Thursday, July 9, 2015

Texas Crafts

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

Tinsmiths fashioned pie safes, and in Texas the air
holes often featured a Lone Star design.
The quaint and rustic activities known today as “crafts” were, in nineteenth century Texas, necessary skills of everyday life. From the 1820s, when Anglo settlers began arriving in Texas, until the 1870s when railroads laid track across the Lone Star State, Texas had a colonial economy. Because of the high freight rates and our predominantly agricultural and rural population, nineteenth-century Texans maintained a craft society.

Gourds had numerous uses.
The Texas craft society extended to shelter. It took skilled craftsmen to erect log cabins and barns, or, in other sections of Texas, adobe or stone buildings. Food preparation began with clearing the land, burning debris (and fertilizing for high ash content), and planting with plows (farm wives might boast that “My man can plow the straightest furrow in the county”). Cooking was done over an open fireplace, demanding a fine sense of timing and temperature. Later heavy, wood-burning iron ranges began to appear in Texas kitchens. My aunt, LaVerne Feild, raised her family in a Burnet County ranch house that was equipped with an old wood-burning range. There was a temperature gauge that was dependent upon being fueled, but Aunt LaVerne developed a feel for cooking on the venerable stove. Indeed, in later years when she was presented with a new gas range, she kept the old wood-burner, preferring to cook dishes on the antique range.
Handmade tray and butter mold

A wood-burning range
Adjacent to her kitchen was a spacious, walk-in pantry. All manner of foods had been preserved, filling shelf after shelf. In addition, they had hogs and a smokehouse, and Uncle Mark produced the best barbeque sausage I’ve ever tasted. They had a milk cow and chickens, and fresh eggs. During my boyhood trips to the Feild Ranch, I came close to enjoying meals of an earlier Texas.

Karon and her mother, Louise Ashby, holding a family
"Friendship Quilt" made in 1931. Women would fashion
"blocks" or "squares," each with the names of friends or
family members. Sometimes church members would
create a Friendship Quilt bearing the names of
congregation members, then present it as a welcome gift
to a new preacher. This custom is carried on today at
family reunions with  Block Facing Reunion Quilts.

Clothing was another basic need. Most houses had a spinning wheel. Texas was close to the textile industry of Mexico, and we bought a lot of cloth and sewed it ourselves. It took about ten hours to sew a shirt by hand. Quilts were produced at home on quilting frames, which were suspended (and stored) from the ceiling, then lowered when the quilting process was continued. Quilting bees allowed several ladies to work on quilts simultaneously, enjoying one another’s company while creating comfortable and often beautiful bed coverings. Quilting, of course, is one of the most popular contemporary crafts. The Texas Quilt Museum is located, appropriately, in two nineteenth century buildings in downtown LaGrange. A few years ago, my wife Karon and I happened to be in Paducah, Kentucky, where we toured the National Quilt Museum. Karon and her mother, Louise Ashby, have collaborated on several lovely quilts. Louise s a superb quilter, and she is an active member of several quilting clubs.

Leather worker Ted Standard made this Masonic
billfold for my father, W.C. O'Neal
Outside the home a blacksmith was the most basic local craftsman, even repairing wheels and other items with their blacksmithing tools. Saddlemakers and leatherworkers are craftsmen whose crafts and products remain popular today. My uncle, Ted Standard, learned leatherwork from master craftsman Ray Jones in Lampasas, and in turn Ted became a master saddlemaker.

Ted Standard crafted a decorated Western belt for Karon.
Carpenters sometimes specialized. In 1900 there were 30,000 cotton gins in Texas, most of them small gins built by ginwrights – including my grandfather, Tom O’Neal. Born in 1868, he learned carpentry as a teenager working in his uncle’s lumber yard. Tom became a cotton farmer, but soon began building cotton gins, as well as houses. On the Texas coast, carpenters often became shipwrights. Cabinetmakers also built furniture. Tinsmiths provided cisterns for home water supplies, and fashioned small objects such as insect traps. When a married couple celebrated a tenth anniversary, a tinsmith might be called on to provide the wife a tin hat or a tin corset!

The Panola County Jail Museum, like many local museums,
has numerous homemade items from the 19th century.
Before sitting down to write this blog, this morning I visited the Panola County Historical Museum. Docent Ruth Hunt, who has assisted me on previous occasions, graciously guided me through the museum collections. Ruth helped me set up photo ops for this blog and provided explanations regarding handmade items from early Panola County.
Holding a corn shuck mop made by one of my students
decades ago. As the shuck surfaces wore down, new
shucks would be inserted.
Beautiful corn shuck doll

Farmers made their own whiskey in stills.

This homemade school desk seated
five on each side on long
benches. The lid opened on each
side  for desk space.

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