LAY DOWN ROOTS: Bess Heard, Helen Plummer, Mamie McKnight and Tina Yturria Buford
"All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted." —St. Teresa of Avila
“Miss Bessie” never let the fashionably long, full skirts of the early 20th century slow down her need to get around. She was not only the first woman to ride a bicycle in public in McKinney, she eschewed the ladies’ horse sidesaddle and hitched up her skirts and boldly straddled her horse on town avenues.
The daughter of a prosperous, active and fairly traditional McKinney family, independent Bess Heard (born in 1886) spent her century-long life enriching her community. After attending college in Virginia and design school in New York City, she worked for a while as one of the few interior decorators of the day at Hallaby’s Galleries (later a part of Neiman Marcus) in Dallas. She returned home to take care of her parents, never marrying but hardly alone.
Back in McKinney, she threw herself with enthusiasm into civic projects like planting hackberry trees along downtown streets, trees that stand today. Bess established a library and scholarships for students and was instrumental in local Red Cross efforts during World War II as a Gray Lady.
But her greatest legacy as a conservationist began in her front yard with a birdhouse contest for townfolks. Bess, warm and welcoming, became a magnet for young and old, who streamed to her home to see her collections of Audubon prints, Chinese art, butterflies, rocks, minerals, seashells and more.
She loved to share her knowledge of art and nature; to preserve her remarkable treasures beyond her lifetime, she started a foundation in 1964 and purchased 200 acres south of town. The Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary opened when Bess was 80.
Today, the Heard is a sanctuary for hundreds of species of flora and fauna, with wetlands, an outdoor learning center, observation deck, floating study laboratory, boardwalk and amphitheater.
Bess died at home at 101, but her name and passion for conservation live on in McKinney today.
Courtesy of Heard Museum
Courtesy of Heard Museum
Courtesy of BEG and AAPG
One of the few female micropaleontologists on the Gulf Coast of Texas during the 1920s and early 1930s, Helen Jeanne Plummer studied and reported on geologic evidence holding secrets that date back to dinosaur extinction.
Born in Michigan in 1891 and raised in Illinois, she received her bachelor’s (1913) and master’s (1925) degrees from Northwestern University. In between, she worked at a Tulsa petroleum company and married a fellow geologist there, Frederick Byron Plummer. His work took them to other states, the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic. She continued her research wherever they lived, but also spent much of her time editing his writing, preparing his drawings and checking his data.
In 1928, the couple moved to Austin where Frederick worked with the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology; she later became a consulting geologist with him. Frederick established the UT Petroleum Engineering Department.
Helen’s work, building on earlier studies by Dorothy Ogden Carsey, involved foraminifera, a single-celled plankton (usually marine) with a chalky shell. When the plankton die, their shells form ocean-floor sediments; they now help reveal ancient shorelines and ocean temperature changes. Her writings are peppered with primordial phrases like “calcareous slime bubbles” and “colloidal ooze.”
Scrappy Helen sometimes offered her consulting services free to wildcatters drilling for oil just to get her hands on their geologic samples to study.
Helen networked frequently with her European counterparts, and her international reputation spread.
After Frederick’s death, Helen became a regular staff member of the UT bureau and died in Austin in 1951.
Courtesy of The Dallas Morning News Staff Photographer
Science and history, preservation and education were guiding passions for “Cemetery Lady” Mamie McKnight. The founder of Black Dallas Remembered, Mamie led the restoration of Freedman’s Cemetery, uncovered during expressway excavation, among her many achievements.
Born in 1929 in Dallas, Mamie pursued her education by garnering a master’s degree in math and chemistry from Prairie View A&M University, but she couldn’t get hired as a research scientist because of her race. She began teaching at her old high school (and later at colleges), and at 25, published a scientific journal article on the prismoidal formula (measuring prism, pyramid and wedge volume). She refused to give up.
Mamie met and married another teacher with deep roots, Elza McKnight Jr.; both their families came to Texas as slaves.Mamie eventually earned a doctorate in education and a license to practice psychology.
Her greatest achievement was sparked by an unlikely source: highway excavation. In the late 1980s, crews widening Central Expressway discovered graves under Lemmon Avenue. A part of Freedman’s Town, just northeast of downtown, the cemetery is the last remains of one of the largest segregated Black communities in the country just after the Civil War.
Mamie intervened to move the graves, which became one of the nation’s largest cemetery excavation projects. By 1994, Mamie had achieved her goal.
“This begins the process of doing what we asked to be done — that is the dignified reburial of all the remains,” she said.
In a television interview not long before she died, Mamie and her daughter, award-winning author Ginger McKnight-Chavers, toured the Freedman’s memorial park.
“This part of Dallas was probably one of the first areas occupied by African Americans,” Mamie said. “It’s such a beautiful tribute to the people who lived here and died here. I think it’s really important for us to learn about the past history because that’s the kind of thing that guides us in the future.”
Mamie also restored the Juanita Craft house. Craft, the first Black woman poll tax collector, was a tireless advocate for equality and civil rights. Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. both visited the 1930s Craftsman-style bungalow; the neighborhood was a target for bombings. Mamie was instrumental in establishing several Dallas historical districts as well.
Her youngest brother, Arthur Abernathy, remarked to the Dallas Morning News: “I think it’s just something that’s in her. She cannot sit still and allow herself to be comfortable and rest, when there’s so much to be done.”
Courtesy of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters via UNT Special Collections Library
Courtesy of TWA
Seven generations? Think of your grandmother’s grandmother, and then her grandmother. That’s how long Tina Yturria Buford’s family has been guiding the H. Yturria Family Ranches in South Texas.
“You’re never going to have anybody take as good care of the land as the people who have that emotional tie to it,” Tina said in a 2010 interview. “It’s the landowner’s responsibility to take care of that land, not only for themselves but for all Texans.”
Of all the founders of large Texas ranches in the 19th century, Tina’s great-great-great-grandfather, Francisco Yturria, was the only one of Mexican ancestry. A successful businessman in both South Texas and Mexico, the patriarch of the Yturria family, along with Texas ranching giants like Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, amassed tremendous land holdings in the Rio Grande Valley.
Since 1860, the ranch (now 165,000 acres) has remained virtually intact in Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Kenedy counties, passed down through generations. In addition to cattle ranching, the family imported game animals, making portions of the ranch popular as hunting preserves.
While a Texas A&M University student, Tina became the first to attend the TCU ranch management program simultaneously, a path she pursued because she wanted to study ranching with her sister, Quita Wittenbach, who’d be running the family ranch with her.
Since then, Tina has worked tirelessly to help lead groups like the Texas Wildlife Association, the state soil and water board, the Governor’s Commission for Women, the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and many more. She’s a director of the Sand County Foundation and education project manager for the East Foundation.
“At the East Foundation, we’re working with our neighbors,” Buford said. “We share a heritage. We share a landscape. Hopefully, together, we’re going to identify the common ground that makes natural resources relevant to everyone.”
Tina’s great-grandmother, Dona Panchita, lived on the ranch until her death at 101. Seems like an achievable goal for a woman as determined and utterly Texan as Tina.
Courtesy of TSSWCB
In honor of the ratification of the 19th amendment 100 years ago, we’ll spotlight 20 Wild Women of Texas Conservation during 2020.
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