The Age: Remembering the Mayes Ranch

By Marie Hughes, Chamber County Museum

On both sides of Interstate 10, nestled between the Trinity River, Old River and Lost Lake, stretches an expanse of land called Mayes Island, originally Dorr Island.  Today, other than a picnic area and miles of meandering roads, the majority of its 8,955.4 acres are a tangled wilderness.

Only the crumbling cattle pens serve as a reminder of the flourishing cattle business that once dominated the island.  The massive, aged oaks, grown from acorns dropped from the hand of Joshua Jackson Mayes over 170 years ago, remain as silent stalwart sentinels who have chronicled within their myriads of rings, the saga of the Mayes family of Wallisville.

As I stood in the shadow of these massive oaks by the old pens, I closed my eyes in an effort to block out the incessant din of traffic filtering through the woods from the busy interstate.  I had hopes of transporting myself back to the sounds of lowing cattle and chirping frogs that dominate the memories of my friend, Marsha Mayes Willcox.  My efforts were unsuccessful; such is the sad price of progress. 

Garner Mayes, born 1775 in the Colony of Virginia, first traveled to Mexican-ruled Tejás in 1830, returning again with his wife, Elizabeth Jackson, and six children in 1837 or 1838, on a flatboat.  Family tradition records that after traveling down the Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, and through Galveston Bay, their boat sunk at the entrance to Double Bayou and so it was there they settled.  Garner received his headright of 640 acres on Double Bayou, July 10, 1848, and soon was established as a farmer/rancher, increasing his lands substantially over the ensuing years. 

Garner’s son, Joshua Jackson Mayes, affectionately referred to as “Gampy” by his family, married Sarah Ann Dunman in Wallisville in 1852.  They built a home on Dorr’s Island, later called Mayes Island.  Joshua became one of the largest cattle ranchers of Wallisville, Texas, with a herd that grew to about 1,000 head of cattle.  He established a rich ranching heritage that he passed down through five generations.  Josh and Sarah eventually built a home in Wallisville to be closer to family, but in their later years it would be Mayes Island to which they would return.

Frank and George Vernon “Bun” Mayes, Sr. sons of Jackson Mayes, were phenomenal cowboys and renowned for their ability with a whip.  Virginia Loya recalls a story she was told by her family of a time they were herding cattle north to the pastures near Liberty. 

“A woman came out of her house hollering and a’cussin’ at the Mayes’ because the cows were going through her yard,” said Virginia, “and Uncle Josh, B’s grandpa, took his cow whip out and “ca whop” that whip barely missed her face.  She turned around and walked right straight back in the house without another word.  They said it was something else, they were really good with their cow whips.”

Virginia’s daddy, Goonie Mayes, was born George Clinton Mayes, but his first cousin, Jamie White, couldn’t say George when he was little and it came out Goonie.  The name stuck.  Goonie was another phenomenal cowboy, so much so that the US military used him to break horses for them during World War II.  Goonie also had the best set of hunting dogs around, all trained by him.  The military used this skill set as well, using him to train his dogs to carry messages up and down the beaches on Bolivar Peninsula for the mounted Coast Guard, who patrolled the beaches looking for the German submarines lurking in the Gulf Coast waters. 

Virginia said there was a black panther roaming the areas of Anahuac and Wallisville, at one time. 

“A family named Watson lived across from the Eminence Baptist Church and that cat would go and cry and scream under their house in the middle of the night,” said Virginia.  “Mr. Watson would call daddy and beg him to bring his dogs down to try and catch that panther.  Daddy told them, ‘There’s isn’t any doubt they can catch it, but it would kill my dogs.’”

Clint Mayes was her grandpa, Virginia said, adding, “And he was a darn good cowboy.  He taught Goonie everything he knew.  All the Mayeses were good cowboys and they all seemed to get along.  They were just sweet people.”

Jim Bob Jackson spoke highly of Goonie Mayes’ cowboy skills.  In his book The JHK Ranch 1940-1963, Jim Bob wrote, “The head of the Mayes family was Bun Mayes, but Bun didn’t do much riding.  That was done by Goonie Mayes, the son of Clint Mayes.  There was Frank Mayes that also rode.” 

One cattle drive Jim Bob mentions talks about a cow named “Tush” that caused trouble one day. 

“She had a young calf and was particularly protective of it,” said Jim Bob.  “However, someone got too close and she ran horse and rider out of the herd.  She would spook the horse and then whip its rear end with her horns as she ran and pushed it out of the herd.  Maybe this would have been permitted once or twice, but Tush would charge every rider that got within 20 yards of her calf.  Frank Mayes had been run out twice.  Goonie Mayes rode by me and said, ‘I will catch her, and you cut off her horns before someone gets hurt,’ which was fine with me.  Goonie roped and busted her, and I held her down.  However, there was no saw of any type available.  I sent Dut Humphrey to ride along the Bay shore and drag me up a timber so that I could lay her horns on it while chopping.  The timber was found, and horns were removed!”

Frank, Clint, & Goonie Mayes, Ivy Martin, Lester LaFour, Bun & Josh G Mayes

‘My Cowboy Days’ – the story of Glen B. Mayes

“I’m going to take you back about 70 years,” said Glen B Mayes, son of Josh B Mayes and Grandson of Josh Guy Mayes, in a phone interview I had with him.  “I was in high school, probably a sophomore, and I lived with my grandparents, Josh and Tabitha Mayes.  My folks were in Venezuela, so I spent a lot of time in Wallisville. I’ll take you back to a summer we stayed there and we went across the Trinity River to gather up all the Mayes’ cattle and bring them back across to Bun Mayes’ house in Wallisville to work ‘em.  I remember the morning . . . it was always hot,” Glen said with a sigh.

“I got up and Grandfather already had the horses there.  His horse was named Buck, mine was Buck Two, and he had a little black horse named Baby Ray.  Ivy (Martin), a black cowboy, lived down by the little schoolhouse on the highway and he would come and ride Baby Ray.  He was a darn good cowboy. The three of us would saddle up and take sandwiches and walk over to Uncle Bun’s.”

Even though they were his cousins, Mayes call Bun and Frank his uncles.

“When I was raised, you just called everybody uncle or aunt.  Everybody would gather at Bun’s house to go across the river.  Lester LaFour would show up, and there was Bun and Frank, and my grandfather Josh, Goonie, and Ivy, and I think there was a preacher named Horace.  Booster always came and everybody called him ‘Stuff’ and they called me ‘Starcus’, don’t ask me why, ‘cause I have no idea. They had strange names for everybody back then,” he said with a laugh, “but we were Stuff and Starcus, and we were buddies,” said Mayes.

Goonie Mayes & his Horse Buckshot Crossing the Trinity ~ June 13, 1952

Once everyone got together, they would ride over to the river, which was about a quarter mile from Bun’s house.  A skiff with a motor would show up with a little flat bottom barge on it, driven by Son Mayes, who was called “Hoggie.”

“We’d load the horses on that barge, and he would take them on across.  Sometimes they would just take the saddles off and swim the horses.  They would load the saddles up in a little skiff and saddle back up once they got to the other side,” he explained.  “Once on the other side, we would ride towards the old Mayes place.  There was no I-10 at that time, it was just all wide open and we would ride one, maybe two, hours to get to where the cattle were.  Generally, they would be up on the north end and we would start rounding them up.  The dogs were barking, the whips were popping, and people were hollering to get all the cattle rounded up,” described Glen, adding a visual image of the excitement of the drive.

Generally, once they were rounded up, the men would slow down and have some coffee and eat a little bite of something, and then they would start back toward the Trinity River. 

“We always wanted to get back across the river before dark.  I discussed the size of the herd with my cousin, Virginia Loya, she’s my favorite cousin you know,” he said. “We figured there was probably about 1,000 head of cattle or more.  Each uncle or cousin had their own herd but they were all commingled together.  We would start pushing the cattle and naturally Booster (Stuff) and I were at the back.  The whips were poppin’ and the dogs were barking, and the cattle were spread out. Ivy was always up in the front and there was a couple of riders on the side, then the riders in the back that were driving them.  There was either two words, ‘Hold Up’ or ‘Ride Up’, that’s all you heard.”

About a half-mile or less away from the river, Ivy would start getting into a little fast trot, trying to move the cattle from being in a bunch into a long line so that when they got to the river they could enter the water one right after the other. 

“Those cows knew where they were going,” Glen said assuredly, “and the closer Ivy got to the Trinity, the faster he would ride.  Once he hit the river, they were just a long string of cattle and they’d just hit the water and start swimming across.  By the time we got there, we saw the last of them swim across, it was kind of a pretty sight to see.  Once we were back across the river, we would pen them in Uncle Bun’s pasture.  The next day we’d go down and work’em.  We’d put the mama cows and calves in one pasture, then part out any calves for sellin’ and move them to the opposite pasture.”

“I never did go with the cattle to the salt grass, but Stuff and I had an occasion to ride from Double Bayou and drive the cattle back to Wallisville,” Glen added.  “All the cows were mingled at Double Bayou, they started parting them out and getting the Mayes’ cattle out.  The next day we arrived and drove them from Double Bayou to Wallisville.  They would put the cattle in Uncle Bun’s pens and work them then they’d either put some in the pasture south of Uncle Bun’s place or take some of them back across the river to the Mayes Island pasture. There was a lot of good cowboys and I’ve been around a lot of them and I’m no judge of cowboys or riding horses, but to me, Goonie Mayes, when he sat in the saddle, that saddle was made for his butt.  The rest of them were cowboys, and ropers, and hollerers, and cussers, but that’s my memories of my cowboy days from a long time ago.”

In closing, he shared a funny story about one time when Bun and Frank got into a disagreement over two horses.

“Uncle Frank could pop a whip like nobody and he just pulled his whip out and popped it right there in front of Uncle Bun’s face, and that was the end of that conversation.  Those were good times, different times,” said Glen.

“Lasting Memories” – the story of Virginia Mayes Loya

Virginia Mayes Loya, daughter of George Clinton “Goonie” Mayes, Jr. and Ella Mae Haynes, has fond memories of her life on the Mayes Ranch in Wallisville, Texas.  It’s no secret this spunky lady would rather spend her days on a horse than cooped up in the house, for ranching blood runs deep in the veins of both her parents, giving her a double genetic dose of love for the scent and sounds of all things ranching. 

“The Mayes kept all their cattle between the bridges, on their nearly 10,000 acres of land, that stretched from past Lost Lake to Liberty and south to Anahuac,” began Virginia.  “They had an additional 3,000 acres on the east side of the Trinity in Wallisville.  They’d swim ’em over to right behind Marsha’s (Willcox), then they’d head out from the end of Anahuac down below the hill and go through Anahuac and then head ’em towards Double Bayou.  We had an old cow names Toes and I remember being on the other side of the river and it was just like a drum roll, they’d wait until Toes decided to cross, ‘cause the rest of the cows weren’t crossing until Toes decided to cross. They’d all be bunched up there, and I remember I’d ask Daddy, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And he would say, ‘We’re waiting for Toes.’   The minute she entered that water all of the cows jumped in and followed her across.  Amazing stuff to me.”

Goonie and Clint Mayes at the cattle pens

The cattle were always moved to Double Bayou in the fall of the year.

“I was at an art show in Anahuac with my mother close to the time that we would have begun the drive, and they were fixin’ to get ready to move ’em.  Mother and Ethyl White were standing talking just inside the front door of the American Legion Hall when I walked out the door, and I saw all of our cows going through Anahuac!  I walked back in and said, ‘Mother, you need to come see this, you need to call Daddy.’  She’s like, ‘Virginia, I’m talking to Ethyl.’   I said, ‘I see you’re talking to Ethyl, but you better be talking to Daddy, ‘cause the cattle are taking themselves to Saltgrass!’ Those cows decided to go!   I’m telling you, there were cattle all over Anahuac,” she said, remembering. “I do not remember seeing my Daddy come, but I assure you, he did come. I mean, they had cattle jumping on people’s porches. It was a ruckus. The cattle just decided they were going to saltgrass. They knew it was time to go.  You see, we always went to the Jacksons in Double Bayou. It was just an old practice that we did, and they were just taking themselves. I don’t know if someone left the gate open below the hill or what happened.  There was no way to stop those cattle, they were goin’.  They were everywhere, but they were going in the right direction.”

She remembers a Texas Ranger calling Goonie in the middle of the night once because there were people shooting cattle out of boats and slaughtering them on the side of the Trinity River.

“Daddy woke me up and said, ‘Do you want to go with me?’ Well, I was running backwards trying to get ready to go, I wanted to go!  I don’t even remember how old I was, but I stayed on ready when it meant going with Ddaddy.  Well, they caught those guys, but it was always something back then,” she said.      

According to Virginia, the Mayes family did not think Hurricane Carla was coming ashore, so they were not ready for it.

“They brought the cows up and put them in the pen. Well, the next morning Carla had hit and everything across the river was underwater! I remember going across the bridge with my mother in my grandfather’s 1959 pick-up, which was big.  She had hay in the back of it.  The cattle, and alligators, and nutrias, and water moccasins, anything that was across that river, came to the highest point, and that was in the middle of interstate 10. They were looking for higher ground,” she said.  “They took, I don’t know how many, cattle and horses during the hurricane over the top of the Trinity River bridge in all that wind, and they had to deal with all the gators and snakes and everything else.  On the way over the bridge, my brother, George, said whenever the wind would blow, the fingers where they pieced the bridge together would pull out, and the bridge would pull apart, and his horse would jump ’em. He jumped every one of them.  The wind was blowing so hard when mother and I were driving back across that I tried to get under the seat, but you couldn’t do that because they had those coils.”

They drove the cattle to the Humbers who lived about a mile before the Shiloh Baptist Church on FM 563.

“Mother and I were walking around over by the cattle pens at one point, and she had either a shotgun or rifle in her hand, but she was like Annie Oakley.  You didn’t want to make my mother mad, ‘cause if she shot, she was going to hit you,” she said. “There was a mamma nutria that made a run at me. We didn’t even see her, and my mother killed that nutria, shot her from her hip. She didn’t even pick the gun up to aim. She just cocked the gun, and boom!  There went mother nutria.   I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, my mother saved my life!’  And then we saw all the little baby nutrias, that’s why she was charging me.”

She recalls a gigantic rose trellis on the end of their house that was covered with roses. One day she got her horse stuck in the trellis.    

“There was a horse that Daddy had that I wanted to ride, but he didn’t like me very much, his name was Old Bald. I brought him in the back yard to ride him and I thought, ‘This ought to be safe.’  He bucked me off and ran between the rose trellis and the hurricane fence and he got stuck. The saddle horn stuck in the rose trellis.  Daddy was taking a nap and I had to go in and wake him up to come get Old Bald out of the rose trellis.  My daddy was so mad at me for getting his horse stuck in that trellis!” she said with a laugh. “We had a little horse we got from Jamie White, Goonie’s first cousin, with an H3 on the hip, which was a White Ranch brand, and Goonie always liked that little horse. We called him Little Blue. Jamie finally gave him to Goonie. That was my baby horse I rode all the time.  He lived to be about 28 years old, and when he got too old to ride, Daddy decided he’d take him on the north side of the freeway, kinda across from the museum, and put him in with a set of heifers. He would feed him every day so he could keep up with him.  There was a 16-plus-foot-long alligator over around Lake Charlotte and Lake Miller.  No one ever thought of something happening to that dumb horse.  We were over there working cows one day and I was loping along behind daddy and his horse jumped that alligator, I mean I saw it!” exclaimed Virginia. 

Her father jumped the gator, then the gator went off in the water.  He never could get that horse to go back over there. He wouldn’t even come out of the horse trailer if they went there.

“He’d pull him over there in the trailer and could not get him to come out!” Virginia said.  “Little Blue came up missing, and my daddy was so distraught, he rode that pasture forever looking for him.  He couldn’t find any bones or anything, so you’re coming up with two options, somebody stole him or the ‘gator got him, and that’s what we figured happened.  Oh, my daddy was so stressed, he loved that horse so much.”

Growing up on the ranch were great times for Virginia and she would not trade them for anything.

“I will tell you what the most devastating thing was for me. It was seeing the spirits of the Mayes family broken as they watched the government take their land- their family legacy – away from them.  They fought hard, making many trips back and forth to court, but it was all for naught.  In the end the government ended up with the entire 10,000 acres on Mayes Island,” she said.

The US Army Corps of Engineers did open up the J. J. Mayes Wildlife Trace near the Wallisville Lake Project.  The trace consists of four miles of nature trails available to automobiles and a picnic area under the towering oaks planted by the pioneer families, a meager consolation for a Legacy Lost.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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