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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Possum Trot

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Luling has its annual Watermelon Thump, Cuero is famous for its Turkey Trot and Poteet is known for its Strawberry Festival. But not all community festivals catch on.

Since 1913, the Houston County community of Grapeland – laid out in 1872, incorporated in 1889 and again in 1936 – has tried at least three different festivals.

While the town’s first attempt to develop an annual celebration has long since faded from memory, whoever came up with the idea should have received lasting recognition for original thinking. Why not use as the centerpiece of the event a well-known if distinctive mammal common to East Texas?

Doubtless grinning like the toothy animal he had in mind, someone suggested staging a possum walk. Well, why not, local civic leaders chorused. Rolling up their figurative sleeves and calling up their hunting dogs, the people of Grapeland got to work.

When the big day arrived, more than 5,000 people came to town by train, Model T and buggies for the first annual Grapeland Possum Walk.

The two-day event began with a VIP luncheon at the Smallwood Hotel. The possum walk followed at 1:30 p.m.

Using chicken wire, walk organizers (possum hunters belonging to the local Possum Club) had constructed a possum lane down the community’s main drag. Members had been catching possums for weeks in anticipation of the walk.

Once the 200 or so marsupials had been corralled at the starting point, club members “urged” them to begin moving down the fenced course. Just how they got them going did not get reported.

“Although some of the possums wanted to sulk,” a contemporary account reprinted in “Crossroads to Progress: Grapeland, the Queen City of the Sand Flats, 1872-1972” related, “[they] marched through the principal streets to the strains of popular band airs.”

The account continued, “the possums struck a lively gait, which, once started, was hard to stop.” Whether the marching possums smiled for the camera is not known, but a newsreel crew took moving – though silent – pictures of the procession and many a Kodak shutter snapped as the critters promenaded past the many onlookers.

After the possums completed their walk, a mile-long parade moved through town. The Palestine Labor Band headed the procession, which included school kids, decorated floats, cars and buggies as well as four companies of Woodmen of the World in their brass-buttoned uniforms.

The only blemish on an otherwise festive occasion came when the mules pulling George E. Dorsey’s float spooked and decided to run away, Dorsey’s float still attached. No one got hurt, but the float got wrecked.

While Houston County’s possums had their moment of glory during their walk through town, they might not have cooperated as willingly had they had the mental faculties to contemplate the much more passive role they soon would play. Alas, the following day the townspeople and visitors enjoyed what many considered a piney woods delicacy – possum and sweet ‘taters.

Though billed as the “first annual” Possum Walk, if the event was repeated, it did not have legs. What did was the Peanut Festival, first held in 1945 and continuing annually for more than half a century. In 2007, stealing a page from Luling, Grapeland staged its first annual Watermelon Festival.

The term Possum Walk, incidentally, is older than the Grapeland festival, so maybe it wasn’t a new concept after all. There was a town in Walker County named Possum Walk until local residents wanted a post office. In 1887 they changed the name to Bath, though as late as the 1970s, some folks still called the place Possum Walk. Possum Walk Cemetery lies in Trinity County and a Possum Trot Creek flows in Angelina County.

No matter the origin of the name, the 1913 Possum Walk in Houston County inspired a poem that would be considered offensive by animal rights activists, not to mention being politically incorrect. Here’s the last verse, the only one suitable for publication these days:

“You can’t beat them [possums] on potatoes, raised up there in Grapeland sand.
Let’s be thankful were are living, let our troubles be forgotten,
When you’re blue and discontented, think of Grapeland’s possums trottin’”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
July 30, 2008 column

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