Where the Heart Is
Toledo Bend residents reflect on four decades of lake life.
By Kathryn Hunter
“Home” isn’t always where you were born and raised, but often it is. As a child, perhaps a person is more susceptible to the combination of raw materials that make up the idea of a place. Memories of orange-red clay that turned to soup after a heavy rain, the sound of pines knocking together, coffee milk in a delicate tea cup, a grandfather’s tattered baseball cap, the feel of the air on the first true day of autumn — such impressions brew a potent sense of belonging, making East Texas where the heart is for some folks, even if the body and the mind choose to reside elsewhere.
After 48 years, my grandmother returned to the same woods and hills where she spent her childhood. In Toledo Bend Village, an out-of-the-way lakeside community of retirees, snowbirds and weekenders near the Texas-Louisiana border, my grandmother and her friend Rhona are known as “the nurses.”
The nearest hospital or doctor’s office is 40 miles away, so if someone’s grandson gets a fishhook in his thumb or an accident happens on the county road, Grandma and Rhona are liable to get a knock on their door. Though long retired from nursing and no stranger to health problems themselves, they always answer.
Grandma’s backyard rolls right into Toledo Bend Reservoir. On the porch, she looks out past the rose bushes and fig trees and bird feeders to the muddy-watered inlet under which may be, she says, the very spot she visited every summer as a girl.
Long before the dam project broke ground in the early 1960s, her family would come together to camp at the mouth of what was called Indian Creek, a clear stream that trickled out of the pines to meet with the mighty Sabine River. Grandma rattles off a list of names, people who are and always will be strangers to me except in these stories.
“When we started to come down here, this was a long way,” she says. Family members lived far apart, and most didn’t have a means of transportation. “My Uncle Bob was the only one in the family who always managed to have a truck. He would make trips and get everybody and bring them down here, with their bedrolls and everything.
“We slept out on the ground. I remember so many times I would lay there and listen to see what was gonna come get me,” she says, laughing. “There were nights we did hear what sounded like wild cats or something, a terrible noise. And the hoot owls went all night long.”
She tells me how they would put a big chunk of ice covered in a towsack into one hole in the ground to keep their food cool, and how in another Bob would build a fire to grill a goat or hog on a grate over hot coals.
“I’ll never forget how much fun we had, the fish we caught, the fish we ate.” Grandma looks wistful when she says: “We’re sitting right here, close to where I camped, but I don’t remember where the creek came into the river. I haven’t found anybody yet who could show me exactly where it might be, because nothing looks the same anymore.”
Grandma was not against the building of the dam; she likes the reservoir and the community that sprang up around this small part of it. She introduces me to her friends Bill and Carol McCarty, Belle Martin, Benton and Charlotte Brockette, and A.G. “Runt” and Nell Loftin, all retirees who came from other parts of the state to live on the lake. Most had a “fish camp” here when they were younger, and those fish camps over the years grew piece by piece and became their permanent homes.
Bill McCarty was a NASA engineer. He and Carol began constructing their house themselves in 1972, one of the first in the fledgling Toledo Bend Village development. “I saw the people out doing all this work on these houses, and I said, well if I can put a man on the moon, I can certainly build a darn house,” Bill says.
Carol says their children, in their 50s now, are as attached to the property as she and Bill are, remembering areas of the house they helped to build and recalling time spent shampooing hair at the end of the boat ramp before the plumbing was installed. “It was a time we worked together as a family for a common goal,” she says.
Belle Martin tells me about her husband, who died of cancer in 2003, and their life together, how he taught her how to fish. “Everybody heard me for the first fish I caught,” she says in a voice that’s deeply, lyrically Louisianan. “All around the lake.” For many years, she says, the 27 families who lived in her section took turns holding fish fries and barbecues every weekend.
With a population around 1,500, Toledo Bend Village is small, and to see it from the highway, there’s not much there. No fast food restaurants, no businesses beyond the single gas station, the oil and lube shop and a handful of mom-and-pop bait stores and diners. It’s not a town in its own right — the mailing address here lists Burkeville, though it’s roughly 19 miles away. Full-time residents take ice chests to Jasper to do their grocery shopping and usually go to Beaumont or Lufkin for regular medical care.
Yet the people who live here seem to stay busy. Benton Brockette devotes himself to politics and the local water board; his wife, Charlotte, collects and catalogs rocks and petrified wood. Nell Loftin paints, and her husband, “Runt,” fishes every day the weather’s good, though he’s now 84 years old. Everyone I speak to proudly mentions the community club, which is a catch-all for the locals, hosting potlucks, card games, fundraisers, craft clubs, exercise groups and parties. The church and volunteer fire department are also hubs of activity.
I like the kindness of these people and their tall tales of alligators and catfish as “big as a number-three washtub,” but what I enjoy most is their enthusiasm for life — rare even in much younger people. If there is a secret to longevity and good health, perhaps it is this brand of good humor combined with (I’ll say it even if I do get myself in trouble) a substantial dose of bullheadedness.
“We don’t plan on leaving until we go in a pine box,” Nell Loftin says lightly, adding that Toledo Bend Village also has its own community cemetery. There is a beautiful nostalgia present here, a small-town feel reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, of lemonade stands and bake sales and friends who know one another so well they can finish the other’s sentences. No doubt there is a fair amount of squabbling, too, but as a person just passing through, it’s easy to romanticize a place like this.
Of course, none of it would be here, including many similar developments on other parts of Toledo Bend, without the dam that flooded roughly 180,000 acres of forested land and a handful of small towns. Completed in 1969, Toledo Bend Reservoir is the largest human-created lake in the South and the fifth largest in the nation, producing an estimated 205 million kilowatt-hours of power annually. It’s popular as a retirement and vacation spot, and draws fishermen from far and wide.
On both its Texas and Louisiana shores where the land is not publicly owned, docks and boathouses jut out into the water in every cove, adding to the crowded feeling that the dead, but still standing, trees give the lake, as if the water had come in overnight and surprised them all.
The reservoir covers more than 100 archaeological sites. Much of East Texas was inhabited by the Caddoan Indians before Europeans arrived. A peaceful agricultural society, the Caddos traded with Spanish arrivals as early as the 17th century, and later with the French and Americans. The Spanish, establishing several missions in the area, named the Sabine River (Rio Sabinas) for its cypress trees. Some theorize that “Toledo Bend,” the name for the wide arc in this river, was inspired by a similar bend in the Rio Tagus of Toledo, Spain.
The Toledo Bend area was sparsely populated and largely ignored in those early days. That is, until distant powers renewed their periodic quarreling over territorial boundaries. A given settler, more often than not, liked his French- or Spanish-speaking neighbor just fine, trading with him, sometimes going to the same church or marrying the man’s daughter or son into his own family. After all, there were very few resources or other people nearby. Still, one had to play along with political rivalries.
After the U.S. purchased the Louisiana territory in 1803 from the French, the political ridiculousness reached a tipping point. Spain and the U.S. threatened to go to war over the western boundary of the tract — Spain said the line should be the Arroyo Hondo, the U.S. said the Brazos River. Their agreement, in the end, was that a long strip of land between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo should be a “neutral zone” — which, since ungoverned by any law and off-limits to soldiers from either army, quickly became infamous as a haven for outlaws and revolutionaries, and thus a problem in its own right.
It’s peaceable enough now, this place. All that’s left of the Caddos and the Spanish are a few old mounds and missions and the relics of their language in today’s common tongue. For instance, Nacogdoches (pronounced nack-uh-dough-ches) and Natchitoches (nack-ah-tish) were Caddoan tribe names; Tejas was probably the Spanish interpretation of Tayshas, the Caddoan word for friend. Gone, too, are the steamboats that chugged their slow course up the Sabine all the way from Orange to Burkeville.
History is sometimes faint, leaving a great deal to the imagination. In the course of my research I read a story about a man named Ira Holbrook — the book gave him only a brief mention, a single paragraph. He lived in a house near where the dam was being built, the book said, and despite a court order, he refused to leave it. Authorities would persuade him to go, and he would leave, only to return soon after. The last time, after again persuading Holbrook to vacate the premises, workers used a tree-crusher to destroy his home.
It’s foolish, perhaps even dangerous, to think of “home” as a constant, to imagine that a place you love will not change. But what would Holbrook, or those long-ago Indians or padres or steamboat captains, think if they were to return now? Maybe they would look out at the lake like my grandmother does, marveling at its utility and its beauty, while at the same time missing terribly what had once been in its place.