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.
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
While Bob’s son, Gordon “Kenny” Wright, never knew Anna Allen
Wright, he knows a lot about his great-grandmother through research his family
“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.
Sallie, was adopted by the Watkins family in Marlin.
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.
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
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
To be sure, he always kept track of Anna and what she was
“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.
Ashbel’s brother George acted as a kind of surrogate father in Ashbel’s absence.
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.”
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
“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.”
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
courtesy Anna Allen Wright's grandson Robert Wright
England, the Wright family operated a brickyard at Cedar Bayou.
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
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.”
she was really the richest or not, Anna Allen Wright definitely was not a big
“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 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
At the top of the page Anna wrote: “21/Jan/1886 died Thurs
one a.m. in his bed chamber at Evergreen.”
September 15, 2012 columns
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