Thicket Bear Hunters Club of KountzeBy
W. T. Block
"They Dream Of Killing
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. |
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
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 added:3
"...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
"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."
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
"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."
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
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
"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."
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
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 and skinned.12
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.
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.
W. 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, 1932.
Tevis, "The Day That Teddy Did Not Arrive," Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 25,
Tevis, "Uncle Bud Brackin, Champion Bear Hunter," Enterprise, Jan. 30,
Bud Brackin," Enterprise, Jan. 30, 1927.
Tevis, "Pioneer Huntsman Recalls Olden Days," Beaumont Enterprise, April