To celebrate Independence Day and the red, white, and bluebonnets, . . .
let’s climb into the Retroplex Cruiser time machine and take a little spin back in time. First we buckle up. Then we set the Where? dial for 32 degrees 46 minutes 23 seconds north, 97 degrees 19 minutes 50 seconds west. Then we set the When? dial for July 4, 1859. Now we press the starter and shift into reverse.
To the past, and step on it!
Hold on and look out your viewing portal as we travel back in time to early Fort Worth: 2017 . . . 1983 (dig those mullets!) . . . 1953 (all the men are wearing hats) . . . 1925 (look: flappers) . . . 1885 (I see bustles!) . . . 1860 (stop asking “Are we there yet?”) . . . 1859 . . . December . . . August . . . July 31 . . . 19 . . . 12 . . . 5 . . . 4. Whoa!
Okay, now we’re there: July 4, 1859. Let’s get out of the Retroplex Cruiser and stretch our legs. Look over there: Sure enough, we’re at the Cold Springs, which is a popular recreational area of early Fort Worth located just off Samuels Avenue. An old-fashioned (to us, anyway) July Fourth celebration is under way.
These two clips from the 1856 weekly Dallas Herald show that the July Fourth barbecue at the Cold Springs was established before 1859. Among civic leaders organizing the barbecue are Ephraim Daggett and Dr. Carroll Peak. Dr. Peak read the Declaration of Independence. But on this particular July Fourth, in 1859, Julia Kathryn Garrett writes in her Fort Worth: A Frontier Triumph, the tiny population of Fort Worth (fewer than five hundred) has a special reason to attend the celebration:
Sam Houston—hero of San Jacinto and first elected president of the republic in 1836—is speaking today. Houston, who had campaigned in Birdville in 1857 in an unsuccessful campaign for governor, is again running for that office—and again facing Hardin Runnels, who is now the incumbent. Houston and Governor Runnels are debating at the Cold Springs barbecue. Nearby is the plantation home of Colonel Nat Terry, who is Houston’s host, chairman of the celebration committee, and himself a former president of the Alabama state Senate.
As we walk over to get a closer look, take a deep breath. Smell that? No automobile exhaust, no asphalt frying in the summer sun. Listen. Hear that? No modern sounds: no cars and trucks, no airplanes, no amplified music. Just the lazy buzz of locusts, perhaps a mockingbird singing a medley of other birds’ greatest hits. People are talking, cheering, applauding, even booing; now and then a horse neighs at its hitch; a child shouts, a parent admonishes. The two debaters must raise their voices to be heard. The day is hot. People are fanning themselves, even in the shade. Houston and Runnels are in shirtsleeves even in the shade of the arbor.
Governor Runnels is a secessionist. Houston is a unionist. He urges allegiance to the Constitution. “Be steadfast,” he implores his listeners. The tone of his speech is mostly optimistic, but he does warn of disaster for the South if it secedes. Because Fort Worth, like much of Texas, leans toward secession, applause for Houston is tempered as he delivers his final remarks.
When the rhetoric ends, the feast begins. Food covers long tables under the huge live oaks: meats, bread, pies and cakes, watermelons chilled in the Cold Springs.
Then comes the entertainment: A tournament is held in which pairs of riders snare hoops as their horses gallop the length of a field.
By midday holiday celebrants are dispersing on foot, on horseback, by buggy.
Come election day in November, this time Houston will defeat Runnels. Houston will take office in December. But in February 1861 Texans will vote to secede from the Union, and on March 2 that secession will be formalized. That date—March 2—will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of Texas independence from Mexico; it will be Sam Houston’s sixty-eighth birthday.
Two weeks later Sam Houston will refuse to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy and will be evicted from office.