet, and we worked all day amongst them, quiet under them, like we were too just some more trees. But that wasn’t good, let me be clear. Because a man doesn’t make a happy tree, you hear. I remember being afraid, I can recall all of us all the time feeling afraid, without knowing what it was we feared. We owned the land so didn’t understand why we had the nightmares. There was food to eat. We didn’t talk about it. But it didn’t feel better to us, being silent, because of how you could still see in everyone you knew the way they shared the nightmares with you. Through the way folks talked to horses real close in their ears—you’d spot it—or through how women set candles in the window, burning them even during the day; or through how people walked like ghosts when leaving the house each morning and then again at dusk, when it was time go back, everyone you knew with their skulls hollowed out with the old nightmares, it looked, moving in the trees. Sometimes too someone would come down with a fever and maybe then, if the sick lasted a good while, it’d come all spilling out. The nightmares were wholly quiet. Nothing moving. And a man upon waking into a feverdream made up of all the old nightmares would shout and mumble what he figured to be the sounding of an un-sound. Or he’d move into unmoving, walking about the room with his hands on his chest, crouching. It might sound terrible but it could make you feel lighter, watching the quiet un-budge. I don’t know. Then the railroad came, and the sawmill followed not long after that, and I had to be born back over again. Everyone I knew went born again. The largest thing I’d ever seen moving was a horse. Then that big box of metal came whistling past, that goddamn train, on its first run, and I understood time now. Our nightmares speaking, moving out of trees in the dark, in the morning. Suddenly you yearned for the quiet of the land that you once hated and feared. Couldn’t no one sit still.”
By spring of 1912, the land had been surveyed and purchased from the local farmers who let go of their properties at a price well below their market value, or from the state itself, which sold off large portions of the Piney Woods for next to nothing, basically giving it away, under the belief that an expanded railroad system, paired with a further widening of Texas’s already booming lumber industry, would only serve to bolster state economy.
The pines seemed endless, the conception of a terminus practically impossible.
One pine barrens farmer, who sold his 300 acres for stumpage to the nascent lumber company at a price of a $1.25 an acre, provides a particular insight: “I was farming cotton. Most of us were back then—growing cotton or corn or what have you. It took a man a year to clean a patch of woods for growing cotton. It took a man and all his family, and afterward the whole clan of you were spent, through & through, hardly alive. It was such hard work, tearing down them trees and splitting them up and then hauling it away if you intended on selling it downriver, or otherwise keeping it yourself for burning. So I sold the land and thought: you do the work for me. Clean it up. Jesus. I had no idea.”
As it often was throughout the state, the men who brought the lumber business to the Piney Woods were not from Texas. They were not even Southern. Douglas Nelson and Ned Clarkson—first cousins on their mothers’ side—hailed from Chicago, Illinois. And these two men never once stepped foot in Texas, never thought of seeing Telephone. They sent speculators, took their reports over the wires, and relegated all ground level control to likeminded men of industry from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, or Mississippi— men who understood the geography and more importantly the psychology of those who inhabited it, the farmers, the backwoodsmen: eventual laborers. “Natives,” the wires read.
“You could either plow rows or cut trees,” said Roy Mable, a farmer-lumberman convert. “You had to choose back in them days. Work until you die or work until you die. Be poor as dirt or poor as sawdust. It didn’t matter either way you went, yet the choice meant all the difference. I chose to cut trees because I hated the land. Farmers hate the land too, but not openly. They need it. They spend all day out in the fields, on their knees, begging at it. I didn’t aim to live off grass offerings. I wanted to hate everything openly.”
Then it became time to build. The tracks were laid and the land all bought up for the cutting.
On the morning after Easter in 1912, Douglas Nelson and Ned Clarkson presented their plans to the market—the construction of one large sawmill along with its accompanying employee housing, or, in other words, another East Texas company town. Architectural firms throughout the region placed their bids over the following week. It seemed certain that the job would go to Hasley&Hasley, a firm located in Orange, Texas, which typically acquired the mill town jobs in the region. Then on Friday morning there came a bid over the wires undercutting all others by $10,000 from a man out of Houston, a one Abe L. Fremont, who even offered to pay own his train-fare if awarded the job. He promptly received construction rights. And this decision was soon met by a burst of deep- seated hatred, an overall collective outrage, a spree of violence incoming over the wires.
“no christians in chicago, i see”—one read.
“Sawmill & Gomorrah”—one read.
“how’s it go: birds of a feather?”—one read.
“He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, his dwelling shall be outside the camp”—one read.
“god will ruin what you build”—one read.
The cousins burned these as they came, laughing. They pretended to kiss one another in the lobby of a hotel. They held hands down 2nd Street, their wives doubled over behind them, giggling, quoting between breaths from either scripture or the vitriolic telegrams. Money’s money, they all agreed.
Abe L. Fremont had been a prominent industrial architect in Houston for over twenty years and was heavily involved in the formation of the city’s Market Square during the turn of the century. Walking downtown, one could find a Fremont building on nearly every block. They were stylish buildings, austere to the point of being firmly iconoclastic, especially when compared to Houston’s other buildings, which were constructed within schools of thought centered more around classical designs, in styles of Greek and French.
He outed himself after the death of his partner, Larry Hutchison, who had lived with him for over fifteen years under the guise of being his personal steward. It happened at the funeral. During the eulogy he spoke frankly, unbridled by grief, about the actuality of his relationship with Larry. “At the beginning of each day,” he read, “Lar’ used to kiss me, half-awake in bed, telling me good morning. Now for the rest of my life I move in an unending night. Once it becomes morning I won’t know it’s morning. Without being told, I won’t hear it.” He surveyed the people gathered in the pews. “Just look at you,” he said.
This information spread rapidly throughout the city, and in the ten years following Abe faded without sympathy into the lifestyle of a recluse, losing not only all opportunities for work within the architectural circles of Houston, but also his right hand to diabetes, a disease that had plagued him for the duration of his adult life and which he now hoped would spark an early death. He was 55. During this decade his only communication came in the form of hundreds of letters written to his sister, who lived in Denver. Within both a frenetic despair and increasing state of anachronism, he expounded on his evolving architectural theories. Due to the loss of his writing hand, most of his written thoughts are illegible. The letters were penned at first on paper and then on many various items. His writing, over time, became better. Fragments survive.
One such example, dated May 1909, was written on the back of a grocery receipt:
[forms whole and complete ‘…’ style as wrapping, or as packaging ‘…’ for structures containing a wholeness only ‘…’ then you are missing something ‘…’ a new style for forms entailing absence, what is there, what’s missing from the surface ‘…’ my diet consists now mainly of oatmeal in water ‘…’ a style to be symbolic of fracture ‘…’ or how ‘…’ ways of holding a bowl ‘…’ how to style the buttons at the end of my sleeve ‘…’ style of walking past or standing in an empty room of his ‘…’ how? ‘…’ quietly ‘…’ days go by and so to find in each one so much missing ‘…’ style of time passing in cities all un-whole, old, fractured ‘…’ then how to present absence through presence ‘…’ and what can be see in the light?]
Abe L. Fremont arrived in the still nameless country of Telephone one morning by train, in 1912, in the middle of the heat of summer, and immediately hoped to set himself work. There was almost nothing there. The landscape (raw, quiet, green) was simply landscape.
His crew awaited him in tents pitched a few days earlier on the river bank. The single water-powered plane saw, along with the rest of their building materials, were sheltered under an awning of raw pine logs bound by ropes of leather. A man from South Texas attempted to greet him with a handshake, but upon seeing Abe’s missing hand, settled for a nod. “I’m your foreman,” he told him. “We’re ready when you are, I figure.” The crew took that day to rest. Abe walked along the river and then through the woods until nightfall, alone, surveying the local country, and slept that night under a cloudy sky.
He wrote to his sister of the emptiness of the land, how the sight had affected him. “This is new architecture,” he wrote. “No walls at all here anywhere.” He mentioned how a sound, when it was the only sound around for miles, moved through the air. “Like water running over rocks,” he wrote. “I walked deep into the forest yesterday. I almost forgot myself, can you imagine that, I almost let loose of everything I carry with me.” He wrote of how much heavier his memories became after they’d been compressed into one parcel. He wrote of his plans. “Tomorrow I will send out the men to cut down the trees.” For weeks the men cut down the trees. “Today I gazed out across so many vast acres of stumps.” He wrote of a new style of wholeness, of the compression of absence into forms restructured without key architectural components. “Designs representational of a frantic desire to construct from fragments remaining of a fractured whole. Residual Architecture. Grief moving through the everyday world.” Many days passed by without him speaking.He practiced a routine of morning ablutions in the river, of working hard through the day, of afterwards, each night, walking alone among the blooming stumps and receding pines.
There was a hill not far from the sawmill, and he slept there, away from his crew at the top of the hill, without cover until the end of summer. “Key sites of emptiness,” he wrote his sister. “Those spaces of construction as equal to your locations left untouched.”
The men enjoyed him. They could see his silhouette in the dawn at the top of the hill. They watched him walking down, going shirtless to the river, and he liked to wave to them with his phantom hand. He wrote, “I take myself out on geography,” and considered his history as illustrated within the destruction of form to create form. “We’ll start up any day now,” he wrote his sister. “And everything I feel will furnish itself out nicely then.”
The sawmill came first, and the utilitarian constraints of its design provided for him a kind of solace. He constructed a flat and rectangular building with a pinewood exterior stained so heavily, and so repeatedly, that it verged on being black. He insisted that the building posses as few windows as possible, and the windows which he did include in his design were installed just beneath where the walls met the ceiling and at an angle slanting slightly upward, so that during each sunrise and sunset, the light would not shine down, into the interior of the building, but would form, rather, a blanket of light over the heads of the workers below, making the sawmill appear roofless. And this effect, in turn, would later on create for the mill’s the future employees (as their shifts both began and ended) what seemed to be an impassable distance between the realm of industry and the natural outside world. He wrote his sister, “Have you ever felt far down, off in the bottom of it?”
He wrote his sister:
“The mill is finished. And the men down trees now at a pace unreal, hauling them back on wagons and then running them through the saws, making more material. I’m not tired. It feels good to work. In the morning the sun slants its light across the surface of the river, like tremulous gold fingers, reaching for me, then washing off, in a way I can’t describe.”
“I’ve built homes for the crew this week. They’re nothing more than shacks but the men seem happy for them. Each is comprised of one room, one door, and two front facing windows. The youngest member of our crew, once I’d finished his shack, asked me to stand outside and watch him as he crossed the threshold: he wanted to wave to me from the window. I laughed. I set the structures in a row behind the mill, with the windows facing the river, because these men remind me of myself—I mean they are alone here. Last week I came down from the hill—I couldn’t bring myself to build anything there— and live now in a lean-to resting against the back wall of mill.”
“For months I’ve thought carefully about the design of the homes to be constructed for the incoming employees. There are various styles. None working. I’m building a town.”
“Last night my foreman (his name is Terry) invited me into his home. ‘Since I have a roof over my head now,’ he said ‘I want to offer you a drink.’ We drank a dark beer that he had received that morning through the mail. This went on for hours, drinking, as weworked our way through most of the case, talking of nothing important: plans, trees, night sounds. Then after a while he removed his shirt and lay supine on the floor. ‘I know about you,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter to me.’ He removed his pants, his underwear. ‘Are you looking at me the way a woman would look at me?’ he asked. I remained silent, drinking, hearing the river through the open windows. ‘You are,’ he said. ‘I can feel it. It’s been so long since I’ve felt it, a woman seeing me: it feels the same. This feels the same. Look here. Keep yourself on me.’ Often times I want nothing more than to plant all the trees back in the ground again.”
“There arrived in the mail today the recommended design for the company housing. Have you seen a shotgun house before? The papers upon which my own designs were drawn have now been repurposed as further padding for my mattress. A shotgun house is a rectangle. Its rooms are positioned in a line. The door in every room opens onto another room. No pure communal spaces. No hallways. The roof sits flat. From above, it bears the appearance of a coffin. I plan to build hundreds of them: all set in rows, all identical.”
By the time winter arrived (changing none the trees: the pines, the sorrowful evergreens) Abe had laid out the town. The twinned shotgun houses had risen up from the ground in a span of time that seemed like overnight. Then hordes of workers were incoming daily on the trains to begin employment at the sawmill: beat-up men with bad teeth who hauled along with them—into the nameless country of Telephone—their wives, their daughters, their sons who wore boots with holes in the heels, all so ill fed, kids more angry than sad.
The formation of the milltown had created a small circle in the forest of the pines. Each of the town’s structures were made from pine: the mill, the homes, the supply store, their little post office. Every surface felt the same. He wrote his sister, “We’re trapped.” There existed no textural, visual, or material differentiation to be found between the walls of industry and the walls of home, between public and private. People couldn’t name this.
He wrote his sister, “There’s still somewhere to go however.”
Rising up, there loomed in the middle of the town the hill.
Through Abe’s design, the shotgun houses were constructed in rows which compiled outward, from all sides, around the base of the hill. This manifested as pressure.
He wrote his sister, “Because every town, like grief, needs a center: I have left untouched the hill lifting up in an incredible-lonely incline over the town. I’ve left uncut the trees at the top of the hill. This is a place to walk & to be alone. I go there. I look out, view what I have done, have built—mausoleum, a town, myself. The river ushers by, sad, sounding little, pulled between being here & continuously being distancing. Lord. Feeling now the hurt of things done, old plans. I’m alone. At the top of the hill I am more alone.”
Abe stayed on in the town, working tirelessly, building a church, a schoolhouse, multiple diners, a bar, a courthouse. Most the people in town didn’t know him by name. When a new structure was required, the idea would be proposed to one of the managers of the sawmill, who in turn gave the plans to Abe. He could still be seen at night walking alone at the top of the hill, or going up or coming down. Children were afraid of his hand, the missing one, as it continued to be the one he elected to gesture with, waving, pointing, wiping the sweat from his eyes. Some years passed. He wrote his sister, “I am my home.”
Later on, after a northern wind came over the river and caused the smell to eddy within the town, he was found dead in his lean-to behind the mill. Men from the sawmill buried him in a pinebox one morning before work. They sang a quick hymn. No pastor showed. He’d never once left Telephone. The workers made a tool shed from his lean-to.
Ann Burnett, the wife of one of the mill’s original employees, reflected on the early days of Telephone, during its era as a company town, two decades after the closing of the mill:
“We shouldered a kind of weight, somewhat like that heaviness of water that you can feel when you’re swimming underwater, just trying to live our lives. Right away things felt strange around here. The town was small but you could get lost. All our homes were the same home. All our windows looked out upon a pair of selfsame windows. Men fought a lot with knives in the streets. Folks stood like they were lost, staring up at the hill rising high. Women bore children. I bore children. Eventually just about everyone had a husband or a son who’d lost a limb or two working for the mill. Oftentimes a tree would just tip over on a man. My Ted got his hand cut clean off by a plane-saw one morning as he reached for his hat falling off. Then they sent him out into the woods to work for the hauling crew. And not two months later a pine came crashing down on his leg, knocking him out. So they amputated it with a splitting axe right where he lay, and when he finally woke he was crying in my bed, trying to get up. He was only seventeen then. Then he drank for the rest of life. Most of all, I remember the whistles. There were the constant shift whistles coming from the mill, and they were like old birds. Too, there were the train whistles from the trains always passing through. One conductor, I never knew his name, would play a tune on his whistle so sorrowful that it might make you cry. He piped it out loud when he was heading out of town, and it was like he sang then what all of us could see but wouldn’t say. My husband, well, he got the family for Christmas one year a set of encyclopedias, and later that night our little Ellen read to us how it took a pine tree thirty years of growing before it became good lumber. That number of years was the same number of years as my life at that time. Ted was still whole. The conductor couldplay that whistle so sad it seemed as if it spoke to you straight, making you want to say what you saw, how the ending was right there in the starting off. Wanting you to say how you saw it, along with everybody else. Then one night on a Sunday Ted finally took himself from the house and on down to the river, crawling most the way, and once there let the water have him. I was born and raised in this country, have lived all of my life here in Texas, and because of that, as most folks know, there comes a point when you don’t even think to call what you’re living under as being alone, anymore, and so I just kept on, and I keep on, as you can see for yourself well enough right now.”
V.T. Wayne’s work has appeared in Booth, The Brooklyn Review, H_NGM_N, Mid-American Review, PANK, Parcel, Word Riot, and others. V.T. Wayne was born and raised in Paris, Texas and then, later on in life, attended the MFA program at Brown University.