Research Notes: Vintage Texas Postcards

As summer fast approaches and we are finally able to (kind of) leave our houses, travel is looking better and better! Particularly road trips, and for me, that means travel in Texas. East Texas is my easy go-to for obvious reasons, ie. that’s where the parents and grandparents are. And, after a year of having to ration those trips, I’ll make a few of them over the coming months.

While sending snail mail from vacations is a thing of the past, I have enjoyed coming across these and other vintage postcards of East Texas landmarks and destinations in my research.

Angelina County Courthouse, 1903-1955, Lufkin, Texas.
Hotel Angelina, Downtown Lufkin, Texas.
Aerial View of Tyler, Texas.
Stephen F. Austin State College, Nacogdoches, Texas.
Beach Boulevard and Seawall, Galveston, Texas.

Research Notes: Brownsville Snake Hunters, 1900s

“Lady Snake Hunters, Captured in One Day,” William Deming Hornaday Collection, Texas State Library and Archives.

This photo is so visually arresting! And, the more I researched and learned about it, the more compelling its story was. The image was found in the William Deming Hornaday collection on the Texas State Library and Archives Flickr page (a great resource that I use a lot!). This photo stood out to me, and I immediately knew that I wanted to learn more and create my own work inspired by it. But, without much to go on from the Flickr caption, where to start? This is where the process gets fun for me.

As I learned more about William Deming Hornaday, I discovered that he was a photojournalist and eventually the public relations director for UT Austin, and that most of his Texas work was in Central and South Texas. Moving beyond the TSLAC Flickr Page, I went into the Texas Digital Archive and started searching through his work, focusing in on geographic areas and using the “Search Within” function until I found a set that had a lot of snakes in it. I enlarged those files until I found this image, and the one below, which identifies the ladies as Mrs. W.A. King and her sister.

“Mrs. W.A. King and Sister. Expert snake hunters.,” William Deming Hornaday. Texas Digital Archive.

Here’s where it gets REALLY interesting! I took to Google with a simple keyword search, and pulled up this family’s story. These Lady Snake Hunters were part of a huge snake business in Brownsville, Texas, providing the reptiles for circuses and other traveling animal acts.

According to his biographer and other documents, William Abraham Leiberman was a Russian/Polish Jewish-American businessman in New York who saw unusual business opportunities along the Rio Grande and moved to the then rural border town of Brownsville, Texas to open “Snakeville”, a “roadside facility to breed, sell, and show off snakes for tourists and interested clientele around the world.” Leiberman eventually changed his legal name to William Abraham Snake King.

Texas-born Manuela Cortez King was the snake king’s wife, and evidently quite the talented snake handler, herself. I can’t find exact confirmation on the sister who is pictured here, but Mrs. King’s obituary names two sisters: Matiana Walker and Luisa Samaron. Perhaps it is one of them.

Please explore these links for citations and further reading:

This video shows W.A. and Manuela Cortez King in a “snake catching contest” in 1914, a contest which they won in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

“Rattlingly Yours…Snake King,” by W.A. King, Jr.

“The Snake King of Brownsville,” Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, Texas. (Gated content)

*As an animal lover, I acknowledge that this story contains some dated attitudes around animal welfare and exhibition that are not acceptable today. I found “Snakeville” to not be not just a fascinating tale of entrepreneurship that brought to life a unique time, place, and personalities in Texas history, but an exciting opportunity to find a name and deeper identities for this photo.

Research Notes: Ruby & John Avery Lomax

Ruby Terrill Lomax and John Avery Lomax produced folklife documentary work that comes up a lot when I am researching East Texas History. Along with her husband John Avery Lomax, Texas folklorist Ruby Terrill Lomax traveled the state and other Southern regions for the 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. The Lomax’s multi-genre journey documented Southern folk musicians and their communities through sound recordings, photographs and other ephemera, and spends valuable time in communities of Color and documenting the creative contributions of incarcerated people. The collection’s primary home is in The American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Here are a few items of interest from the collection:

Disc Sleeve with Notes, American Folklife Center
The Angelina Four at Kelty’s Lumber Co., Lufkin, Texas, 1940 Ruby Lomax,
Library of Congress
Enka Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina,
Ruby Lomax, Wikimedia Commons

The project’s recordings can be found here: Lomax Iconic Song List, Library of Congress

The Library of Congress also has the 300+ page Field Notes manuscript from this trip, which you can download for easier reading.

East Texas Historic Church

Image of historic church and old cars in the pine trees of Nacogdoches Texas.
“Church of the Divine Infant, Cotton Ford Road, Nacogdoches, Nacogdoches County, TX”

This image caught my attention as I was surfing around the Library of Congress digital archives this week. I loved the trees and the juxtaposition of the old cars against the even older church. The cars are from the early 1930s, and the church was built in 1847.

When I researched some additional history on the church, I found an interesting story. Built in 1847, the structure predates the Civil War, has been a cornerstone of Catholicism in East Texas, and was relocated several times before becoming part of the Sacred Heart church campus in Nacogdoches.

The book “Historic Nacogdoches,” which can be accessed for free on Project Gutenberg, has this to say about it:

“Mission Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe was founded at the same time on the west side of North street in Nacogdoches, overlooking Banito creek, which was called “the creek of the mission.” This mission was never permanently abandoned until it was replaced by the church which stood on the little plaza in front of the present court house, built in 1802. The third Catholic church was formerly the home of Nathaniel Norris at the northwest corner of Hospital and North streets. The fourth church was the Sacred Heart church on Pecan street, built in 1847 under the influence of Bishop J. N. Odin; which was in turn replaced by the present Sacred Heart church, built in 1937 on a portion of the homestead of Judge Charles S. Taylor on North street, the house of the old Sacred Heart church being rebuilt about eight miles south of Nacogdoches as the Fern Lake church. The sites of the presidio and missions have been appropriately marked by the State of Texas.”

As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Spanish Missions in Texas,” Texas Almanac

Nacogdoches, Texas,” Texas State Historical Association

Image Citation: Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) Church of the Divine Infant, Cotton Ford Road, Nacogdoches, Nacogdoches County, TX. Nacogdoches County Texas, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

East Texas Mule Skidder

vintage photo of logger with two mule team

This week, I am returning to archive photos from the Diboll History Center. This is just one comprehensive source that I use, and it does a great job organizing its images into historical sets, so it is easy find images from the same era, activity or theme and put them together to document and build larger stories.

This image is “Two Mule Skidders and a Man,” from the Southern Pine Lumber Company, in 1903. The last time I worked from a vintage photo of East Texas loggers, it was a team from the 1930s, if that tells you how long this area has been working with timber.

These photographs at the History Center were part of a larger project by American Lumberman, a weekly trade journal established in 1899.

“The American Lumberman photographs of the Southern Pine Lumber Company consist of 255 gelatin silver prints made by American Lumberman photographers during visits to Diboll in 1903 and 1907. They document the lumber company’s management, logging operations, Texas South-Eastern Railroad, timber, lumber camps, sawmills, commissary, and social life. The photographs provide insight into the early twentieth-century community life of a Texas sawmill company town and connected logging camps.” – American Lumberman Photographs of Southern Pine Lumber Company in The Portal to Texas History. University of North Texas Libraries.

I didn’t know what a “mule skidder” was until today, and when I Googled it, images came up for heavy machinery, not animals. But back when the animal was the machinery, a driver would position the cart over felled logs, where dangling tongs would then raise the end of the log off the ground. The mule, oxen or horse team pulled the tong forward, allowing the log to “skid” along between the rolling wheels.

The photo caption notes that the actual skidder is not shown here, so it looks like the guys in this photo were suiting up for a hard day’s work. Or maybe resting between tasks. Either way, all three were in the middle of a very important job.

Researching on a Snow Day

It’s a snow day week here, and my studio feels a bit daunting and too cold to relax in and get into the zone. So, I’m spending the day organizing some research I’ve found lately. I have been going through old Diboll Free Press newspapers. There are a bunch of them with a lot of good information – some historical but most of it in terms of “slices of life” as it published mostly unedited citizen reporter news from the surrounding counties. I’ll say more on that later on, but in the meantime, here are some fun vintage newspaper ads I’ve come across.

East Texas Loggers, 1930s

“Logging Team with HorsePower Engines,” by Stephanie Khattak. Acrylic monotype print. 20X26 on paper.

The early prosperity of East Texas started with trees, and the region had (and still has) plenty of those. There’s a reason I named my work “The Pine Curtain Project.” The part of East Texas where I am from is dense with pines – The Piney Woods. It is so much a part of the region’s identity that even today, the local university’s mascot is a Lumberjack, a popular local coffee shop is Java Jack’s, the best-known festival is the Forest Festival and the main drag in Lufkin is Timberland Drive. At the same time, the density of trees can either isolate or protect, depending on how you look at it. Like…a curtain. I imagine this “curtain effect” was even stronger before the timber industry moved in, cleared away and changed the physical, sociological and cultural landscape.

This image makes me think of the beginning of the end of an era, which I feel evolved over generations. It was a double-edged sword, or saw if you want a more thematically accurate metaphor. On one hand, clearing the trees made way for unprecedented economic and civic progress. On the other hand, once the curtain was pulled back, things would never be the same.


As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Image Source: “Paul Durham, Sr. Hardwood Logging Crew,” The History Center.

The Texas Forestry Museum

Aldridge Sawmill“, Texas Beyond History.com

East Texas Lumbermen

Painted acrylic gel plate. Stephanie Khattak.
Detail shot, work in progress. Southern Pines Lumberman Team, 1930s. Acrylic monoprint, Stephanie Khattak.
Desktop view, work in progress. Southern Pines Lumberman Team, 1930s. Acrylic monoprint, Stephanie Khattak.

This work in progress is of a logging team, part of the Southern Pines Lumber Co. in the 1930s. The image was pulled from the Diboll History Center, Durham family photo collection. My great-great uncle (my father’s great-uncle) worked on this team and is in this photo, something I didn’t learn until I started to research the image.

This was not a branch of the family tree that I was close to, so learning more about them, and their place in history, has been interesting and a nice surprise.

An image this large and detailed required not only my 16X20 plate (aka Big Betsy), but also a bit of my 8X10 plate to extend the edges. This is the largest and most difficult piece I have attempted in terms of balancing aesthetics, details and expediency so that I can pull the print before the paint dries. It is pretty abstract (keeping with my artistic style) but I wanted to make sure that the horses mostly looked like horses and that the large trees came through.

One reason the source image is so striking is the size of the cut trees against the horses and workmen. When I post the final, I will link to it so you can see for yourself. It’s pretty cool, and there are many other photos in the collection that I want to work from.

Lufkin Railroad

“Rail Town, Paper Town.” Acrylic Monoprint by Stephanie Khattak.
Based on “Railroad Gang,” a 1939 photograph by Russell Lee.

With pine trees come timber, with timber come sawmills. From sawmills come pulpwood and from pulpwood, paper is made, along with plywood, lumber, and other “forest products”. In the case of my part of East Texas, towns are made, too. Businesses, goods, and services that comprise an economy and an identity.

The Deep East Texas timber/sawmill/pulpwood boom started before this image, but nonetheless it captures important ripples of the timber wave. According to the Library of Congress, where I found the source photo, these men were building a railroad to service the Southland Paper Mill, where many years later, my father would work as did his father, his brother-in-law and many if not most other fathers, grandfathers and uncles I knew. The mill changed ownership many times since its construction and finally closed for good in 2007 as Abitibi Bowater. My father and most workers had been laid off a few years before. My father went on to have a happy “semi-retirement” and follow his dream of being a professional singer, achieving some notoriety and many dedicated social media fans. Many others were not so fortunate.

But at the time of this image until roughly the late-90s, timber was a stabilizing and driving force in the community that it had ultimately changed forever. This piece captures a time of hard work and hope for the future.


As I am more of an artist and less of an academic historian, please explore these links for citations and further reading:

Image Source: Lee, R., photographer. (1939) Railroad gang, Southern Paper Mill construction crew, Lufkin, Texas. United States Lufkin. Texas Lufkin, 1939. Apr. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Jonathan Gerland, “A Brief History of Temple Land Ownership and Management in East Texas, 1893-2007,” The Pine Bough (December 2007) via The History Center, Diboll, Texas.

Bob Bowman, “The History of Lufkin,” via City of Lufkin.

Bob Bowman, “The Pioneer Paper Machine,” via All Things Historical, Texas Escapes.

The source photo for this piece was taken by Russell Lee, a contemporary of Dorothea Lange, hired for the federally sponsored Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic documentation project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. In 1973 this body of work was described as “the greatest documentary collection which has ever been assembled.” I’m so grateful to have Lee’s iconic images available to build on and inspire me today.