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Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

BIG THICKET FOUNDER

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

If Silsbee businessman R.E. Jackson had not organized a hunting lease in 1934, the establishment of today's Big Thicket National Preserve might not have happened.

While Jackson's role in preserving the unique lands of the Big Thicket is known and appreciated within the ranks of Texas environmentalists, his work is not widely known in East Texas history.

Jackson, who passed away in 1957 before the national preserve was created, was among the Thicket's earliest advocates. In a 1997 lecture in Beaumont, Pete Gunter, regents professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas, described Jackson's early role.

An undated document from Southwestern Lumber Company of New Jersey and Kirby Lumber Company of Houston said Jackson's Big Thicket lease consisted of 15 tracts of land totaling more than 6,000 acres in Hardin and Polk counties.

While Jackson's lease formed the basis of a hunting club, it was primarily a conservationist organization that brought together a broad array of influential people interested in establishing a Big Thicket park and preserve, including Governor James V. Allred, lumberman John Henry Kirby, and W.M. Tucker, head of the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission. In May of 1936, Jackson called a meeting at the Beaumont chamber of commerce office "for the purpose of organizing in the interests of the Big Thicket." Jackson was unanimously elected as the president of the East Texas Big Thicket Association.

By the end of 1936, Jackson and his friends had both an organization and a land base for showing off the Big Thicket's natural wonders. But it was only the beginning, according to Gunter. "If the Thicket, with its riches of woods and swamps, orchids and deer, was famous in Southeast Texas, and perhaps known in the rest of the state, it was utterly unknown elsewhere," said Gunter.

One of the first efforts pushed by Jackson was a scientific study of the region. While folklore had provided an aura of mystery for the Thicket, botany, zoology and geography would have to provide the arguments for its preservation.

As a result of Jackson's work, biologists H.B. Parks and V.L. Cory produced a 51-page biological survey of the Thicket in 1936 while staying on Jackson's lease. As a result of their work, the Texas Academy of Science, meeting in Beaumont a year later, passed a resolution recommending the creation of a Big Thicket preserve.

The meeting's attendees were then carried to Silsbee for a speech by Governor Allred, a field trip, and generous helpings of a Big Thicket Mulligan Stew with side dishes of amardillo and baked crow.

Over the years, however, Allred's interest in the Big Thicket declined, probably because the state had little money to spend on the project. Other roadblocks also conspired to keep the project on the back burner. But Jackson's enthusiasm continued until his death. While the work of later conservationists paid off with the establishment of the Big Thicket National Preserve -- the first of its kind created in the United States -- Jackson and his allies provided much of the early leadership for the preserve, as well as the first scientific analysis of the Thicket.

Today, as a result of his dedication, the Big Thicket is one of East Texas' leading natural attractions.


Bob Bowman's East Texas
All Things Historical
May 25-31, 2003 Column.
Published with permission
(This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and author of nearly 30 books on East Texas. )

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