- The Big Thicket Guidebook: Exploring the Backroads and History of Southeast Texas
The Big Thicket Guidebook: Exploring the Backroads and History of Southeast Texas by Lorraine Bonney is a work forty years in the making. Bonney and her husband Orrin began exploring the Big Thicket region after they married and authored numerous guidebooks, pamphlets, and articles about it. They were founding members of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in order to protect it. In the 1970s the couple set out to write a “travelogue” that encompassed the region’s folklore, history, geography, geology, flora, and fauna. The Big Thicket Guidebook offers a comprehensive look at the region and its people.
According to Bonney, the name “Big Thicket” is a misnomer. Much of it is a thicket of nearly impenetrable underbrush. But, the region also includes bayous, marshes, and forests that are just as impenetrable. Moreover, it includes savannahs and prairies that also harbor a variety of plant and animal life. In fact, the thicket has been called the “biological crossroads of North America” (5).
Its reputation as a mysterious “thicket’ is old. In 1766 the Marques de Rubí noted, “There was not a settlement or semblance of one, nor hope of any being established” (7). A Spanish priest called it “a forest so wild, thick, and impenetrable that it was impossible to traverse some of it” (6). The thicket’s people were nearly as inscrutable. From “horse thieves, gamblers and runaway slaves” when it served as a “neutral ground” between Spanish Mexico and the United States to backwoods settlers from Appalachia, the area has been populated by people with a preference for social, cultural, and political independence (9–10).
The Big Thicket’s natural resources were attractive not only to early settlers but also to corporate America. In the early 1900s, oil and lumber companies poured into the area. Conservationists soon noted that lumber companies “wasted” as much as 40 percent of felled trees. In 1915 the Texas legislature created the Department of Forestry. The introduction of “managed” forests heralded a cycle of clear-cut harvesting and replanting that radically changed the region’s plant and animal diversity. Later, Senator Ralph Yarborough blamed the lumber and paper industries with the destruction of much of the Big Thicket. Conservationists, like the Bonneys, with the help of politicians like Yarborough, eventually saved 84,550 acres of forests and wetland with the advent of the Big Thicket National Preserve in 1974.
The author also includes treatments of the towns Batson, Beaumont, Jasper, Kountze, Liberty, Saratoga, Silsbee, Sour Lake, and Woodville. The story of Sour [End Page 205] Lake is emblematic of the region’s history. As early as the 1850s, sulfurous springs made it a resort town. By the turn of the century, Sour Lake Springs had a popular hotel and hotel. Unfortunately, the sulfurous springs were indicative of the presence of oil. Soon after Spindletop, oil supplanted tourism in the town economy. Other towns also had colorful histories. In the Woodville Shooting Scrape, the several prominent citizens had a shootout. They fired forty shots, four were wounded, and none killed. One observer noted, “A little more straight shootin’ would’a saved a lott’a time and ammunition” (195).
After offering an enticing view of the Big Thicket’s history and geography, Bonney offers an extensive list of self-guided tours. Each of the thirty-nine tours includes detailed routing with discussion of people, historical events, and natural beauty along the way. One need only go to the suggested starting point, watch the odometer, and read along for an interesting adventure. Bonney includes maps and photographs to aid the tours as well as a bibliography for additional reading. The Big Thicket Guidebook is a welcome addition to those wishing to experience the history and beauty of one of Texas’s natural treasures.