The Age: Exploring the impact and history of the Texas Gulf Coast rice canal systems

Hankamer-Stowell Canal steam pump

By Marie Hughes, Chambers County Museum at Wallisville

Drive down any country road in Chambers County, Texas, in mid to late August, and you will find field upon field of lush rice crops, their golden heads bowed in surrender for the coming harvest.  Rice production is rivaled only by cattle ranching here. Both rice production and cattle ranching are split almost evenly in land usage.   

Rice crops were not a major player in Chambers County prior to the turn of the twentieth century.  Almost the only rice grown before then was called Providence Rice, as it depended on the “Providence of God” to provide water for the crop. The building of irrigation canals changed the future of the rice industry along the Texas Gulf Coast forever.  

Labyrinth of Life  

Halley Ray Moor, Jr., Hankamer rice farmer, said, “It is an incredible sight, to view from the air, the Chambers County canals, laterals, and rice fields all filled to capacity during planting season.  It encompasses from 60 to 70 percent of all the land in Chambers County.”  Because of these life-giving arteries, Chambers County was catapulted to a major position in the world’s rice production industry.   

The very earliest irrigation canal in Chambers County, built on a very small scale, was by the Jackson family of Double Bayou in 1888 using oxen and slips to dig the canal, along with a lot of hand shovels.  F. M. Schultz was another early rice farmer in the Double Bayou area. 

The Hankamer-Stowell Canal Company, later called the Farmers Canal Company, was the first canal company to water rice in Chambers County.  They began building their canal in 1899 and began operating in 1900 pumping water out of Turtle Bay.  In 1902 they watered 10,000 acres of rice and increased each year until saltwater encroachment caused them to shut down by 1925. 

Building the Lone Star Pumping Plant, 1903

In an attempt to keep the saltwater at bay the Trinity River Irrigation District, established in 1911, built a bulkhead across the mouth of Turtle Bay.  It was barely completed when the 1915 Gulf Coast storm destroyed it.  This proved a devastating blow to the Chambers County rice industry.  Once the saltwater has mingled with the fresh water and saturated the soil, it takes a period of at least two years of sun and rain to purge and purify the affected area.

The Lone Star Canal Company began building in 1902 and was in operation by 1903.  Saltwater dealt them misery as well.  Sally Hill wrote an excellent article on the Lone Star Canal in her 1978 historical marker application. In it she documented how the canal was built.  She records that it was 80 feet from levee to levee with an average depth of four feet.  Mules pulled slips or fresnos to scrape out the earth to make the canal.  The Lone Star Canal had the capacity of carrying 360,000 cubic feet of water per second and could water 10,000 acres. 

The Old River Rice and Irrigation Company was begun in 1901 when Dr. T. W. Shearer, president, and F. C. Matthews, chief engineer, put men and oxen to work to dig the canal. It began operation in 1905, watering 2,000 acres of rice pumping water from Old River.  Saltwater wreaked havoc on this canal company as well.  The struggling company finally sold out to Houston oilman Charles G. Hooks, who changed its name to the Barbers Hill Canal Company.  It laid a 14-mile water line to a direct connection with the Trinity River to eliminate the saltwater problem.   

The Raywood Rice Canal and Milling Company, which was located on the east side of Trinity River in Liberty, was one of the largest canal plants in Texas at one time.  It was built circa 1898 at a cost of $200,000.  It had 10 miles of main canal from 100 to 150 feet wide, and 25 miles of main laterals from 60 to 80 feet wide.  It had three lifts lifting the water a total of 70 feet.  How it went from such a successful company to a struggling one in less than 30 years is unclear.  In 1927, Elmer W. Boyt bought the struggling company and in true Boyt fashion took it to the next level making the newly formed Devers Canal System one of the most profitable around watering twice as much rice as the other canal companies.  The focus of the remainder of this article will be on the building and operation of the Devers Canal Company. 

“The Raywood Canal Company was a mule team slip-built canal, so it was a shallow canal,” said Lloyd Maxwell.  “When Grandpa Boyt bought it he pretty much started from scratch building a new system.  The first thing he did was buy some draglines and began deepening the canals.”

His dragline operators were Fred Ward, J.T. and Ralph “Red” Clemmonds, Ed Stiles, and Ollie Burrell.  The oilers on the crew were Reese Guerrero, William Rayon, Herbert Burrell, and Jody McMullen.  

“Almost all of the operators worked 25-30 plus years for the canal system,” said Lloyd, giving testimony to their loyalty to the company.   “We figure the Devers Canal has about 70 miles of main canals and probably 115-120 or more miles of lateral systems.  Grandpa had his own surveyors, Jake Vencil and George Ward from Devers.  You talk about a job. They started at the Trinity River and surveyed every mile with a transit and the old stick. Oh man, I cannot imagine how hard that was!” 

“Grandpa started out with six main pumps run by Westinghouse motors located in Moss Bluff at the Trinity River.  In the late 40s or early 50s, he put a 7th pump, a 48-inch in there.  The original Westinghouse motors built in the 1920s are still being used at the pumping plant; they were at least 100 HP motors.  Other than being re-wound over the years, they are still all original.  This was confirmed last month by Scott Hall of the Lower Neches Valley Authority, who now own the canal system,” clarified Lloyd.  “Grandpa hired Pete Fabrigueze and his carpenter crew and they built what is called the Adolph Flume, out of creosote boards.  It is located at the overpass on FM563 in Moss Bluff, between No. 1 and No. 2 checks, and is 600 feet long.  Volney Hylton of Moss Bluff was a supervisor, alongside Pete, and he was one heck of a carpenter.”

The other men in Pete’s crew were Duncan and Alex Fabrigueze, Walter Schwartz, Denny Johnson, Lee Runnels, David Rayon, Bob DeSha, and Henry Vaclovic, Jr.

“Uncle Elmer Clark was in charge of No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 Pumping Plants from the beginning of operations until World War II was over.  After he returned from the war, his son Walter Rhea Clark took over.  After Walter Rhea retired he was succeeded by Steve Weaver,” noted Lloyd.  

Elmer R. Johnson, G. W. Norris, Albert Davis, and Albert Pavliska were the operators on both No. 1 and No. 2 Pumping Plants.  They re-lifted the water from the river about 12 feet, high enough to get it over the flume.  The flume had to be high enough so if the river flooded, it would not be wiped out.  The Fabrigueze  family were originally from Spain where their family was well known as the builders of the monasteries for 400 years. 

“All of the water gates and the checks in the canals were engineered by Pete Fabrigueze. His designs were just engineering marvels. The Fabriguezes were just master carpenters.  At No. 2 check, the water was lifted 18 feet, and at No. 3 check, another 9 feet. Doug Davis was the operator on No. 3 Pumping Plant.  When the canal got to the No. 3 check, which was the Stacy Hill Check, they diverted water to a separate feeder canal to supply the water for the Devers area while the main canal continued south towards White Ranch.  They had names for all the checks, usually whosever farm it was near.  Besides the Stacy Hill Check, there was the Dew’s Ranch Check, and the Canal Road Check. These were the three main checks,” stated Lloyd.

Claude Burrell was the supervisor over all maintenance on the upper canal which covered the Devers to Cottonwood area.  His crew was made up of Willie Spencer, Bo Smith, Travis Jackson, Henry Vaclovic, Leonard Smith and Frank “Oogie” Gantz.  Supervising the Lower Canal which covered the Cottonwood to White Ranch area, was Darrell Ridgeway.  His crew members were E. J. Sonnier, Gerald Sonier and Deaf “Dummy” Blake.

“The canal riders used to ride the canals with horses because they didn’t have good roads back then,” said Lloyd.  “Once the roads were improved they had a pickup truck with a horse trailer so if they couldn’t get through the gate they could ride their horses.” 

The canal riders who managed the checks were Doug Davis – Moss Bluff to Devers, Wallace “Red Burlin – Devers to Cottonwood, Eldridge Meche – Cottonwood to Jenkins Country, Willie Barrow -Jenkins Road to Hwy 65 Canal Road, and Pitt Stratton – Hwy 65 Canal Road to White Ranch.  Each canal rider was responsible for servicing a certain group of farmers.  They would meet with them every morning during planting season at a specified area about 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. 

“Doug Davis was the canal rider on our end at the No. 3 pump.  We’d meet Doug and tell him we need to do a flush and he would tell us how many inches of water he could give us through the gate.  We use to call him half-inch Doug because when we told him we needed water he would scratch his head and reply, ‘Weeeeell, I can give you about a ½ inch.’  We’d banter back and forth with him until he gave us enough to accommodate our fields,” said Lloyd with a laugh.   “Doug would have to calculate how many inches were needed for each farmer and then call the canal company and tell them, ‘I’m putting out this much water through No. 3 re-lift.’ All the riders did that.”

The canal company would have to calculate how much water to send to accommodate all the fields and have just enough to reach the last field without having to dump water into Spindletop Bayou.  They pumped 240,000 gallons a minute to water fields from just below Devers to Whites Ranch in Stowell.  There were four main checks on the canal system plus several other checks.  

“It took a lot of water management to do that.  It was a complicated system but they made it simple because everybody did their part,” explained Lloyd.  “Grandpa built a small reservoir by No. 3 lift station on CR117 in Devers as a backup in case water was in short supply.  They also used the reservoir to supply some of Texas Gulf Sulphur Plant’s water in Moss Bluff.”  

Elmer Boyt installed his own private phone system for the canal riders so they could communicate with the canal headquarters and pumping stations.  When it came to business, Elmer thought of everything which is what made him so successful. 

“Pete also built both of the warehouses in Devers,” added Lloyd, “one for the American Rice Growers Association and one for Grandpa Boyt.  Pete said it took a train car load of 40-penny and 60-penny nails to build each warehouse.   The warehouses were each 100 feet wide and 400 feet long, both built parallel to the railroad track.  After the rice was harvested it was put in sacks and brought to the warehouses.  They stacked the sacks up to the ceiling, which was 24 feet tall.  We called it the sack dryer.  The rice was harvested and dried in the field, put in sacks, and brought to the rice dryer.  When the buyers would come, they would bid on the rice and order however many sacks they needed.  The sacks were then loaded onto railcars and shipped to their location.”

According to Lloyd, in later years, when they tore the warehouses down, Pappadeaux’s Restaurant bought all of the wood, which was sweetgum, to use on the walls of their restaurants.

“Uncle Cap originated the idea of the American Rice Growers Association.  He started in Texas and by the time he had it all organized he had Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas Rice Growers, so he had a tri-state organization.  Uncle Cap (Arthur H. Boyt) ended up being the president of the Tri-State American Rice Growers Association for 9 to 12 years back in the 20s to 30s,” Lloyd said.

Devers Rice Dryer

“American Rice Growers Dryer in Devers was the first continuous-pour rice dryer built in our part of the United States and it was the largest concrete grain structure East of California,” said Lloyd with pride.  “Before this design was developed the dryers were made of concrete blocks grouted together.  With this design, a ring was made and concrete poured into it.  As the concrete began to harden the ring was raised up and more concrete was poured on top of the hardening previous pour.  They had an elevator which was used to transport the wheelbarrows full of concrete used for pouring.”

“Devers used to be the hub for rice farming around here and Grandpa and his brother, Uncle Cap Boyt, really spearheaded a lot of the rice production in this area.  In 1950-53, they were the largest rice producers in the world, mainly because they sublet a lot of Elmer’s extensive acreage to other farmers.  All of the rice produced in our area came through the Devers rice dryers.  They’d have trucks lined up down 61 till midnight some nights and from Devers down Hwy 90 they’d have trucks backed up for half a mile.  They’d have trucks dumping rice all night long because there was so much coming in there,” Lloyd said.

In China, Texas, there was a Beaumont Rice Pasture Experimental  Station. 

“It was set up, I believe, in the early fifties.  We had some doctors there who were some of the top rice breeders in the world.  Dr. Craig Miles was the head man at the experimental station.  He was a Navy pilot in Korea and was wingman to one of the astronauts, I cannot remember which one. He had helpers at the station:  Dr. Tony Marquet, Dr. Charlie Bollich, and Dr. Jim Stancel.”

The top rice breeder in the world, Dr. Hank Beachell, was also part of the team. 

“Hank and Uncle Pat were dear friends and he visited out beach house often to go fishing.  He was so important to the rice industry.  In Beaumont they developed the 100-day variety of rice.  The old varieties of rice, Patina, and Blue Rose, would take between 120-140 days to mature.  They were storm bait because you went through hurricane season before harvest.  The old varieties grew to be about 6 feet tall and if it went through a hurricane, it would lay down and the equipment we had was not able to salvage it,” explained Lloyd.  “So, they determined to develop a breed where you could not only get one cutting, you could get two crops.  If you could harvest in 100 days, you could re-flood the stubble, fertilize it and get a stubble crop, which would be a bonus.  It would be approximately one-half to two-thirds the yield of the first crop.”

They developed the 100-day variety in the late 50s and early 60s and it changed rice farming in all of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  The heads of the experimental station in Beaumont went to Puerto Rico and made a deal with them to grow rice there in the winter time, so they got three crops a year that way.  Hank Beachell went on to create a foundation in the Philippines. 

“This very humble man is credited with saving millions from starvation with his development of high yield semi-dwarf rice,” said Lloyd with marked admiration.

Turkey Pen Road at Double Gum Farm, 1940

“When the rice harvest was over, they’d run hog wire around the rice fields and run turkeys in there like a herd of cows and let them eat the grain that was dropped.  Where we kept them by Double Gum at Cottonwood, we called Turkey Pen Road.   We always had a turkey pen they could get in at night to protect them from predators.  If they didn’t have water, daddy taught us at a very young age how to use a siphon hose.  He would have 55-gallon drums of water and we would siphon it out to fill the water trough.  Grandpa put daddy in charge of his feed store in Devers and that’s where they hatched the turkeys.

Mr. Kirkland, Nora Lee’s Ladd’s dad, ran the hatchery for Lloyd’s father.  Nora Lee and her sister, Audrey used to take spoons and turn all the turkey eggs in the hatchery.   

“Every year when the turkeys would go out in the field, they’d get a little wormy, so daddy would take Lamar and me, we were like 7 and 8 years old, and we had to take leg catchers and catch those big ole turkeys and stick the worm pills down their dang throat.  I know my fingers should be about two inches longer than they are,” said Lloyd with a laugh.  “There were turkeys all over the country around here back then.  Mr. J.M. Frost of the Frost Ranch on the canal road by Stowell had a bunch of them.”

The Boyt family sold the Devers Canal Company to the Trinity River Authority about 1963-64. It is now under the ownership of the Lower Neches Valley River Authority.  During its years under the ownership of the Boyt Family, the following rice farmers were serviced by the Devers Canal Company: Elmer W. Boyt, Arthur “Cap” Boyt, E. V. “pat” Boyt, Cecil K. Boyt, George W. Maxwell, C. B. Jeffrey, Barry Jeffrey, Lamar, Lloyd, David, Donald, and Arthur Maxwell, Elmer Clark, J.E. Clark, Jim Elkins, Peck Elkins, Jack Elkins, Billy Gore Elkins, Albert Elkins, Don Bennett, Joe Nelson, Red Hall, R. E. “Bob” Evans, Bobby Evans, Lloyd Turner, Jackie Turner, Joe McMullen, Tommy McMullen, Alex Waugh, Dan Hart, Carl Johnson, Clarence Johnson, Art Erickson, Dutch Earp, Sidney Hill, James Willis, Howard LeCour, Raymond Randel, Charles Haidusek, Bubba Haiduesk, Donnie Haidusek, Benny Rusk, Bill Davis, W. M. Davis, B. J. Jones, Charlie Welch, J. D. Ritter, Hillay Ritter, Mr. Sparks, James Willis, Hollis Rich, Eli Rich, Olied Devillier, Bubba Devillier, Sammy Devillier, Jerry Devillier, Ike Prejean, Ferdinand Leonard, Nelson Menard, Bill Berry, Jett Hankamer, Adolph Hankamer, D.J. Hankamer, Bob Turner, Otho Turner, Billy Jenkins, Jerry Jenkins, Walter Jenkins, Walter Rhea Clark, J. M. Frost, Ford Frost, Harvey Dowell, Burl Morris, Billy Edwards, Jamie White, Bill White, Bobby Way, Charlie Leger, Wayne Murrell, Halley R. Moor, Emmett Hebert, Lamont Meaux, R. C. Womack, Ricky Womack, Skeet Kole, Jack McBride, Warren Fontenot, Billy York, Bee Mayes and Son Mayes.

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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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