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  Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

The Story of Indianola

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
On my bookshelf sat a slim volume of poems by one Jeff McLemore. I never noticed it before and cannot say how long it resided there, right under my nose. Curious, I opened it and found a faded sticker that read "Compliments Maverick-Clarke Litho Co. San Antonio, Texas."
The name of the book, published in 1904, is "Indianola and Other Poems," and its yellowed pages, bound together by string, are as fragile to the touch as would be a human born the same year. I will digress just long enough to tell you research gleaned that Jeff McLemore was considerably more than an author. Atkins Jefferson McLemore (March 13, 1857-March 4, 1929) worked in Texas as cowboy, newspaper reporter and publisher, and a member of U.S. House of Representatives from Texas's At-Large District. He was born in Tennessee, and moved to Texas in 1878 where he lived at various times in Kyle, Corpus Christi, Victoria, Houston, Hebbronville, and Laredo. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin.
You already may know what I did not: that Indianola was a beautiful and successful Texas city that was severely maimed by a devastating storm in 1875, and mortally wounded by a second, even worse, storm in 1886.
Jeff McLemore
Jeff McLemore
Photo courtesy wikipedia
McLemore wrote that Indianola was a city "Whose charms proclaim her Queen of Love and Grace," and of the two watery tragedies that befell and ripped her from the proud land of Texas. The poem itself is more of a stirring experience than poetry, hurling the reader into an abyss of emotion at least equal to having watched the Katrina tragedy unfold. Written in the flowery prose of the day, it tears at one's heart, leaving the reader lonely for a place that is no more.

In part, McLemore wrote: "
The lightning's quick and lurid glare
On each pale face reveals despair
The storm has come! -- Wild Ocean's roar
Breaks with a shriek upon the shore
Brave men stand palsied, trembling, pale
The mother's prayer, the infant's wail
Commingle with mad Ocean's rage
and form a scene on history's page
More awful than the poet's pen
Can write; nor can the tongues of men
Relate that picture of despair
Which in a moment settled there
And many a loved one found a grave
Fore'er beneath the maddening wave."
Indianola, Texas street scene, old photo
Indianola street scene
Photo courtesy texasoldphotos.com
In a footnote, the author wrote "Indianola had almost recovered from the effects of the Civil War and was the most flourishing city along the Texas coast. Her harbor was crowded with large ships and ocean steamers, while long trains of wagons, many of which came from far beyond the Rio Grande, were bearing off her commerce to those who had left their gold in exchange. Wealth, health and prosperity reigned on every hand and she stood there beside the ocean the 'Queen City of the West.' In the height of her glory, on the 16th day of September 1875, a fearful storm swept over the city, leaving death and destruction in its wake. This was followed by another storm on the 21st of August 1886, even more destructive than the first, and unhappy Indianola, once the 'Queen City of the West,' was left a spectre of the past -- a spectre which comes before the vision like the face of a drowning man when he sinks forever beneath the cruel waves."

In the seventh stanza of his poem, McLemore refers to "storm-wrecked isles," and the footnote to that referral is historically fascinating. He says that he's somewhat in doubt whether these isles, situated near the coast and south of where Indianola stood, were ever inhabited by man, though they produced good cattle "pasturage." He goes on to say in part: "Just after the storm of 1875 they presented a weird and ghastly appearance, being strewn from one end to the other with pieces of wrecked vessels and houses, and the bodies of dead animals. Only two or three human bodies lodged on them and these were washed from Indianola."

The poem was based on an account "by one who dwelt there by the treacherous sea." In June 1889, McLemore visited Indianola and found a "few weather-beaten houses, tenantless and fast going to decay, and the white and scarred concrete walls of the old court-house, were all that remained of what was once a city of beautiful homes. For awhile I saw no signs of life, but in wandering around I met an aged, gray-haired negro, who seemed more spectre than man. He had been there since 'before the war,' had passed through both of the great storms, and in his rude and untutured [sic] way he told me the story of ill-fated Indianola."

It is a book worth searching for in used or hard-to-find book stores because it's not only a tear-jerker, it's a bit of eyewitness history you might not find anywhere else.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
June 30, 2008 column
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