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Interview with: Sadie Gwin Blackburn
Interviewed by: Melissa Kean
Date: October 29, 2007
MC: It is Monday, October 29, 2007. I am Melissa Cain and I am here at the home of Sadie Gwin Blackburn to interview her for the Houston Oral History Project. My first question is about your background. Where are you from? Where were you born and where were you raised?
SGB: You will be amazed to hear I was born in west Texas in San Angelo, Texas. My great-grandfather had come here from Georgia before the Civil War and he was one of the first Texas Rangers that went down and fought in the war with Mexico. And as he and his friends came back across the prairies of Texas, there were these wild cattle and horses running all around and so they gathered each of them, these wild horses and cattle, and he had a small piece of land his stepfather had claimed for him, and that began his ranch business. He married a wonderful woman whose family had come here from Tennessee. She sent all her children back to the school she had attended in Nashville to be educated, including her daughters. Anyway, because of his background in the Texas Rangers, the Confederacy put him in charge of defending San Antonio in case the Yankees ever got that far, which they didn't. At any rate, after the war, he decided that he would sell the ranch he had in south Texas which was one of the largest in Texas at the time, and moved to west Texas where land had suddenly become available very reasonably. He and his 6 sons . . . he bought everything he could. Fort Concho had closed. He bought everything he could afford and then he had his 6 sons and a son-in-law station themselves around on the 430 acres they could claim if they lived on it for 3 years, moved the women into San Angelo, Texas and by the time they finished, this whole valley between several mountain ranges had become the ranch. So, anyway, I was the second generation born in San Angelo. He got tired of taking his checks back to San Antonio for the sale of the cattle so he and 3 other men established the first bank in San Angelo. So, he was fairly well divided between the cattle business and the ranch business.
My mother and father were married when she finished her sophomore year at the University of Texas but unfortunately, along the way, they were divorced which was very unusual at that time. It was that time that my mother decided we would move to San Antonio and she went back to school and finished her college education at Incarnate Word. We lived in San Antonio for something over 3 years and I adored it. Of course, most of the family background was in San Antonio, so we had lots of relatives and lots of friends. My cousin lent me her evening dress so I could ride in the Fiesta Parade. San Antonio was an exciting place to live. It was very hard when my mother decided to remarry and she married Harry Weaver, who was the supervising architect for the Esperson Building, and later the architect for the Millie Esperson Building. A wonderful man. But, at any rate, here we came to Houston and, at first, I did not think I was going to like Houston as well as I liked San Antonio. Lamar High School had just then finished and I started there, and one of the things that had happened was that my grandfather, because of his banking association, had been appointed head of the committee to build a federal land bank in Houston. So, he and my grandmother had been here - they moved into the hotel and stayed here for one year while all of that transpired. And then, of course, went back to San Angelo. But then, 2 years later was when we arrived and the banking community could not have been kinder. It wasn't like moving to a strange place at all. It was like moving to a place where you already had many friends. And so, it didn't take long for me to love Houston in the same way that I had loved San Antonio. So now, I am in Houston.
MC: Where did you go to high school?
SGB: Oh, I went to Lamar High School and it was wonderful. They decided we could have clubs. The girls who were my age established a club and I guess the rest of them were busy because I ended up being president. But graduated. I was the valedictorian. I don't know how I had time to do all that because my marvelous Latin teacher helped me make up . . . I was 1 year behind in Latin and 1 year behind in math and so I had to manage 2 years in order to graduate with my own group, which, because of all that good help, I did. So, Lamar graduate. Then went to Sweet Briar in Virginia which, my aunt had gone there. Others of the family had that tradition of going at least a year or two.
MC: And there were other girls in Houston who went to Sweet Briar.
SGB: Oh, yes. There was quite a contingent that went to Sweet Briar. Well, this was the fall of 1941 and you know what happened in December 1941. Several of us had been invited to a dance at WNL and we were this car pool with everybody all jammed in, was driving back from WNL to Sweet Briar and we heard t his announcement that the Japanese had attacked. Well, you know there had been some sort of . . . who was the one that did that war story that he made up? We thought that it was just . . .
MC: Oh, do you mean the War of the Worlds?
SGB: The War of the Worlds, something like that. At any rate, and we thought it was another one. We could not believe that that could possibly have happened. But when we arrived back at Sweet Briar campus, there were boys and girls all over - everybody was running around and we found that it was indeed true. So then, on the way back for spring vacation, they pulled everybody who was on the train off in the New Orleans Hotel so they could put soldiers on to get them to the West Coast. Well, one of the girls from Sweet Briar's father had a plane and he flew it over there and flew us back to Houston so we were not sitting in the hotel lobby for very long. But, at any rate, I adored Sweet Briar. I enjoyed everything I learned there. I happened to make the best grades . . . I won something to come back for the next year to pay for it. At any rate, so, I was looking forward to this. My mother said, "Absolutely not. You cannot go when they keep putting you off the train." "Mother, what can happen to you when you are sitting in a hotel lobby with 1,000 people?" "My dear, it is not proper." That ought to take you back to the world we are talking about, as you see. So, no . . . so then I went to the University of Texas and she was delighted. She had gone there. She had been a Pi Phi and the Pi Phis very kindly invited me also with a lot of my friends. Well, I was sorry not to go back to Sweet Briar but I enjoyed University of Texas as well, and because I had lived so many places after I finished my pledgeship, they decided I should be ______ captain. Well, that was fine. I had lived all over the state.
MC: You knew a lot of girls.
SGB: I loved it. I thought it would be marvelous. Everybody accepted except 1. She was delightful and I wish she had but she didn't. But anyway, everybody accepted and I loved that. You know, with the war going on, all the schools were going year round. They did not have summer vacation anymore. So, I went until the fall and my grandfather in San Angelo died - my 2 uncles were in the service and could not do anything about settling his estate. My mother needed to go back to do that but my sister was a senior at Lamar and she felt she needed a chaperone. So, back I came from the University of Texas to Rice Institute which that did not bother me at all because I had a whole group of friends there and they kindly invited me to their girls group. I cannot remember the name.
MC: Was it one of the literary societies?
SGB: Yes, it was one of the literary societies and it may take me a minute. But at any rate, it was wonderful. I was still back with friends and supervising my younger sister while my mother had to be in San Angelo.
MC: And living at home?
SGB: Living at home, indeed.
MC: Where was your home?
SGB: My architect father bought a whole huge piece of land that was between what was then Bellaire. It was an empty land and he built this wonderful country house and it was an acre of land with a white fence around it and so forth. Most of my friends lived all over Houston at that time because River Oaks was beginning but the early ones like Shadow . . . the one block developments and Riverside was over there. We had a good many friends in Riverside. Houston wasn't just all in one place at all. I thought it was a large town but it really wasn't. Mostly everybody knew everybody else if you had these marvelous relationships. So, at any rate, I loved Rice.
I wanted to take Chinese history because I had begun my work at Bayou Bend and I loved all of the beautiful Chinese ceramics and did not understand them. No, this was later.
MC: That was when you went for your masters.
SGB: Sorry. I get mixed up.
MC: We are back during the war.
SGB: Back during the war, O.K. We were there and they had moved . . . my husband had been at Rice. He started at Rice. But they sent all of the premeds to New Orleans. I don't know who they sent from New Orleans to Texas. And sent all of the engineering students from Texas to Rice. So, there were a whole lot of people that we did not know particularly but they were great and there were celebrations and we had dates and had really quite a normal life. But at any rate, now, let me see . . . so I guess I was just a regular . . . I had thought I wanted to be a chemistry major because there were blanks . . . you know, when they have the sequence of basic things and there were blanks there and I really wanted to be there when they found out what those were. They had to do it because it was so regular, they were bound to find out. At any rate, it was so difficult though that I finally ended up being a literature graduate. All right, so then I graduated from Rice. Then, my husband was in the medical world, of course, and so we became engaged just about the time that he came back to Galveston for his training. So then, I lived in Galveston. Do you want to know all of this?
MC: This is very interesting. I think this is very interesting.
SGB: Well, at any rate, our families had become good friends at this time. His mother was very ill and she died.
MC: He had grown up in Houston as well?
SGB: Yes. She had grown up - if I could remember the name of the development just north of the bayou, that first very elaborate development that had been done by a St. Louis developer.
MC: I don't know.
SGB: I can look it up. I can't think what it is. Anyway, there are wonderful pictures of young ladies growing up in these long dresses and so forth. She had a very proper growing up and was a very proper person. They had lost 3 or 4 children before Ed was born and so, she was very protective of him. He was very healthy and did just fine. We met each other because I was an A, Allen and he was a B, Blackburn and he sat behind me. Our English teacher was so amused at all of this back and forth.
MC: This was at Rice?
SGB: No, this is back in high school.
MC: In Lamar High School?
SGB: In high school. So, anyway, Mrs. Blackburn called my mother and said, "Mrs. Weaver, you don't know us but our children have met at high school and we have a house down in Galveston and we are taking a whole bus load of young people from Lamar down for a day at the beach, and we would love to have your daughter come along but I wanted you to know who we are and that we will be with them the whole time and deliver her safely back home." My mother said, "That will be just fine." They became quite good friends and I think they were delighted when they discovered that their children were going to get married. Well, actually, Mrs. Blackburn died I guess the fall before we became engaged. But, at any rate, we then were married.
Back to medical school in Galveston. Well, I had a very happy time in Galveston as well because one branch of my family, the Gwins, had been from Mobile and after the Civil War, the Yankees took his plantation and his boat hardware business, he had been terribly successful, and interestingly enough, I think he was the one that got the Chinese to send one of the first examples of azaleas into that port because they did not normally go there. But something came in there, one variety of azalea did. At any rate, since they had nothing . . . I think there were 3 children in the Gwin family that came to Galveston. I don't quite know why he decided that but anyway, they lived there for almost, well, I think it was 7 or 8 years. At any rate, my grandmother grew up with him and then he worked with the newspaper. He had a good education. He was certainly able to be a good reporter. So, when Mr. Guthrie decided to leave Galveston and go to San Angelo and found a newspaper there, he took Mr. Gwin with him. And that is how my grandmother and my grandfather met each other in San Angelo. At any rate, she maintained her southern - the rules of behavior - in San Angelo and there are a great many other people who . . . well, let's see, one of her best friends was from Philadelphia. A great many white wealthy people had moved to San Angelo because it the weather was supposed to be very healthy for people who had some kind of tuberculosis and amazingly enough, there were something like 4 or 5 families from different parts of the East, really, who were there and her good friends in San Angelo. So, I grew up with not just a west Texas background - we were there all right - but all of the people that were good friends of our family were from different parts of the United States. And it is still a very interesting mix of people, San Angelo is. We don't get there as often as we did before but part of that huge ranch that he . . . it was divided later. The two younger sons both went to the University of Missouri. They bought the interests of all the other people who owned that and divided in half. And we still have part of that land.
MC: Is that right?
SGB: So, now then . . .
MC: Right, so now, you are married.
SGB: Now we are married. He finished his training and Korea came along. So, over he went to Korea. He let me go with him to see him off on the ship but I was so upset about the whole thing . . . we had a marvelous time in San Francisco, but he sent me home a day early because he didn't want to see me crying. The day after I got back home, the doorbell rang and when I answered, here was this enormous package. Of course, now this wouldn't be anything but it was a television set. Well, people didn't have television sets in Galveston and many of the doctors and their wives were in this same area so every night . . . by that time, we had had 2 children during his training . . . and people came over to look at the baseball games. That is when I became a baseball . . . I had never paid attention to it before. We are sort of football down here in Texas, you know. At any rate, now then . . .
MC: Now, how did you become involved in the beginning with gardening and Bayou Bend?
SGB: My grandmother was an avid gardener so when I was growing up, there were a lot of times . . . we had this marvelous yard man, but she was out there explaining to him exactly what to do. She was also in charge of the gardens at the cemetery and, for some reason, always took me with her when she went out there to talk to them about the landscaping at the cemetery. So, I had had that background of interest but, of course, it was Ms. Imma.
MC: Yes. Tell me about Ms. Imma.
SGB: Well, my great-grandfather who was that man who went out and had his family get that ranch together, also supported Governor Hogg. This was before they had their oil interests. But, at any rate, he supported Governor Hogg very lavishly for his run for governor and he won and the whole Hogg family are the kind of people who never forget a friend. So, at any rate, when the Hoggs much later on came to Houston, Ms. Imma decided that young married women were the ones who were best to ask businessmen in Houston for money for the opera. Surely, you know all the history of Ms. Imma and the opera. So, I was just one of those young married women that went out to ask for money for the opera. And somehow, in that particular activity, she discovered the relationship to this man who was not only in the ranch business but the banking business that had supported her father for governor and so she established a very personal relationship. She would ask Ed and me to dinner and another couple and then go to opera. Ms. Imma was a wonderful friend. It was just amazing that there could be two generations there and I am sure this was not unusual - she had this relationship with any number of young people but, at any rate . . .
MC: I can't imagine going to dinner with Ms. Imma. How was that like?
SGB: Well, it was part of the dining room table because it was a small group, you see. And later, after Bayou Bend, of course, and I was in that first group of dosens that she gathered together, and we are getting to why I went back to school, you see. That first group of dosens. We were building at house at the bay at the time and I couldn't do the first time but Janet Housen couldn't either. And so, when she and I started in the second year, we divided the house up and I copied all the notes in one half of the house and she copied the other, and then we exchanged notes and we had the amount of work we had to do.
MC: Where did those notes come from?
SGB: This wonderful man - if I could just remember . . . I should have boned up on this. He came from that tremendous collection in Virginia. I will have to look that up. It is the one that is the most famous. Ms. Imma had met all of these people who were gathering things for their collection while she was buying things for hers. Jonathan Fairbanks. There it is. Anyway, Jonathan Fairbanks had come down and gone through all of the collection and given information on each item, both pieces of furniture and ceramic - everything - which is why there were all these notes for Janet.
MC: Can you tell me about what year this was?
SGB: Ms. Imma gave the collection to the museum in 1968.
MC: 1961. Selected as one of the first dosens by Ms. Imma Hogg.
SGB: O.K., well, good.
MC: Somebody did some research. Thank you.
SGB: That is written down somewhere. But, at any rate, this is the beginning of the 1960s. I am trying to remember about the garden club. There was a Junior League activities first, you know. That was when we did the exhibit for the opening of the gallery. Well, I won't go back to that. All of these things created a curiosity about what we simply could not seem to find here. And so, one of the things, both for the background of different things in the collection, the Chinese background and all the different things. So, that is why, you know, I really wanted to go back and find out about Chinese history, and what brought about these beautiful things. I just had not run across anything about China. I don't think they had Asian history. I know they didn't at Rice when I was there as an undergraduate but when I went back to . . . you know, I told you about that interview with Dr. Vanderberg when he said that he thought I had better take it for credit because if I played bridge and I was not taking it for credit, I would play bridge, but if I had signed up for credit, I would come to class. And then, I am trying to remember the name of the Chinese history professor who came down there.
MC: I will have to look it up, too. I just could not say. So, this was in the 1960s?
SGB: Yes. Anyway, he did get there. They put me in American history that first year when he was finishing his work in Yale. And then, when he got here the next year and we were starting on Chinese history, I got this call from 2 young man, Taft Simons and . . . anyway, they said, "You know, Ms. Blackburn, I understand you are taking Chinese history and we want to start an Asian society in Houston. We have been in Washington and we think that we ought to have one here, that Ms. Imma's collection and other things -- the museum was adding to its Chinese collection." He said, "I know you are interested in it and we just want you to help us." I said, "Well, I'll tell you, Taft, let's form a board. You get half of them your age. I'll get the other half my age. You will raise the money and we will have the parties." That was the agreement. And it worked. It was just marvelous. They did because they were dedicated to this whole idea of having this in Houston and the museum and Bayou Bend had these wonderful collections. It was something that was already . . .
MC: So, it began partly because of the presence of the Bayou Bend collection? That is where the Asian Society came from?
SGB: Well, partly, but the Museum had sort of a mason collection also. It is really just now getting . . .
MC: The Museum of Fine Arts?
SGB: The Museum of Fine Arts, you see. The Asia Society in Washington would not connect it with any museum. It was really the Asia Society and to support that. The professor who came down here was very cognizant of all of this because this was his area of study, you see. So, he was connected to all of the Chinese professors back in the northeast. So, he was able to get 3 of the outstanding Chinese scholars to come down. And so, the lecture was at the Museum and then we had the parties afterward in the dinner homes. It was a delightful experience and we all had a wonderful time. And the Asian Society is still going.
MC: Did you stay involved with it for quite a while?
SGB: I did. Not now. I just couldn't handle it all, particularly since right after that, Bayou Bend started and I got involved with the Garden Club of America.
MC: Tell me about that, the Garden Club of America.
SGB: Well, first, I was a member of the River Oaks Garden Club, which is a member of the Garden Club of Houston and the Garden Club of America.
MC: Actually, take a step back for me. The River Oaks Garden Club - when did you get involved in that? I mean, you chaired the committee ________.
SGB: It became my primary _______. I am sure they have the records somewhere but I became a member and what we did was . . .
MC: As a young married woman?
SGB: Oh, yes, and I am trying to remember where it was in relation to these other things. But Lorna Terrell -- I have forgotten how many years I was a member of the club before Lorna became chairman at Bayou Bend Gardens. And so, she asked me to be her assistant chairman, which would have been my job. You don't just be a member of the Garden Club, you work at something. The River Oaks Garden Club had taken care of Bayou Bend Gardens for Ms. Imma for some years in preparation for the azalea trail, you see, because she had this marvelous collection of azaleas. I came on later. That had already started by that time and I became a member. I did not know so much went on in my life!
MC: That's a lot.
SGB: This Bayou Bend. This was the beginning of my membership in garden clubs, you see, and my duty right from the beginning had to do with the gardens at Bayou Bend. My daughter was getting ready to make her debut and, you know, normally the assistant chairman becomes the chairman, but different things began to happen in my life and she was going to make her debut at the club or something. At any rate, I just couldn't do it, I had these other things. And so, she remained chairman and I remained assistant chairman for 3 years. And then, I finally did my duty and took over as gardener’s chairman, but it was all during that time that my interests moved out of the house and into the gardens. And I learned about . . . we all had to learn about these plants and where they came from and when they came to Houston and what Ms. Imma had done in order to get them and so forth. Both garden clubs belong to the Garden Club of America. I cannot remember exactly how it happened. I ought to know the year but at any rate, they asked me to be zone chairman because the United States had divided into 12 different zones with the clubs in each zone so that they have a zone affiliation as well as the affiliation for the national level. And being zone chairman, it is just the most fun of all. You get to visit all the different garden clubs and there were, I think, 10 maybe in zone 9 which we were in at that time, but I also learned I loved horticulture and became a horticulture judge -- that means you had better know a lot about it. I had to go to several programs to learn about these things in order to qualify as a horticulture judge. And as you go around to different flower shows and different places, you begin to know people all over everywhere.
I cannot remember the first . . . what I did. I could look at my list to find out the order of positions that I held after that. I did have different board positions on the national level until I became president. I cannot remember that year either. But anyway, I just need to look these numbers up. At any rate, I can just give you the list and you can see when it is. At any rate, all of these things went on and to my complete amazement, they asked me to be president of the Garden Club of America. I think it was because we had . . . we did not have the computer then but whatever it was we had before then, so that we could communicate. And so, this was the first time that they had moved west of the Mississippi River to ask a president because I could still keep in touch with the office, you see, through this communication that had not been available before. So, at any rate, I dearly loved it. It was marvelous.
My husband and I had traveled in Europe. He had gone to Africa and I had gone to China. Understandably, I could not wait to get there in Japan. But, at any rate, that was from 1989 to 1991. I, at least know those years. So, it was during the 1980s that I was doing all of this traveling around the United States. And although we had traveled in other countries and it was wonderful and exciting, this country is the most exciting place in the world. This was just after World War II had finished. Whether we liked it or not, we were the leading country in the world and all of the things that had been smaller and easily understandable suddenly became an example of leadership to the rest of the world. We went to, as a flower show judge in horticulture, the flower shows in England, went to one in France and one in Germany and two in Italy. Anyway, all of these things, your interest led you to situations you would never have dreamed of. So, it was a perfectly marvelous experience. The people were wonderful. They were all deeply interested in what they were doing and I loved every minute of it.
MC: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Now, tell me about how you became involved in the San Jacinto Battleground.
SGB: The reason that I became involved was because of our good friends, George and Gloria Hill. George Hill's father, I believe, was one of the . . . I think there were 2 or 3 men that originally gathered these materials together when the monument was built.
MC: The materials being?
SGB: The history of the San Jacinto Battleground and all of the things that happened to bring it about and the things that happened since and so forth. And I knew about . . . actually, one of my ancestors was there but it was a woman whose son was the heiress that I told you about later that went to San Angelo. He was only 10. His older brother was not well. And so, he as the second son, was the one that drove the wagon when they left - what was the little town just this side of San Jacinto? At any rate, they had lived there and they were in the runaway ______ that came across Texas. And so, they were some of the civilians who were there, present but down on the bayou during the Battle of San Jacinto. And when George Hill, the son of the original George Hill, found out about that, he thought that was absolutely fascinating, that somebody he had known all his life had ancestors at the Battle of San Jacinto. So, he asked me to serve on this board. I said, "George!" They had 5 big businessmen in Houston and George on that board. George was the son of one of the men who had begun it. I said, "I don't have the skills." "You can be secretary," he said. So, indeed, I became and was secretary and I was very interested in history and so forth.
During that period of time or several years before that, they had bought property in Fredericksburg and my husband became very interested in that area also, and he was at a point in his physician's life that he could take some time off. Well, he had already taken time off to go hunting in Aspen and all those things. But anyway, so he bought a piece of a ranch just outside of Fredericksburg and there was no house on that end of the ranch so we had a trailer which was, that was when trailers first began to appear. Everybody thought that was amazing. He had looked for houses in Fredericksburg and the only one he was interested in was this marvelous little rock house that an older woman had lived there and there had been a fire and it had burned the roof off. Of course, the rocks were still there. So, he told the man that was showing us around, he said, "That is the only place in Fredericksburg I am interested in." He said, "Well, there are 13 heirs. I doubt that anything is going to happen about that very soon." He said, "Well, if it is ever available, give me a call." So, Ed received this call in his doctor's office one morning and he said, "Dr. Blackburn, the 13 heirs are all here in my office and if you are interested in getting here today, you can talk to them about buying that house." He said, "I will be there around noon." He and some friends owned a plane at that point. So, he called me and out we went and got in the plane, flew to Fredericksburg. He went in and talked to the 13 heirs. I sat outside and waited. And he bought the house. [end of side 1]
SGB: So then, we became involved with . . . George and Gloria had already built a house on property that they had bought there. George was older than Ed and so his friends were an older group, you know, and we had not really . . . we knew all of them but we had not really been a part of their group. But George, I am sure you knew that he had had polio and had to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
MC: I did not know that.
SGB: Well, he was in college when this happened to him and when he came back, you know, he later married our friend, Gloria, who was our age group but they were 2 or 3 years older than we. We knew all of them but not that well. But then, George . . . we sort of became part of that group as well because of the Fredericksburg association and so forth. Now, let me get back to San Jacinto.
MC: I wondered how that was going to . . .
SGB: George thought of me to please help him with San Jacinto because of my grandmother and great-grandfather in the wagon. They decided they were going to move to Fredericksburg and so he said, "Now Sadie Gwin, you've got to be president of this group." "George, I can't do that. There are all of these men who are businessmen." He said, "They are all busy. They are buildings and they are doing that and they can't do it." I said, "I won't know what to" . . . "Oh, yes, you will. I will tell you exactly what to do. I will call and tell you." "All right," you know, so here we go for about a year and he called to tell me that I was to check on certain things; at this point, the lawyer at such a time. I followed directions and got a little familiar with it. And then, bless his heart - he came back that following spring and had a malignancy. We went to see him in the hospital and had a visit but he called me afterwards and said, "I don't want you to come back to the hospital. I am not going to be here much longer and I want you to go right ahead with what you are doing." I said, "George, I don't know how to do this. I have to have people who understand these things." "Do whatever you need to do to keep the organization there." "I'll do it." That was my promise before he died. The last conversation we had. So then, after that, I set up a board with president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer - all the different things that we needed to get the job done. Investment advisor, and so forth. I asked the smartest men we knew in each of those areas to please fill those positions, and 2 women to help me have the money raiser every year. And also, one person from Galveston, one person from Austin, one person from Fort Worth, and one person from somewhere in west Texas because I thought it ought to be a state-wide thing. That did not work. That is all right, the rest of it did work. And all of these wonderful businessmen, you know, came in, ran this organization in a way that, you know, all I did was run the meetings - they did the work. We had some wonderful parties once a year - there will be another one next spring it is still going on - to support this collection of both artifacts and books that relate to San Jacinto.
MC: Can you remember some of those first people who came on the board?
SGB: Well, I have the list. Yes, I remember one of the men who was such a . . . I thought I would remember these things forever but anyway, I can give you the list. I have it.
MC: Another thing I was curious about is you have a chapter in a book called "Houston's Forgotten Heritage." How did that book come about?
SGB: Oh, well, that was Dorothy Knox Houghton. I did not know Dorothy Knox at the time that she decided this book ought to be put together. She and Francita whose husband was very ill at the time . . .
SGB: Francita Kelt she was then. He was an admiral, had high rank during World War II. But anyway, he had died and she is now remarried. But Francita and Dorothy Knox . . . Francita felt she could not actually help wit the writing of the book because she needed to be responsible for her husband who was ill and confined to bed all the time. But, at any rate, she had helped Dorothy Knox get it together. And so, I got this call from Francita and said, "Dorothy Knox and I would like for you to . . . Dorothy Knox thinks we ought to write a book about Houston and she said that we think that you could help us with this." I said, "Well, good heavens, I don't think I know anything." "Well, but you could write about the gardens," and so forth. "Just come on and look at these slides that we have." Well, they had collected some slides of the early homes and gardens in Houston that were just a treasure. Here I was, vice-president of the Garden Club of America, that I had very pretty heavy duties there, and then the 2 years following, was going to be president and I felt I should not do that. But, these pictures were so fascinating about early Houston that I simply could not resist. And I said, "Well, if you will understand that I may delay you here and there because I have other responsibilities, but I would love to try. I can write about the gardens." So, it ended up with my writing about the gardens and a wonderful friend of the Museum who did interiors and, at any rate, I can look at the book and tell you . . . Barry did the architecture and then Dorothy Knox wrote about various incidents during these early years of Houston history. And so, that is how "Houston's Forgotten History" came about.
MC: It is a fine book.
SGB: Well, it really turned out well. I think that it fills a certain area. Dorothy Knox - they wanted to reprint it in paperback and Dorothy Knox wanted it in hardback so they did not do the reprints. So, it will have to stand as is for the time being.
MC: You also did quite a bit of work with various parks in Houston.
SGB: Yes. That was Ms. Imma again. Well, let's see now - yes, because the connection with Memorial Park began before the connection with Hermann Park. But I was just one of three or four people that she asked. When she got to her 80s -- I now understand -- they wanted her to go and look at various things they wanted to do in Memorial Park which you had to climb up and down these banks to go look at the things they wanted to do and she was just too old so she asked the four of us to please be her representatives and come back and tell her because she had kept them from putting the Astrodome there and from digging an oil well.
MC: In Memorial Park?
SGB: In Memorial Park. You would never believe the things that were suggested in Memorial Park. There were any number of other things that she had said no to and they respected her desires. Well then, she just wanted us to examine these different things to know whether she could say, "Yes, that's fine," or "No, that won't do." So, our role was to go and look at these places with the head of Memorial Park and then go back and tell Ms. Imma and let her make the decision about what she wanted to do. So, that was the way it began. So then, when Ms. Imma died in 1975, I said, "Well now, Terry, our duties are over." "Oh, no, they aren't," she said. "And I am too busy and you are chairman." Do you know Terry?
MC: I do.
SGB: You can hear that? At any rate, that was fine and that was when this group began working with the Park Department to decide on certain things, Finally, you know, we had that downturn in the 1980s.
SGB: And so, because at that point, there had been meetings to have a botanic garden in one area of the park closest to town. There were plans drawn. There was a lake that was going to . . . it was a good plan. But the downturn made it totally impossible and all that went by the board. But later on when things straightened out, I decided that what we needed, instead of having this informal group and trying to talk to different people who wanted to do . . . we did not have any trouble with the joggers. We could work with them and get things done because they would come to our meetings and we would talk about it. And then, the Park very kindly listened to our recommendation. But we began to have big problems with the bicycles, mainly, the mountain bikers, because they had those big . . . and there is a sandy bank, that it is really not safe. When we went and looked at that, they had worn the trail down so that I could stand on the trail and the level of the ground was above my head. It was just terrible. So, we began to have a much more vigorous relationship with the Park and they finally agreed to limit their mountain bike riding to higher levels and not go down in that sand area. But anyway, finally, over a period of time, I decided that we needed a whole board, not this informal group. And so, I had made some young friends on various other boards that I served, that I decided to call in to service here. And some younger . . . we needed young people, you see. And so, Claire was quite a good friend. She was in the other garden club. That didn't make any difference to me. Some people worry about whether they are in the same garden club.
MC: Which Claire?
SGB: Now, I have been thinking about all the past, so that I can't remember my current friends. This is ridiculous. Well, anyway, I will find it. Once again, I am just going to give you a copy of all this and then you will have it written down. I will think of it in a minute. Anyway, she was marvelous. She had helped me a great deal when we went over at the Garden Club of America project to replant some of the original plants that are in the wonderful forests over there. I am having trouble remembering names of things now.
MC: At the arboretum?
SGB: No, not at the arboretum. It is just north of Beaumont and it is a big area.
MC: Maybe the Big Pickett?
SGB: The Big Pickett, exactly. In the Big Pickett, we were reintroducing a plant that had been made there and they discovered. And so, the whole group of Beaumont Garden Club members and two garden clubs in Houston, the first time, the plants had been put in the greenhouse and then died, so we couldn't do it. So, we had all the people who were interested in it to a meeting and talked about it and put them outside and they grew and were ready to go in the next year and they closed the park, if you remember that. So, we couldn't get in. So then, the third year, we were ready and finally got those plants in but the National Park Service didn't pay one bit of attention to this man about what he wanted to do about the Big Pickett. So, he quit and went to a park in Tennessee and the whole things was lost. But, at any rate, we learned a lot, quite a lot about our area and that was another park experience. I can't remember the relative timeframe.
Hermann Park. My friend, Susan Keaton . . . my young friends get me into all of these things but anyway, she is just marvelous and she is just so intelligent and cares about things. She lived over near Hermann Park. The first thing that happened was that the trash gatherers in Hermann Park dumped the trash right down at the end of the park underneath the windows of the Warwick Hotel and some people who lived there just hated that. So, they decided that they would get together, organize and get the money together and they built that wonderful well with a cover and so forth there and they had to quit dumping the trash there. But they were the ones that sort of got the interested people around that area together for a board to set up a civilian board for Hermann Park. And just about that time, also, the Rice Design Alliance elected this young man president and I have that name somewhere for us, too. He has really a tremendous respect for his successor at Rice and we said, "Now, I have been elected president of this organization and we are getting ready to decide what project to undertake and could you suggest something?" And he said, "Without any hesitation, fix Hermann Park." So, they had already within their organization, drawn some plans about different areas in Hermann Park but this group Susan was gathering together various people who lived there and a man whose name I ought to remember also, he ran it there and Marvin Taylor was a black man who had just finished his service . . . as soon as he finished his service, also ran. All of these different people who had activities there and cared came together and we had this board of people. And the only reason I was involved was because of Susan who wanted me to help and because I had had some experience with Memorial Park, about trying to keep things out that they didn't want . . . anyway, now then, surely we are coming to the end of what I need to tell you . . . where were we?
MC: Oh, we were at Hermann Park. You were going to finish off Hermann Park.
SGB: Oh, yes. Hermann Park, came and all of those people, most of whom lived around the edge of the park, at that time, the Gulf Center was in the only building that was there that had been built at the time Hermann Park began. So, one of the efforts was to redo the Gulf facility so that their entrance could be on the other side of the park and that building would then be available for an administration that could run the park and take care of it. And that took a while, like, you know, 4 or 5 or 6 years, and they had those redesigned areas of the golf course, and so forth. But one of the things that was marvelous about that golf course but way back when that first began, that golf course accepted colored people. At any rate, it was open and it was a wonderful example for that kind of acceptance that was needed. And, you know, even later - I can't remember when they came over, what year it was that the group came over to Houston from Alabama because we were segregated. Everything was downtown then, you see. The shopping was downtown, the movies were downtown. You were right there in a 10 to 12 block area where everything happened but blacks were excluded from eating places and restaurants. Well, they came and sat in somewhere -- I think it was in Foleys at the eating place -- and were not served, of course. Well so, all the businessmen and this, to me, was a wonderful example of Houston, the businessmen called a meeting that night - they all met in one of the hotels and I have forgotten now . . . I used to know the names and so forth . . . all these businessmen met and they made up their minds that they were going to open all this, so they changed it all. The next morning, they announced to the group of colored people that they were welcome - all these places that had been banned for them were now there if they _______. So, that was that, which I think is a marvelous example of the forward looking and intelligence of the businessmen of Houston. They made the right decision and they did the right thing.
MC: This brings me to finish with a couple of larger questions. You have been in Houston for quite a while now and you have been very active in Houston for quite a while now. You cut across a number of groups with a number of different functions and as you look back on that, what do you think have been the biggest changes in the city of Houston?
SGB: Well, first, of course, is the size because when I first arrived here, there were various residential areas that were developing and they were scattered out. Riverside was there. There was another group that was sort of along the bayou up here. There were places like Courtland Place that were maybe just a block long and so forth and River Oaks was really just beginning about that time. The Memorial Park area was beginning to build up but it really wasn't . . . one of the things that impresses me about Memorial Drive is that they have been able not to have all of these stores and shops and so forth. You drive down Memorial Drive and it is residential and beautiful all the way. They have managed that. At any rate, but, there were definable areas scattered out Spring Branch was a separate thing at the time and the thing that was so admirable about them was the level of their school system. It was just fabulous back in those days. But now, the place that we used to go dove hunting out Westheimer is now being built up and our friends, the Wheeles' own and I am trying to think but it now has the name of their place, is all built up. We went out there and had picnics and our children ran around. Everything is built up now. We thought we were a city when we were growing up here but what we really were was an overgrown town, a very capable one.
Well, you know, it was interesting . . . when I was in San Antonio, there was a sense of history that was always there and it was not that Houston didn't recognize its history but Houston was forward looking. From the moment I got here, Houston was looking forward to what was going to happen next. They were going to develop ______ cattle. And that was underway. Everything was just at the beginning. And I still get this feeling about Houston, even though it is the 4th largest city in the country, it still has this attitude of going forward. We had a wonderful trip down the Ship Channel with a man who is head of that. I got involved in all that when I was working in San Jacinto and they repaired the marsh there, put it back and made it a marsh again instead of a grassland. But the wonderful thing that happened here in Houston or almost anywhere is that whatever it is, you have the opportunity to learn more about it and whatever Houston is going to be, if we just pay attention, there are other things that are happening. I am a member of the Scenic Houston board and there are things that are happening, battling with the billboard people. It just so happens that a friend of mine in the Garden Club of America was in the founding group up in Maine that began the whole thing. She could not believe that Houston was so far along when she came down for a meeting here. And I think that is generally true. I have a feeling that most people don't really understand Houston. There is a lot to understand about it. The business community has changed a good deal from the ones that I knew that were growing up. It is much more complicated now and it is not quite so singly operated as it was.
MC: My son says back in those days, it was very tightly knit.
SGB: Indeed it was. You know, the fact that they could hold a meeting in a hotel the night before when the colored people came and make the decision and make it stick, they could, you see. They really did. I am not sure that there is any one group that can do that now. It is a different . . . it is a much bigger city than it was then. But it is a wonderful city and it has so many possibilities. And now, it is not just the possibilities that are there, it is trying to avoid the undesirable things now which is a different thing. But I love living here.
MC: I do, too. Is there anything else? Is there something that I should have asked that I didn't ask?
SGB: Heavens above, you surely don't . . .