Defining Will Block, Sr. as a Compassionate Person and Life on the Will Block Farm
By W. T. Block, Jr.
The thought came to this writer recently that a short biography, manageable in length and devoted to the usual genealogical methods, was the proper approach to a family biography for Will Block, Sr. That approach, however, fails to define Will Block as the compassionate, caring, somber and highly-moral individual that he was, utterly devoted to the care of his family as well as the causes in which he believed. On Tuesday, April 8, 1997, Wilma Crump and I sat beside Katie Goolsbees wheelchair in the nursing home, and we became so engrossed in tales of Will Block and of his farm in the old days, that two hours quickly sped by before we knew it. And the thought prevailed that Wilma and I knew dozens of anecdotes, and that Mary Lou and Billie Winberg must know dozens more, that unless they were collected in a computer, they would otherwise be lost. Oh, many of the stories may hold no interest for others, but some of them do define Will Block as we remember him and should not be lost without some effort to save them. For those of his grandchildren not old enough to remember him, such stories may be those passed down from a mother to a child.
Katie and I seem to remember Will Block best as a person that did not need to whip a child. It seemed to each that his somber visage and voice was also his command, and that any thought to disobey soon melted away from an offsprings mind. I also believe that Will Block might have interpreted it as his failure as a parent had he actually resorted to a switch or belt.
Many of my reminiscences of the late 1920s-early 1930s deal with the age of Prohibition, "moonshine whiskey," and its enforcement. As I stated earlier, Will Block, Sr. and the "demon rum" did not even belong on the same planet together. And today, whether one might be a "teetotaler" or a social drinker, one still must respect Will Block tremendously for his devotion to that stance, even though enforcement of Prohibition was a "lost cause" from the start.
The man who was often a guest in our home and the chief Federal Prohibition enforcement officer in this area was Don Spencer. Spencer accompanied Will Block on literally dozens of "moonshine" raids, up various bayous and often pulling Dads cattle barge behind the motor launch. I remember too how much "Bro" (Brother Albert) admired Spencer, because the latter was absolutely fearless. The two most noticeable aspects about Spencer were that his right hand had been shot off at the wrist, and he wore a pearl-handled automatic pistol in a holster on his left side. About 1923, Spencer had gone to a houseboat docked at Mansfield Ferry (on the Neches River at Beaumont to arrest a bootlegger and search inside for his cache of whiskey. Instead, the bootlegger fired a double-barrel shotgun through the door, which tore off Spencerts hand, and the assailant was soon sent to prison for attempted murder and assaulting an officer.
Often Spencer and Dad and perhaps others left on bootlegger foray somewhere, up a bayou or even across Sabine Lake. Once they went up Grays Bayou, which was across the river in Orange County and located between the Magpetco and Pure Oil Co. docks. Dad knew that two of his cousins, Chris and Fuller Block, had a still several miles up the bayou in Duncan Woods. They caught Chris and Fuller at the still, arrested them, and took them to the Beaumont courthouse to be booked and arraigned. As Dad got ready to leave, Chris inquired "Aint you gonna go our bail, Cousin Will?" And Will Block, as disgusted with them as he was, signed a signatory bond that got Chris and Fuller released as soon as they were arraigned.
The reader might also be advised that the Jefferson County political establishment of 1925 was as corrupt as "corrupt" ever becomes. The sheriff, Tom Garner, and the district attorney were bought off by the bootlegger trust (Rusty Woodyard), and were wholly dictated to by the Ku Klux Klan, all the officers being Klansmen, according to an MA thesis of Jefferson County Klan activities, now at Lamar University. The countys "boss bootlegger" or chief racketeer was Rusty Woodyard of Port Arthur. He shipped box cars loaded with "moonshine" north to Chicago; for whom hundreds of area bootleggers worked; and who operated a fleet of "rum runners" (fast schooners or motor boats), which smuggled rum from Jamaica to Cow Bayou near Bridge City. On one occasion Dad and Don Spencer went to Cow Bayou and waited almost all night for a rumrunner to arrive. They finally captured the surprised crew about 4 AM, also the boats $112 million cargo of spirits, and the boat was soon turned over by the Federal Government to the Sabine Bar Pilots to be used as a pilot boat. Woodyard, like Al Capone, was never successfully prosecuted as a racketeer, but he was for income tax evasion and he died in prison.
Another story about Dad and me got a write-up in Peoples Press, the predecessor newspaper to Port Neches Chronicle. When I was about four, Dad and I were visiting inside Mr. Julius Levys dry goods store in "Old Town." Of course, any toddler is inclined to explore, and I soon found under a table some tall (15" to 18") brown bottles, holding nothing more criminal than camphor (used to control wool-eating moths). I ran and told Dad that I had found Mr. Levys cache of "shinny" (another euphemism meaning moonshine whiskey). Dad, Im sure was embarrassed by my outburst, since Mr. Levy was Dads good friend, but Mr. Levy thought it was hilarioushe soon related the episode to Carl White, the publisher/editor of Peoples Press.
In the spring of 1931 or 1932, Dad and I left the barnyard, with the mule pulling a sled upon which was Dads turning plow, and we went down near the cemetery, where Jerry Dews now has his maintenance building. We sometimes called that point the "horseshoe bend" in Blocks Bayou. Dad had just fenced in a small plot, about one-acre in size, which had previously not been farmed, and he planted it all in butter beans. (One Saturday morning, Rosa Dieu and I picked 8 bushels of butter beans on that plot in order to get to go to the only Ringling BrothersBarnum and Bailey performance we ever saw during our childhoods.)
When Dad and I got to the bayou, we heard voices across the bayou in a marsh area where there was a small clump, perhaps 50 feet square, of high sea cane. We went to the edge of the bayou, where we could hide behind some tall blackberry brambles without being seen, and we saw Charlie and Frank Macha, coming out of the patch of sea cane, each carrying two glass gallon jugs of whiskey. Although the brothers usually did not bootleg themselves (they had already been arrested for that), they were the largest local retailers of moonshine whiskey in Port Neches. Dad immediately knew that they had a wooden barrel of whiskey hid out among the sea cane.
We gave the brothers plenty of time to get in their boat and move up to their landing up the bayou. Will Block let a friend named Crease Berwick dock his large cabin cruiser and a couple of skiffs at that point on Blocks Bayou by the cemetery. We used Berwicks skiff to get across the bayou, and we found the Machas whiskey barrel, still almost full. Dad rolled it on its side, and together we rolled it into the boat, got it across the bayou and up the steep bank, onto the mule sled, and we took it to our wash house, where it stayed for the next year or two. Dad called Constable C. C. Williams to come get it, but he never did. About April, 1933, a month or so after Dad died, Mama got tired of looking at the whiskey barrel, and she made Otis and I roll it down the hill to the edge of the bayou, open the spigot, and let all the stinking stuff run into the bayou. As I recall, all the alligator gar fish in Blocks Bayou danced upright on their tails for the rest of the day.
Something my Uncle Austin Sweeney told me fifty years ago may explain how Rusty Woodyard controlled the moonshine industry here during Prohibition, but it did not involve Will Block. Uncle Austin had a water melon farm on the Front Ridge, a few miles west of Sabine Pass, on the shell road to the beach. The shell road ran west to where Sea Rim Park is today, and it was located at marsh level, like a canyon, with tall sea cane running for miles on the south side and the much higher Front Ridge adjoining it on the north side. The summer of 1926 had been particularly dry, parched, and hot, needing only a match to set off an inferno. Normally, the Front Marsh was a wonderful place to hide numerous moonshine stills during that age before airplanes were in common usage. The marsh caught fire on the beach, with a strong south wind fanning it. Uncle Austin said the stench of fermenting corn mash was always very strong, emanating from the marsh, but only a fool would have gone into the marsh to ask questions.
Uncle Austins only desire was to save his house and barn and he began pumping water on them to keep them wet. Soon the bootleggers, most of whom were Negroes, began arriving at the shell road, totally exhausted from the long run ahead of the flames. The fire ended when it ran out of fuel at the roads edge. After a couple days so the marsh could cool off, Uncle Austin rode horseback through the marsh. He found more than 100 moonshine still sites, and what appeared to be several charred bodies of bootleggers, who were overcome by smoke and could not find their way out of the burning marsh. Austin Sweeney said all the moonshiners worked for Rusty Woodyard, and the price of whiskey went up that day because of the huge loss to fire of that product.
About the same time, Woodyard engaged a Kansas City sheet iron firm to build him a 900-gallon copper moonshine still. Apparently, Federal agents found out about it from the beginning, because they knew when the still was finished, sealed in a box car, shipped to Port Arthur and unloaded, reloaded on to a barge, and carried across Sabine Lake to a marsh on Johnson Bayou (where Grandma Block was raised). Soon afterward, Dad and Don Spencer left with the launch and cattle barge, going out the river and following the north shore of Sabine Lake around to Johnson Bayou. They wanted to nab the still and its two Negro bootleggers while they were actually making whiskey. Dad left the house carrying his pearl-handled revolver and an 1873, 44-caliber Winchester, and there were other men with them.
The bootleggers offered no resistance. There were also several tents stretched over platforms in the marsh, under which were about 100 sacks of sugar and corn chops were stored. And there were also 200 wooden barrels of corn mash, souring and fermenting for future use. The still and much of its hardware were much too large to bring back to Port Neches. They then emptied the still, rolled it out on Johnson Bayou, and Dad put several 44-caliber holes through it to sink it in the bayou. The mash barrels were all emptied and destroyed, and the 100 sacks of sugar and corn were loaded onto the cattle barge and brought back to Port Neches.
Between about 1928 and 1932, Will Block was a perennial member of the Jefferson County grand jury, and sometimes served as jury foreman. A jury witness told them that he could take them to 50 speakeasies in Beaumont. Now a "speakeasy" was a retail saloon hidden out in a room of a building, where one got in only if recognized to be a reliable patron. The witness and some jurors were going to dress up as foreign sailors just off a ship and wanting a good time. I recall Dad putting dark stage grease through his gray hair so he would appear much younger. The witness made out that most of the jurors, dressed in typical sailor costumes, could not speak English. I remember that Dad wore a fleece-lined heavy windbreaker because it was in January. Dad and others returned with pints and half-pints of moonshine whiskey to be used as jury evidence.
There is only about one more "moonshine" story to narrate before I consign that subject to the wastebin of history. Many stills ended up in stacks on the Block farm, somewhere near one of the big mulberry trees, and about twice a year, Jefferson County would send down a large truck to pick them up. They had only copper scrap metal value, and before the old courthouse was torn down in 1931 to make way for the present building, the old stills were often stacked on the courthouse lawn. And obviously the effect of so many stills and moonshine episodes had its effect on Brother Otis and I.
About 100 yards north of our boat landing, there was another small patch of sea cane on our side of Blocks Bayou. Once about 1928, at a time when the marsh was quite dry, Otis and I came up with the dumb idea of being bootleggers ourselves (imagine if you will, Will Blocks sons being bootleggers!). The first thing we did was go to Dads corn crib and get the cane knife, a big machete-like thing needed to cut us out a room among the sea cane. Then we went to the stack of copper stills and picked out one, about 30-gallons in size, that we could carry with ease. Then we went back and got some coils and other hardware that we supposed were needed to complete our cooking still. And we were so proud of our still, we would not have traded it for the best of tree houses!
When Dad came in from the field, we begged him to come down to the bayou and see our moonshine still. Im sure it was only his morbid curiosity about what mischief we were up to that made him accompany us. During all my childhood years, I remember my Dad as a very somber person, not inclined even to smile a lot. But that day, he sat down on a nearby log and had himself a good, hearty laugh, and even made Mama come down and see it. Later he told others at the W. H. Garrett store about the moonshine still on the W. T. Block farm, and some of Dads friends even came down to see the "unthinkable," Will Blocks very own moonshine still. Alas, the county truck soon came down to pick up the scrap copper, and Otis and I had to give up our still to its rightful owner.
In June 1929, there was a record flood on the Neches River, the only such occasion during my lifetime to date when the river came entirely out of its banks at Port Neches. It has the appearance of an inland lake or sea about two miles wide. In April and May 1929, there had been record and continuous rainfall all over East Texas, and the rivers could not carry the water. Most of Port Neches stayed high and dry, although one or two houses along the lowest part of Lee Street (near Mary McConicas home) were flooded; some areas around Texaco asphalt plant were flooded. Water rose about 12 feet above normal river tide, flooded all the low parts on our land, and well up the bluff about halfway between our porch and the boat landing. I remember how many snakes we killed during those two weeks. The moccasin snakes had swum perhaps for days and whenever they reached high land, they simply coiled up and went to sleep.
I recall that once Dad hollered at me just as I stepped over a sleeping snake. I had just exited our chicken house with a large bucket full of eggs and it was a wonder I didnt break all of them. We killed so many poisonous snakes that first week that they filled a heaping stack on our wheelbarrow. And when they began to smell, Dad emptied the wheelbarrow, doused them with kerosene, and burned them. Then the next week, the same thing happened all over again. We filled up a second wheelbarrow load of dead snakes and again had to burn them when they began to smell. During those two weeks, I saw a lifetimes supply of snakes and I dont need any more.
Late that same month, but after the Neches River had returned to normal level, I went down to our boat landing and saw a huge alligator. His head was about 3 feet long and he was swimming slowly toward the mouth of Blocks Bayou (this story also appears on pages 135-136 of Sapphire City of the Neches). I ran back up the bluff to the old place, screaming for Dad, but he was still out in the field. However, a neighbor and field hand, Roy Sterling, had just come into the barnyard with a team of horses, still bridled. Mama handed Roy Sterling Dads Winchester and some bullets, and Roy grabbed the chopping ax and a rope as he ran for the boat Landing, where he look a skiff and went toward the river. Upon reaching the river, Roy saw the alligator, still swimming slowly toward Magpetco docks, a short distance away. Roy paddled up closely, shot the alligator in the ear, and then used the ax to sever the alligators spinal column to defuse his long and dangerous tail. Roy then towed the big beast back to our boat landing, where he had to use the team of horses to pull it out of the water.
Such an alligator as old "Big Tooth" had not been seen around Port Neches in a dozen years, and some surmised he had probably been sick and had probably drifted downstream from the Angelina River area during the flood. The old alligator was at least fifty years old, measured 14 feet, ten inches from tip to tip, and weighed somewhere between 800 and 1,000 pounds. When his mouth was propped open (as it appeared on page 135 of the book), the tipper jaw measured 32 inches long from tip to end of jaw. For two or three days, there was a steady stream of Model-T and Model-A Fords parked at the old place, as much of Port Neches turned out to see the big beast. With the heat of late June, the carcass began to smell much worse than the snakes, and Sterling had to stack driftwood on it, saturate it with kerosene, and burn it.
The name of Roy Sterling brought on another stack of memories for Otis and I. Roy enjoyed telling us ghost stories, and watching as our hair upended, and almost every year he helped out with the plowing or harvesting. No money was ever exchanged that I know of, since Roy took his pay in sacks of potatoes, beans, etc. Roy was the person I referred to as "Old Rob" on page 131, and he and his family lived at the mouth of Grays Bayou, cut off from the world except by boat. I think Roy was about half-Indian. Anyway he had an olive complexion, was illiterate, and had high check bones and a hatchet face.
About 1928 or 1929, Dad sent Roy across the river to rope and bring back a yellow, Jersey cow (named Daisy), that had just had her first calf. Daisy had been across the river for about one year and had grown as wild as cows can get, beside her maternal instinct to protect a young calf. In the middle of our barnyard, there was a huge pecan tree (one of six) with a horizontal limb about 8 feet above ground, to which our rope play swings were always attached. Daisys horns were quite long and sharp, so Roy kept her roped, tied her horns up close to that pecan tree, and he sawed the tips of her horns off with a hacksaw. Roy loosened the rope from her horns, and when he did, Daisy lunged at him with all her might. Roy leaped upright and caught one arm around that limb, pulled himself up over it, and Daisy would have kept him treed all day had not Dad intervened with a big stick. Well, Daisy never forgot or forgave Roy Sterling from that day on.
Despite that, Daisy became almost like a large kitten whenever I milked her, a chore I thoroughly enjoyed. She had a particularly large utter and teats that fit snugly in a hand, and whenever I pressed one, it sprayed a stream of milk two inches wide. Actually she needed to be milked three times daily, because at milking time her utter was so big, probably in pain, and she leaked milk out of each teat. I used to fill up a ten-quart water bucket with milk from her, and holler for some one to bring me a second bucket. Sometimes when the old tomcat was around, Id squirt a couple streams of milk over his head, leaving him merrily licking his whiskers. Between 1932 and 1935, there was a trader boat, which operated like a retail store, that docked at our landing. It was about 40 feet long and was operated by two Old Swedish sailors, who lived in one of Dads rent houses on Port Neches Avenue. Their boat stocked work clothes, all dry goods, magazines, tobacco, ice cream, and we sold them 50 pints of milk a day. They took the boat into the river 7 days a week and met every ship that docked in the area. Back to Daisy, when Mama moved to Nederland on October 17, 1935, we took Daisy with us and the cow was still pouring milk when I left for the army right after Pearl Harbor.
Perhaps because of all the ghost stories told to Otis and I by Roy Sterling, we quickly began to associate ghosts with Block Cemetery. In the middle to late 1920s, Block Cemetery was a fenced-in area about one acre in size. Just outside the fence in the direction of the river, there was a great mass of blackberry briars and brambles up to 8 feet tall, and it was an ideal place for Otis and I to hide out and "window peep" on the funerals going on in the cemetery. One Sunday afternoon, we were there when suddenly we heard voices and twigs cracking behind us. We turned around and saw about 15 ghosts, or some kind of creatures draped in bed sheets with two eyeholes, and tall pointed white caps. Suddenly all those ghost stories we had been told came to life in front of our eyes.
Well, to eliminate a few details, Otis and I "took flight," in the course of which we plowed up a couple of acres of briar bushes, arriving home in record time, bawling and shedding all kinds of shrieks, sobs, and tears, and covered with scratches, thorns, and blackberry vines. It took Mama about 30 minutes to quiet us down and convince us that we had seen no ghosts, only some men from the Port Neches Ku Klux Klan, who were preparing to hold their last Klan rights and rituals over the grave of their deceased grand dragon.
I have already mentioned that Will Block was a very compassionate man, something that children and some grandchildren already knew quite well. Ive already mentioned how he often provided free housing to unemployed renters, and he even fed them as well when the Great Depression of 1929 dealt Port Neches and the entire nation a severe financial blow. Many persons may recall that there were many seemingly empty spaces near the new gazebo in Oak Bluff Cemetery, spaces that appear never to have been used. Well, they were all used, but most never had any marker except a pine board, that soon rotted away. Actually, over a long span of years, many of those spaces had been given free by Will Block to deceased "river rats," or others from Port Neches who were penniless, even before the Depression began.
There were three families of "river rat" Mulattos on the Neches River, all brothers named Esclavon, and during those years when Dad operated the sugar mill (roughly 1908-1922), they often worked in the fields to help out with the sugar cane and truck harvest and the syrup making. The brothers were hard workers, who Dad liked, and they too took their pay principally in produce. One day in the summertime, perhaps 1927, one of the Esclavons came up to the house. He had just towed his house boat into Blocks Bayou, and inside lay his dead wife on a bed, probably a victim of child birth. Esclavon told Dad he had no money for a grave lot, and in fact needed some old lumber to build a crude coffin for her. As I recall, Dad had a wall of an old chicken house that was leaning and about to fall down. Dad and Esclavon sawed and nailed up some shiplap into a crude box in which they laid the decomposing body and then nailed on the lid. Then Dad helped Esclavon dig a grave, into which the box was buried. The Esclavon grave is probably one of the blank spaces that never had a marker, and today appears to be unused.
So far, I have tried to define Will Block, Sr. as both a caring and compassionate father and friend and a man totally committed to the destruction of the "moonshine" liquor industry in these parts. And if he ever made an enemy throughout his lifetime, it had to have been in connection with enforcement of the illicit liquor laws. One incident of my childhood occurred, I believe, in 1932, and was a family effort to survive and outwit the "Great Depression" as best we could. One advantage to living on a farm was that it was certainly difficult to starve a family to death, because of the many acres available to produce food on, and the hundreds of chickens Dad owned, also several milk cows, and the small herd of about 20 or 25 beef cattle across the Neches River, available to slaughter. I suppose Dad and Albert had planned out the affair, in conjunction with Billie and Travis Winberg and perhaps Katie and Anna (I believe by that date Charlie and Clara and already moved to Van, Texas). The plan was to bring a large beef from across the river, slaughter, skin and quarter it, then can and cook it in No. 3 cans rather than in glass jars as had been usually used theretofore. However, the work had to be accomplished on a weekend, when Albert and others were off from work. I recall that Dad bought several hundred #3 cans in boxes and a can sealer, and those, along with five or six steam pressure cookers, both borrowed or already owned, were used.
At daylight on Saturday morning, the big animal, weighing perhaps 800 pounds, was killed, skinned, and quartered. Travis Winberg was a very skilled butcher and machinist, and had worked as a meat cutter at different stores. We also had on hand several #3 wash tubs and perhaps 300 pounds of ice, because the meat had to be iced down very quickly. Travis job was to "bone out" - that is, trim the meat off the bones. I think Albert separated the meat for either boneless stew meat or ground meat. One of my jobs was to turn the handle of a meat grinder (we were using about three or four), turn the can sealer, cut fire wood, or general flunky. There were a lot of us involved, Dad and Mama, Albert and Lillian, Travis and Billie, Rosa, Merle, Otis, Wilma and I, and perhaps others, as Im reluctant to say who all were there. Anyway, Billie, Lillian and Mama were cooking the pressure cookers on the old wood stove in the kitchen, as well as the kerosene cook stove in there, and perhaps another stove set up temporarily for that purpose, and every can had to be sealed by hand before going into a cooker. What a hot job that must have been! And I recall that the cans had to be cooked separately (and so labeled after they cooled), either as stew meat or ground meat. At the end of two days, several hundred #3 cans of good meat had resulted, all to be divided among the families involved, and I do suspect that many Block family members ate rather "high on the cow" for the next few monthsdepression or not.
Another incident of my childhood must have happened in 1927 when I was in the second grade. Dad had just bought me my first pair of new red rubber boots. They were so pretty and I adored them! One day I was playing with Otis out in the abandoned sugar mill, which had become our wood shed, and Earnest Block was poking a long bean pole under the old syrup cooker or vat, beneath which a family of skunks were living. The cooker was mounted on firebricks, about a foot above ground, and I remember that there was a lot of old straw or hay under it. Anyway, old Mr. Skunk came running out from under the cooker, stopped and turned around in front of me, and he sprayed me with enough skunk musk to make a pariah or outcast of me for one month.
Mama made me remove my clothes and new boots, and she buried them. Then she took me to Blocks Bayou, and then with yellow Octagon soap and a scrub brush, she proceeded to take off about two layers of my skin. But skunk musk has a way of not washing offit has to "wear off," which can take a lot of time. I remember that I had to sleep out on the porch several nights and I missed about two weeks of school. Even so, the kids all held their noses when they were around me. They would not even eat lunch with me.
I remember another incident during the summer of 1934, that almost cost Albert and I our lives, or so I thought. Albert and I took Dads large skiff across the river. It was an extremely windy day and the white caps or waves on the river were peaking at least two feet high. Bro then roped a bull yearling, about 15 months old, which was white with tan spots, and weighed perhaps 300 pounds. He then "hog-tied" the bull at the edge of the river, front and back feet together and then to each other. We pulled the yearling into the back end of the skiff. Dads skiff was quite large about 15 feet long, with cypress sides or gunwales about 24 inches wide. However, the weight of the yearling and us, coupled with the strong south wind, made it a slow and difficult passage across the Neches River, which was 800 feet wide at that point. Albert paddled in back, with me paddling in front. Once or twice the yearling scraped his feet along the sides, which scared me, but each time I tried to stand up, Albert hollered at me to sit down and paddle twice as hard.
We had not even reached midstream, when we heard a loud noise. As we looked up, it was the Sabine Towing Company tug boat Hercules, which had a 1,400 hp. Diesel engine in it, coming around the bend on the Magpetco dock side north of us, and it was "bailing out" the Neches River as it moved. On the south side of the mouth of Blocks Bayou, there was a clump of cypress trees, and Albert aimed the pointed end of the skiff for those trees, because he knew there was a mud flat there about two feet under the water. After the Hercules passed us, Bro kept the skiff perpendicular to the water swells or waves, and they washed us on into the mud flat until the skiff ran aground about 50 feet from shore. Albert got out in water above his knees, cut the ropes on the yearlings feet and it almost capsized the boat as the animal scrambled into the water. Bro then told me to paddle the boat on to our boat landing, while he struggled to get the bull out of the water, through the marsh, and up to our house.
Another incident of my childhood I recall quite well occurred in 1928. A few feet from the gazebo in Oak Bluff Cemetery, there is a large monument to Christian Gentz, who for many years was the only person buried in the cemetery. Gentz, born in Prussia in 1793, was in his fifties when he came to Texas with his wife and six adult sons and daughters. He built the old house, which later became the Albert Block farm, about 1858, and Gentz died there in 1868 at age 75. According to Dad, Gentz had requested that a pine tree be planted on his grave. However, at that time there were no pines growing in Grigsbys Bluff, and the sons had to get a steamboat captain to dig up a small pine in the forests north of Beaumont and bring it back to them.
Several of us would recollect the large short leaf pine tree that was still growing on Gentz grave in 1928 in what was then the southeast corner of the cemetery. However, beetles had killed the tree, which was two feet in diameter, and Dad decided it had to be cut down. One Saturday he and I took the wagon to the cemetery. As an 8-year-old child, I certainly cannot claim much credit for sawing down the tree, but I do recall helping Dad pull the crosscut saw as we sawed it into blocks and loaded it in the wagon.
I will mention only one other thing, a series of accidents and deaths (though luckily to none of us siblings), that occurred at the old place, culminating in some drownings in the summer of 1935. This was "the straw that broke the camels back," and resulted in my mothers removal to Nederland. In 1915 (5 years before my birth) there was a gulf hurricane that flooded the nearby marshes and drowned lots of Block cattle, but no other known damage. About May 1923, a small tornado destroyed Dads two barns, and a flying board hit Roy Sterling in the stomach, leaving him at the point of death for awhile. A couple of children who lived in houseboats also were drowned in Blocks Bayou during the early 1920s. About 1926, a family named Aldridge lived in the old house at the cemetery, and Mr. Aldridge was either severely injured or burned in some kind of accident. During the late 1920s, Dad let a family live in a tent in back of the cemetery. One night the tent caught fire, and the mother and one or two daughters burned up. Ive already mentioned the flood of June 1929. In 1934, a man named Lehman, who was the butcher at Burkes Grocery on Port Neches Avenue, kept his cabin cruiser docked at our boat landing. One day he fell against a boat window, breaking it, which also cut his arm about half off near the elbow. He came running up to the house, with blood gushing everywhere, and even after Mama tied a tourniquet on it, would probably soon would have bled to death. She telephoned first for an ambulance. Then she made Mr. Lehman lie down with his arm in a dishpan, while she packed his wound with about 30 pounds of chipped ice. Later Mrs. Lehman said her quick action saved his life.
The worst disaster of all came in the summer of 1935, and there was nothing any human could have done to stop it. There was a DeBlance family living at the intersection of Lee and Block Streets, across from Alberts home, and one day we saw Mrs. DeBlance walk past our house with three children and down to the boat landing. We thought nothing of it as they passed.
About 15 minutes later, her little six-year-old son came screaming up to our porch, and said his mother had thrown her other two children and herself into the bayou and was trying to pull him in when be broke away. Again Mama called for an ambulance and other help. Some men soon got the bodies out of the water, but not before 25 or 30 minutes had passed. And an hours effort at resuscitation proved fruitless. Mama had always dreaded living near Blocks Bayou, but she did not mind when Bert Knight and others taught us to swim. We often went swimming with Bert, Jarvis, and Earl in supervised swimming sessions, or cooled off there with Dad after a hot day in the field, but the DeBlance disaster certainly hurried our removal from the Block farm to Nederland.