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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"


By W. T. Block
What 'boy' is there among us, either youthful or aged, who has not experienced a longing at some time or another to escape to the forest -- far from the amenities of civilization, such as table manners and school bells -- to live carefree and survive, Tarzan-like, from the products of the thickets and streams? In the springtime, the scent of pine needles or fish frying on an open fire, the fragrance of magnolias or dogwoods in bloom can afflict the most domesticated of humans, driving him onward to the great outdoors where the 'predators' of society -- the truant officer, the tax or bill collector -- are minimal in number or totally extinct.

During the middle 1880s, Southeast Texas had just such a wild family -- perhaps one might say true products of nature -- who roamed the woodlands of Jasper and Hardin Counties, although the problems that afflicted them do not seem so "Tom Sawyer-esque" when reviewed today. And except for two articles in the Galveston "Daily News," the story of Elor Richardson and his family is certainly forgotten, but in 1887, the circumstances about them were well-known to the citizens of the little sawmill community of Beaumont.

The origin of Elor Richardson is unknown to the writer, although pioneer families with his surname had operated the Neches River ferry in the Evadale area about the time of the Texas Richardson. Under the old Texas Repoublic of 1840, the only post office in that vicinity was named Richardson. However, no one named Richardson is listed in the Jasper County census of 1850 under the given name of Elor. What prompted his long forest hermitage is likewise unknown, but it was reported in one of the newspaper articles of 1887 that the wild family had roamed the woods "for over twenty years." Hence, in terms of years, Richardson's original escape to the swamps may have resulted from a desire to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army.

Before 1886, what public knowledge that there was of them was limited to some occasional glimpses of the recluses as they scampered away through the woods like brush goats. But in 1886, Richardson was hauled into justice court in Kountze on a charge of vagrancy. The facts, established at his examining trial as well as published during that year, revealed that:
". . . He (Richardson) has never worked at all, nor been engaged in any kind of employment in fifteen years, nor has any means of support. He has a wife, probably common-law, and several children who go about in an almost nude state. Their only wearing apparel consists of old corn sacks, with holes cut in them through which they thrust their heads and arms."
Apparently they were residing at that time in an abandoned log cabin or similar abode, for the first Richardson story in the "News" continued its description of their style of living as follows: ". . They have no furniture - not even a bedstead or a chair - no dishes, knives or forks, nor cooking utensils. At night, they sleep on old corn sacks which they pick up around the timber or logging camps."
"They have never been accused of dishonesty, and how they live in such a condition is a mystery to all. They roam the woods in search of wild fruit, and when that is scarce, they subsist on nuts or upon the bodies of such wild animals as they find dead in the woods. One of the family died some time ago in the woods, and was not found for several days."
Apparently the Richardson family continued its sylvan exile for another year unmolested, for in July, 1887, passers-by discovered and captured them in dense woodlands three miles north of Beaumont, where they were "overcome with sickness and hunger," and brought them into town. Their destitute and ailing circumstances quickly captured the hearts of all the churchwomen of Beaumont, who immediately organized a committee to house, clothe, and feed the family, and provide them with medical assistance.

But, according to the "Daily News," the "old gray heads" of Beaumont were uncertain about the wisdom of the committee's actions of mercy in attempting to domesticate the wild family from their previous mode of living, despite the fact that Elor Richardson was indeed a very sick man.

"That man will die," the 'old gray heads' observed, "if you put him in a house where he is protected from the elements. Treatment of this kind will kill them. All they need is plenty of rain and sunshine, cold and heat, a hollow log or a grassy meadow to sleep in . . ."

But the efforts of the church women to make the Richardson family well, healthy, and comfortable continued despite the predictions. The "tender hands of the first ladies" of Beaumont kept them housed, nursed their sores and ailments, provided the skilled treatment of a physician who cared, diagnosed, and medicated, as well as a minister who preached and prayed, but all to no avail. Elor Richardson had the best care that was available, but he died at the end of three months of his "caged" existence.

The ultimate fate of Richardson's widow and children is unknown to the writer, for a continuing search of the Galveston "Daily News" microfilm for years afterward revealed no additional information about them. The editors predicted that they would revert to the forest at the first opportunity, that being the only life they had ever known, and that the efforts of the ladies of Beaumont to "tame" them would be in vain. And who knows? Perhaps the succeeding generation of picnickers might also have seen the Richardson children scampering through the branches and underbrush and mistook them for brush goats or wild boars.
W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
September 18, 2006 column

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 5, 1984, p. 11b.
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