old bear hunters of Hardin
County had two things in common - they hunted bears until their
youth gave way to old age, and they became windy raconteurs, talking
each other to death about the big bear that got away. In fact around
1925, a half dozen or so old bear hunters met each Saturday morning
under the big beech tree beside the Nona-Fletcher sawmill office in
Kountze. They played
"42" dominoes and swapped bear-hunting yarns for three hours before
dozing off to sleep and snoring in their hide bottom chairs.
Old John Kilrain, known locally as "Old Kil," often passed by the
mill office, exercising his dogs, while the bear hunters were playing
dominoes. Kilrain, an old Negro, had been born a slave in 1864 before
emancipation, and had led many of the bear hunts after 1890, his dogs
always sticking to a bear's trail until the latter was cornered. Kil
always had a little ditty, which he sang as he passed the dozing bear
hunters, as follows:
|"The old dogs
sleep in the sunshine,
And the old men doze in their chairs,
The old guns hang there a-rustin,
While they dream about killing the bears."1
almost nothing was written about bear-hunting in Southeast Texas prior
to the Civil War although an occasional tale about black panthers
was published. About 1830 James Barnes, the pioneer patriarch of that
family in Northwest Tyler
County, killed 14 panthers in one day, winning for him his lifetime
appellation of "Panther Barnes" among his friends. However, bear-hunting
stories were principally non-existent prior to the 1870s.
In 1878 an article noted that some Southeast Texans made almost a
profession of slaying 'Old Bruin' if he came within rifle range. Yet
it was well-known that those earliest bear hunters ate every bear
that they killed, killing for sport being wholly unknown to them.
Galveston Weekly News reported in 1878 that: "Mr. A. Stephenson,
the old bear hunter of Southeast Texas, killed 33 bears last season,
and so far this season, has killed 49 bears..."2
A story about the Sour Lake Hotel in 1878 reported that the surrounding
forests were filled with bears, panthers, deer, and bobcats. A Galveston
Daily News reporter noted that while he was there, two hunters
and their dog were trailing a bear near the hotel, when suddenly old
bruin turned on them, killed one man and the dog before the reporter
"...The other man came up and rushed after Old Bruin with his knife.
Bruin rose upon his hind legs, gave him a hug, and then crushed his
skull in his mouth like an egg shell... when a man named Steele arrived
and shot the bear dead..."
"The two men killed by the bear were named Scott - father and son.
The senior, old John Scott was a chief of the Alabama Indians living
in that country..."
Another story was labeled "The Hunter's Elysium," and first appeared
in the Liberty Vindicator in 1889. Judge Hightower and his
friends were hunting bears in the Big
Thicket when suddenly they heard a yelp from Old Statler, the
judge's favorite hunting dog. The bear found an opening in the jungle,
where he chose to stand and fight off the dogs.
Old Bruin, fighting fiercely with every claw and fang he could muster,
soon killed Old Statler and was seen attacking another dog when Hightower,
his hunting knife drawn, jumped up on the bear's back. The judge stabbed
the bear twice in the animal's heart before Old Bruin sank slowly
to the ground. Hightower had saved the rest of his dogs, while his
companions stood by too terror-stricken to move.4
day in 1936 when I was age 16, I sat on the passenger side of a pickup
truck, while my brother was inside the Nona-Fletcher sawmill office
in Kountze, talking
to Pink Wiggins (Mrs. Wiggins was my 3rd grade school teacher in Port
Neches in 1928). In front of me an old man sat on a bench, whittling
a pine stick while two hounds sat there beside him. Occasionally he
patted one dog on the head while the other one licked his hand. The
old man was dressed in patched bib overalls and knee-high boots, wearing
also an old slouch hat and a tied bandana handkerchief.
"Who is that man?" I asked my brother when he returned to the pickup.
"His dogs sure seem to love him."
"That's Uncle Ben Hooks. He is the richest man in Kountze
and perhaps in all the county. He owns this sawmill, a few thousand
acres of timber, the Ariola oil field, and a few oil wells over at
"Goodness!" I pondered. "He don't look rich to me. I wore better clothes
than that when I used to pick butter beans out in the field."
"There ain't no put-on or pretense with Ben Hooks - what you see is
what you get." my brother surmised. "He can buy and sell everyone
else in this county, but he lets them wear the ties, tux, and top
hats. Some people call him "Mr. Big Thicket," because he has killed
lots of bears, and he used to own 14 bear hounds until Mrs. Hooks
made him git rid of them."5
I told my brother I wanted to learn all I could about Ben Hooks for
by then he intrigued me a lot. He replied, "Go talk to old Tom, who
used to hunt bears with Uncle Ben. Tom is that man sitting across
the road there in that hide-bottomed chair."
I hurried across Highway 69 to where Tom was sitting and asked him
about Ben Hooks. In between extruding a couple squirts of tobacco
juice, Tom began in a disturbingly slow drawl as he said:
"Shore, I hunted bears with Ben Hooks lots of times. Also with Bud
Hooks, Mr. Ben Lilley, Judge Hightower, Bud Brackin, Warren Brown
and Doc Tucker. Ben Hooks learned bear-hunting before 1900 from Ben
Vernon Lilley, who in them days was the government trapper in Hardin
County. Lilley was the all-time bear champion here, killing 118
bears in 1906."
"Ben once told me," Tom continued, after stopping to bite off another
chew, "that when he was a kid, the Indians still came to Sour
Lake to skim off the oil splotches on the lake, which they used
to soften their rawhide or put on their sores."
"I once heard Ben say that all the timber and oil in the world would
not help a man who had never read a book. Ben always wished he had
had more schooling, but when he came here from Georgia, there wasn't
much schooling to be had anywhere in the thicket."
Hooks was a small boy when his father loaded his family into a covered
wagon in 1849, and he did not stop until the wagon reached Village
Creek. After he reached adulthood and was logging timber, Ben paid
delinquent taxes owed on virgin timber lands, until by 1915 he owned
a thousand acres, worth $40 an acre. He kept buying until by 1935
he owned 13,000,000 board feet of timber still standing in the forest.6
day in Jan. 1907, Kountze and the East Texas Railway station were
all aglow with expectancy, that is, expectant that the presidential
train of Mr. Theodore Roosevelt would arrive any moment, so
Teddy could go on a Big Thicket bear hunt. Many months earlier a bear
hunt invitation had been extended to him by Judge Hightower, and "everybody
who was anybody" in Hardin
County was at the train station that morning, ready to welcome
and shake hands with the president. Only 2 days earlier, Hightower
had received a telegram that the president was near the end of his
Mississippi bear hunt, and the next day the presidential train would
leave for Kountze.7
In those days, everybody loved Teddy, the man the first woolly toy
bear was named after, and everyone wanted to see him step off the
train. Judges J. M. Combs and Hightower were there, as was District
Attorney Bob Sullivan. All the bear hunters were there too, Lilley,
Ben and Bud Hooks, Uncle Bud Brackin, Warren Brown, Dr. Hardy Tucker
- all of them dressed in a sheepskin coat, lace-up leather boots,
and armed with a Springfield or Winchester rifle.
"Old Kil" (Kilrain) was there too, struggling to keep his barking
bear hounds under control. He planned to take the president out on
the "Four-Notch Trail," where a few bear trails could usually be found
quickly. Inside the station, Mrs. Hooks and a few other ladies had
spread a table with crocks of boiling coffee and dozens of doughnuts,
for Teddy's train was due to arrive by 9 A. M. But alas, Teddy's train
did not arrive; a telegram did arrive, stating that the Kountze
trip had been cancelled since the president was needed back in Washington
to attend to an urgent Panama Canal finance situation.8
day in Jan. 1927, Dean Tevis, the Beaumont Enterprise reporter,
arrived in Kountze
with intent to interview W. L. "Uncle Bud" Brackin at his Honey
Island home. Brackin was believed to be the champion Big Thicket bear
hunter, who was still alive. Tevis then took the dirt road to Honey
Island, where he found "Uncle Bud" and his daughter, sitting on the
long gallery of the old "dogtrot" house. Bud Brackin, while still
a boy, had arrived with his father from Alabama in 1859, and they
had lived in the same old house for the past 56 years.
One Saturday of every month, "Uncle Bud" and his daughter hopped the
Santa Fe local from Honey Island to Kountze
to do their shopping. While the daughter bought the needed staples
- sugar, flour, dried beans, etc. - that kept the Brackin household
intact, Uncle Bud visited the bear hunters' club, seated under the
beech tree beside the sawmill office. Brackin enjoyed listening to
the bear-hunting yarns, as told by those who "were windier than he
was," one of them being "Old Kil," who owned the bear hounds. Brackin
loved to hear the old Negro laughing and speaking in his unique black
dialect, as much as the bear tales that Kilrain told.
"Humbug!" Uncle Bud told Tevis when the latter said he wanted to publish
Brackin's bear-hunting adventures. "They'll say Bud Brackin is gittin
mighty windy in his old age, when actually I know some men in Kountze
who are a lot windier than I am."9
Brackin told Tevis that his father had stopped at Honey Island because
of the abundance of honey and bee trees that gave the locality its
name; and Brackin's father loved wild honey even more than John the
Baptist. Brackin also believed that the meat of the Big Thicket bears
bore a special flavor because of the plentiful wild fruit and honey.
In springtime there were plenty of wild muscadines, mayhaws, black
and dewberries, and gall berries for the bears to eat. The nut mast
on the ground was plentiful too, and many bears would climb the oak
trees to forage for acorns before the mast began falling.
"I killed my first bear on Bad Luck Creek in 1875 when I was 25 years
old," Brackin related to Tevis, "and from then until 1912, when I
killed my last bear, I had killed and skinned 305 bears. But I never
killed a bear for mere sport though; we ate every bear I ever killed."10
"And that's the honest-to-goodness truth," acknowledged Bud's daughter,
who was rocking on the porch beside him. "Mom and Dad raised all nine
of us on bear meat. And if Mama ran out of bear lard, and had to substitute
hog lard, her biscuits just did not taste right. So she would make
Papa drop his plow handles and go kill her a bear."
When old age and arthritis began creeping up on Bud Brackin in 1912,
he gave his hounds and old '73 Winchester to his son Corbett Brackin.
Since the bears were getting scarce by 1912, Corbett retrained the
hounds to hunt and trail deer and bobcats.
Bud Brackin did not mind claiming his role as sage and grand champion
of the unorganized - perhaps disorganized would be better - club of
Big Thicket Bear Hunters, but he did not cotton to the role of "grand
raconteur of Honey Island," or the biggest liar in Hardin
County. As stated, he said there were others in the county who
were a lot windier than he was, and could fill those shoes with ease.11
another occasion, Tevis interviewed another old bear hunter, Warren
Brown, who had lived in Brown Settlement on the Four-Notch Trail
since his family left Mississippi in a covered wagon in 1874. By 1924
Brown had grown old and quite ill, forcing his son, Hardy Brown, to
do most of the talking. Young Brown said that his father's best bear
kill for one season had been 63; only about half of Ben Lilley's record
of 118 bears, and his lifetime total amounted to 255 bears killed
Warren Brown's dogs, "Clint" and "Guard," were said to be of "Cotton-stock,"
meaning they were of a blood line sired by a dog owned and trained
by W. D. Cotton, who lived on the Four-Notch Trail back in the 1840s.
The two dogs always tried to keep a bear from climbing a tree, but
on one occasion they failed. As the bear started up a pine tree, Clinton
grabbed the bear's tail with vise-grip turtle hold, and Guard clamped
his jaws around a hind paw. The bear climbed 20 feet up the pine tree
with the dogs still hanging on. When the bear started back down, Brown
feared the bear might fall and his 400 pounds of weight might kill
the dogs. When Old Bruin was about 4 feet from the bottom, Brown shot
the bear in the head, and luckily both dogs escaped unharmed.
As a bear tale raconteur, Warren Brown always had a litany of yarns
on the tip of his tongue until he got sick. His favorite story was
about "Old Cuff," the biggest, meanest old 500-pound black bear to
be found anywhere in the thicket. The Browns, like all the Big
Thicket families, depended on a supply of smoked pork to last
them for six months of the year, and the mother of most of the Brown's
piglets was an old pet sow named Sal. The acorn mast fed hundreds
of wild feral hogs in the creek bottoms, and Brown did not mind when
Cuff killed a wild hog, but Sal was strictly off-limits.
One bright moonlit night, Mrs. Brown heard a ruckus out in the barnyard.
As she went out the back door, she could see Old Cuff dragging Sal
through the clearing toward the creek. She rushed back inside and
hollered: "Warren, come a-runnin and bring yore gun. Old Cuff's killed
Sal and he's draggin her toard the crick."
Brown pumped a 44-calibar shell into the chamber of his '73 Winchester
as he ran toward the clearing. He got within 25 yards of Cuff before
the big bear growled and stood up on his hind feet, leaving a big
black shadow in the bright moonlight. Brown then took aim at the center
of the black shadow, assisted only by the moonlight, and after he
pulled the trigger, Old Cuff sank to the ground, the bullet having
lodged in his heart. But sadly, it was too late to save Sal, for the
sow was already dead.13
1924, Hardy Brown made an all-day hunt in the Big Thicket without
finding a single bear track. In the winter of 1922, John Hill, an
old bear hunter of Batson, and Dan Griffin of Pine Ridge killed the
last bear that Hardy Brown had knowledge of, a big 400 pound bruin.
Brown said that after 1915, the wealthy sports hunters of Houston
and Beaumont, with their big packs of dogs and high-powered rifles,
had wiped out the few remaining bears left in the thicket.
I remember a visit that my mother, father, and I made to Harmony Settlement,
southwest of Woodville,
in 1925, when we spent the night with relatives in an old "dogtrot"
house. Sometime after midnight, I was suddenly awakened by the yelps
of nearby hounds, and soon after, I heard the sounds of paws of a
heavy bear striking the flooring in the dogtrot. Shortly afterward
the barking hounds shuffled through the dogtrot as they pursued the
bear. I don't think I ever went back to sleep that night.
The passing of the black bears from the Big
Thicket marked the passage of an era, leaving the surviving bear
hunters with nothing to do except doze in the shade of the beech tree
and dream about killing the bears that were about extinct. And now
the Big Thicket bear hunters are as extinct as the Big Thicket bears
they once hunted. Luckily the black bears are far from extinct elsewhere
in the United States and perhaps some day a few of them will be released
once more to restock the area. At present it is sad there are none
left to browse on the mayhaws in the baygalls or gather the acorn
mast left in the creek bottoms.
T. Block, Jr
July 24, 2006 column
Hunter Recalls Olden Days," Beaumont Enterprise, April 6, 1924.
Weekly News, Jan. 28, 1878.
- N. A. Taylor,
"More About Sour Lake," Galveston Weekly News, March 15, 1878.
- Lois W.
Parker, "Legends of the Big Thicket," Texas Gulf Historical
and Biographical Record, X, Nr. 1 (Nov. 1974), 30-40.
- Janet Bowles,
"Ben Hooks and His Dogs," Beaumont Enterprise, Nov. 20,
- Dean Tevis,
"The Day That Teddy Did Not Arrive," Beaumont Enterprise,
Jan. 25, 1925.
- D. Tevis,
"Uncle Bud Brackin, Champion Bear Hunter," Enterprise,
Jan. 30, 1927.
- "Uncle Bud
Brackin," Enterprise, Jan. 30, 1927.
- D. Tevis,
"Pioneer Huntsman Recalls Olden Days," Beaumont Enterprise,
April 6, 1924.