you listen closely, the wind slipping through the tall East
Texas pines whispers stories.
Every cemetery, particularly those in the long-settled piney woods,
is a library of story-rich books. Unfortunately, many of those tales
are as long-gone as those who lay in the red dirt beneath the tombstones.
Fortunately, James (Toodler) Rials, a retired railroad man who lives
in the country near Elkhart
has as good an ear for stories as his ability to remember numbers.
That’s a skill he developed over a 40-year career with the Missouri
Pacific, where his work days revolved around train orders and timetables.
Retired since 2002, as president of the Myrtle Springs Cemetery
Association, Rials helped engineer the placing of a state historical
marker in the rural Anderson County graveyard.
Spread out on a hill about five miles southwest of Elkhart,
the cemetery was established by the early residents of a small community
named for a nearby water source, Myrtle Springs. Never a substantial
town, its school, church and other structures are long gone.
While the cemetery marker sets forth the basic facts, Rials knows
a few stories about some of the 233 folks who lie there that aren’t
etched into the aluminum marker.
For instance, the burials include nine Davis family members. They
are there because a long-forgotten family feud caused the Davises
to abandon a nearby cemetery bearing their name and begin burying
their loved ones at Myrtle Springs.
were relatives of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president
of the Confederate States of America.
“One of the Coleman girls whose mother was a Davis said Jefferson
Davis came here to visit her mother after Civil War,” Rials said.
Just to balance
things, members of the Daniels family -- who lie in the same cemetery
– were kin to Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. And in
the politics-makes-for-strange-bedfellows category, one of Jeff
Davis’s several-times-removed cousins, Bertha Coleman, married Alfred
Cooper, another Lincoln relative. They, too, are in the Myrtle Springs
were another large family in the area. Like many families in the
same county, marriage had further entwined the limbs of their family
For instance, Fletcher Coleman, the man to see if you wanted to
buy the best jack or jenny to be had in the county, married a Davis.
Though a mule man of renown, Coleman had been known to take a drink
or two. The same could be said of his brother-in-law.
At a country
dance in the late 1890s or early 1900s, Coleman and Davis proceeded
to get what once was euphemistically known as “full,” as in full
of homemade whiskey. Their inhibitions thus lowered, the two men
proceeded to profoundly disagree about something.
Davis lit into
his brother-in-law, but quickly discovered that Coleman was as good
with his fists as he was at trading mules.
out on the short end and decided to hide out by the woodpile to
extract his revenge when Coleman left the dance,” Rials said. “He
didn’t do too well at that, either. When he sprang the ambush, Coleman
grabbed a heavy piece of firewood and used it to good effect on
The fight left
Davis with lacerations, contusions and, once he sobered up and recovered
from his hangover, a heightened awareness that he needed to be more
selective when picking fights.
one of the cuts he suffered in the boozy ruckus with his brother-in-law
became infected. This being well before the development of antibiotics,
the spread of the bacteria could not be stopped and Davis died.
His family laid him to rest in the cemetery that bore their name.
But that cemetery also was the final resting place of several members
of the Coleman clan, so Davis’ bitter survivors vowed that no other
Davis would ever be planted in the same ground as a Coleman.
Another occupant of the Myrtle Springs Cemetery is Mrs. Martha Leopard,
who passed in 1912. Next to her grave is a bare, wide spot accommodating
her husband F.M. Leopard. Married couples often have adjoining plots,
but Mr. Leopard’s grave has no tombstone. Earlier in their relationship,
he had left Martha for another woman. While Mrs. Leopard eventually
took him back, when he died, she figured he wasn’t quite worth the
expense of a stone marker.
There’s also a story beneath the tombstone of James Martin Cooper,
who died in 1944. In the 1890s, he supposedly killed a man south
of Athens in Henderson County. Gauging the degree of local sentiment
for the deceased, Cooper found it expedient to relocate to the Big
Thicket back when that densely forested corner of East Texas was
both big and thick.
But that remote country, as Cooper supposedly told friends, “was
awful hard on babies.” After losing two infants, Cooper and his
wife moved to Anderson County, settling just inside the Houston
County line. He stayed there the rest of his life.
Rials said he couldn’t vouch for every minute detail of these stories,
but offered a helpful caveat: “Anything worth repeating is worth
adding on to.”
© Mike Cox
- February 5, 2014 column
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