I've been told by folks who know and love the community of Double Bayou that the entire South could have taken lessons from this secluded little town where blacks and whites treated each other as family long before integration was instituted. If only the rest of the nation had hearts like theirs!
By RYAN MEYERS ~ Beaumont Enterprise Feb. 11, 2007
Double Bayou -- Sitting in a small wood-frame home on the town's main street, Elga Jackson points to names on a page copied from her father's Bible.
The faded list includes family members born in Double Bayou well before slavery ended. Some family members, like her grandfather, George Rivers, helped build the oldest remaining structure in the placid Chambers County town.
"Several former slaves got together and built that church, and it's been added onto ever since." said Jackson, who turned 87 in December.
St. Paul United Methodist Church was built in 1869 and served as a black schoolhouse from the 1880s to 1920, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
The church unified the black community in the western part of the country in a settlement that even today is undefined by clear town limits, Jackson said.
Named for the fork in a bayou that leads to Trinity Bay, the community grew around pioneer cattleman James Jackson's ranch.
James Jackson established a 26,000-acre spread in 1847 near the present day intersection of Farm Roads 1985 and 562, about 50 miles southwest of Beaumont.
Many living in Double Bayou today are descendants of Jackson and his slaves, who became ranch hands after the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, according to The Enterprise archives.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Double Bayou hosted black league baseball games with teams from Nome, Honey Island, Shiner, and Dayton, providing a welcome break from backbreaking farm and ranch life.
And about this time, another tradition was developing in Double Bayou that would carry the town's name across half the world.
Elga Ora 'Boo' Jackson ~ Born 1919
Down the street, a building that won’t be coming back to life has collapsed. “It was a black school for a good while, Double Bayou School,” Elga Jackson said. “My mother and daddy and my three sisters and one brother went to school at the church, but I was the youngest and went to school at the school that used to be over by the church," she said.
"Then they built Double Bayou School, the one that's fallen down, and I went there."
Desegregation rolled in about 1956, and the black school became a Masonic Lodge and an American Legion Hall before slowly falling in on itself.
"Integration went all right, wasn't a big deal," Jackson said, recalling little interest among the town in the civil rights movement. "I remember hearing about it on the radio, and I guess some on television, but it's always been pretty integrated here, not like there were different neighborhoods (for blacks and whites.)"
"Life was too busy and the work too hard to focus on what didn't directly affect you," Jackson said.
"We all had a job. After school I had to get home and grind corn," said Jackson, whose family raised cattle and chickens and grew a sampling of produce including sweet potatoes, mustard greens, and onions.
"You'd put your vegetables on a boat to Galveston. The white folks had their boats and we had ours," Jackson said. "You could also send for things from Galveston on the boats. They were sailboats first before they had motors and getting across the bay could take them a week if there wasn't a wind," she said.
The 1990 and 2000 Census recorded 400 people in Double Bayou, and depending on who you talk to there, the population today is anywhere between 300 and 600. Because its unincorporated, precise demographic information isn’t available. But several people in the town estimated a black majority of about 80 to 90 percent. “I know there’s not as many young people as there were a generation ago,” Regina Lewis said while cutting onions for a weekly senior citizen dinner at the town’s most recently abandoned school, now the community center. “Well, I know there are not nearly as many of us as there used to be,” Jackson said. “Most of us at that cemetery now, out next to the church.”
The Double Bayou Dance Hall, around in one shape or another since the 1920s, is where Pete Mayes, easily the most famous person from Double Bayou, first heard the blues.
"I was about seven or eight years old, I guess," said the 68-year old Mayes from his Houston home. Sitting in the big gray pickup parked outside the dance hall, Cal ('Jew Pop') Carrington recalled his brother’s first guitar and a love affair with music that might have outlasted the die-hard dance hall. “Pete was just a kid when he got that guitar,” said Cal, an oil field contractor who shares a mother with Mayes and still lives in Double Bayou. “We still talk about how lucky it was,” Carlton said. “But really, he would have found the blues one way or another. He was born to play music.” Mayes would live a life of relative fame that included three months of shows in Bogotá, Columbia, with “Gatemouth” Brown, and three of his own European tours.
As a kid, when his uncle owned the dance hall, Mayes saw blues legends Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and T-Bone Walker play there he said.
His earliest memories have both blacks and whites dancing in the club, a departure from the norm of the 1940s southern United States. “There was a lot of crossing over going on there,” Mayes said of Double Bayou race relations. Mayes, who said he has white cousins today, added he can trace his heritage to the white Mayes family of early pioneers who settled in the area in the 1830s.
Only 16 years old when he first played in the Double Bayou Dance Hall himself in 1954, Mayes would play there regularly for decades, including a show every Dec. 25 until 2005, Carrington said. Mayes played the last two Christmas sets in Anahuac instead, the club periodically shut down for lack of local management. Today the Double Bayou Dance Hall is tired. The short, trailer-shaped building is bowed from so many dances. Held together by a piecemeal skin of tarpaper and staples, the tin-roofed shanty looks years removed from its last action. But Mayes, who still plays gigs in the Houston area, said he’ll try everything he can to reopen it. “I hope we can – it would just be right – if we could play the 50th Christmas show back in Double Bayou,” Mayes said. “We’re going to try.”
Taken from the Tribute to Pete Mayes and the "Houserockers" video.
The original dance structure erected in Double Bayou around 1920 was simply a raised wooden floor with chicken wire around the edges to keep the dancers from falling off. In 1946 the wood from the old dance floor was used in the construction of the now familiar Double Bayou Dance Hall. From 1946 until 1943 the Dance Hall was owned by Manuel Rivers Jr., known to his friends as ‘Cap’, ‘Skipper,’ or ‘Tanzy.’ He was a Gentleman’s Gentleman.
Manuel Rivers was the uncle of Pete Mayes and one day when Pete was very young, he took him to the rodeo in Liberty…there Pete heard that his blues idol…the Legendary T-Bone Walker, was playing at a club nearby. Mr. Rivers took him to the club in Ames. and found Pete a box to stand on so he could watch T-Bone’s electric blues performance through a window…and what young Pete heard and saw changed his life. He went home with a renewed passion…A Passion for the Blues.
As a soldier in the 4th Army (1962-63) Pete entertained the troops in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and after the service, Pete came home to Double Bayou and his band…Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers…they played together for over 50 years. The original three members; Bert Lewis “Mr. 88”, piano; Pete Mayes, guitar, Pete ”Guitar” Mayes; Robert Murphy “Skin Man”, drums.
At age 16 Pete was invited onstage by T-Bone and impressed his idol with 30 minutes of T-Bone’s songs…Carl Alfred and Shedrick Cormier were wailin’ on the sax…
As a child, Pete would sit under a big tree outside the dance hall and practice with his $5 Gene Autry guitar…he learned to “Swing the Blues” Texas style.
Bert taught himself how to play the piano at age 13 without ever knowing how to read music…Bert was nicknamed “Mr. 88” because a piano has 88 keys…
Robert Murphy was the band director at the segregated George Washington Carver High in Anahuac for five years before becoming the drummer for Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers around 1956…Robert attended Xavier College and UCLA, majoring in music…originally a trumpet player, injuries from a tragic train accident required him to switch to the drums.
Robert became “the skin man” when a carton face was painted on his bass drum. Each time the bass was hit the cartoon’s nose would glow.
Robert came from a musical family. His father’s band, “The Satisfied Five” backed top names like Ray Charles…his mother played the violin…Not only did they play throughout the south, at the Chicago Blue’s Festival, and California’s Long Beach Blue’s Festival, they toured Holland, France, and South America as well…they tell stories of what it was like playing in ‘white’ clubs in the 50s and 60s….they had to enter and exit through the back door and never mingle with the crowd.
Bert "Mr. 88" Lewis
Small town police would stop their bus in the middle of the night on the side of the highway and make them play, to prove they were a band. In 1999 they were invited to the W C Handy Blues awards in Memphis, TN. Pete was nominated for best Comeback Blues Album of the year, “For Pete’s Sake.”
When Pete was on solo gigs the rest of the band toured as “Bert Lewis and the Outta Sighters,”
It’s been ravaged by time and weather, but the old Double Bayou Dance Hall still stands, like a long-forgotten musician, still waiting for an encore!
Even though Donnie and I went to school together for many years and even sat next to one other in Tavia Grey’s typing class, we never dated each other. Out of the blue, fate intervened, and we saw each other again years later at a Double Bayou Legion Hall dance. That sparked a strong connection that led to our first date which was at the Double Bayou Dance Hall. Donnie never called it by that name. He always called it Cap’s Place. In fact, that’s how we refer to it today. Playing that night were Pete Mayes and the Texas Houserockers. Donnie had known Pete Mayes and some of the band since he was a kid. The keyboard player was Bert Lewis who along with his extended family would, years later, become like our own family and one of Donnie’s best friends. The R &B music was wonderful, and the night was perfect. That started our 43 year love story which continues to this day. When our youngest daughter, Lindsey, and her now husband, Quinton Fruge, had their engagement pictures taken, Cap’s Place (long since abandoned) was one of the main spots where they posed. They had written in chalk DM + DS inside a heart on the outside wall of the Double Bayou Dance Hall, one of my favorite pictures. We’ve told our daughters and our grandsons the story of our first date to always keep that memory alive. Since we don’t live too far from the dance hall, we’ve revisited it many times through the years. Sad to see it in the shape it’s in, but it’s still there. Donnie and I both still consider that building very special and it will always hold the magic of falling in love on our first date.
Quinton & Lindsey Standley Fruge
Rob White Has the Blues
And He Jazzes Up Other’s Lives With
Beaumont Enterprise ~ May 30, 1986
Rob White grew up as a musician. He knew it. His parents knew it. But sometimes his folks, particularly his mother, did not want to believe it.
It started for White in his hometown of Double Bayou, a tiny town in the heart of a swamp 50 miles from Beaumont.
Music began in Double Bayou for White when his aunt, a pianist of a Baptist Church, introduced him to a piano. However, the only other students in his aunt’s piano class were girls, so White soon switched to the more “manly” guitar.
Two years later, his father sold enough cattle off the family ranch to buy his son his first trumpet. White immediately fell in love with the brass sound. Soon, he was crawling through the back window of a local beer joint owned by his uncle (the Double Bayou Dance Hall) to watch musicians perform. “I watched people’s reaction to good music and the execution of good music,” he said. Music, White learned, made sad people happy, and he wanted to be a part of that.
In the meantime, White fell in love with B. B. King, Louis Armstrong, and all the other jazz and blues greats. He was running head-on into a life as a musician when his mother told him no.
“Never tell people you want to be a musician,” White said as he repeated the words his mother once told him. “Tell them you want to be a music teacher,” she said. White countered with the only words a child could, “Why?” “It’s a proven fact,” his mother said, “that musicians are drug addicts, alcoholics, irresponsible, unorthodox in their morality. They think because God gave them talent that the rest of the world should bow down to them.”
White didn’t want to disobey his mother, but at the same time, he couldn’t ignore his own dreams. His mother wanted him to be a teacher; he wanted to be a musician. He did both. In the end White’s mother “died trying” to make her son a success at both. She poured all her “advice, time, money, everything,” into White, he said. White’s Mother died in October. (1985)
Moving to the present hour, White at age 24, has had two successful years teaching music and running the marching and concert band programs at Monsignor Kelly High School. He also has established himself as a leading local musician heading the widely known Rob White Jazz Quintet. He always knew he wanted to be a musician, but he was unsure of himself as a teacher. He’s sure now.
“I’m so proud to be at Kelly High School,” he said. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a music teacher. I was just fulfilling my mother’s part of the dream. But now, I am a music teacher and how I love what I am. I get great pleasure in being a part of so many people’s lives and helping to determine the direction of those lives. (of his students).”
Being the director of a marching band means more than lining up a mass of students on a football field at halftime and having them look and sound good. White must know how to play each instrument the band uses in order to get a better sound from each musician in both bands, and in the private lessons he teaches.
He's never been wild about woodwinds because he’s a “brass man” but he’s going to change that this summer. “My mother and father told me that the things you hate most in life are the ones you’re often best at.” So, with that wisdom, White is taking on the saxophone now that school has finished for the year.
White’s start as a professional musician was not a star-spangled debut under a bright marquee. It was at the Sheraton where he worked as a bellman packing bags. He’s packed for Tom Jones, Doc Severinsen, the Molly Hatchet band, and Ozzy Osbourne. At the motel, he watched the musicians come in to play on the club circuit. Occasionally, he would sit in a play with them. One night, the band didn’t show, so White and a pianist friend played the cocktail hour. It was not a success. “It was TERRIBLE,” White said. In other words, the motel manager told him he was better at packing bags.
“I was disgusted,” he said. “I went into seclusion.” For six months he played in the practice rooms at Lamar University, his alma mater, and in his garage apartment. He played for no one except himself.
“In order to be a great musician – or anything – you have to suffer and pay your dues,” he said. White did. He went on to play as the house band – the first of what would be three ensembles of the Rob White Jazz Quintet – at a Pleasure Island restaurant. White still was not pleased with his work there. He called that experience a failure too. “But with the help of the musical public and local musicians, this failure was the first small step in my direction, hopefully, as being a well-rounded jazz musician.
“I don’t intend to be rich and famous. I’m only intent on being the best or one of the best at what I do – and that’s trumpet.
Jazz fans can see the Rob White Jazz Quintet – White, Gerald Stewart, Jeff Simmon, Clyde Littles, and Vernon Fig Daniels – at Club Signature. The group often plays Sunday nights. They also perform occasionally at David’s Upstairs.
The Jackson Store
Established by John Jackson ~ Known to Be In Operation in 1885
James Alton Standley cleared up a question I had about the store's location. He said, " The building use to sit next to the Bayou bank but was moved next to the road as boat travel decreased and road travel increased around the late 30’s or early 40’s . James said,
"There used to be a trail on the south and east side of the bayou where mules were used to pull sail boats up the bayou to the store. Every fence had a wooden gate next to the bayou. My grandpa Fred and his cousin I think Buddy Standley, had the first 2 motorized boats that hauled produce for the store. I have been told by many that my grandpa was the only person that was trusted to make bank deposits and so forth in Galveston. His boat was named the Idle Eagle as the area was known as Eagle Texas back then.”
In most early communities the local store was a critical lifeline to the residents of the area. Transportation in remote places, like Double Bayou, was laborious or costly and many times just not an option for the hard-working pioneers who lived there. Much of the commerce was brought to the town by schooners or flat bottom skiffs from Galveston, as the only available road was either dusty or just a rutted mudhole, depending on the weather. This was the situation in the days of John Henry “Smith Point John” Jackson who founded the Jackson Store of Double Bayou sometime before 1900. John’s younger brother, James who married Sarah White, daughter of legendary cattleman, James Taylor White, had begun purchasing land in Chambers County some time after the death of his father, Humphrey in 1833, his mother having died about nine years prior. After a period of years James eventually owned 26,000 acres from Frozen Point on East Bay to Double Bayou and from Oyster Bayou on the east seven miles across to Robinson Lake. (Some of this information from Home on the Double Bayou by Ralph Semmes Jackson.)
I could do no better job describing the Jackson Store than Ralph Semmes Jackson did in his book, “Home on the Double Bayou ~ Memories of an East Texas Ranch.” The following is taken from his book.
Much of the community life centered around the Double Bayou Store, established sometime before 1900 by my father’s cousin, John Jackson, and later operated by Uncle Claude Jackson. Since there was no other store in the community, it was simply known as “the Store.” It was a one-story, unpainted, frame building, nestled in a small clearing in the woods on the bank of the east fork of Double Bayou. One side hung over the edge of the bayou and was supported by pilings driven into the bed of the stream. Nailed at random to the weather-beaten outside wall of the store were many small and large tin signs proclaiming the virtues of the various wares within the store, such as “Cardui for Women,” and “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Pills for Women.” As small boys we often wondered why all these wonderful and mysterious products were always for women and there was nothing for the men. Uncle Bob said that the magical ingredient that cured all female aches and pains was a liberal allowance of “spiritus fermenti” in each bottle. Perhaps he was right! There were also signs calling your attention to Grandma’s Coca-Quinine, Garrett’s Snuff, and Brown Mule Chewing Tobacco. In the best display spot of all was always the old favorite, the Bull Durham’s bull, standing spraddle-legged and proud, with nostrils flaring and tail a-twitching, ready to crash right through that flimsy fence and leave the sign behind.
Inside, the walls were shelved from floor to ceiling and loaded with all the needs of man and beast. In one corner were rows and rows of patent medicine that would cure every ailment known to man.
Alongside were the many preparations for the health and comfort of horses and cattle. Close by was the show case with a curved glass top, containing candy and tobacco. One end was reserved for licorice sticks, rock candy, chocolate drops, gum drops, and small wooden kegs of hard sugar candy; the other end of the case contained the boxes of plug tobacco, twists, smoking tobacco, cigars, and snuff. A penny went a long way in the candy end, and if the gum drops had a faint tobacco flavor it only added to the total enjoyment of the sweet. One wall of shelves was reserved for the ladies, where bolts of gingham, calico, and denim, hats, shoes, stockings, and dresses were displayed. Corsets and other items of feminine underthings were kept modestly under the counter in covered boxes. If a lady inquired for these items, she was invited behind the counter to rummage through the boxes herself while the storekeeper rearranged the canned goods on the opposite side of the store. If, by chance, she selected something, she wrapped it and paid the proprietor the amount marked on the box, commented on the weather, and departed without disclosing the exact nature of her purchase. Behind the counter on the opposite side of the store were the canned goods, barrels of flour, sugar, and coffee, and soda crackers.
Such a variety of goods hung from the ceiling that one got the impression that there was no ceiling but only a close-packed array of bridles, harness, horse collars, buckets, tubs, pots, pans, brooms, mops, stove pipes, shovels, rakes, and hoes. One back corner of the store was separated from the general sales area by a low wooden banister with two swinging gates. Within this enclosure were the boxlike cage that served as the post office, the pot-bellied wood stove, and several rocking chairs and benches. No one entered this enclosure, except family and close personal friends, without a specific invitation from the store keeper or his wife. The extreme back portion of the store was partitioned off as a storeroom, where barrels of coal oil and heavier items of merchandise were stored. Behind the store and connected to it by a raised platform was the feed warehouse, where the sacked rice and feedstuff was stored.
Attached to the raised platform between the buildings, and sloping down to the bayou’s edge, was a wharf, where the boats from Galveston loaded and discharged cargo. By my time the sail had been replaced by motors in the Double Bayou cargo boats, but these boats were still the primary artery of communication between Double Bayou and the outside world. The boats carried every conceivable type of produce to the Galveston market, fresh fruit and vegetables, blackberries and mayhaws in season, chickens and eggs, and, in the early days of wild game, ducks, geese, prairie chickens, rabbits, hides, and tallow. (I’ve also been told that in the depression years, in order to stay afloat financially, liquor was loaded onto the boats and offloaded onto ships heading to New York before the Double Bayou boats reached the Galveston docks.)
About a mile northeast of us Uncle Bud Moss lived in the old Moss homestead. He was a bachelor and the only one of a large family of children to remain at home. He did his own washing, cooking, and house cleaning. He kept the entire house spotless inside and in good repair outside. At least once a day he rode horseback to the Store on Double Bayou. He had very courtly manners and when he encountered a woman he would sweep his big Stetson hat from his head and make a low bow. Even on horseback he could bow so low that his hat would almost brush the ground. One day, after both Uncle Bud Moss and Uncle George Wilborn were quite elderly, they met on horseback on the road and became engaged in a heated argument. They finally settled it by dismounting and fighting it out. Since neither of them was strong enough to strike a solid blow, they ended up in the ditch, rolling over and over, spurring each other with their cowboy spurs. It was never decided who won this match, as a neighbor came along and separated them before either had given up.
During watermelon season the boat would make extra trips to take care of the seasonal crop. When the watermelon wagons backed up to the platform, a number of men would line up about eight feet apart across the platform, down the wharf, and into the hold of the boat. The man in the wagon would toss a wagon to the first man in line, who would catch it in his arms, pivot with the momentum of the melon, heave it on to the next man in line, and pivot back to catch the next flying melon. In just a few minutes the men would strike a steady cadence of toss-and-pivot and the melons would move in a steady stream down the line of men and into the hold of the boat. From a distance this watermelon line appeared as a giant green spotted caterpillar undulating down the wharf from the wagon to the boat.
On the day the boat was due to arrive from Galveston, Uncle Bob would put all the children in the wagon and drive to the Store to await the arrival of the boat. The boys would take turns swinging on the back axle of the wagon, cutting furrows in the sandy trail with both heels as the wagon rolled along. At the Store the children would get out of the wagon without making a sound and wait until the oldest boy slipped up to the door and cautiously peeked in to see if a certain elderly female cousin was sitting in the rocking chair. This procedure was eminently necessary, because if the whole covey of children raced into the Store when the cousin was present, they had to go through “The Ritual,” which consisted of lining up, one behind the other, in front of the cousin’s chair to be kissed. Since she was quite elderly and didn’t see well, she would grasp each child in turn and peer intently into their faces and say, “Now which one are you?” The victim would dutifully reply, “I’m James, Guy Cade, or Ralph, Cousin” as the case might be, and she would always say, “My, my, how you have grown!” and plant a resounding kiss on whatever portion of childish face she could reach. To the children this was truly an unpleasant ordeal, because she never knew one child from another and never varied the procedure. One thing must be said for this relative – she was, in truth, a real “kissing cousin.”
If our advance scout reported that our cousin was in the Store, the boys would race off down the bayou, around the first bend, slip off overalls and jump into the cool muddy waters of the bayou. Since we could hear the boat coming several minutes before it hove into sight, we had time to slip on our overalls and run back to the wharf in time to watch the unloading of the cargo.
Right in the edge of the Store clearing stood the shack of Uncle Pete, an old colored man of undetermined age, whose duty it was to guard the Store at night. Uncle Pete’s shack, dark and dirty, with only a sandy earthen floor, was off-limits for us children, because Uncle Pete was said to be “tetched in the head.” He stayed in his little shanty all day while the community activity ebbed and flowed around the Store a hundred yards away, repulsing all attempts at friendliness by any of the white people. The colored people that came to the Store looked straight ahead as they slipped by the shack, because, as they said, “the spirits were with him.” When I was four or five years old, Uncle Pete and I were friends, I understood Uncle Pete and he understood me. After the grownups had gone into the Store and the older children had run down the bayou to the swimming hole, I would slip over to Uncle Pete’s shack and stand in his doorway until he would notice me and say, “Come in here, boy.” He would then seat me on a sawed log stool at his table and serve me cold biscuits soaked in sorghum molasses on a rusty tin plate. Then we would talk. I would tell him about the things that I did all day and about the many things that I wished I could do, such as be able to leap over the house with one bound or what it would be like to coast and dive through the blue sky like a chicken hawk. He told me of the visions he saw and the dreams he had, things that were childish to those of his own age, but things that were logical and sensible to a boy of five. Mother sometimes scolded me for visiting Uncle Pete, but not too harshly, because I am sure that she had some inkling of the rapport that existed between the old Negro and the small boy.
The store was closed in 1944 and was later used for hay storage.
The Jackson Grocery, not to be confused with the original Jackson Store which is located on F M 562, was founded by Oscar Mayes in 1931. Roscoe and Ruby Jackson purchased the store after Oscar's death in 1979. The following well-written article of September 29th, 1996 is by Carol Rust, a journalist for the Houston Chronicle Magazine, Texan and gives an in-depth look into the daily routine of running the Jackson Grocery. .
Minding a Country Store
Two scissortail swallows swoop from the mist that hangs over a field of milo, its unharvested seed heads standing on stalks like dark red fists. A dozen white egrets take flight like so many silver flags.
A bull calf in a nearby pasture butts his mother's bag with his head, sucks enthusiastically, then repeats the process. A rooster crows from somewhere in the marshy distance, although the soft dawn has already melted into a warm morning.
Roscoe Jackson has washed his teeth, strapped his suspenders onto a fresh pair of jeans, turned out his calves and let the chickens into the yard before climbing into his truck and rumbling across a cattle guard on the way out of his driveway and down a curvy blacktop to his store.
In a shallow ditch, a black dog, part collie, lies on its stomach, watching him go by. Around a curve shaded by tall tallow and sweet gum trees, the store appears. The simple building and the outhouse next door are the colors of a winter storm.
This time of day, a pair of red, rusted gas pumps are the only crowd in front of Jackson's Grocery, which is the sole place to get a cold beer, crab boil, cake mix, or cough medication between Anahuac and Winnie. To get the groceries fresh farm eggs, cane syrup, School Time scissors (slightly rusted but a bargain at 29 cents), homemade boudin, or occasional loaves of fresh bread, it may be the only place between 1950 and the present.
Notices and ads are stapled to the storefront: a barbecue benefit, a Mexican dance, serving hours for the Circle 6 Cafe at the rodeo arena. A new barber shop in Anahuac, hay for sale, and crabs, live or steamed, but please call ahead. Posters for upcoming elections and shreds of posters from elections past. A little bit of everything that is going on around Double Bayou has a place at the Jackson Store.
By the front steps sits a coal-oil pump with a windup handle that in days past held oil that sold for a nickel a gallon. Store customers came on horseback then.
Roscoe was just a boy in those days, when he and his older sister, Sarah Mae rode from their home one mile across the prairie for what their truck-farming family couldn't grow: sugar, chewing tobacco, coffee, and a jug of coal oil.
Customers no longer come to buy the oil, and Roscoe is now proprietor of the old store in this backwoods community, where everyone knows everybody else, and a good many of them are related.
They all stop in from time to time, if not several times a day -- on their way to and from work, fishing, visiting, or sitting under a tree next door where a small circle of locals hold court every day, weather permitting.
"Need anything from town?" customers ask. "Town" means any place bigger than Double Bayou, and that's just about any wide place in the road. These days the question is more a gesture of goodwill than anything else. After Roscoe and wife, Ruby, bought the store 31 years ago, he hauled his groceries from Beaumont or Houston, and he'd take a customer up on the offer sometimes if he ran out of something critical before his next haul. But now, everything is delivered right to the store's front screen door that bears the Rainbow Bread logo.
"When I first started this, a $500 load of groceries would fill up the back of a pickup," Roscoe says. "Then it got to where $1,000 would fill up the back. Don't know what it would take today."
As he pulls his faded blue pickup into the parking lot, which is one part shell, one part gravel, and one part soda bottle caps, the store looks the same as when he left it at midnight, just eight hours ago. He keeps it open 365 days a year.
His crutches come out of the truck first. He's not totally dependent on them -- as he was when he had his left leg amputated three years ago -- but they come in handy for maneuvering and extra support. He uses one to swat a Styrofoam food container out of his path, heads to the door and shoves it open. The police scanner crackles from the top of a refrigerated display case as he flips on the lights. He keeps it -- and the police radio by the bed at home -- turned on 24 hours a day to keep up with what's going on. "I'd be lost without it," he says.
He starts a pot of coffee, then shaves over a sink in the cramped quarters in the back, peering into a rearview mirror he's mounted in the tiny bathroom, while the coffee brews. He pats his face dry and heads to the front. Pouring the first of what will be many cups of coffee throughout the day, he takes his place behind the counter. Half sitting, half leaning on the armrest of a battered wheelchair, he counts the change in a little box and sets it aside. Jackson's Grocery is officially open for business.
To Roscoe and Ruby, their store is the same old thing, day after day. Nothing special, but a bare-bones living nonetheless. To anyone who loves the rustic, it is a find. Stark and homespun, it's a fading icon of rural America, the granddaddy of the brightly colored franchise convenience stores with automated bank tellers and cappuccino machines. But modern convenience stores are built and torn down almost overnight, this grocery has been operating in the same place since 1931.
Unlike most of its fancier counterparts, Jackson's Grocery has an undeniable place in the heart of the community. It is where folks stop to spread or find out news. If someone needs to sell something he brings it to the store and leaves it in the Jackson's care. Customers have stood at the counter and cried over a wife who left or a child on drugs.
At the heart of a small community, there is always something going on to help some of the home folks. Right now the cause is a raffle and Saturday night get-together to help pay the medical costs of a Double Bayou woman with cancer. A book of tickets is on the cluttered counter, next to a loaf of bread that a woman who's taken on hard times baked to raise a little cash.
When there is a death, Roscoe and Ruby usually donate coffee or sodas for the wake, a gathering they can't attend themselves because they are tending the store. If they were to close it, folks couldn't depend on them, Roscoe says. "You can't just lock up, because customers won't know when you're open or not," he says. Roscoe's cousin tried to help at the store, working four days a week while Roscoe and Ruby ran it nights and weekends, but he had to quit three months ago because of illness. Even so, there was no thought of cutting back hours, although that meant Roscoe would be pulling 8:30 a.m. to midnight shifts.
"You start locking up for any reason and you'd probably just have to stay locked," he said. "You'd lose your credibility with your customers." And as slow as business is, he can't afford to lose any of it.
There are no customers in the store at the moment, so Roscoe talks to himself, reciting the things he's done and needs to do today. "I need to meet my beer man, " he says, holding a finger in the air. In his other hand he holds his ever-present cigarette. "I've made my Coke list, waiting on him. Pepsi might come by here today. I need to be ready if he does."
He's not going to stock up on beer too much for the weekend because of the benefit. Someone will be selling beer there, so folks probably won't buy much at the store. Even though the event will cut into their business, Roscoe and Ruby still sell raffle tickets for a side of beef. They have bought a dozen themselves.
Monday is bank day. As soon as Ruby gets there Roscoe will head to Winnie with his weekly deposit. It's never much, he's quick to say. And he'll bring a portion of the money he owes the light company and hope they'll give him more time on the rest.
A Miller beer truck pulls into the parking lot, and Roscoe nods to himself. Right on time. He orders nine cases, and the delivery man brings it in on a dolly, standing it on its end in front of the counter and patting each case as he counts "One, two, three. One , two, three. One, two, three." Roscoe hands him a stack of wrinkled bills and says, "Check and see whether I need to back up or move up." The delivery man hands him a few dollars back. "Grab you a cold drink," Roscoe says, but the delivery man hustles out after thanking him. He's got other deliveries to make and no time to linger at a country store.
Advertising mail-outs with pictures of missing children are posted by the door like FBI wanted posters. Roscoe has singled out one and taped it on the pipe of a wood-burning stove in the center of the store. "From Wharton Texas" he has written on it in spidery script.
"I figure by her being from Wharton, Texas she could straggle through here, and I try to put her face in the back of my mind," he says. He's never used the wood-burning stove because the pipe going to the ceiling isn't connected right, and he's scared sparks will catch the store on fire. A butane heater that dates back to the 50s heats the place instead, and cardboard he's nailed over holes and cracks in the walls help keep out the cold.
The refrigerated display case next to the counter is turned off . It's stuffed with over-the-counter medications and an occasional can of insect repellent instead of deli meats and cheese. "The motor runs, but it's so full of holes it couldn't keep anything cold," Roscoe says.
The gas pumps out front don't work, either. The Jackson's quit selling gasoline in 1978 when gas prices were soaring. The only distributor who would deliver gas to Double Bayou tacked a nickel onto each gallon, and the Jackson's had to charge so much for it that customers were filling up elsewhere.
A child's picture of a man, shaded in with colored pencils, hangs from a cookie rack. "For sale $1" is written in the corner. Roscoe's seven-year-old granddaughter, Pia Singleton, caught the entrepreneurial spirit from the hours she spent at the store and has sold one picture there. This is her second commercial attempt. She checks on its status when she calls her grandparents from Sugar Land where she lives with her mother, Connie Singleton.
Calendars from different merchants and suppliers -- and from just about every year of the past decade -- hang here and there. One calendar shares space with a 1990 Houston Oilers schedule. It's not that Roscoe is living in the past -- it's just that after a calendar has hung in a certain place for a year, it looks as if it belongs there. So he just finds another hook or nail and hangs the next year's up.
A couple of customers come and go. A pack of cigarettes. Two canned Cokes. Roscoe writes down each purchase on a piece of paper to keep up with his sales. "Where's Tooter?" he asks of one man who comes in about 13 minutes later. "He's at the house cooking up a pot of stew," the man says, sliding a beer onto the counter. He pulls a fist full of change from his pocket and lets it loose on the counter, stabbing a runaway quarter with his index finger to make it stop rolling. Roscoe starts scraping change from the counter into his hand. "If that ain't enough I'll bring the rest by later," the man says.
In keeping with his bland diet, Roscoe is eating a boiled chicken sandwich. The pungent vinegar smell of Trappey's Red Devil Sauce fills the store as he shakes the red concoction onto the next bite of sandwich, turning it red. He eats all the hot sauce off, chews and swallows, then reaches for the bottle to doctor up his next bit of bland food. "It gives it a little taste," he explains.
He hears a car out front and glances out the front window to see his wife pulling up. He starts gathering the things he needs for his errands, the light bill, bank deposit slip, his crutches. He moves slowly, methodically. An extra trip back because he forgot something is additional strain on what's left of his leg where it meets the temporary prosthetic extension.
Ruby moves slowly too -- has ever since her heart attack in January. She takes a seat behind the counter and nods as Roscoe tells her who might come by today: the Bud man, the Coke man, the Pepsi man. He has a list for each of them. "Isabelle came by last night, asked about you," he adds. "How's she doing?" Ruby asks, then nods as he tells her. "Johnny was 70 yesterday -- he and Daddy's birthday is the same." he continues, clearly the talker in the family. "Guess he'd have been 100 years old yesterday, or a hundred and something." Ruby nods. "Guess I'll go in a minute," Roscoe says several times, but he makes no move toward the door. Several customers breeze through: two cans of pineapple, a pack of cigarettes, a beer. Roscoe writes them down. Ruby asks the last customer about his mother who is down on her back. An officer on the police radio announces a training meeting at 9 a. m. the following day.
Ruby has put some links in water to boil for her lunch in the little kitchen in the back by the time Roscoe leaves, announcing his departure once more before he does. She sits down behind the counter, her link sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, and eats slowly waiting for the next customer.
Oscar Mayes broke with tradition when in 1931, he built the tin-roofed establishment called Mayes Grocery along the highway, not the bayou -- which is how most supplies and the U. S. mail got there. Farm Road 1985 was either a dust cloud or a mud hole back then, depending on the weather. Customers were more or less a captive audience, since cars that could take them to other, bigger stores were for rich people, and few in Double Bayou fit that description.
Because of that, Mayes kept a wider variety of food than is found on the store shelves today. He had a full meat counter, and sold refreshments like parched peanuts, popcorn, and homemade ice cream when the Double Bayou baseball team hosted teams from Nome, Honey Island, Shiner, and Dayton at the diamond not far from his store. These minor league games were almost the only diversion from the dawn-to-dusk constant toil of running small farms with lots of mouths to feed and everybody came. "It was the only fun activity going on," Roscoe says. "We had ourselves one heck of a baseball team."
The store's business was bustling and so was the community before cars created career options besides farming for the younger generations and huge agricultural operations started crowding out smaller ones. It was oil to make gasoline for those cars that brought another boom to the area, when it was discovered at sites in the vine-choked marshes and verdant pastures of Double Bayou in the 1960s.
When Roscoe and Ruby bought the store in 1965 after Mayes' death, "Those doors stayed swinging," Ruby says, a faint smile on her lips as she remembers. "We had people coming in and out of here all day long." She smoked meat at home and made barbecue sandwiches to sell each day, as well as hogshead cheese, links, and boudin. Oil field and equipment supply workers provided a steady stream of customers, as did birdwatchers, touring the fowl-rich wildlife preserve a few miles away. "I thought it was a bunch of nonsense to get some binoculars and go look at birds," Ruby says, "but those people came in and bought."
The Double Bayou School was just across the road, and the children who went there would come in after classes to grab a snack or drink on their way home. The school was later closed and students were bused to Anahuac.
As Oil-drilling activity died down to just a few operating oil rigs in the area in the early 1980s, so did business at the grocery. The remaining workers, cattle and rice farmers, and Double Bayou residents make up most of the Jackson's customers, who stop for odds and ends they forgot while buying groceries elsewhere. Beer is by far the best selling item, and usually folks stop for just one on their way to somewhere else.
"Miss Ora sent me down to get two tickets," a woman says. Ruby smiles and pushes the book of tickets across the counter to Regina Lewis. Two children who came in with Lewis are making their selections from the cold drink box. The two adults discuss the children, how they like school and how their mother is recuperating while Regina cares for them part time. Regina's husband, Jerry, a car salesman in Liberty, is fine. Business is about the same. "You got any quarters down there? I'm hurting for quarters," Ruby asks. Regina runs a snow cone stand down the road, and the two get change from each other from time to time. "I'll check," Regina says. "If I do I'll send Jerry down when he gets home."
When someone is talking to Ruby she occasionally cups her hand to her right ear to hear better. "I'm going to get a hearing aid when I get some money," she says. It may be a while. When diabetes forced Roscoe to have his leg amputated three years ago, he had to wear a temporary prosthetic leg until his 64th birthday last April when he became eligible for Medicare and could get a permanent prosthesis. Ruby is 57. If customers feel comfortable talking to Roscoe and Ruby about their troubles, it's because they know the Jackson's have seen their share. Both came from poor families with a lot of children, and hard times visited often. They held no allusions that they would live happily ever after, but it didn't make it any easier when tragedy struck. Their oldest son died of leukemia when he was 32. Their youngest was born with cerebral palsy and mild mental retardation and requires close care. He stays with Roscoe's oldest sister, Sarah Mae.
Since Ruby's heart attack everything takes more effort. Normally she mops the store on Mondays while Roscoe, who hates the pine smell of the floor soap, is out running errands. Today she is too tired. She can't mow the pasture around the house as she used to and moves through the days chores slowly. Roscoe, nearly always tired because of his health and long hours, is hoping gangrene doesn't set in, in his other leg.
The two, married for 40 years, met courtesy of Uncle Sam. Ruby smiles when she tells how Roscoe's cousin and her brother went into military service at the same time and returned on leave on the same train. Ruby and Roscoe were among the family that met the train, and Ruby mentioned an upcoming dance that weekend in her hometown of Raywood, about 30 miles away. Roscoe and his cousin showed up, as did Ruby and her brother. She was 17 when she married him and moved to Double Bayou. Roscoe already had served in the military by the time he met Ruby and was in Korea when the war ended. One can't talk to him for any length of time without hearing a little about Korea, perhaps because that's the only travel abroad he's ever done. Roscoe returns from running errands and feeding the calves. Jerry Lewis shows up with $5 worth of quarters and buys two raffle tickets before he leaves. Ruby usually stays for a while after Roscoe returns before heading home to shut up her chickens, ducks, and guineas. Not long after, she goes to bed. They follow this routine day after day, seven days a week, year after year. But the timeworn pattern of running the store keeps Roscoe happy. "I like being at home, seeing the home folks come and go," he says. "And, every now and then a stranger will come in and I will get to know him. It's good to be alive, and it's good to be able to move around. I get my vacation at the end of every day and sometimes sitting right here."
Sometimes when business is slow, the police radio is quiet, and Roscoe is extra tired, he doses off in his chair. But it usually doesn't matter. Customers generally tiptoe to keep from waking him, get what they want, and leave the money on the counter.