Huzza! Huzza! For Texas. On this hallowed ground 150 years ago today, the Republic of Texas was born when 59 delegates gathered in Noah Byars' gunsmith shop and adopted a declaration of independence from Mexico.
By all accounts, the place was a hellhole -- streets muddy and littered with tree stumps, shanties infested with gamblers and charlatans. It was unseasonably cold, about 33 degrees on that second day of March 1836, and what passed for Independence Hall had no doors or windows; sheets were hung to keep out the draft.
The old town is gone now, the land encompassed by a state park and the Star of the Republic Museum. Magnolia trees shade the bluebonnet field where cabins stood. One dirt path remains, leading downhill toward a bend of the Brazos River.
Up the highway about one-fourth of a mile is the modern community of Washington, modern being a relative term. There sit a post office and one store, H.A. Stolz Groceries, which also is the only restaurant, gas station and bar for the German and Polish farmers in this part of Washington County. "Horses, mostly," waitress Shari Dunn said when asked to list morning coffee topics at Stolz's. "Horses and cows."
Today, in celebrations here and in 80 other cities and towns in this most patriotic of states, the only one formerly a country of its own, citizens will honor their founding fathers with parades, concerts, debates, movies, barbecues, balls, bell-ringings and religious services.
It is the day of days for the year-long Texas Sesquicentennial, all because of what happened in this hyphenated dot on the map. Could Washington-on-the-Brazos -- named after a small town in rural Georgia, not that other place on the Potomac -- really be the cradle of frontier liberty?
History seems to have a way of forging great events in the strangest locations with the oddest characters.
Odd is perhaps an inadequate description for the founders of the Texas Republic. Most were men in their 30s and 40s who had, in the phrase of that period, "G.T.T." (Gone To Texas) from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia and were not all the strong, silent, heroic types that the Daughters of the Republic would have one believe. Their ranks included a goodly number of land speculators, card sharks, manic depressives and rabble-rousers who didn't think much of each other.
Sam Houston, the best known of the lot, had to finagle his way into the convention in the fashion of a Jersey City pol. First, he ran for a delegate seat from Nacogdoches, where he lived. A few months later, as commander-in-chief of the Texas Army, he would mastermind the defeat of Mexican Gen. Santa Anna at San Jacinto. One year later, he would have a city named after him, one now known in every corner of the world, the only city whose name has been uttered publicly on the moon.
He would be elected president of the republic twice in its 10-year history, then congressman from the state and finally governor. But, when he ran for delegate from Nacogdoches, more than 600 people voted, and only 55 voted for Houston. Undaunted, he found a friend who put him on the ballot in rural Refugio, where few people knew about the convention, and from there he earned his place in Noah Byars' gunsmith shop.
George C. Childress, whose name is rarely mentioned with Houston, was the Thomas Jefferson of Texas. A lawyer, newspaper editor and land speculator from Nashville, Childress drafted the declaration of independence, borrowing freely from the national document. He came to Texas to acquire land, wealth and happiness. But five years after his honorable work at Washington-on-the-Brazos, he was unable to shake fits of melancholy. On Oct. 6, 1841, he disemboweled himself with a bowie knife while staying at Mrs. Crittenden's boarding house in Galveston.
He was one of four signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence who later committed suicide. On his deathbed, Childress, hardly the Texas stereotype, lamented, "I suffered from the effects of an over-sensitive mind."
Robert Potter did, too, in his own way. He came to Texas after a rather colorful career in his home state of North Carolina. In 1828, he was booted out of the state legislature for cheating at cards. Using that as a political steppingstone, he ran for Congress and won. Then, in 1831, he caught his wife riding down a country road in the buggy of a local minister. Potter, an uncontrollably jealous man, tied the minister to a tree and castrated him. Later that night he performed the same operation on another man whom he suspected of admiring his wife. Potter was so proud of what he had done that he coined a name for his deeds. He told friends that he had "Potterized" his victims.
Such was the nature of a man who would be the first secretary of the Texas Navy. He and Sam Houston hated each other but shared something special. Houston was born on March 2. Potter died on that date. He was murdered by an angry mob.
Ellen Murry, curator of education at the Star of the Republic Museum, has learned the stories of each of the state's 59 founders. Some of the stories she tells on public tours; others she does not. "These men are made into demigods, but they almost all had skeletons in their closets," she said. "You start with the assumption that people came to Texas to escape something. But I have to be careful about what I say. I don't want someone suing us because I insulted their ancestor."
Murry said her favorite signer was Mathew Caldwell, who led a force during the Mexican War that won the Battle of Salado Creek. "He was such a confident, brassy patriot," Murry said. "I love what he said at Salado.
"He said, 'The enemy are all around me, on every side, but I fear them not. There are eleven hundred of the enemy. I can whip them on my own ground without any help, but I cannot take prisoners. Why don't you come? Huzza! Huzza! For Texas!' "