Marion County’s Last 19th Century Man Left Lasting Impression

MARION ROOTS: This is one of an occasional series of reports on people, events and places in Marion County’s past.

Karl Graham and Vesta Brown

Dec. 10 marks the 120th anniversary of the official end of the Spanish-American War (hostilities actually ceased in August). While few will note the historical significance of the Treaty of Paris, the date would have meant something to Karl Harris Graham, described by family members as “the last purely 19th Century man in East Texas.”

A hermit, a moonshiner and a fixture around Jefferson for 50 years, Graham’s story is also a love story, as told by a niece and nephew. “Uncle Karl was my grandmother’s brother,” Marcia Thomas related. “He served in the Spanish-American War. He knew a lot about weapons, flora and fauna.”

Jimmy Brown was Graham’s nephew and a columnist for the Jimplecute. “He was both my boyhood hero, role model and teacher,” Brown wrote after Graham’s death in 1959. Born in 1876, Graham was the eldest of Capt. Charles G. Graham’s three sons. The elder Graham served in the Confederate army and after the Civil War became a prominent businessman in Jefferson.

Karl attended school in Jefferson, then graduated from the University of Baltimore. A brief period of roaming the country followed until he signed up to serve in the Spanish-American War. While training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Karl met Virginia Chew. He immediately fell in love.

Karl and Virginia married, but after only a year of marriage, Virginia contracted “consumption” or TB. Despite the best medical help available, she would die within a year. “Broken hearted, he never quite recovered from grieving for ‘the girl,’” Brown wrote. Graham returned to Marion County moving onto the family’s 150-acre place at Shanghai Landing on the Big Cypress where steamboats once took on wood for fuel.

“He grew corn,” Thomas recalled. “He had an oil lamp and cooked his own meals. He had a spring near his house and made his own booze.” Brown remembered Graham living close to nature. “He became something of a naturalist and we kids learned about snakes, varmints, wasps, bees – all kinds of critter,” Brown wrote. “He taught us that ‘Everything in East Texas woods will stick ya, sting ya, kick ya or bite ya, and that includes folks.’”

Graham taught nieces and nephews how to shoot which Brown wrote came in handy when it came time for his brothers and he to serve their country. On his visits to Jefferson, first in his flat bottom boat and later in a truck which he taught himself to drive, Graham made quite an impression.

“He had a handlebar moustache and a goatee,” Thomas said. “He always wore khakis and a snap brim straw hat.” The shirt pocket would carry a Prince Albert tobacco tin and cigarette papers. Brown remembered his uncle as a man who lived by a code that has almost vanished.

“His philosophy embodied all the noble manly traits: Always keep your word. Look men straight in the eye. Respect womankind. Love your God and Country and be ready to die for it if necessary. Be self-reliant even when it hurts. Never lie, cheat or steal. Never flinch from the truth, hardship or a fight if one is forced on you. ‘Above all, be honorable.”

Brown recalled another Graham saying. “I keep my guns loaded and my knives sharp,” Graham would say. Brown and Thomas recalled Graham’s German Shepherd dogs. Thomas also remembered learning to drive “on that awful pickup.” People in Jefferson with long memories might recall, however, a simple, dignified man who looked you in the eye and would speak the truth, expecting the same in return.

Karl Harris Graham served his country and kept faith with the woman he loved. He is buried in Marion County soil and forever a part of her story.


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