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Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

THE BURNING HOUSE

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Motorists traveling along U.S. Highway 59 in Polk County are often startled to see what appears to be flames pouring from the windows of old sawmill house.

The flames are actually enameled canvas, but there's nothing make-believe about the house, which once stood at New Willard, a sawmill ghost town a few miles away. "The Burning House" is an eye-popping piece of artwork conceived by artists Clint and Emily Sloan Alexander, both with deep roots in East Texas. Clint grew up at Leggett and Emily is a native of Diboll.

Located between Seven Oaks and Leggett on a plot of land owned by Clint's family, the Burning House provokes comments from everyone who sees it. Some take the time to leave written messages for the artists in a mailbox.

The old house--the type commonly found in early sawmill towns--is often called a "shotgun house" because, in the words of an old sawmiller, you could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would exit at the back door.

Such houses were seen all over East Texas during the great lumbering boom of the early 1900s.

The Burning House was moved from New Willard, near Leggett and still bears the number 14 above its front door. The house housed a working sawmiller's family and was later used by a black woman who looked after Clint's great-grandmother. Still later, it served as a storage house.

Pooling their artistry--Clint is a painter and Emily produces sculptures--the Alexanders wanted to develop a form of art that said something about East Texas, particularly about the hundreds of vanished sawmill towns.

One traveler who stopped to examine the artwork observed that "it evokes images of a sawmill town that might have gone up in flames," which was the case in more than a few lumber towns.

New Willard was founded in the early 1900s when Thompson and Tucker Lumber Company moved its sawmill from Willard in Trinity County to a site near Leggett, north of Livingston, and named the site New Willard. The sawmill, however, soon exhausted its timber supplies and closed.

The artwork produces a variety of other comments, which is exactly what Clint and Emily were expecting. "We hope it has a different meaning for different people; that's what art is supposed to do," said Emily.

The "flames" pouring out of the building's seven windows were made of canvas and painted with nearly two dozen different colors. Clint and Emily spent more than 100 hours finishing the house.

It has an animated appearance that often stuns visitors. "It's like the flames are really moving," said a Houston businessman who stopped.

The biggest questions people ask are "What is it?" and "Why is it here?"

Clint and Emily plan to leave the Burning House beside the highway for as long as people stop and enjoy themselves.

All Things Historical August 21, 2006 Column
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
About author: Bob Bowman


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