INTRODUCTION TO CONROE, TEXAS - By John Ronan Broderick
From an inauspicious beginning on October 16th, 1881, Isaac Conroe, a retired Civil War Union cavalry officer from Illinois, decided to establish a sawmill operation on the far western edge of the East Texas Piney Woods about 40 miles north of Houston. The site was just east of the junction of the International & Great Northern (I & GN) and Santa Fe railroads. Isaac Conroe could have had no inkling that a half century later the city that evolved from his humble sawmill would, for a brief time at least, boast more millionaires per capita than any other city in America.
Originally christened “Conroe’s Switch” by an obliging railroad official who had made the sawmill a regular stop, the name was eventually shortened to Conroe. Emboldened by the Yankee officer’s success and access to the railroads, which made transport of the finished product, lumber, easier, others set up their own sawmills in competition. For in that neck of the woods, timber was excessively abundant. Despite several epidemics and two disastrous fires, the fledgling town steadily grew and within eight years the unofficial population of Conroe approximated 300 people. In December 1904 the city officially incorporated.
DEPRESSION ERA BOOM TOWN
By 1930, Conroe, with a population of 2,457, was a dying town, another victim of the Great Depression. The lumber industry was fading, the local bank had shuttered its doors, the schools needed funding to continue operations. The town needed a savior. Along came Texas oilman and wildcatter George W. Strake, a man of great vision, determination, faith in God and in his own abilities, a man for whom perseverance was his watchword. In the parlance of the time, he had “sticktuitiveness.” Fortunately, Strake’s South Texas Development Company held oil leases on 8,500 acres of land southeast of Conroe, the largest area of land ever under lease at that time.
A World War I veteran who had served in the newly formed US Army Air Corps, Strake was no stranger to innovation, new ideas, and doing things differently than others. He was ahead of the curve in all areas of his life. After achieving great success in the Mexican oil boom of the 1920s, he returned to Texas to make his mark. He was a true “wildcatter,” a term Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines as “one that drills wells in the hope of finding oil in territory not known to be an oil field.” That description fit Strake to a T.
Strake had attempted to partner with several major oil companies, but none of them would have anything to do with him. He would have to go it alone. Time was running out for him. If he didn’t drill a well by August 1931, he would lose his leases. Against all odds, he met his midnight deadline, backed by his faithful crew, hand- turning the drill bit to a depth of 50 feet, thereby saving his leases.
Four months later, on December 5th, 1931, Strake’s newest well struck black gold—a true gusher!—and the Conroe Oil Field was born, and Conroe itself and Montgomery County were reborn. Conroe’s population soared almost overnight from 1,500 to over 20,000. It is safe to say that it was Strake who put Conroe on the map. It became known as “the Miracle City.” Like the mythical phoenix, Conroe had risen from the ashes of destruction and recreated itself . . . with a little help from George William Strake. His new oilfield, an elliptical-shaped area in South Central Montgomery County, became the third largest in America. Then Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon Mobil) came calling, eating a large slice of Humble Pie. Strake, not a man to hold grudges or say, “ I told you so,” saw the wisdom in partnering with Humble and several independents to achieve maximum penetration and production. The local newspaper, the Conroe Courier, reported that Strake’s 19,000-acre oilfield was producing 10,000 barrels a day. Strake was 37 years old. He eventually parlayed his wildcatter bet into $100,000,000! Some of those independents who joined him in the venture also became millionaires.
But that was not the end of the story. As a philanthropist, Strake was the Bill Gates of his day, and Conroe would become a major benefactor of his largesse. Strake served on the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America, and in 1942 he donated 2,175 acres in Montgomery County to the Sam Houston Area Council (SHAC) of the BSA. The camp was dedicated in 1944 and was named, appropriately, Camp Strake. Until its sale in November 2013 by SHAC to Houston-based Johnson Development Corporation for a reported $62.4 million, it was the third largest Boy Scout camp in America. The site is now a master-planned community called Grand Central Park. Meanwhile, the new Camp Strake, now located on 2,800 acres just east of Huntsville, about eight miles south of Lake Livingston, is scheduled to open the summer of 2020.
A devout Catholic, Strake was a founding benefactor of the St. Joseph Hospital Foundation, donating $500,000 to that institution. This “wildcatter,” whose generosity knew no bounds, was also a benefactor to the University of St. Thomas and the Strake Jesuit College Prep School. All three of these institutions are located in Houston, Texas, where Strake made his home.
HISTORIC DOWNTOWN CONROE AND ITS ENVIRONS
Conroe is the county seat of Montgomery County. Its historic downtown area experienced an unprecedented growth spurt in the early to mid-1930s, in the wake of the oil boom. One of the finest examples of that period’s architecture is undoubtedly the Crighton Theatre, built in 1935 and often referred to as “the Crown Jewel of Montgomery County.” Along with the Owen Theatre, the Crighton is home to music concerts and theatrical performances, as well as the Conroe Symphony Orchestra. The lively downtown area also offers an abundance of art galleries, antiques, unique shops, bars, and restaurants. Also noteworthy, architecturally speaking, is the Montgomery County Courthouse, built in 1936, another by-product of Strake’s oil discovery.
Located not far from the downtown area are the Heritage Museum of Montgomery County, the Conroe Art League, and The Lone Star Monument and Historical Flag Park. The latter features an array of the 13 different flags, all mounted on individual flag poles, which have flown over Texas during its history. A bust of Dr. Charles B. Stewart, the designer of the Lone Star flag, the official Texas flag since its creation in 1839, holds a place of prominence here, as does a statue of a typical soldier of the Texas Revolution era. Also of interest to the Texas history buff is the Spirit of Texas Bank, a museum itself, with its Texas Lady Liberty statue outside its front interest.
The population of Conroe in 2018 was estimated at 87, 654. The racial mix is (rounded) 84% White, 8% African-American, 4% other race, 2.5% Asian, 1.5% two or more races, .5% Native American. 86.5% of the residents are U.S. citizens, which is lower than the national average of 93.2%. The city is 52.7 square miles in area. According to the Census Bureau it was the fastest growing large city in the nation between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2018, and is the 41st largest city in Texas, by population. The city is bordered by the 22,000-acre Lake Conroe, the Sam Houston National Forest, and the W. Goodrich Jones State Forest.
LAKE CONROE: THE GAME CHANGER
Conceived as an alternative water supply for Houston in 1970, the Lake Conroe reservoir was completed in January 1973 at a cost of $30 million and filled by October 31st of that same year by flooding the West Fork of the San Jacinto River. It yields 90 million gallons of water per day. The lake is 21 miles long, 75 feet deep at its deepest point, with a mean depth of 20.5 feet and a surface area is almost 33 square miles. The San Jacinto River Authority is the controlling agency and owns a one-third interest in the lake; the City of Houston owns the other two-thirds.
Given its size, proximity to Houston, and incomparable amenities, Lake Conroe is the area’s premier destination for water sports. Boating--whether power, sail, canoe, or kayak--are all to be found here. Water skiing, Jet-skiing, hydro rockets, are also quite popular activities. Nor will the dedicated angler be disappointed by the excellent fishing available in the well-stocked lake. The five most common species caught here are: largemouth bass; bluegill; channel catfish; white bass; and hybrid striped bass.
There are three master planned communities of approximately 1400 acres each—Walden on Lake Conroe, April Sound, and Bentwater. Walden, which opened in 1972 on a tree-lined peninsula, is the oldest of the three and boasts an 18-hole golf course that is ranked by Golf Digest as the best in the Houston area and 5th in the state. April Sound also opened in the early 1970s and has three 9-hole courses. Bentwater Yacht and Country Club, the last of the three to open several years later, offers 54 holes of golf on three different courses. April Sound and Bentwater are gated communities of the first order.
OTHER PLACES AND ACTIVITIES OF INTEREST
Jurassic Quest is a dinosaur park and museum featuring true-to-life-sized dinosaurs. Some even move and walk around, roaring, creating a wonder, especially for imaginative children who have been saturated with similar-themed Hollywood films. It is a fun, interactive event, even for adults, featuring adorable baby dinosaurs.
Adults who savor a good brew will enjoy stopping in at the hospitality rooms of the two local breweries, B-52 and Southern Star. For those with a taste for alcohol made from the grape, the Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville, about 25 miles west of Conroe, will find a wine to accommodate every palate. Then there are the distilleries—at least ten of them!—the oldest being Bartlett’s, famous for its single malt whiskey and rum.
The Conroe area features, at last count, ten golf courses, both public and private. And for those who aren’t satisfied with walking the standard 18 holes of golf or even the Wedgewood Golf Course’s 27 holes, there is always the 129-mile-long Lone Star Hiking Trail in the nearby Sam Houston National Forest, the longest continuous trail in Texas.
Hotels, motels, RV parks, rental condos in a price to fit every pocketbook are to be easily had in this accommodating city that has somehow managed to retain its small-town ambience in spite of master-planned communities, golf courses and yacht clubs
There is no shortage of bars and restaurants, whether you are looking for one of the standard franchises or a local pub or eatery that specializes in cuisine you would think unlikely in a city the size of Conroe. Mexican food, bar-b-que, steaks, seafood, even sushi are all available. And don’t overlook Vernon’s Kuntry Katfish, out on Highway 105, where the hushpuppies are to die for. Among the more famous dancehalls and nightclubs are Johnny B. Dalton’s and Maverick’s Saloon.
Finally, the local icehouses add a unique imbibing experience totally native to Conroe, where the real locals can be found holding down their usual barstool, sucking down their favorite longneck, playing C & W music on the jukebox, maybe shooting a game of eight-ball, or scooting their boots on a sawdust-covered dancefloor. Ah, here’s to the memory of old-time Conroe!
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