Cultural Tea-Sip But Closet Aggie

By David Smith

When I was still a little boy growing up in El Paso, I considered being a farmer, though I probably never said as much to my folks or brothers.

Our neighbors across the street in Kern Place were the Stahmanns, who had farms down the Rio Grande Valley and up the valley in New Mexico. Mr. Stahmann was an enterprising farmer, eminently successful growing cantaloupes and pioneering pecans. Another role model was a cotton farmer in Anthony whose son Allen Rhodes was a kid buddy of mine. As pre-teens, Allen and I made spending money picking cotton along with Mexican laborers who were probably illegal immigrants, since they were referred to as “wetbacks.”
“Horrors, child labor!” someone will say who reads this.

“What’s wrong with hard work for pre-teens?” I ask. Allen and I learned how long it took to fill a ten-foot long cotton picker’s sack in a hot summer sun (100º F plus). I doubt that Allen and I ever filled one sack between us, since we worked at a leisurely pace earning a dime per pound and learning the basics of personal economics, what I grew to call Economics 101. A fistful of pennies and dimes definitely beats always being empty-handed. More important, Allen and I were prompted to follow other callings in life, besides picking cotton, since we had a baseline with which to compare job opportunities.

Also as a pre-teen, I embarked on my second agricultural misadventure when I decided to grow a “victory garden” during World War II, primarily because it was the patriotic thing to do. With so many farm boys in the service overseas, how on the home front were we to have enough food to feed our families and neighbors? Good question.

Answer: Grow a “victory garden.”
With care and attention, I bought several packages of vegetable seeds at Tidwell Feed Company, things I’d never even heard of before, like… (I spell phonetically) – “root-a-begger,” “turn-ups,” “call-eee-flowerp,” “par-snips,” and that dreadfully slimy one that sounded like someone in the early stages of “throwing up” and needing to vomit … “uh,uh, uh,… oak-rah”.

Please understand that in West Texas in the late 1940s, one’s diet was pretty much centered on corn, beans, chili and cheese, always potatoes, and sometimes peas and carrots. For breakfast there was always oat-meal (easy and cheap to feed three boys).
Thankfully, we always did have plenty to eat.

Now if you want to say we suffered from cultural deprivation, that’s another matter. Today my wife will confirm that there are few vegetables I eat without screwing up my face. In Hammond, Louisiana where she grew up, her daddy taught agriculture at Southeast Louisiana College. Talk about cultural shock. I remember the first time she took me to a shrimp boil at Nack-a-tish (I spell phonetically).

Imagine gracious, civilized people pulling apart what we at El Paso had learned in High School Biology were “crustaceans” (translate, shrimp). They threw these crustaceans into pots of scalding water and boiled them alive! Was this a sadistic rite of some sort? Later I learned that Louisiana people with equal fervor eat even smaller crustaceans affectionately dubbed “mud bugs” that are trapped as they climb out of their small mud pyramids. Some smiling, charming Louisiana lady would wander by to inquire, “Care for some more Romma-lod sauce?”

During that summer of 1960 this West Texan almost blew my budding friendship with Charis Jeanne Wedgeworth when we graduated to the mud bugs. I tried to keep a straight face by thinking to myself that if I were in China I might have to eat “delicacies” like fish heads and rice to keep from starving.

This brings up other things from El Paso days for this cultural tea-sip who came close to being an Aggie during the Second World War when I tried growing vegetables in a 1/8 acre Victory Garden, because it was the patriotic thing to do. The caliche soil produced all of two radishes one summer. I might have done better to have planted my Victory Garden in Draino.

Then I decided to try growing chickens, something quite Aggie-like prompted by two older boys in Kern Place who were in the FFA. Translate: high school Future Farmers of America.
My grandparents raised chickens in town for home consumption, and Granddad Heermans had shown me how to gather eggs and build a chicken coop. With enough saved allowance to invest in 50 chicks, I bought ten each of such grand-sounding chicks as Buff Orphingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Yellow Minorcas, and Plymouth Rocks.
I was in the chicken business!

But during the second night of chicken farming, two or three chicks began to droop and by the next morning had died. The same thing happened the next night, and again the night after that. It seemed they got “the Pip,” which for me was an explanation that did not explain. Finally, I raised 18 out of the 50 to full size, whereupon I bargained with my mother to transport the grown chickens to Ayoub Poultry Company for contract slaughter.
Try to imagine my mother driving our Studebaker full of chickens with me facing backward, trying to keep the squawking chickens out of the front seat?
We made it to Ayoub Poultry okay, but the financial bottom line of my chicken venture was a loss, though I did get a few bucks positive on my invested allowance.
My next Aggie misadventure happened years later after I’d moved to Houston from San Antonio and had been married a year or so.

One day I noticed a classified ad in the Houston Post that brought my Aggie tendencies to the forefront with a vengeance. The ad ran about like this:

Nearby in Liberty County. Grow produce,
with fruit trees, bearing pecan trees,
14 acres with creek along the back side,
Nice frame house. See owner only
Clarence McCutcheon, etc. etc etc.

“We need to check this out,” I told Charis. “Besides, we now have a nest egg we can put into it. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
It was love at first sight. Mr. McCutcheon was at work in his fields, every inch an authentic farmer, even to soil under his finger nails. And, he scratched his bottom with aplomb.
Though the house was at the front of the property, there were two parallel rows of huge mature pecan trees extending toward Caroline Creek.

“Just look, Charis,” I rhapsodized. “Someday we can build our dream house at the end of that double row of pecan trees.”

I was sure of my intention to build a house at the end of the two rows of pecan trees, and was equally sure in my resolution then and there to start growing more pecans, although I was conscious of the fact that Charis was not as enthusiastic about “Aggie-culture” as her liberated husband was.

Within a week, I was on the phone to Billy Stahmann, friend and neighbor from El Paso days then living in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Like I had good sense and had already converted to being a farming Aggie, I got down to business. “Billy, this is Davo. I’ve just bought a farm near Houston and I’m going to plant our fields in pecans. How soon could you ship me a hundred seedlings or whatever the heck you call baby pecan trees?” Billy heard me out and then shipped me a hundred trees.

Within days I had parked my fragile chemical business to plant fledgling pecan trees, assisted by a Mr. Roundtree in Dayton, an old man who operated a tiny tractor having a “three-point hitch.” Now a “three-point hitch,” in case you’re not an Aggie, is something any authentic farm boy, Aggie or not, knows to be as basic as a hoe (or today, a chain saw).
As an aspiring farmer/Aggie I had bought (not rented), a heavy 30 inch diameter soil bit from an agricultural supply company. I was sure that I would soon be planting pecan trees by the hundreds or even thousands, and have a tractor and three-point hitch of my own to tie on to my huge Auger.

The day came to start planting.
D-Day! Up men, and to your posts! The noise of Mr. Roundtree’s backfiring engine was wonderful, like that of men going into battle. The contrast between Mr. Roundtree’s tractor and my heavy treehole drill was grand as the bit chewed into tough gumbo topsoil readily.

As I listened to all the tractor noise as he engaged the clutch, I thought for a second that Mr. Roundtree and his tractor would be going up and around for a spin, if the big drill bit should hit a big rock.

Oh, me of little faith! Some three days later, with the holes all dug and the one hundred plus pecan saplings planted, Charis and I might have planned to live happily ever after.
Not quite.

I had sense enough to water my new trees regularly, but within 60 days I noticed some dry ones when I scratched the bark to check for life. I had lost more than a few, indeed half or more during the second year that passed. But again with Mr. Roundtree’s help, I ran the play once again with pretty much the same results planting saplings from the Stahmanns’ farm. The third year was a repeat performance of years one and two.

“When you need your teeth fixed, go find a dentist,” my former roommate and best friend Arnold once told me. So, I made contact with Texas Pecan Growers Association, where I figured I could “find the dentist,” so to speak, to address my problem in need of fixing. Aggie pecan growers accepted me as a dues-paying member, no questions asked, for their Pecan Growers Short Course in the fall. I also had to swallow some of my Texas pride, for clearly I was throwing darts at a board in a dark room when it came to growing pecans. I had a problem and I knew enough to acknowledge it, which is the first step.
I arrived mid-morning during the coffee break for the opening session of the Short Course held at Texas A&M College Station. Everyone was wearing a name tag. I decided to list Dayton, Texas instead of Houston as my home town on my name badge. I reasoned it might make things easier, being so obviously a non-authentic Aggie.

A laconic country boy in coveralls ambled up to me and stared at my name badge.
“Dayton, Texas?” he intoned slowly and disbelievingly.

Then with a slow troubled look he inquired, “You can’t grow any pecans in Dayton… can you?
There was embarrassed silence.
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” I responded. “That’s why I’ve come to this meeting. I need to learn why with three years planting over 100 pecan trees each year just like you’re supposed to do, I lose a third of my trees each year.”

There was another embarrassed silence.
“Oh,” was my new friend’s sole response as he walked away.
Soon the articulate instructor reconvened the class and jumped right into his subject, which dealt with promising new “eastern varieties of pecans in Texas…” By the end of the hour, the scales had dropped from my eyes when I was given to understand something as obvious and fundamental to Aggies as water not running uphill. The short version is East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet when it comes to growing pecans in Texas.

I had been trying to grow western pecan trees from the dry desert area near El Paso in the heaviest rainfall part of the state, east of Houston!

Dumb me. Perhaps I should cut myself some slack and charge this mistake off to th
e fact that I’m a slow learner.

It was time for an agonizing reappraisal, especially since my third time trying to grow pecan trees was assuredly not the charm. Racing back and forth from Dayton to Houston pushing my emerging chemical business was tough enough. Allowing my latent Aggie instincts open expression was proving even harder.

One day during a visit with my ex-college roommate and…UT Fiji friend, Les Moor, he took on the role of Dutch uncle and said, “Dave, if you’re going to live in Dayton, live in Dayton. If you’re going to live in Houston, live in Houston. But decide!” I walked around Les’s wisdom a time or two or three. Socially we weren’t fitting in at Dayton, perhaps because I wasn’t a rice farmer.
(For the rest of this story and more by David Smith’s “Texas Spirit” go to or