Commentary

25 Random Things About Texas
by Published on
Pappy O'Daniel rode his witty explanation for non-voting to the governorship.

So you think you know everything about Texas since you live here and went to school here and took two years of Texas history (probably from a football coach)? But this is a big state, a deeply strange state-and coach what’s-his-name might have neglected these highlights and low points of All Things Texan:

1. According to americanprofile.com, Texas ranks last in the country in the percentage of drivers who buy vanity license tags, fewer than 1 percent. As you may have noticed, it’s the wrong fewer than 1 percent.

2. When Alaska joined the Union in 1959, the words to the state song, “Texas, Our Texas,” were changed from “biggest and grandest” to “boldest and grandest.” Since no one knew the words to “Texas, Our Texas,” this was less of a problem than it might seem.

3. Our state is so bold and grand, it has three official mammals-the armor-plated armadillo (small mammal), Mexican free-tailed bat (flying) and longhorn (large). Oddly, Texas has only one state reptile, the horned lizard, aka “horny toad.”

4. Anglo settlers in Texas originally were called “Texians.” By 1850, it was generally decided that-as in “team”-there was no “i” in Texans.

5. During Prohibition, Italian winemakers in Thurber cleverly got around the law, which forbade even instructions on how to make alcoholic beverages, by including precise directions about how the eager reader should not break the law by adding grapes and sugar to water, then fermenting the concoction at a particular temperature.

Van Cliburn on Time Magazine

6. Sam Houston, who died many years before Prohibition and showed enough fondness for liquor to be called “Big Drunk” by his Cherokee friends, left a notation in his personal dictionary that marked through “temperance” and added “Out with it!”

7. Texas, it’s frequently been said, is “a great country for men and dogs, but hell on women and horses.” This is particularly instructive when you consider the plight of Mary Ann Goodnight, wife of legendary High Plains rancher Charles Goodnight. During her husband’s long absences, Mrs. Goodnight was so lonely at their isolated ranch that she talked to her chickens.

8. If new residents of Wichita Falls are confused about what, exactly, their city was named for, it might be because the Wichita River waterfalls were destroyed in 1886. (The falls now visible from Interstate 44 are fake, fed by water pumped from a nearby creek.)

9. Dallas Love Field was named after an Army lieutenant, Moss Love, who died in a plane crash.

10. After Ann Richards’ death in 2006, then-President George W. Bush called her residence to offer condolences and ask what he could do for her family. “Resign!” one of Richards’ adult children screamed.

11. The legendary crosstown football blowout between Abilene High and Cooper High was scheduled for Friday, November 22, 1963. After President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas earlier that day, Abilene city fathers decided that Kennedy, as a great competitor, would have wanted the game to go on as scheduled. It did.

12. In the 1980 movie Roadie, a brawl breaks out in a Texas bar. After some of the characters discuss how they can break up the fisticuffs, Roy Orbison directs the band to play “The Eyes of Texas.” Within seconds, the fighting stops, and the combatants remove their hats, place them over their hearts and sing reverently. End of brouhaha.

13. A display case at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center highlights an early souvenir that can no longer be bought at the gift store: an ashtray with the hospital’s name on it.

14. Hell, women and horses, part 2: In Dorothy Scarborough’s classic novel, The Wind, a young woman from the East is driven to violence by the isolation and relentless wind of her rural West Texas home.

Roadie starring Meat Loaf, Kaki Hunter and Art Carney

15. Renowned Texas pianist Van Cliburn’s real first name is Harvey.

16. In the 19th century, the state of Texas set aside 2 million acres of unattractive land of questionable value in West Texas called the Permanent University Fund, or PUF, to support the University of Texas through leases or sales. Oil was discovered there in 1923, when the Santa Rita well-named for the patron saint of hopeless causes-struck black gold. The PUF, which has since been expanded to benefit other state universities and medical institutions, has generated billions of dollars and turned into one of the largest university endowments in the world.

17. When entertainer Wilbert Lee (“Please pass the biscuits, Pappy”) O’Daniel ran for governor in 1938, using the Ten Commandments as his platform, critics pointed to Pappy’s past failure to pay the $1.75 poll tax and vote. “No politician in Texas is worth $1.75,” O’Daniel replied. He won.

18. Forget William Barret Travis and Davy Crockett. Texas historian and novelist Stephen Harrigan says Launcelot Smithers is his favorite Alamo defender. Smithers, a messenger, left the Alamo before the siege and lived.

19. Nineteen towns are named “Midway” in the Lone Star State.

20. Equally true in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries: A British lieutenant colonel who came to Texas during the Civil War reported that it was almost impossible to find infantrymen for the Confederacy here. “No Texan walks a yard if he can help it,” the Brit wrote.

21. In the early 1850s, the federal government laid out a series of forts to protect the frontier and settlers. One was Fort Phantom Hill, located close to what is now Abilene. An Army lieutenant, writing to his wife, called the desolate countryside “a barren waste,” unfit for human habitation. After the Civil War began, the federal troops abandoned the fort, and it burned down. According to widespread rumors, retreating soldiers set it afire so they would never have to return.

22. In 1917, after the main building at the state School of Mines and Metallurgy (now the University of Texas at El Paso) burned down, construction began on a new campus. The wife of the college’s president had been reading an article about the country of Bhutan-which inspired the college to model its architecture after buildings in that small, far-away Himalayan kingdom.

Vanity license plate

23. Houston is named for Sam Houston, and Austin for Stephen F. Austin. Nobody is sure about Dallas. When John Neely Bryan founded the town, he said he named it after a friend named Dallas. Only problem-he had several friends named Dallas.

24. Hell, women and horses, part 3: Robert G. Carter, an Army officer, found no suitable housing for himself and his wife at Fort Richardson in 1871. Accordingly, he erected some tents for the two of them. Mrs. Carter gave birth there in 1872, as a norther blew in and soldiers struggled to hold down the ropes so her tent wouldn’t blow away.

25. Texas politics has always been a mess. Consider 1838, when Sam Houston’s supporters didn’t want Mirabeau B. Lamar to succeed him as president of the Republic of Texas. They endorsed Peter W. Grayson, who then committed suicide. Next, they settled on James Collinsworth. Collinsworth died that summer when he fell into Galveston Bay and drowned. Not surprisingly, Lamar won the election. At Lamar’s inauguration in December 1839, evidently to show he had no hard feelings, Houston “appeared in colonial costume and gave a three-hour ‘Farewell Address.’” Lamar failed to show, and his secretary read his inaugural remarks.

Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker lives in Austin and blogs at www.geezersisters.com. She thanks these friends, writers and historians-Stephen Harrigan, Elizabeth Crook, H.W. Brands, Sherry Smith and Helen Anders-as well as the Handbook of Texas Online and the Texas Almanac.