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NAVASOTA STORIES
THE HISTORY OF NAVASOTA - From Brazos Bottom Refuge to Butterfly - Written by Russell Cushman - The greatest mystery of all about Navasota is the origin of its poetic sounding name. It is probably a Native American phrase. In the Yoeme dialect, a southwestern culture that once traveled and traded all over Texas, the words “nava” and “sota” easily translate into prickly pear and pot. To a Native American, a storage pot of prickly pears was the symbol of prosperity. The prickly pear was a major source of food for most of the nomadic coastal tribes who especially sought and enjoyed the prickly pear fruit known as tunas. Navasota is a good location to establish the easternmost native range of this anciently important natural resource. Opportunity Knocks “Judge” James Nolan was the “Father of Navasota” and could have been the inspiration for many legends of the Old West, similar to Judge Roy Bean. Nolan’s little outpost on the LaBahia Trail was called Nolanville. It sat at the crossroads of a Native American hunting trail called the Coushatti Trace and the LaBahia Trail blazed by the Spanish, and the fork of Brazos and Navasota Rivers – which now rested in the path of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad. While the statesmen and captains of industry at Washington argued about the future of Texas and the pros and cons of rails, the frontiersmen across the river made schemes of their own. Suddenly Washington was out of the picture, and in another date with destiny, Nolan was sitting on the geographical hot spot of Texas. “Old Washington” as they called it, turned out to be just a caterpillar curling up in its own self-imposed cocoon while Nolan’s river bottom refuge became its butterfly. An opportunistic innkeeper, Nolan hosted the only place within a day’s ride to find refuge in a vast wilderness where buffalo and panthers and a few Native American Indians still roamed. Judge Nolan was the self-appointed sheriff, judge and criminal justice system of his own chiefdom. An early historian of Navasota wrote that Judge Nolan had his “double log house” on the eastern edge of town where there was a blacksmith shop and a very small store. His cotton fields surrounded the town extending to the lots now occupied by the various churches on Church and Holland Streets. An old Indian trail renamed the “Houston Road” intersected the LaBahia Trail around where Church Street dead ends into Washington Avenue. Here was the original crossroads of town – somewhere near the Navasota Medical Center – where Judge Nolan had a blacksmith patching wagon wheels and a bear on a chain to entertain customers while they waited. He took bets on wrestling matches between the bear and his customers. He had a few groceries for sale and trafficked in whatever might be traded in those times: hides, cotton, beef, tobacco, horses, slaves and especially whiskey. You could find lodging in one of his outbuildings if you were not too picky. The Judge owned a crude tavern, which was basically a flop house where all walks of life found a small uncomfortable place to sleep. Nolan’s ruffians built the town of their own dreams and that meant stores, hotels, saloons and few brothels in between. Slowly the area became famous for prime river bottom farmland and wide-open opportunity. A tourist resort, one of the first in Texas, was established east of Navasota at Piedmont called Piedmont Springs where Sam Houston and his associates would meet, dine, dance and soak themselves in the healing natural saunas of its sulfurous springs. There was the Camp Inn and Freeman Inn, and Henry Fanthorp had built a two-story stagecoach inn in Anderson, which still entertains visitors today at Fanthorp Inn State Park. The H&TC rails were completed in Navasota in 1859, and as the first flat cars full of celebrating passengers arrived, Judge Nolan set off the “firing of an anvil” that was supposed to send an anvil hundreds of feet into the air. Instead the thing misfired and the box exploded like a makeshift bomb. Luckily, there were no casualties. All Roads Led to Navasota The first framed residence on the main street was built by J.T. McNair who served meals for 25 cents but it inevitably became a saloon. Almost everyone else lived in tents or makeshift shelters. Soon the P.A. Smith Hotel was constructed out of native sandstone on Railroad Street. Not to be outdone, Judge Nolan built a bigger tavern out of hand-hewn timbers at the tracks. Investors built huge warehouses all along the tracks in anticipation of the big business that was to come. Right before the war, Railroad Street had become the heartbeat of Navasota with a hotel, grocer, jeweler, restaurant and various professional offices. Judge Nolan’s strip ran along Washington Avenue with a tavern, barber shop, “ten pin alley,” post office, restaurant and other necessities. The stagecoach came from Huntsville and Anderson every day as all roads led to this major crossroads of Texas. Soon many train cars loaded with supplies and general merchandise began to arrive in Navasota, and for a short time Navasota provided everything to most of central Texas. Ox-drawn wagons came from all directions carrying fresh hides, bales of cotton, grain, wool, meat and lumber to be processed and crated and shipped to Galveston. Dr. Kilpatrick, an early doctor and historian, noted that with such plentitude came the greedy and predators… “In those days, where there assembled such crowds of men, many of whom were rough, passionate and full of wickedness, there were many scenes of crime and lawlessness.” Of course, there was a large stable of doctors to patch them up and even more lawyers to keep them out of jail. Ravages of war  Then came the Civil War and all of the progress in town-building halted. Still, telegraph lines were erected in 1862, probably as a military necessity. During the Civil War, D. Smith produced barrels for the war effort and organized the local ladies in sewing uniforms for the soldiers. While a Confederate camp guarded the railhead 10 miles north of Navasota at Millican, cotton bales from the Brazos Valley littered the streets awaiting shipment. Arms were produced in Anderson and sent to Galveston. And as Navasota became a relay and storage facility for the Confederacy, a great deal of military supplies were stored in local warehouses. So it was the presence of the railroad that spelled imminent disaster for the town in its infancy. At the end of the war, hundreds of wandering and homeless Confederate veterans congregated at Navasota, the proverbial “end of the line.” General Custer was brought in with troops and stationed in Hempstead to keep the peace. When the scavenging soldiers discovered the Navasota warehouses packed with war provisions, clothing, weapons and gunpowder, and they had just lost the war due to the lack of these things, they began to look upon those warehouses with suspicion and contempt. There has never been a good explanation for how it happened, but somehow Parker Smith’s warehouse, which was loaded to the gills with gunpowder, was set on fire and exploded in 1865. Cotton, grapeshot and bundles of bayonets went in every direction and half of the downtown business district was burned to the ground. While other towns in Texas had escaped the ravages of the war, Navasota felt it full force and found herself starting almost from scratch. Navasota Endures  The town chose to rebuild and officially incorporated in 1866. Yet there were more terrible fires – significant town fires in 1868, two in 1869 and then again a serious holocaust in 1873. Each time the town licked its wounds and built on top of the ruins. There was an occasional loss of life but nothing compared to the yellow fever epidemic in 1867. Still rebuilding after the disastrous fire in 1865, Navasota was struck with a deadly outbreak of yellow fever, providing its worst setback ever. It began with the shock of 15 deaths in August of that year. Two-thirds of the approximate population of 3,000 evacuated, including the public leaders and the mayor. Of those that remained, 20 percent died. All that remained were the sick and dying and those caring for them. In September, 119 perished. Strangely, the African American residents seemed to be immune. In October, another 39 fell to the disease. By November it was finally over but such a mysterious and deadly plague had sent the healthy population in all directions. The death toll was easily over 200 and still Navasota endured. The people returned. And new people filled in where others had fled.

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