THE TRI COUNTY FIRES OF 2011
Ten years ago
Carolyn looked towards the sky out of her back door and paused. The typical warm summer weather felt different today. The trees bent with the slight wind but the moment felt still. No birds, no barking dogs.
The leaves on the trees were slowly waving at her as they still grasped themselves to the branches and twigs. In southeast Texas, fall comes late. The dropping of leaves usually doesn’t truly occur until around mid-December. At least that’s when the effort of raking might happen because it’s the holidays and company is coming over.
A small rabbit scampered across the far end of her yard moving against the wind. There seemed to be a storm brewing in the horizon. Then she heard it. The sound was like bacon frying slowly on the stove. The crisp snapping bursts were followed by a hollow sucking reverberation that distributed an unnatural glow that morning. Her home sat on half an acre with 5 beautiful towering oak trees. The fenced property was cleared of undergrowth and bushes but past her fence line, in a thick forest of trees, the rest of her family’s land, going back 3 generations, was where the sounds were coming from. Her eyes stared straight ahead attempting to focus. Not truly sure of what she was seeing, she walked towards the back of the yard. She stopped and felt the heaviness of the moment pull her feet deeper into the grass as she caught her breath. The reality of the looming danger was coming closer.
The contaminated air choked her lungs. The crackling sounds became more intense and another vacuum burst lit up the trees like a dry match. She felt the fever of the inferno on her face before she turned to run.
As Carolyn reached the house, she grabbed her phone and purse. Calling out for her labrador, Cooper, they both jumped into the truck cab together. Thankfully the kids were still at school. The keys were already in the ignition of her truck. She had started to dial 911 when she heard the sirens in the distance. Putting the truck into drive, she spun the tires as she turned around in the middle of the yard and drove for the county road ahead. The fire trucks were closing in racing towards her property. She pulled over to give them room, but they sped up while passing her house.
Stunned she put the truck into park, opened the door and stood up in the cab of the truck holding onto the door and turned around. Once again, her world shifted into slow motion. The dull roar of passing fire trucks and emergency vehicles faded into the background. What she saw filling the sky behind her house and beyond left her numb. The sky was beginning to rain ashes while billows of black clouds would block out the sun. She had never felt so helpless. Cooper whimpered and nuzzled her legs. Her head was swimming. Her body felt weightless. Cooper nuzzled her again and this time she took a breath. At that moment, a pine cone, appeared like a flaming grenade. It flew overhead and caught the grass on fire across the road. Regaining her senses she climbed back into the truck and drove into town.
That day her house was spared.
Four days later the fires came back. This time, it consumed her house, completely.
In 2011, a terrible firestorm dominated the Magnolia area. The Tri County Fires consumed the vicinity mostly north of FM 1488 between FM 1486 crossing FM 1774 heading southwest towards Waller County. The fires that involved three counties occurred during a drought. The burning traveled southwest until the firefighting crews thought they had it under control but the blaze had a life of its’ own. The fires popped back up and it traveled backwards into the already devastated land snatching and consuming homes and property that had miraculously been spared previously.
The community banded together along with hundreds of volunteers. Churches, shelters, families and neighbors opened their doors and homes to the stranded, weary individuals. A bus was used to bring the compassionate volunteers to the Magnolia Command Post in shifts. The emergency crews who slept on the ground or in the trucks after working 24 to 36 hours straight, received blankets and pillows that were made available through donations from thankful citizens. Firefighting support came from Austin, Dallas, California, North Carolina and even Alaska. A specialized team of US Forest Service firefighters known as the Hotshots arrived from out of state. The combined efforts of assistance in fighting the fires positively impacted the decisive conclusion.
Many rushed to salvage what they could from their homes before the flames claimed their property. The roads were filled with emergency vehicles while heavy duty construction machine operators struggled to stop the fires by creating “breaks” that would protect the houses and buildings that stood ready to feed the inferno. Trucks with trailers that transported the livestock and household possessions followed cars filled to the brim with hastily captured belongings. Grim faces held the thousand yard stares of desperate hope. When it was all over the stench of charred timber and sense of despair hung in the air.
Miraculously, not a single loss of human life was recorded during the wildfire. The fight for survival by the individuals who had to start over was met with the irrepressible resiliency of deep rooted individuals who didn’t give up and were sustained by the aid of the benevolent community that calls Magnolia/Montgomery County home. Like so many others, Carolyn rebuilt her home on her land. The unexpected disaster was outdone by the sheer tenacity of the community and the volunteers.
The initial emergency phone call about the Tri County wildfire was made ten years ago at around 2:30p.m. on September 5, 2011. After that first alert, this area endured 14 days of heartbreak and the community responded with the best it had to give.
OLD CONROE RD – Added turn lane onto FM 1488
BUTLER’S CROSSING and 2 CEMETERIES
WITH THE SAME NAME
While driving on FM 1488 near FM 149, you may have noticed the sign Butler’s Crossing. A quick story about this important recognition goes back to the mid 1800’s when William Butler, Sr. moved to Texas at the end of the Civil War. He settled in this small black community where he met and married a local lady named, Isabel Brooks, whose mother was a slave. The slave owner, Lem Clepper, died and his wife, Mrs. Clepper, gave 100 acres of land to Isabel’s mother. William bought 25 acres of land from his mother in law for “2 bits” (*approximately .25 cents) an acre. The land is where Butler’s Crossing came to be known. The wagon trains from Montgomery to Houston passed right by the Butler’s place. He had a well-known water well with cool water. Wagon trains would stop there and get a drink for themselves, their horses and to fill their canteens.
William’s son, “Sonny Boy” hustled to care for the travelers and help out hosing down the horses and mules. Sonny Boy later established the gas station and country store to continue to serve the community and travelers. He grew up in modest surroundings and was steadfast to care for his father’s land. Sonny Boy was the seventh of eleven children and he was one of the oldest living residents of Butler’s Crossing until he passed away in 1989.
The remaining Butler family is proud of the accomplishments that were made by their ancestors. The family believes that their relatives who established the area would be honored to know that they are recognized by the community and, as the family had done for so many years, they have continued to give back to where they came from.
Sonny Boy was laid to rest in Cartwright Cemetery, found in the Hunter’s Retreat subdivision off of FM 1774. It is also known as the Mount Zion Cemetery. Many members of the Butler family are buried in this location including his father William.
Another Cartwright Cemetery is located off of Rabon Chapel Rd. The Cartwright name is one of many notable families that contributed to the growth and stability of this county.
During the Battle of San Jacinto, there were three survivors from Montgomery County that fought in that battle for Texas Independence. Two of the survivors are buried in the Cartwright Cemetery located off of Rabon Chapel Rd. The historical marker on site identifies this location as the Elizabeth Shaw Cartwright Cemetery. This burial ground serves as the final resting place for some of the earliest settlers and founders of Texas, along with veterans of the Texas Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm.
The Bonnie and Clyde Bridge
Local legend has it, that the old iron truss bridge west of Conroe was the meeting place for members of the Barrow gang. Clyde’s cousin, Ellis “Dude” Barrow remembers meeting Clyde under the bridge on two occasions. Clyde had family in the area and never wanted to disrespect his relatives or their reputation by robbing any of the local businesses in town. There is a story, that some members of the gang did rob a pharmacy in town to collect first aid supplies. Other stories of the Barrow gang that center around Conroe include Clyde hitching a ride and when he got out of the vehicle he asked if the driver knew who he was. The driver said, “No and I don’t want to know.”
The bridge still stands today indicating the original position was to provide access over the West Fork of the San Jacinto River next to FM 2854 near McDade Park. Several pieces of the structure have disappeared most likely due to time and weather related events. Area flooding has seen the water level rise above the platform level of the bridge. Discussions have taken place to consider having the bridge relocated although having the bridge in the actual location provides a sense of authenticity. If the bridge were to be moved, it could become separated and then wherever it is placed its’ relevance will lose the realism from its’ true locale.
In the 1930’s, gangsters were romanticized as “Robin Hoods”, steal from the rich and give to the poor. Unemployment, failed businesses, the Dust Bowl which devastated the agricultural farmland, all contributed to the hopeless anguish of society. Because of the failed leadership from the government to foresee and prepare for the compounding effects of the era, there was a tremendous lack of trust and faith in the system.
Bonnie and Clyde were a unique pair of gangsters because of their relationship with each other. During this time period an unmarried couple participating in criminal activity was shocking and scandalous. Their illicit behavior was at first excitable but later when the public realized that they would just as easily shoot civilians as they would anyone in law enforcement created a shift of opinion to the extent that the pursuit of their capture was welcomed.
At the age of 17, Clyde was arrested for the first time for failing to return a rental car on schedule. His second arrest was for being in possession of stolen turkeys. He did have some legitimate jobs but he continued to crack safes, rob stores and steal cars. He was 20 years old when he met Bonnie. She was 19. They had just begun their relationship when Clyde was arrested and convicted for auto theft. At the age of 21 Clyde was sent to the Eastham Prison Farm, north of Huntsville, and during his time there he was tormented to the point that his personality was changed. Approximately, 18 months later he was paroled and the crime sprees escalated.
The end was coming for Bonnie and Clyde. Their criminal activities had gained much attention and their deliberate attacks frequently focused on Clyde’s possible goal of achieving revenge on the Texas Department of Corrections for the abuses he suffered while serving his time. After the multiple killings that included both innocent civilians and members of the law enforcement community, the general public became agitated and wanted the Barrow Gang to reach its’ conclusion.
During their last visit to Conroe, Bonnie and Clyde showed up at the Hazel and Alley Auto Parts and Repair Shop in a Ford V-8. Dale Madeley, was the only mechanic in town who could do the repairs needed on the engine. The cost of the repairs was only $1. Clyde paid for the repairs and tipped him $20.
Two weeks later, Bonnie and Clyde died in that same car. The pair were hunted down by former Texas Rangers who shadowed the travels of the gang as they skimmed the edges of five mid-western states. The members of the posse who assisted in stopping Bonnie and Clyde in the end, also included law enforcement personnel from Texas and Louisiana.
Insurance policies were paid in full for both Barrow and Parker. Since then, the policy of payouts has changed to exclude payouts in cases of deaths caused by any criminal activity.
Montgomery County’s Historic Magnolia Tree
This historic magnolia tree lives in Montgomery County. It’s located on the outside edge of Precinct 2. The tree is estimated to be close to 200 years old. Local folklore has it the Native American Indians hid silver and gold nearby on the land which was known as the McDade property – although none has ever been found.
James McDade was a successful Conroe businessman who homesteaded this land around the San Jacinto River and FM 2854 in the early 1900’s. After his death, his sisters became the landowners. One sister became a nun and the other, Mrs. Lillie McDade O’Grady, was a well-known philanthropist, who sold the land to a friend, Steve Kasmiersky, Sr. He intended to build a home close to the tree. Mrs. O’Grady agreed to sell the property on the condition she could build a home next door. This majestic magnolia tree was a focal point of the land.
McDade Estates grew out of this humble beginning. The current homeowners association is very protective of the tree. Scheduled care and maintenance occurs periodically to preserve this landmark. At one time the highway department wanted to enlarge FM 2854. The residents wouldn’t give permission because it would mean cutting the tree down.
This amazing tree has survived many hurricanes and close calls relating to traffic accidents. Some say it’s a sacred tree both blessed and charmed. A few years ago, the Texas Forest Service in Conroe rated this magnolia tree as the second largest in Montgomery County.
The beauty of this tree is further enhanced during the impressive display of annual blooms with the scent of magnolia flowers filling the air.
Swift Water Rescue recognition
We are fortunate to have on our staff several volunteer firefighters. One of whom was recognized for his part in a recent swift water rescue.
On May 1st at 11:30 pm near Brushy Creek, a 911 call went out for a family of 7 who were in trouble. While they were driving on an unfamiliar road, the recent downpour had created a risky situation on a curved section of the dark road. Water had risen from the creek, rushing over the traffic lanes. While attempting to navigate their vehicle in this area, the water carried the van off of the street into the wooded roadside. The father exited the vehicle and went for help as the water level inside the vehicle rose with the rest of the family inside. Their rescue was facilitated by members from two different fire stations, #181 off of Buddy Riley Rd and #183 off of Nichols Sawmill Rd. Everyone in the van was rescued successfully.
One of these rescuers was Dwayne Schleider. Who also works for Commissioner Riley’s Precinct 2 office. We are proud of him and his ability to defy the elements and risk his wellbeing to help others.
The motivation to achieve a positive outcome is the greatest internal force that an individual recognizes in themselves. Sometimes we succeed in meeting that goal. Being able to mark the moment is an opportunity to remember triumph over adversity.
Kids from the Calf Scramble event, this past weekend, at the Montgomery County Fair were encouraged to do their best and strive for excellence from Commissioner Charlie Riley. The parents, family and other members of the Fair and Montgomery County community were there to show their support. The FFA program is an outstanding organization that develops future leaders.
This is one of many commercial vehicles that have gotten the attention of Commissioner Riley’s Commercial Vehicle Enforcement division. Violations from commercial trucks have contributed to road damage and public safety concerns. The basic responsibility of the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement division is weighing and checking commercial vehicle traffic operating over the Precinct 2 county roads so that compliance with the statutory provisions of law regulating weight, motor carrier safety, registration, transportation of persons, hazardous material and other property can be obtained.
Recently, a Precinct 2 road crew member discovered someone’s personal property discarded in the woods near a job site. “The book in the tree is what caught my eye.” stated the crew member. Turns out the book was a bible. Here is the rest of the story from the bible’s owner.
“I do not do face book or social media but I do want to send the Commissioner of Precinct 2 and all of the other employees a message recognizing my appreciation for Xxxx’s dedication, work ethic and commitment. Going the extra mile and paying attention to his surroundings. My truck was broken into Sunday night and my laptop, bill fold and bible were taken. Xxxx, while working next to the woods around my house on Wednesday noticed some stuff in the trees. He took time out to go research what it was and found my bible stuck up in a tree and my laptop bag and other paperwork scattered on the ground. He gathered it all up found my information and gave me a call, took time out of his evening to meet me after work and get me my stuff. This in my opinion is way above his job responsibilities and shows his commitment as a servant leader.
Please let the Commissioner know about this, I am OK with it being posted on a social media site.
Thanks again to Xxxx for his dedication to the residents of Montgomery County.
“I truly appreciate both of these gentlemen. One for taking the time to acknowledge the good that exists in this world and the other that did the right thing and made a decision to put the needs of others first.” – Commissioner Charlie Riley