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    Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

    Ashbel Smith's Foster Daughter
    Anna Allen Wright

    by Wanda Orton
    Wanda Orton
    Native Baytonian and retired Lee College professor Robert “Bob” Wright has many recollections of his grandmother, Anna Allen Wright, foster daughter of Dr. Ashbel Smith.

    “Most vivid is the fact that she never changed,” he said. “She was small, only about 4-feet-11, always dressed the same -- a long black dress, white lace collar, a cameo, long gold chain and high button shoes.
    Anna Allen Wright

    Anna Allen Wright
    Photo courtesy Anna Allen Wright's grandson Robert Wright

    “But more important, she always seemed happy, never saw her angry. At Evergreen (overlooking Tabbs Bay) we lived as a ‘family compound.’ There was a 5-acre reserve that had no oil wells. Around this ‘pasture’ were four houses – grandmother’s, two of dad’s brothers and their families and ours.

    “Each day mother would prepare lunch for grandmother and one of us would carry it to her. On numerous occasions a companion was hired to live with grandmother, but she was not easy to live with. Her independence usually resulted in only a brief stay.

    “Then came Mrs. Betty Bright. ... She would not let grandmother run her off.”

    As a child Bob spent many hours visiting with his grandmother and listening to her stories of the old days and poems that had memorized. (“The Little Match Girl” was a favorite). Oh, to have had a tape recorder then!

    “Grandmother's lifestyle was simple,” Bob said. “Even with the abundance of oil and gas, she still used a wood heater. She had for many years a second home in Houston on Rosalee but later kept a room in one of the hotels. She would make a trip about once a month to attend to business and visit with friend there. About once or twice a year she would go to Austin for a few days for the same. I never knew her to take any other trips in her later years.”

    While Bob’s son, Gordon “Kenny” Wright, never knew Anna Allen Wright, he knows a lot about his great-grandmother through research his family history.

    “Kenny has become somewhat of a family historian,” Bob said. “He has a master's degree in anthropology and thoroughly enjoys delving into our past.” Kenny has studied several hundred letters that show a complex and close relationship between Dr. Ashbel Smith and Anna Allen.

    “Ashbel loved Anna deeply,” Kenny said. “He was constantly concerned for her well being and wanted to provide the best possible situation for her most of the time. His approach was a fatherly one. He would tell her what he expected her to do and trust that she would do it -- often to his disappointment.

    “When he failed to get the actions he wanted he would often plead his case quite logically and piteously. All the time he would continually state that the actions that he wanted from Anna were for her best good. As an unmarried bachelor it is unfortunate that Ashbel tended to dote more on Anna than Anna really wanted to be. In the final scheme though it is probably good that he did spend so much time trying to see that she was raised correctly.”

    Born on Dec. 3, 1855, Anna came to the Bayland Orphanage from Centerville. Her father, Robert Allen, died in the Civil War from wounds suffered in the second battle of Mannassas. He fought with the 5th Texas Infantry, Company C, attached to Hood’s Texas Brigade.

    Anna’s sister, Sallie, was adopted by the Watkins family in Marlin.

    At the orphanage, Anna suffered from an eye disease that was being treated by Dr. Ashbel Smith, who lived nearby at Evergreen. He brought Anna into his home temporarily to continue the eye treatments, and soon that arrangement became a permanent one.

    Ashbel wanted to adopt Anna and change her name to Smith.

    Anna, however, wanted to keep her name. She didn’t like the name Smith, she said, because she had known too many “carpetbagger Yankees” by that name.

    She was a “very willful girl,” Kenny noted, “and that independent spirit just about drove Ashbel crazy at times.”

    Anna referred to Ashbel most often as Uncle Ashbel, but he tended to regard her as his actual daughter, often using terms like “my dear little girl.”

    Kenny said, “When Anna wanted something she would often soften her approach to Ashbel and play more of the role of daughter. She appears to have been able to manipulate him to some extent though he often saw through her pretenses. It seems that Ashbel had a very molded idea of the way a young lady in society should look and act. It was his intention to raise Anna according to this standard.”

    One big problem was that he was a major public figure and often was away from home. “It is hard to raise a young lady while you are almost always gone,” Kenny said. “To his credit he did about as good a job as he could..”

    To be sure, he always kept track of Anna and what she was doing.

    “There is every evidence that when Mary Johnson came to stay at Evergreen she was used as an informer to every move Anna would make,” Kenny said, referring to the adopted daughter of Houston newspaper editor E.B.Cushing.

    Also, Ashbel’s brother George acted as a kind of surrogate father in Ashbel’s absence.

    Actually, she didn’t like living at the plantation at Evergreen, preferring to be away visiting others. “When she did manage to get away she was reluctant to return, sparking some truly epic confrontations between her and Ashbel,” Kenny said. “One time when she visited George and his family in Tennessee she delayed so long in going back to Evergreen that Ashbel was beside himself with concern.”

    “… The fact that Anna had a equally if not more willful sister (Sallie) only complicated affairs at times,” Kenny continued. “There was great joy when Anna and Sallie were together, and its obvious that Ashbel loved her too, and to some extent corresponded with her.

    “Ashbel had a kindred soul in the person of Col. Watkins of Marlin, who was the adoptive father to Sallie Allen. Ashbel and the colonel would correspond, each complaining of their troubles with their willful girls.

    “Sallie would at times come for extended stays at Evergreen and this was to the joy of most of the residents who looked upon her as a very pleasant person. … The two girls did have a multitude of suitors who showed up at the plantation and this was a point of contention between Ashbel and Anna at times. Proper appearances had to be maintained and her reputation had to remain spotless if she was ever to be a successful woman.”

    Anna almost married someone other than the man she finally married. “It appeared to be a big decision with lots of ramifications,” Kenny said. “She chose not to marry the man… For the Wright family it was good fortune that she chose so and married George, thus laying her legacy into the Wright families. And in a ‘two for the price of one’ deal we also got Aunt Sallie Allen, who married George’s brother Will.”
    George Wright

    George Wright
    Photo courtesy Anna Allen Wright's grandson Robert Wright

    Originally from England, the Wright family operated a brickyard at Cedar Bayou.

    Anna married George Wright on Feb. 20, 1881, at Christ Church in Houston with Ashbel Smith and Mary Johnson as witnesses.

    Smith gave the newlyweds a gift of about 75 acres. George and Anna built their house close to Evergreen and Anna continued to look after the plantation during times when Ashbel had to be away.

    When Ashbel gave Anna the land for her farm, he told her that one day the land would make her rich. Sure enough, in years to come oil would be discovered on the property and a Texas newspaper in the 1940s would be naming Anna Allen Wright as “the wealthiest woman in Harris County.”

    Whether she was really the richest or not, Anna Allen Wright definitely was not a big spender.

    “There is no record that Anna ever spent vast sums of money on anything,” Kenny said. “She owned a good deal of real estate in Baytown that had belonged to Ashbel and whole tracts of that land were given to the city for housing when Humble Oil & Refining Co. came to town. A few of the parcels still remained when I was a kid and we had rent houses on them, but they are all sold now. The only property we still have is the original 100 acres of the Smith homestead, most of it in the oilfield. A small piece of it fronts on 146 as it approaches the bridge.”

    The first page of Anna’s autograph book, dating to her years at Evergreen Plantation, is inscribed:

    “May God bless you, my dear child, for you are as a child to me. May I beg you on all occasions and in all matters to aim to do your duty to God as he requires it, to put your trust, your whole trust in Him, the Great Father, who never abandons His children … your affectionate Ashbel Smith.”

    At the top of the page Anna wrote: “21/Jan/1886 died Thurs one a.m. in his bed chamber at Evergreen.”

    © Wanda Orton

    Baytown Sun Columnist
    "Wandering" September 15, 2012 columns

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