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The Memoirs of Nellie Belle Ryder

By W. T. Block

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You could probably count on one hand, with a finger or two to spare, the number of people in Nederland, who had an ancestor who fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, but Nellie Belle Johnson Ryder of 311 Fifteenth Street, and her cousin and neighbor, J. Dennis Johnson, are two of them.

Her great grandfather, Benjamin Johnson, Sr., was born at the Big Woods settlement, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, at the head of the Bayou Choupique, on July 8, 1815, and settled about 1832 with his parents at Old Jefferson (now Bridge City), on Cow Bayou, in what was then the Mexican province of Texas-Coahuila. On November 12, 1835, Ben Johnson joined Captain Willis Landrum's company of Sabine County frontiersmen, who were marching to the relief of San Antonio de Bexar, where Mexican General Perfecto de Cos' army of 1,200 men were in garrison and threatening to subdue an army of revolting Texans. On December 6-9, 1835, Ben followed Colonel Ben Milam into San Antonio, and following three days of bitter fighting, saw the Mexican general surrender his army, and Colonel Milam killed by a sniper bullet. He was soon discharged at the Alamo.

Three months later, Ben Johnson enlisted once more in Captain Gillaspie's company, Colonel Sidney Sherman's Second Regiment of Texas Volunteers, who on April 21, 1836, stormed into General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana's ranks at the Battle of San Jacinto. At the end of eighteen minutes of fighting, the Texans, eager to avenge the Alamo and Goliad massacres, killed 600 Mexicans, wounded 200 more, and captured 600, while destroying the army of Mexico's "Napoleon of the West." Johnson enlisted for a third time and was not finally discharged from the Texas Army until May, 1837.

Ben Johnson's marriage to Rachel Garner, a daughter of Mr.and Mrs. Bradley Garner, Sr. of Big Woods, La. and Cow Bayou, Orange County, on April 24, 1838, is one of the first marriages recorded in Jefferson County. Because of that marriage to her great grandmother, Rachel Garner Johnson, Mrs. Nellie Belle Ryder is also a great grand neice (some of them by marriage) of an entire host of Texas Revolutionary figures, among them Claiborne West, who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence; John McGaffey, the father of Sabine Pass, whose original letters can be found in the Stephen F. Austin Papers; and Captain David Garner, Jacob H. Garner, and Isaac Garner, the latter three brothers having also fought at the Battle of San Antonio in 1835.

In 1838, Ben and Rachel Johnson settled at Sabine Pass on the league of land issued to her brother-in-law, John McGaffey. They were the parents of eleven sons and two daughters, the next to youngest of whom was Ben Johnson, Jr., born at Sabine Pass in 1849. On January 2, 1871, Ben, Jr. married Caroline Townsend, a native of Sabine Pass and daughter of two English immigrants, William and Sarah Townsend. On September 21, 1883, their son, Andrew Johnson, was born, but he was to know his mother only briefly since Caroline Johnson died in 1885. Ben Johnson, Jr. was Sabine Pass' leading Democrat politician throughout his lifetime, serving thirty years as that precinct's county commissioner, and beaten out by only a handful of votes in a hotly-contested race for county judge in 1892.

Andrew Johnson attended the Sabine Pass schools, and on reaching adulthood, worked for Sun Oil Company, which in those days soon after 1900, shipped its crude oil from Sabine Pass rather than Nederland. He married Ella E. Andrus, who was born on December 1, 1889, the daughter of Gabriel Andrus and Appalonia Hargraves, who were married at Beaumont on August 7, 1876. Andrew and Ella Johnson became the parents of two sons, Andrew (the father of Dr. Andrew Johnson of Lamar University) and Ras Lee Johnson (both now deceased), and one daughter, Nellie Belle Johnson, who married Mac Saunders Ryder.

Andrew and Ella Johnson lived at Sabine Pass until 1919, when they moved to Beaumont, and Andrew Johnson began working for Magnolia Petroleum Company, now Mobil refinery. They moved to Nederland in 1928, where they purchased the large, two-story house that an earlier Nederland merchant, Bradley Bell, owned before 1911, and in 1915 became the home of Captain and Mrs. W. P. Allen, who (along with Captain John Kaper) was one of two Nederland Sabine Bar pilots forced out of Sabine Pass by the devastating storm of August 16, 1915. Nederland oldsters will recall that the Andrew Johnson home once stood on Fifteenth Street, where Boston deadended in front of it, and the house had to be demolished before Boston Avenue could be extended to Seventeenth Street. Andrew Johnson died in March, 1946, and was followed in death by his widow, Ella, in 1966.

Nellie Belle Johnson attended David Crockett School in Beaumont before beginning the seventh grade in Nederland in 1928. She was valedictorian of her junior high school graduating class. During her high school years, she took extensive piano lessons from two Beaumont piano teachers, O. G. Parks and Dr. Minyard, who was an early director of music at St. Mark's Episcopal Church. She recalls with fondness some of her early Nederland teachers, among them: C. O. Wilson, Clark Matthews, Della Barron, Marjorie Newson, Floy Pinkerton, Frances Earle, Cynthia Press, and Cora B. Linson. She added that she loved school in 1930 just as she still enjoys life in 1991. She played basketball throughout high school. She also noted that one of the joys of her seventh grade class was whenever the teacher had them pack sack lunches, and they picnicked out in the open prairie west of Nederland about where the Market Basket store is located today on 27th Street.

On July 1, 1933, Nellie Belle Johnson married Mac Saunders Ryder. For many years, they lived in an apartment in the Johnson home until they built their present brick home next door at 311 Fifteenth in 1957. Mac Ryder was born in Woodville, Texas, on July 12, 1905, one of nine children born to Howard C. Ryder and Isabelle Beulah Herrington. During much of his teenage life, Mac Ryder lived in New York, before he returned to Beaumont to work for Magnolia Gas Company, which later became United Gas Company, and is now Entex. Mac retired in 1970 with 44 years of service. For ten years or more, he was a leading sandlot baseball pitcher, playing variously for the company teams of United Gas Company, Pure Oil Company, and Sun Oil Company.

They are the parents of one daughter born during World War II, Virginia (Ginger) Ryder, who married (1) Doyle D. Kerr, and (2) Bobby Romero. She is the mother of one son, Sean Kerr, and one daughter, Stacy Kerr.

For sixty years, playing the piano has been a principal activity and a way of life for Nellie Belle Ryder. She played either full or part-time at First United Methodist Church for many years, much of which was in the Junior and Sunday School Departments. For years, she and three Beaumont women pianists practiced extensively on grand pianos in preparation for the two concerts presented annually by the Women's Club Piano Ensemble of Beaumont. She taught piano in Nederland for thirty years, and she estimates she has taught between 200 and 300 students in the course of her lifetime.

Give Mac Ryder a set of "bones," and he'll still hammer out a tune that sounds like jazz artist Gene Krupa's drums of yesteryear. Despite retirement and the 85 years that have piled up around him, Mac still takes his duties seriously as honorary "associate" manager of Nederland's Dairy Queen, where his job there is to keep everyone "in line." And Nellie Belle Ryder, despite the passage of years, says she still enjoys life as much as ever, or perhaps more than ever, and they fully expect to be around Nederland whenever the twentieth century turns tail and makes ready for the year 2001.

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Copyright 1998-2023 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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