January marks the end of the Duck hunting season in Southeast Texas and I cannot think of a better time to focus on the life and legacy of Joe Lagow, more affectionately known as “Mr. Joe” to the folks of Chambers County, Texas. I did not have the privilege of knowing Joe, but I have seen him clearly through his daughter, Janet, whose eyes light up when speaking of him. As I listened to her talk of her dad and the impact he had on every life he touched, the song “I Thought He Walked on Water” came to mind. Although Joe didn’t actually walk on water, he spent most of his life tromping through it leaving an indelible imprint in the water fowling world that few can match.
Charles D. Stuzenbaker ~ Well, I worked on a lot of private property and had dealings with a lot of ranchers, rice farmers, and landowners but two people really stand out. David Wintermann over in Eagle Lake was a prominent wildlife enthusiast and managed his land for wildlife benefits. Joe Lagow managed the large Barrow Ranch and operated a large-scale public hunting program for years.
Man Finds “Golden Pond”Lagow Reflects on His Years In Double BayouBy: Jo Hoffpauir (Partial Article)
A hot cup of coffee and a “little” conversation is just about the most relaxing thing a person can do. But when the conversation is with Double Bayou resident, Joe Lagow, it is anything but “Little.” One recent morning found this writer sitting at Lagow’s kitchen table having a hot cup of coffee and listening as he recalled how he came to Double Bayou and his life before and since. “Double Bayou is as nearest to God’s country as you can get,” Lagow says, as he talks about his home. Born in Dallas 79 years ago, Lagow was educated at Forrest Avenue High School. He attended Rice University on a football scholarship and received his Master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. In 1934, Lagow played football on the first conference team Rice had. He received a bachelor’s degree in science and intended to be a doctor. Having coached intramural sports at Rice, he was offered a job in Conroe. He was hired to set up a football program. When he arrived in Conroe, he found a field full of trees. “I sure hated to cut those trees down,” he said, “but I was hired to do a job, so I did it.” With help from the WPA, the trees were cleared, and a stadium was built. It was rated one of the best high school stadiums in Texas at that time, Lagow recalls. Lagow coached football there from 1935 to 1941. His team had never played football before and the first year they won 1 game out of 10. The second year they won 9 out of 10 and the third year they played in the state semi-finals, scoring 387 points. Only 19 points were scored against them that year.
Lagow earned a master’s degree in physical education from Columbia. While at Columbia, a Dr. Pixley, head of training, appointed Lagow to head up the training program for the Air Force physical training program. He was sent to Randolph Field in San Antonio where it was his responsibility to train the airmen in physical fitness. His area included 67 airfields and 87 college training detachments.
After the war ended, Lagow was sent to Laredo to take charge of the rehabilitation program of the Air Force. There were so many shell-shocked airmen, so many mixed up people, Lagow recalled. “It was my job to set up a program of rehabilitation and physical fitness for them.”
It was about this time that Lagow thought of the idea of a life saving program for air cadets. He said that only about 15% of the cadets going through training could swim. Thus, a life saving course had to be passed before a cadet received his wings.
Remembering the invasion on Italy and how 2 good friends of his had been dragged to death because they did not know the proper way to open a parachute, Lagow sent in a report that he felt like it was very important that parachute training program be started. He was ordered to report immediately to Fort Benning, Georgia to take the required training. He then set up the program at Randolph.
During these years, Double Bayou was not a foreign country to Lagow. He had met and attended college with Henry Clore and Bub Chambliss of Anahuac. He had come hunting with them in 1931. He had become very good friends with a Mr. Barrow of Double Bayou. During his years in the Air Force, Mr. Barrow had invited Lagow to bring officers in the Air Force down to hunt. In his Model-T, Lagow would drive officers from Washington, D. C. and Randolph Air Force Base down to go hunting. (He would also fly in with the Air Force generals for hunts. They would land the plane in the pasture next to the big colonial house. One time they miscalculated their landing and taxied through the pasture fence near the house.) Mr. Barrow would throw a big barbecue and entertain them in royal style, Lagow recalls. Mr. Barrow operated the hunting preserve and was in the ranching business.
Joe's daughter, Janet says Mr. Barrow told Joe on one of his trips to the ranch that he wanted to introduce him to his daughter, Elizabeth. Joe insisted he was only there for hunting and had no desire to meet anyone. Mr. Barrow continued to pressure Joe to meet her and Joe finally relented. All it took was one look and she captured his heart. Joe idolized Elizabeth doting on her every need, and they enjoyed 46 years of marriage until her Lord called her home in 1990.
Joe and Elizabeth were married in January 1944, while stationed at Randolph and when he was discharged from the Air Force in 1946, he and Elizabeth returned to Double Bayou. Joe took over duties at Barrow Ranch helping Mr. Barrow and his son, Wesley with the hunting preserve and with the ranching business. It is on this ranch that he and his wife raised their four children, Don, Janet, Jean, and Ralph.
The home the Lagows occupied was built with timber cut on the place. He cut the timber and carried the logs to Rufus' Sawmill on Turtle Bay, where he cut them to specification. Lagow proudly points out oak trees that he did not cut down and that still stand lending shade to the beautiful home. He also points out oak trees that he planted and proudly speaks of how much they have grown through the years.
The Barrow Ranch can trace its roots back to 1824 when Solomon Barrow relocated his family from Louisiana to Double Bayou, Texas. His was a traditional ranch raising all that was necessary to survive in a new land. It was primarily a cattle ranch in the beginning without fences as it was open range at that time. The ranch prospered under Solomon’s leadership and he was one the first ranchers to build the land drainage system.
Adversity Brings Diversity
The depression years in the 30s dealt a blow to ranchers across the nation who struggled to find new and innovative ways to support their families. As a way of supplementing his family, R. J. Barrow brought oil production to the ranch with the drilling of the first well in 1930. In 1935 oil production was begun in the northwest corner of the ranch by Sun Oil Company. The oil produced was used to supply the Allied troops through World War II. There were no roads on the ranch in the beginning, they just opened the gates and the hunters headed in the general direction of the marsh. The first road was built in 1950-51 and at the time of the sale in 1981 there were 15 miles of roads for hunters to travel.
In the early 1950s Trinity Bay Conservation District was created and they began an extensive drainage program in the county to provide additional farmland for rice farmers. The Barrows refused to accept the program and ditches were cut above Barrow ranch causing severe flooding and rice crops to be lost. The Barrows negotiated with TBCD to dig a ditch through the ranch and levee both sides of East Bay Bayou to prevent further flooding. Saltwater gates were installed in East Bay Bayou and Onion Bayou to conserve fresh water and prevent saltwater encroachment. In dry years, these gates were closed in the fall so when rice fields were drained marshes would have adequate water for waterfowl. These gates have been tremendous assets to freshwater conservation and control of brackish marsh to prevent a change in vegetation or marsh habitat suitable for waterfowl. Strict rules and regulations have been made and hunters have been required to abide by the game laws. Those in violation were prevented from future hunts on the ranch.
In the beginning the ranch was hunted all day. In 1957 they started closing at noon to find lost hunters and as a conservation move so birds could rest and feed. Barrow Ranch was the first to practice this conservation measure.
Before the cane was destroyed in 1962-63 by nutrias, the land was so dense that 25-30 hunters were lost per season on the 23,000-acre ranch. Search parties would have to search the area by foot aided by airplanes and sirens. Mr. Morrison from the outskirts of Houston, the person missing the longest, was lost for 3 days. He had arrived on Christmas Day, the only day the preserve is closed to public hunting and proceeded to venture in alone. His wife called to check on him and was told the ranch was closed. His truck was found the next day and on the 3rd day trappers, other volunteers, and airplanes searched for him. At about 11:30 Mr. Morrison walked out on his own. He had to eat raw ducks and geese to survive and was hospitalized for 3 days. He had hunted for 15 years, but that was his last hunt. One hunter who had been lost 3 times was asked not to return. Five others died from heart attacks and two froze to death after getting wet. After the cane was destroyed and up to the sale of the ranch only 3 hunters were lost during those 15 years. The lean years also became the springboard for the legendary Barrow Ranch Hunting Preserve. R. J. Barrow, knowing his land was a haven for waterfowl, first opened the ranch for public hunting in 1931 and Harvey Haynes ran it at that time charging $2.00 per person to hunt. At the beginning they only had 7-8 black guides but by 1983 Joe had 25 guides in his employ. In 1935 trapping was prime on the ranch with an abundance of muskrat, coon, and otter. In the beginning it was hard to even make enough money to pay taxes as cattle were selling for $8.00 a head and muskrats for 20-30 cents per pelt with the trapper getting half and the landowner half. The most cattle they had on the ranch was in the late 40s with about 4000 head under 8 brands. They lost quite a few cattle in the 1940s during a hurricane and then again in 1961 with Hurricane Carla. Ralph began leasing part of the ranch to rice farmers which served to benefit his hunting operation. In 1944 Charlie Jones began his first crop of rice on the Barrow Ranch north of FM 1985 (originally White’s Ranch Road prior to 1955-56.) In 1946 Skeet Cole began farming north of 1985 and Charlie Jones moved south of it. The ranch was the best migration flyway in Texas, positioned along the coast, the compass of the migrating flocks. The flooded rice fields with their crop residue, created a perfect stopping place for waterfowl making their journey south. When Joe returned from the service in 1945, he took over the hunting operation. The land was blanketed with a perfect waterfowl buffet. Janet Lagow said, “The geese mostly feed where the crops have been raised and in the salt grass and seeds of the upper marshes. The ducks mainly hit the aquatic plants, crustaceans, aquatic seeds, leafy aquatics, and tubers. Some of the preferred plants they feed on are millet, smartweeds, duck potato, sprangletop, barnyard grass, widgeon grass, blunt, spikerush, and coontail.” Joe was gifted with a natural wisdom regarding conservation and quickly set to work to improve upon the already prime waterfowl habitat, cultivating it to make it thick and lush.
For the Love of the Land
Next to his bride, Elizabeth, his family, and his Lord, Joe had a passionate love for the land. He was a dedicated caretaker of the wetlands and labored to keep it as near God’s design as he could. At one time part of the land was clear cut and Joe was furious. Janet Lagow said he made his kids get out with him on hands and knees and plant seedlings to replace every tree that had been removed. She is proud of the fact that those trees stand tall and proud today, as a testimony of her dad’s love for the land. In 1961 the ranch set aside 200 acres as a rest area for waterfowl and no hunting was allowed on or around this tract of land. With the refuge on one side and the rest area on the other, adequate resting for waterfowl was provided. Another conservation practice that was instituted was prevention of the plowing of rice stubble and to leave levees uncut to provide food for waterfowl." The wildlife business is not just a sideline," said Lagow, "It's a part of everything."
A Safe Haven
Joe kept a private game refuge next to his house in Double Bayou. He had a menagerie of animals which included a deer named Francis who was as tame as a dog, an alligator named Buster who came when Joe called, peacocks, African Guineas, pheasants, quail, and hundreds of wild birds of every sub-species. Joe nursed back to health many ducks and geese that had been wounded by hunters and provided food in abundance. He dumped about 50 pounds of feed every day in the summer and 75 pounds in winter, after the grasses had died. He also protected them from predators, such as bobcats and coons. "It takes about an hour to do all this feeding," Joe said, "an hour in the morning and an hour at night. I'm about through raising all this stuff, though," said Lagow, " I'd like to try and do a little hunting myself." That statement makes Joe a bit of an enigma, for he is both wildlife lover and a hunter! Lagow saw nothing peculiar in that though stating the area can only support a certain population of waterfowl, so it is up to the hunter to control the numbers. “If we don’t harvest them, they’ll die of hunger or disease,” Joe said.
A Land Divided
The discovery of oil in Chambers County brought an economical boost to the area which caused land values to skyrocket. Many, not blessed with a love for the land, were enticed by the dreams of big profits and a rest from the daily grind of managing a farm or ranch and sold their land. Not Joe Lagow though, you see the family land which had been handed down from generation to generation was not just a piece of real estate to Joe. It was a living breathing extension of himself. He refused to sell. In 1981 an agreement was struck with the Nature Conservancy of Arlington Virginia to purchase the massive Barrow Ranch acreage with the exception of Joe’s 4,600 acres, for the sum of $6.8 million and the Conservancy in turn had agreed to sell to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use as a federal wildlife refuge. “If it has to be sold, I’m glad it’s going to be under the direction of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Lagow said. “That way it won’t be broken up. It will remain the way it is forever. That’s what I really want in the end.” Lagow stated that he had been requested to assist the Fish and Wildlife Department with the reserve and that is what he did. This marked the end of an era for duck hunting on the Barrow Ranch. Although Joe continued to have guided hunts on his remaining acreage it was on a much smaller scale. The young waterfowlers with small pocketbooks and big hearts for hunting suffered more than most, as Joe always kept the hunts at a price they could afford.
Passing the Torch
Joe was one of 10 sportsmen honored by the Texas Game Warden’s Association as “Outstanding Associate Member of 1981.” Joe had many accomplishments in his lifetime as a conservationist. He worked to stop oyster dredging in the Galveston Bay system (many of the oyster beds had been destroyed when the government used live oysters to build interstate 10,) halted the slaughter of once-threatened alligator in Chambers County, restocked quail in the county after they were wiped out by Hurricane Carla and continued to be a tireless worker for Ducks Unlimited. Russell Clapper once said, “He’s not afraid of controversy, if he thinks it’s right, he’ll plow right in there.” Joe’s past organization and accomplishments include: The Hospital Board, Honorary State Farmer, Member of the Gulf Coast Conservation District, Board Member of the Anahuac Area Chamber of Commerce, Member of the Galveston Bay Foundation, served on The Board of Directors of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, Member of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Member of the Board of Trustees of the Chambers County Hospital District, County Commissioner for 24 years, operated Barrow Ranch and Lagow Ranch Hunting Preserve, former Coach of Conroe High School, founder of Pine Island School District and Board of Directors, one of the founders of Ducks Unlimited, Avid Conservationist, and past Director of Texas Resource Conservationist District. Joe stepped into eternity on Friday June 14, 1996 passing the conservationist’s torch to his children, of whom only Janet remains today. Janet said she learned much following in the footsteps of her daddy and observing his passion for the land. When you look into the eyes and heart of this feisty little woman you see the same fire that burned within the heart of her father. I would venture to say as long as there is breath in her body the waterfowl of Chambers County will flourish!
Large day-hunt operations were limited out interstate 10, but we only needed one: Barrow Ranch, operated by Joe Lagow of Anahuac. Lagow committed his time and effort to providing inexpensive day-hunts on the almost 20,000-acre coastal ranch.
Unguided hunts were $7.50 --a bargain on a college budget. You arrived in the black morning and waited in a long line of parked vehicles until the check-in station opened. The smiling Lagow almost always was seated at the desk, signing passes and offering advice.
The walk-in hunts from the "windmill gate" into the deep marsh were brutal and beating shooting light was impossible. But you shouldered decoy sacks and kept humping and did the best you could.
The Barrow Ranch encompassed some of the best wetlands on the upper coast, a bounty of grain and water for wintering ducks and geese. The effort to reach the back potholes usually was worthwhile--even with lousy calling. Pictured at left is Joe Doggett of the Chronicle and Joe Lagow. Photo published in Images of the Hunt by R. K. Sawyer, photo courtesy of Joe Doggett
Once a hunter stopped Mr. Lagow as he rode checking on hunters. He wanted to know if the game warden was around--if not he wanted Mr. Lagow to identify what kind of goose he had killed. He opened his trunk and pulled out a seagull. When Mr. Lagow told him he had killed a gull, not a goose, the hunter pointed out his webbed feet. Mr. Lagow informed him gulls had webbed feet. The hunter informed Lagow that he lived in Galveston and saw seagulls every day--he threw the bird back in his trunk, slammed the lid and told Lagow, "You don't know any more about a goose than I do!"
An elderly hunter asked for a place to goose hunt. Lagow recommended a place but before he left for the spot he asked Joe, "When does the next flight of birds come in?" Joe said, "What do you mean?" The gentleman said, "Well do they fly over at 8:00, 9:00, what time?" Joe just smiled and said, "Well it doesn't really work that way." About 1:30 some of the other hunters told Joe he needed to do something about the elderly guy, he was scaring all the birds away! When the hunter had not checked out Lagow went looking for him. He found him, not at the rice field where Lagow had directed him to hunt, but at a weed patch with a card table set up on the shoulder of the road with a big colorful beach umbrella and a beach chair. The man had his lunch and radio on the card table and 10-12 decoys about 15 feet in front of him. He said he was told, "just set out decoys."
Mr. Lagow directed on new hunter to hunt "below the lower windmill." He later found the hunter under the windmill with his decoys in the trough. He said, "Well, it looked like a pretty good duck pond so I figured it would be a good spot to attract ducks."
Janet remembers when a group of 10-12 Arabs came to the Barrow Ranch to hunt all wearing the traditional Arab tunics. Not too long after the hunt started some of the other hunters came to Joe and told him he needed to make them leave, as they were ruining their hunt. Joe said, "What do you mean, how are they ruining your hunt?" The hunters told him he just needed to go see for himself. Joe made his way to the Arab's location and found them all lying down in the field with their guns ready. Dressed in their white tunics the birds mistook them for the white decoys and were all flying down to where they lay. The disgruntled hunters said, "See, you have to make them leave, it's not fair to us." Joe said, "If you ask me it seems like a pretty smart strategy. You guys are just going to have to figure it out because I'm not going to ask them to leave. They have the right to hunt same as you do."
Janet said her favorite cartoon hung in her dad's office. It was a couple of hunters looking at a dead duck with only the large orange bill and two large orange feet sticking up. One said to the other, "How are we going to explain to people that we killed Donald Duck??"
Baseball legend, Dizzy Dean with a large number of birds killed at the Barrow Ranch in 1953. Numerous other celebrities were frequent visitors of Barrow Ranch through the years.
Photo published in Images of the Hunt by R. K. Sawyer, photo courtesy of Shannon Tompkins
Early 1940s photo of the Army Air Corp on a hunt at Barrow Ranch displaying their harvest of snow geese, specklebellies, and ducks. In photo are their local guides John Jackson (fifth from left) Ralph Barrow (second from right), and Wes Barrow on far right.
Photo published in Images of the Hunt by R. K. Sawyer, photo courtesy of Jean and Janet Lagow
Bud Bagg's was a welcome sight to the hunters who had no other option for a hot meal on a cold day. In this photo Bud is delivering Jambalaya and boudin to Barrow's Ranch in 1981. From left to right are Barrow Ranch guides J. W. Bones and Gene Campbell with Bud Baggs. Behind the truck are guides Blaine Friermood and Harry Fair.
Photo published in Images of the Hunt by R. K. Sawyer, photo courtesy of Charles Stuzenbaker
Bob Brister (left) and Joe Doggett (right) were two well known sports writers who frequented the Barrow Ranch often. They had the utmost respect for Joe both as a hunting ranch manager and a conservation, as is evidenced by the articles they wrote about him. Joe always allowed them to hunt for free on the Barrow Ranch.
Photo published in Images of the Hunt by R. K. Sawyer, photo courtesy of Doug Pike