By LEAH COOPER
A recent and popular addition to Jefferson Carnegie Library’s collection is Texas Far & Wide. Its subtitle – The Tornado with Eyes, Gettysburg’s Last Casualty, The Celestial Skipping Stone and Other Tales – is a clue that this is an eclectic read. The author, E. R. Bills, describes the book as largely the product of his attempt to make his life less sedentary. Each chapter presents a little-known piece of Texas history he discovered “only by kicking around the state, still excited about bumping into people, places and history that I wasn’t already familiar with.”
I have to be honest, my intent was to read a few of the short chapters to get a feel for the book, then write this book review. But I was quickly drawn in, and soon had read each story. From the opening chapter about the 1936 escaped gorilla roaming the woods near Jewett to the closing tale of how a ten-gallon hat given to Deng Xiaoping at the Simonton Rodeo helped thaw U.S.-China relations in 1979, this book is filled with fascinating glimpses into the people and events that have occurred throughout Texas.
Closest to home is the chapter entitled, “Harvard West of the Mississippi” about the Forensic Society of Wiley College founded by Melvin Beaunorus Tolson in 1924 in Marshall. By the 1930’s the debate team was a powerhouse, defeating black and white colleges alike. Some of you may remember the story from the 2007 movie, The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington. Roam a bit farther from Jefferson to learn about the salt that gives Grand Saline its name.
With Jefferson’s history as a steamboat river port, I particularly enjoyed the story about the Trinity River port at Magnolia Landing, near Palestine. Like Jefferson, it flourished in the 1850’s and 1860’s, but unlike Jefferson, only an historical marker, a few concrete slabs, and scattered pottery shards and broken glass remain of this once-thriving town. My favorite photograph in the book is one of a sod house built by a Quaker family that settled in the Llano Estacado. In addition to the family and plow team posed in front, there is a cow on the roof. For those who would like to learn more about some of the stories, the book also includes a bibliography.
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