Visting Old Friends in San Augustine

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I walked across the street to say hello to Dan Fussell, longtime owner of the dealership, which has been in his family for more than seven decades. I haven’t seen Dan in 30 years. Our friendly reunion would be one of several in this little town where I ran The Rambler newspaper from 1982 to 1987 — my first publishing job. It is where I started this weekly habit of writing columns.

Joe and I have known each other for 35 years but have never met in person. He was editor of the Texas Observer in 1982, when I wrote a few pieces for that Austin-based magazine. He has had a distinguished career in journalism and now travels the state writing weekly pieces about small towns and interesting characters in our state. (I told him if he was ready to retire I would be happy to succeed him. I don’t think he is going anywhere. It’s a nice gig.) Anyway, Joe called and asked if I wanted to meet him in San Augustine.

I have been back to San Augustine several times, but not since attending the funeral of Sheriff N.L. Tindall in 2003. The legendary lawman was the youngest sheriff in Texas when elected in 1950 and served as sheriff — with a few years out of office — until 1989. What served as the jail when I was there, built in 1919, has now been turned into a law enforcement museum — the N.L. Tindall Building. The new jail is housed in the old Brookshire Bros. building down the hill. So now there is the old jail, and the old, old jail.

The museum is amply furnished with photos, news clippings, vintage weapons, books and accounts of the folks who served as law enforcement officers in this county. Willie Earl Tindall, a longtime educator and librarian — and the sheriff’s wife — collected Texana books. Her family donated the collection to the museum. The collection, said to be worth $300,000, is housed in a cell. Patrons must wear cotton gloves when examining the books and papers to protect them. An adjoining cell serves as a reading room. That cell bears a sign on the bars: Law Office of James Pinckney Henderson. Henderson was the first governor of Texas and practiced law in San Augustine. There is a wealth of early Texas history in San Augustine. Sam Houston built a house in town, and filed his official report of the Battle of San Jacinto from San Augustine, while recovering from his battlefield wound.

The community has done a good job of preserving its legacy, with a number of restored 19th century Greek Revival homes and other historic buildings. I was delighted to see Betty Oglesbee at the chamber get-together. Betty is one of those indispensable small-town residents, invariably serving on committees to preserve San Augustine’s rich heritage, to get funding for parks — whatever she can do to make her community a better place to live. I had great admiration as well for her late husband, John, and their children, who I run into from time to time. One grandson is co-owner of the Oil Horse Tavern in downtown Longview, and we talked several months ago.

San Augustine’s square has always been the heart of the town. Walmart and other big-box retailers have chosen to build in Center, 18 miles north, or Nacogdoches, 35 miles to the west. That means the square is filled with small retail establishments, a couple of restaurants, a longtime drug store and law offices. I did not see many vacant storefronts. That doesn’t mean the place is booming. The town’s population has dropped to under 2,000 from a high of nearly 2,500. The county’s growth is stagnant, and nearly a fourth of its residents are at or below poverty level.

Betty and the other boosters never give up, however. They talked about families moving to town, former residents returning in retirement. It was good to see her and others again in this little town where I learned more about newspapering than any other place I subsequently worked.

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