By Marie Hughes, museum director, Chambers County Museum at Wallisville
There are many things in life that capture the heart of a man. For some it is fortune, some power, and others fame, but many a wise man has come to realize the value of the soil, the measure of land he can call his own, be it great or small.
Elmer Woodard Boyt was just such a man of wisdom. As a result of working someone else’s land, spending long hours picking cotton, as a youth, to build another’s legacy, he realized wherein the wealth and security of his newly found home in Texas lay. It was in its wide-open spaces.
Armed with nothing but grit, determination, and the heart to work from can-to-can’t, Elmer saved his nickels and dimes, staked his claim, and sunk the roots of his family tree deeply into the rich Southeast Texas soil. Although pen and ink would be inadequate to record the impact this benevolent entrepreneur had on Chambers and surrounding counties, the following is my humble attempt to encapsulate the life and legacy of the legendary Elmer Woodard Boyt.
Elmer Woodard Boyt takes the bull by the horns
Elmer Woodard Boyt was born in Banner, Miss., on the 10th of May 1876. Upon the death of his father, Elmer became the family’s main breadwinner at the tender age of 14, even though he had an older brother, Arthur. Arthur Howell “Cap” Boyt, like his father, was exposed to malaria. The disease stunted his growth and compromised the strength of his body. Because of his limited strength, he was unable, at that time, to provide an income for the family so the mantle fell on Elmer, a strapping six-foot tall teenager. Although Cap was weak in body, the malaria did not diminish his sharp mind, which would prove useful in the years to come.
“After the death of Henry, Uncle Cap got in touch with someone who convinced him that they should go to South Texas because the farming conditions were good and Uncle Cap, somehow, helped to arrange the trip,” said grandson Lloyd.
“My great-grandmother, who had never been out of the Mississippi county where she lived, gathered four of her five children (Arthur ‘Cap’ Howell, 19, Elmer Woodard, 15, William Henry, 13, and Ivah Leila, 10) and caught a train all the way to Beeville, Texas, arriving in 1891,” Lloyd stated. Josephine Elizabeth (Aunt Bessie), 17, married Henry Green Martin in 1891 and remained in Mississippi until 1904, when they moved to Houston.
“Uncle Cap was told that when they arrived, his mother should contact Captain Jones of the Texas Rangers,” Lloyd continued. “She did and the Captain took the whole family in. He put Grandpa and Uncle Will on the cow crew and let Uncle Cap help him take care of paperwork and stuff. Grandma and 10-year-old Aunt Leila, helped around the house. They stayed there for a couple of years and then a bad drought hit,” noted Lloyd. “They decided it was time to move on so, Captain Jones told her that Captain Clear, who was also a Texas Ranger, lived near Matagorda. They caught another wagon train to Matagorda where Grandpa and Uncle Will got a job working for Shanghai Pierce for a while and made one, maybe two, cattle drives with him.”
Lloyd continued: “Great Grandma got a job with Captain Clear and worked there for about two years. The Captain wanted her to stay there, but she decided she didn’t want to stay in that area, she wanted to move back closer to Houston because she’d heard it was more adjusted to her lifestyle. So, they caught yet another wagon train and traveled to Old and Lost River where they met Mr. Elmer Barber. Grandpa and Uncle Will were already pretty good cowboys, but Mr. Barber made them even better ones. Grandpa learned the horse trade and, in the wintertime, would gather a herd of horses by whatever means he could, probably on consignment, and drive them through East Texas to Southern Oklahoma. He also caught wild horses for Elmer Barber, in the San Jacinto and Trinity River bottoms and trained them. Once trained they were shipped to San Antonio for Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders.’ He attempted to join Teddy’s group, but he was turned down because he had sinus trouble.”
Aunt Leila got a job teaching and she lived with the Barber family. She never married, and died of pneumonia when she was 23, way too young.
Returning to the topic of his great grandmother Boyt, Lloyd said, “Let me tell you something, I can’t even imagine her strength, to leave a cotton-picking little farm in Mississippi, not knowing where in the heck she was going to wind up. She must have been a tough woman. She had to have guts, I’m telling you!” exclaimed Lloyd with admiration.
Moving on – rice ‘n oil
“After a couple of years, Grandpa decided he wanted to move a little farther east, so he moved on and secured a job with the Keith family in Beaumont as foreman over the rice farming crew, and that’s where he learned how to farm rice. I’m not exactly sure, but I think the rest of the family stayed on at Barbers Hill for a while longer after Grandpa left,” Lloyd surmised.
Elmer Boyt told his granddaughter, Sonja Boyt, in 1955, what precipitated his move.
“You know,” he said, “in 1899 I came to Jefferson County. My partner and I, riding ponies, stopped to look at a rice threshing outfit —something new to us. It belonged to the late J. L. Keith of Beaumont. I went to work for him at a dollar per day. Hell of a way to try to be a millionaire! That was all rice there except on a few Providence fields west of Beaumont.”
The Lucas Gusher at Spindletop in 1901 opened the door for a wide range of economic enterprises. Never one to miss an opportunity, Elmer realized they were going to need mules to accomplish the heavy work in the oilfields, so he purchased some mule teams, and he was in business working as a teaming contractor. It was at this time that he became good friends with Governor Hogg who let him stay in his home.
“I was working my mule teams for the Governor,” said Elmer, “then had to give up my room and sleep in the bunkhouse when his daughter, Miss Ima, used to visit on the weekends. There wasn’t any fit place for them to stay in Beaumont then.”
Elmer told granddaughter Sonja that while working in the oilfield he had an ever-growing concern for land of his own. Perhaps it was his recent marriage to Lela Blanche Clubb on Jan. 25, 1905, that made him long for a place to put down roots. Governor Hogg counseled him in 1908: “A one-armed, blind man could not go wrong buying land South of the Southern Pacific Railroad at today’s prices.”
So, that year, with the meager funds he had saved, working long hard hours, he and Blanche purchased their first section of land.
“I paid eight-and-a-bit ($8.125) for this section here at Boyt’s Ranch and I haven’t stopped improving it yet,” said Elmer to Sonja in 1955. “Just couldn’t see anything but a good future in the Gulf Coast country.”
While working for Governor Hogg and farming rice, Elmer also worked for all the major companies in the oil fields, eventually going to Sour Lake. He becomes serious when he talks to Sonja of his binding friendship with the late Frank Yount, of Beaumont, a famous early-day oil man.
“Why about the only difference in us then was that Frank wore shoes and I wore boots. He stayed in my camp at Sour Lake when he was still an oilfield roughneck. Our friendship lasted,” Elmer said.
When the oilfield people wanted him to relocate to Oklahoma, Elmer just could not go. His love for farming and ranching, with his greatest love being livestock, had his heart tied to the rich Texas soil. So, in 1912, he sold his mule teams and he and Blanche, whose family now included two sons and twin daughters, settled on the land; the destiny of this young Mississippi farm boy was sealed.
Land, lots of land
Elmer told Sonja that he believed it took a lot of land to raise a large amount of cattle. With that idea in mind, he continued to add onto his initial land purchase throughout his lifetime, at one time owning in excess of 100,000 acres. He and wife Blanche resided at the Boyt Ranch in Fannett located on Boyt Road amidst a setting of live oak trees. It was in Fannett that their children were born and raised and the favorite location of Blanche Boyt. She loved to gaze out at the white-faced Herefords grazing beyond the white picket fence that framed their home.
They had another ranch home below Devers at Cottonwood, and another down on the beach near Bolivar. Dean Tevis wrote in a 1930 Beaumont Enterprise article, “…the ranch homestead off the wobbly tracks of the Santa Fe branch from Beaumont to Galveston, has always been and will always be ‘headquarters’ in the full sense of the term. That is really home to all the Boyts, they made it such because they’ve done a lot of living in it.”
The Cow Crew
Elmer Boyt told John Lynch in 1936, “You know, son, when I get ready to call a meeting of the board of directors of this outfit, I just sit down in a chair, light my pipe, and yell for the Boyts. They come a runnin’ and there you have your directors meeting. This business is manned and powered by the Boyts, or somebody who married a Boyt.” And so it was. Eldest son Elmer Vernon “Pat” Boyt ran the Devers Canal Company; son, Cecil Kenneth handled the cattle operation; Cecil B. Jeffrey, husband of daughter Leila, handled the legal end of the Boyt operation; and George Maxwell, husband of daughter Ila, ran the Devers Feed Store and Hatchery. Each position was an essential part of the Boyt Ranch, ensuring a smooth and efficiently run operation. Elmer affectionately referred to his family as his “Cow Crew” and they all knew that this man, who had a great love of livestock, had bestowed on them a title of the highest honor. Elmer’s older brother, Cap Boyt, formed the American Rice Growers Association and was president of their Tri-State Association until his death.
“Grandpa always loved livestock. He made 3 or 4 cattle drives – one of them was to Oklahoma or a little farther. That’s the way you made a living back then,” explained Lloyd. “You had to have cattle to have something to eat or to make trade. Grandpa sent a lot of his cattle by train to Fort Worth. I remember one time he said he had 3,000 head a cattle with a price set at $84 per head during the depression and when they got up there they sold for $30 a head so he lost a lot of money on that trade.”
Boyt had a lot of land and a lot of room for cattle. He started the first crosses with the shorthorns, leading the way for others, but the main ones were the Brahman and the Hereford cross, the Brafords.
“That was the money-maker, and he had some beautiful Brahman herds too. Grandpa, along with the Hudgins family, had some of the first Brahmans in this area. Walter Hudgins and Grandpa were dear friends. Most of Grandpa’s Brahmans were of the Manso line. Uncle Pat, however, loved the Red Brahman with the long ears, that was the Zebu Brahmans. But Grandpa liked the stocky gray Brahman, and his first herd bull was ‘David.’ David was just a pet,” said Lloyd.
He also had some of the best bucking bulls with a lot of his bulls going to Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Uncle Cecil Boyt and Buck Echols were championship ropers and they made one or two trips to Madison Square Garden. That is why Grandpa built the TVE arena in Liberty in 1940, because Uncle Cecil was roping,” Lloyd said.
“Grandpa had his headquarters there at Cottonwood,” continued Lloyd, “he had his own generator and a little refrigeration unit so he could do his own butchering. He really had a great set-up, he was a way ahead of his time, that’s for sure. Some people use to call it the ‘King’s Ranch of Southeast Texas.’ That big barn you see gong down 1410 before you get to the big curve, could hold 55,000 bales of hay. He would take a cattle truck of hay and haul it to the cattle at Bolivar in the wintertime. He was always thinking ahead. He was sharp. He had a lot of horse sense, I’m telling you, and he could get people to work for him. They knew he knew what he wanted done and they would do it for him. One of his old black hands told Sonja, ‘Mister Elmer use to work right beside us when he was young and still percolatin.’ I sure did love that old man. Grandma was a Clubb, so she was related to all the Clubbs, Wingates, and Kikers in the Fannett area. We’re related to all of them, no strangers in the bunch.”
Driving the herd
Describing the massive cattle drives his grandpa had, Lloyd said, “He would run anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 head of cattle from his Cottonwood Ranch, five miles south of Devers to Bolivar in the fall of the year. They would go down there around July or August and burn the pastures off so they would have tender new grass when the cattle arrived. The first day he’d drive from Cottonwood down to Whites Ranch and overnight the cows there at the Ranch. They’d drive them the second day from Whites Ranch to just past High Island and put them on the beach. They didn’t have a bridge over the Intracoastal Canal at that time, so they would have to swim them across. The railroad had a swing bridge there at that time. Later towards the 40s, Grandpa hired Luther Owens from Beaumont to take movies of the drives and other things. We used to watch those movies and the cattle herd would stretch about five miles long. Once they built the bridge, Luther would get up in the captain’s seat where the captain of the bridge would sit and take pictures of the cattle crossing the bridge.”
“On the third day they would drive them down to Flake,” continued Lloyd. “From that point, Grandpa had pretty much everything leased, from Flake to Bolivar Point, it was close to 10,000 acres. The Mayes had some property down there too and they kind of comingled the herds. This was going on from the nineteen teens up to the thirties. Grandpa built cattle pens next to the railroad to load his cattle. I’m not sure if he loaded them at Patton or Flake. I have a copy of the 1927-28 original plat map of Bolivar Peninsula, before the Intracoastal Canal was built, and you can see all of the land that was washed away, and it shows ownership of the entire peninsula. The Intracoastal Canal was dug soon after.”
The Stephenson family at Bolivar owned one of the three houses that had survived the 1915 storm. They had built their house about two miles down the beach from where Boyt eventually built the yacht basin in 1950 near Boyt Road at Bolivar. During the 1915 storm, the storm washed all the underpinnings out from under the house.
“They dug that old house out of the hole it was in and skidded it a couple hundred yards away and set it up there. It was a two-story house with a cubicle up on top of it. Their house was right next to old man Gary who had a hog farm down there. In a grove of willow trees, you can still see the depression where they dug that old house out,” Lloyd stated emphatically. “Uncle Cecil told us that Grandpa Boyt was driving some horses down to Bolivar and stopped to get some fresh horses from the pen where they had them at Flake. The Stephensons had an old Model-T Ford and they drove it down to the beach where Grandpa and the crew were getting horses. They took their seine down to catch some fish and in a couple hours they came back with a whole bucket full of speckled trout. Grandpa said, ‘That’s just what I like to do, go to the beach and get something fresh to eat.’ So grandpa bought the house from them in 1918 and made it the headquarters for his cattle business down there.”
Paving the way
“They used to haul iron ore from around Lufkin and East Texas to High Island and ship it on barges to the smelters in Alabama,” continued Lloyd. “At that time, there was no road on the peninsula. You had to drive through the pastures on buggy trails or down the beach. So, Grandpa went into partnership with Harvey Mecom, father of John Mecom, and they built the road from High Island to Bolivar Point, it’s Hwy 87 today. Uncle Cecil said Grandpa had up to 10,000 acres tied up there at Bolivar for pasture and he ran up to 8,000 head of cows there. He would bring five or six thousand cows from Cottonwood, and also buy extra cows from the Hamiltons, the Heberts, and Whites Ranch and over-winter them there at Bolivar. In the Spring he’d put them on a train and ship them out to market. There was another set of pens where Hwy 85 and Hwy 124 intersect that the Whites Ranch used and I think Grandpa loaded some there too, that was years ago.”
“Grandpa Boyt, in partnership with Harvey Mecom, also built Highway 61 from Devers to Hankamer,” Lloyd noted. “Uncle Cecil told us that when they got to the Hankamer woods, he had never seen Uncle Pat Boyt so mad at Harvey’s son, John, in his life. They were both about 18-20 years old and Uncle Pat was driving the dump truck full of gravel. John had just bought a brand-new wheelbarrow and Uncle Cecil said Uncle Pat backed up and dumped his load of gravel right on top of John Mecom’s brand-new wheelbarrow, John threatened to beat the hell out of him. This was in the twenties,” laughed Lloyd. “They had quite a few experiences back then, but the names you hear mentioned today are men like Grandpa who became entrepreneurs. They took advantage of the times; it was just a perfect time.”
Let Me Be a Cowboy
Elmer Boyt was a cattleman, rice farmer, oilman, co-founder of the First State Bank, owner of the Devers Canal Company, Devers Implement Co, Devers Feed Store and Devers Hatchery, benevolent contributor to the Baptist Hospital in Beaumont, builder of the 1940 TVE arena, and genuine friend to all. There are many other accomplishments too numerous to record in this limited space. Boyt left an indelible heavy footprint in Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson, and Liberty counties. His rice farming and canal enterprises will be covered in separate articles.
Elmer Boyt, sitting at his desk in Devers in 1944, said, “When I crossed the big river on my way west, I prayed to the Lord that He’d let me be a cowboy.”
I think it is evident, by the legacy he forged, that the good Lord answered that prayer in a mighty way, and then some.