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."
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,
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.