When people think of Wharton, they generally think of it's aristocracy - it's first families - and the many large estates in the surrounding area. They remember the grand parties and the social life of the rich. I wonder if they ever pause to give thought to the little people, the laborers who worked so nobly to make Wharton what it is today. Our family, a relatively newcomer to Wharton, is quite often reminded of the by-gone days by our colored yard man whom we simply call "Old Steve". There is not a week that goes by that he does not have some memory of the past to talk about. He was here when Wharton had very few stores with a dirt road running between them--he was working at a blacksmith shop when cars were unknown. He recalls the frilly ladies with umbrellas and their coach drivers as they passed by in carriages - and he remembers his first sight of a horseless carriage as Dr. Green davidson puttered along the road stopping to care for his many sick patients. He speaks of the terrifying flood of early 1900 when the rampaging Colorado River overflowed her banks and swept in covering the city, farm, rich and poor alike. Yes, he knows it all - for he was here - he lived it.
As most colored people of that day, Steve had very little schooling. He went to school in Hungerford and got to the "third reader". His teacher, Mr. Lewis, was a patient man and "spared the rod" on most occasions. Steve didn't like school. He found writing easy; spelling and reading, hard. He made a smaller, yet smarter boy do his lessons, because he'd lot rather fish than learn to spell.
In 1896 Steve saw his first hanging. Evidently there was little law enforcement here because it was done by a mob. Two boys from Egypt had had a fight with a man about their hound dogs, and he had killed one or two of the dogs. This, of course, riled the boys and they shot the man who was a fairly prominent citizen of Wharton. The mob seized the two youngsters, most likely in their late teens, and hanged them side by side from a willow tree which stood in front of the jail. Steve was in town with his family on their weekly trip, and never quite forgot the picture of the two boys hanging side by side.
When Steve was a youngster, he lived with his family on their small farm near Bonus. His father owned a few acres and farmed cotton. His Mother was an excellent cook. She worked for Douglass Sorrell and R.E. Vineyard. She made a lot of money too-$15.00 a week. Steve came into Wharton in an old cart with his family once or twice a month. He recalls that the now thriving community was a very small town with a few large stores lined with plank sidewalks. Some of the stores that were here were Ben Davis's grocery store where his mother bought their weekly food needs, Roten's Dry Goods and Oshman's clothing wear. If Steve's family had any money they would buy their clothes. He remembers passing Wharton first shoe shop owned and operated by Mr. Kreitstein. Many a night Steve watched the white folks in their fancy clothes go to the theater which is up above what is now Smith Brothers Appliances, and if he were lucky, he'd sneak in to see the funny theatrical people with their funny clothes and painted faces. In the same place the towns people had big dances and parties for which which Steve's mother cooked sometimes. These visits ti town truly filled this little colored boy's eyes with awe. There were more sights to be seen. Where Smith's liquor store now stands, Steve says, was the Norton-Davis Saloon, where "colored folks" couldn't go unless they went around to the back for hand-outs. The old court house sat where the present one is now, but the pecan trees have replaced the leafy sycamores. On either side of the square stood two saloons owned by Joe Burger, Sr. and Billie Robertson, the great saloon owning partners of "these parts." Steve said that in 1902 he remembered a peddler who wandered the Wharton roads with a pack on his back, trying to sell various articles. This man was commonly called "Uncle Joe" Schwartz by black and white alike. All the mail came in by horse back and wagon to the post office which stood where Tally's Cleaners is now. This is Steve's memory of Wharton when he was a boy.
The predominant thing in Steve's mind is the terrific flood of 1900. The vastness of it reached from Hungerford to pierce. The force of the mighty Colorado washed the banks away and flooded the city and farm alike. In town the water was knee deep. The muddy flood waters went in houses through windows, and after the water receded, the mud had to be raked out with hoes and shovels. The streets and yards were nothing but mud caked caverns. In the country where Steve lived, all the crops were ruined, trees were blown and swept down, broken into pieces, and pigs, cattle and poultry were swept away. The livestock that did live was a miserable mess.
It left Steve and many of his friends practically homeless. There was no chance for income for the crops were demolished. With little hope for the future, Steve left his ruined farm and went to the city for work. He found none, so he and his family moved back to the farm to try to make a go of farming, only to be ruined by another flood a few years later.
In 1902 Negro convict were used as laborers here in Wharton. This type of labor was not unusual, for in 1898 the Santa Fe railroad was put through here by convicts. In the years immediately following the turn of the century, convict farms sprung up all around Wharton. Negroes were forced to work on the farms if they were unable to pay their "dollar six bits" for poll tax. The sentence was six months; the wages, twenty-five cents a day. Some of the Negroes were picked up and carted away for what Steve phrased as "vag" - vagrancy. All the wages were the same, but the work was different . Most of the men began their working day, all seven days a week, getting up at the first sign of daylight and ending as the last sunbeam faded into the night. Ninety percent of Wharton's roads were built by these laborers. They had to lay gravel foundations, then river sand, and then more crushed rock and gravel. Most of the road builders were put at the farm at Half Moon Lake. Others from the Pierce Estate farm worked on farms raising and picking cotton and cultivating corn. I asked Steve how he knew so much about this, and he smiled, looked at me with his tired brown eyes, and said, "I ought to know, Miss Dinah Roe, I worked out there."
During Steve's lifetime he has had numerous jobs. In 1905, he worked for T.J. Miller. His job was to tend to chickens in incubators. Later in that same year, he drove cattle for Frank Davis with fifty dollars a month plus room and board. At the Davis ranch he did odd jobs, too. He got up at daylight and milked thirty-two cows. When he wasn't in the pasture, he cut weeds and shucked corn. 1906 found him in Needville working for Dr. Goldsmith. There he ran a cotton press at the cotton gin. His wages were a dollar and twenty0five cents a day. Steve began working for the Houseworths at Pierce in 1910. He worked in the rice store house, and did some rice farming, too. His wages again were a dollar and twenty-five cents a day with no board. Liking rice farming, Steve took a job with Mr. Walter Hudgins in 1912. About 1917, Mr. Taylor Hudgins hired Steve to farm for him. These are just a few of the many occupations Steve has had.
This is Steve's story of Wharton in the early years of his life. He is past sixty now, and how many secrets his grey head holds, I have no idea. His life has been nothing great. I doubt that many people will ever give him the slightest thought, and though he did as much as anyone to build Wharton, he himself does not realize it. There are many people like him that have stories to tell of the past. He is only a small cog in a great wheel that keeps moving as Wharton moves.