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The Whittler
Sam Houston's Zen Practice

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Well read as he was, Sam Houston would not have understood the 21st meaning of words like "meditation" or phrases such as "being in the present moment."

But just as surely as Guatama Buddha sat with his legs crossed under the Bodhi Tree for seven days straight, the man who served as the first president of the Republic of Texas knew the Zen-like mental health benefits of focusing the mind. Houston repeated no mantra, burned no incense, and is not at all likely to have ever chanted, "I breath in, I breath out, I breath in, I breath out..." Even so, the man who defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto and assured the independence of Texas had learned how, in the current vernacular, to center himself.

Houston did so with two simple tools: A sharp pocket knife and a piece of wood. A man of contrasts and eccentricity, he found psychological sanctuary in whittling.

This fact, common knowledge during his lifetime but far less known today, is commemorated on a metal historical marker at the northwest corner of the square in downtown Huntsville. Placed outside the old Gibbs Store in 1993 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Houston's birth, the marker reads:

"This corner was a favorite site where General Sam Houston sat in a special hide-bottom chair to whittle small objects and talk with customers at the General Mercantile Store owned by his friends Thomas and Sandford Gibbs. Early records of the company indicate that the Gibbs Brothers extended credit to the Houston Family for their household purchases. General Houston's whittling knife and samples of his creations carved from white pine and other soft woods are located at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum."

Houston and his family lived in Huntsville from 1847, the same year the Gibbs Store was built, until 1853. Two years later the family returned and remained until 1858. Moving back to Huntsville after vacating his office as governor in opposition to Texas' secession on the eve of the Civil War,
Houston died there in 1863.

How long Houston had been a whittler is not known (biographer James Haley writes that he developed the habit early in life), but his frequent default to knife and stick began to get folks' attention after he became one of Texas' two U.S. senators in 1846.

"When in his seat in the Senate, listening to proceedings, his feet were usually employed in holding down the desk," wrote Coleman E. Bishop in an 1890 article on Houston, "and his hands, whittling a pine stick, a supply of which he engaged the sergeant-at-arms to furnish him."

A frequent church-goer while in Washington, Houston "improved on the occasion" by whittling during the sermons, Bishop said.

"Whittling...seemed to be his way of escaping bores and keeping his nerves steady," noted the author of "Sam Houston's Career," an 1897 newspaper article. "He always carried a pocket full of Texas cedar and a sharp knife, and thus equipped defied dullness and care."

Houston generally converted his sticks into small items including crosses, hearts, decorative buttons, bobbins and small shuttles that could be used in tatting and making lace. He also liked to carve letter openers and whittle small baskets out of peach seeds.

By all accounts a chivalrous man, Houston often gave his carved crosses or hearts to ladies and children.

In her 1904 memoir "A Belle of the 50s," Virginia Clay, wife of one-time Alabama senator Clement Clay, said that during Houston's Senate years he seemed to have an "...inexhaustible supply of soft wood...kept in his desk and out of it he whittled stars and hearts and other fanciful shapes." She recalled sitting in the Senate gallery one day, watching the proceedings, when a page arrived with an envelope for her. Inside it she found "a tiny, shiny, freshly whittled wooden heart, on which the roguish old hero had inscribed, 'Lady I send thee my heart, Sam Houston'"

While Houston had no reservations about figuratively giving away his heart, it apparently did not bother him to leave his part of the Senate floor littered with wood shavings.

In his unpublished memoir, long-time Senate assistant doorkeeper Isaac Bassett recalled a time that one of the messengers (a step up from page) approached the senator shortly after adjournment. Houston, as usual, sat whittling away with shavings scattered all around him.

"Senator do you know that I have great trouble in get[ting] your chips out of the carpet?" the messenger asked. "Sir I will tell you want I want you to do. Please put a newspaper under your desk every morning..."

Caught off guard by such impertinence, Houston stopped whittling. Then, resuming his work after a moment's thought, he said, "You are right." Summoning a page, he instructed him to have a newspaper spread under his desk every morning from then on "for I see what trouble I give this poor old man.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" March 15, 2018 column
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country. To read about more his work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor.com. He can be contacted at texasmikecox@gmail.com.

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