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The Big Thicket

Maxine Johnston

Silent | 1960s

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  •  Field trip with naturalist Lance Rosier and Professor Russell Long 
  •  Heritage Garden in Woodville. Now known as the Heritage Village Museum, the complex was assembled by Beaumont artist Clyde Gray. It now serves as one of Tyler County’s main tourist attractions.  
  •  Cemetery for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas 
  •  On the reservation in Polk County 
  •  Moscow and Camden sawmills 
  •  Climbing trees 
  •  Whaley Cove farm 
  •  Steinhagen Reservoir on the Neches River 
  •  Preparations for the Big Thicket Bar-B-Que at West Hardin High School in Saratoga  
  •  Mayor of Liberty Dempsie Henley at the Bar-B-Que. The event, hosted by the Big Thicket Association on January 9, 1965, was designed to raise support for the forest’s preservation. More than 1,200 people attended. 
  •  Performances by members of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, including hoop and war dances 
  •  Heritage Garden complex 
  •  United States Senator Ralph Yarborough attends a birthday party for Ellen Walker, also known as “Ma Thicket,” at West Hardin High School. Yarborough was the most powerful proponent of the Big Thicket National Preserve.  
  •  Yarborough chats with his constituents 
  •  Politician Don Yarborough (right), no relation to Ralph 
  •  United States Department of the Interior survey group at the Saratoga Museum in 1966 
  •  Field trip for Port Arthur science teachers 
  •  Ivory-billed woodpecker holes 
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  • About the video
  • Big Thicket Big Thicket
  • Alabama-Coushatta Tribe Alabama-Coushatta Tribe
  • Ralph Yarborough Ralph Yarborough
  • Don Yarborough Don Yarborough
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This compilation of home movies captures scenes in and around the Big Thicket region in Southeast Texas between 1964 to 1967. In addition to the variety of flora and fauna, the footage also documents places such as the Heritage Village Museum and the Alabama-Couchatta Indian Reservation. Of particular note are two events relating to the Big Thicket’s conservation. (The Big Thicket did not receive National Preserve designation until 1974.) In the first, the Big Thicket Association hosts the first annual Big Thicket Bar-B-Q at West Hardin High School in Saratoga. Performances by the Alabama and Koasati peoples are featured. The second event is a community birthday party for Ellen Walker, also known as “Ma Thicket.” Attendees include United States Senator Ralph Yarborough (a major proponent for the Big Thicket National Preserve), politician and lawyer Don Yarborough, and Mayor of Liberty Dempsie Liberty, who also served as president of the Big Thicket Association.
Described as one of the most biodiverse areas in the world outside of the tropics, the Big Thicket is a heavily forested area occupying much of Hardin, Liberty, Tyler, San Jacinto, and Polk Counties in Southeast Texas. The region fosters a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife, including at least eight different kinds of plant communities and around 350 species of birds.
Until the 1880s, the economic history of the thicket primarily consisted of subsistence farms, with inhabitants running hogs and cattle and hunting small game. In the 1880s, however, the lumber industry began opening up more land for farming and grazing. And in 1901, the Sour Lake oil field ushered in a period of frantic activity. 
By the 1920s, concern began to rise regarding the natural devastation of the lumber and oil industries. In 1927, R.E. Jackson formed the East Texas Big Thicket Association to initiate formal efforts at saving the area. While the organization gained support during the 1930s, the need for timber during World War II caused the movement to fall into neglect. Conservation efforts resurfaced during the early 1960s with the establishment of the Big Thicket Association. Led by Lance Rosier and Dempsie Henley, the organization pushed to give Big Thicket national-park status. In 1974, Congress passed such a bill, written by Charles Wilson and Bob Eckhardt, establishing an 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve. In 1981, the area was also designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
The Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas is a federally recognized Native American tribe of Alabama and Koasati peoples located in Polk County. The tribe’s ancestors migrated from what is now Alabama to the Big Thicket region of East Texas in the late eighteenth century due to growing pressures from European-American settlement. Notwithstanding the friendly relations established between the Alabamas and Koasatis with their new neighbors, the tribes once again felt the pressure of increased settlement after the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845. 
In 1853, Alabama Chief Antone, tribal subchiefs, and citizens of Polk County petitioned the Texas legislature for land to establish a reservation. The state approved, purchasing 1,110.7 acres of land to create the Alabama Indian reservation the following year. In 1855, the legislature appropriated funds to purchase an additional 640 acres for the Koasatis, but allegedly found no suitable open land available in Polk County. With the permission of the Alabama people, the Koasatis settled on the Alabama reservation in 1859. Following an additional land grant in 1928, the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation now spans 4,593.7 acres. 
United States Senator Ralph Webster Yarborough, known as "Smilin' Ralph," represented Texas from 1957 through 1971. Yarborough was born in Chandler, Texas, in 1903 as the seventh of nine children. He studied at the Sam Houston State Teachers College as a young man before attending the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated from the law school in 1927.
In 1931, Yarborough began a short but notable career as an assistant attorney general.  As an expert in Texas land law assigned to represent the interests of the Permanent School Fund, Yarborough won a number of cases against major oil companies such as Magnolia Petroleum and Mid-Kansas, through which he was able to guarantee that public schools and universities receive revenues from Texas oil. This litigation has since brought billions of dollars to public education.
In 1938, Yarborough decided to run for attorney general but lost; it would take another 12 years for him to run for any kind of office again. In the interim, he served in the Texas National Guard and the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1952, running against conservative incumbent R. Allan Shivers for the governorship, Yarborough lost his second race. He continued this losing streak against Shivers in the 1954 primary and then again against Senator Marion Price Daniel Sr. in 1956. In 1957, however, he was able to win Daniel's vacated seat in the Senate next to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the Senate, Yarborough pursued a progressive agenda, first refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto against desegregation and then being one of only five Southern senators to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1957. For the environment, he pushed through a bill to elevate Padre Island to the status of National Seashore.  For education, he introduced the first Bilingual Education Act in 1967, which was signed into law a year later.  He worked to expand healthcare funding and to extend the G.I. Bill to Cold War veterans. In 1969, Yarborough chaired the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.
Aside from his legislation, Yarborough is also remembered for riding in the 1963 Dallas motorcade during which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The story goes that, being at odds with several of the other politicians on the President's tour, Yarborough originally refused to share a car with Johnson, who was friends with his rivals. This so outraged Kennedy that on the morning of the motorcade he took Yarborough aside and threatened to end their friendship if Yarborough did not cooperate. The Senator conceded and ended up just two cars behind the President when he was fatally shot that afternoon. When interviewed about that day, Yarborough described it as "the most tragic event of my life."
In 1970, Yarborough lost his seat in an upset election against Lloyd Bentsen. While he ran once more for office, he did not win again.
In 1996, Yarborough died at the age of 92. He is buried in Austin at the Texas State Cemetery.
Don Yarborough was a lawyer and liberal politician known for his interest in civil rights and for his multiple unsuccessful runs for governor of Texas. 
Yarborough was born in New Orleans on December 19, 1925, and had a humble upbringing in Louisiana and Mississippi at the height of the Great Depression. When he was 12, his parents, Don and Inez, moved the family to Houston. Following the end of World War II, Yarborough served in China with the U.S. Marines and was impacted by the vast suffering he witnessed there, which may have influenced his interest in social justice that later drove his career . He graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1950 and briefly returned to the Marines as a judge advocate before starting his own law firm in Houston.
Yarborough’s interest in civic matters led him to politics, and he soon gained exposure for being possibly the first southern politician to publicly support the Civil Rights Movement. His first attempt at holding office was a run for lieutenant governor of Texas in 1960, which he lost. Yarborough ran for governor in 1962 against Republican John Connally Jr. The race received nationwide attention for Yarborough’s narrow loss, by only 28,000 votes, in an election that signified the changing political tide in Texas from Democratic to Republican dominance. Yarborough made an attempt to unseat Connally in the 1964 election, but Connally had gained a significant amount of sympathy after surviving a gunshot wound when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Yarborough made a final gubernatorial effort in 1968, but lost yet again. 
After this defeat, Yarborough returned to practicing law before becoming a Washington lobbyist. He turned his focus to funding medical research, especially for paraplegia, and he was also interested in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons with the Council for a Livable World.