A close up of the front door, showing decorative metalwork of oak leaves and acorns. There are also entrances on either side of the building: one for boys and one for girls. The front door, which is fancier, must have been for teachers. There seems to have been a preoccupation, maybe a distinctively southern preoccupation, with who could go in which door. I wonder if, in practice, boys and girls and adults ever flouted the door divisions.
It’s all boarded up and gated, but the gate is less a bar to photography than the fire ants in the overgrown school yard.
Eagle Ford Elementary School was built in 1916, in unincorporated Cement City. The building is a good example of designing with the proudest local product available: cement, in this case. And not always a fine, smooth cement, but something more elemental, globby, and plastery. The school looks like it arose from the chalk bed composed of equal parts sand and pulverized seashells, only to be painted by Pompeians for use as a bawdy house. I really like it. A section just around the topmost arch of the doorway has chalky streaks of yellow and orange in it, the color of a ripe, if matte, tangerine. The door, with its jail house bars, has been embellished with cast-metal panels of oak leaves and acorns. The metalwork is fine, though evidently spray-painted. As decoration, it doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the building, or to have any reason for being there, other than that it is always good to have acorns on the door.
I can’t help wondering whether James Howard Kunstler would approve of Bonnie Parker’s school. My own taste in architecture is undependable. I can’t resist anything colorful. In Home from Nowhere, Kunstler takes a stand against concrete block boxes, strip malls, zoning codes written for cars, and the ugliness and isolation of modern American cities and suburbs in general:
” . . . Compare any richly embellished firehouse or post office built in 1904 with its dreary concrete-box counterpart today. Compare the home of a small-town bank president of the 1890s, with its massive masonry walls and complex roof articulation, with the flimsy home of a 1990s business leader, made of two-by-fours, Sheetrock, and fake fanlight windows. When we were a far less wealthy nation, we built things with the expectation that they would endure. To throw away money (painfully acquired) and effort (painfully expended) on something certain to fall apart in thirty years would have seemed immoral, if not insane, in our great-grandparents’ day.”
Eagle Ford School is a concrete box, but such a fine concrete box. It is one hundred years old, sitting on a plot of land ably contested by a few hundred thousand fire ants. If it isn’t absolutely solid, it looks solid. Somebody left something of themselves in the embellishments of oak leaves and acorns. I can’t remember when I’ve ever seen such flamboyance in a street address. The numbers 1601 are stuck within a dominating oval that bulges in the middle and stretches them with it. The central numbers ‘6’ and ‘0’ are as swollen as if somebody wrote them on the side of a balloon and blew it up, and it happened to bulge vertically in 2D. That treatment of numbers looks Deco to me. I like all the differences in texture. Maybe it was wise to build such massive walls; maybe it was almost cool in that cement fortress. The gigantic crack in the foreground stair-wall is irresistible; but it’s not easy to get your hand out again once you’ve tried to gauge just how thick this cement is. In listing this building as at risk of demolition, The Old Oak Oak Cliff Conservation League noted what an enormous amount of cement was used to build it.
Kunstler, James Howard. Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. 1st Touchstone Ed Edition ed. Touchstone Press, 1998.
La Réunion cemetery is still around, but it is easy to overlook. It is set far back from a main street in what was once unincorporated West Dallas, partly obscured by a chain-link fence. The things that have been built around it seem banal at first, but when you force yourself to consider each thing, they seem to have an ugliness (the lake-thing, for instance) that is even quite mysterious, and worth some thought. Some parts of Dallas are like that; maybe many parts.
The cemetery is a completely gated community of the dead (although there was a lively black Chihuahua mix in the middle of it when I got there, barking, and never stopping), neighbored by big, plain, new white apartment buildings on two sides, and by a weird little lake in front. The lake is hard to figure out, because it isn’t used for sewage: it seems to be meant to be decorative, but there are no ducks in it or trees around it, and it looks about as forlorn as a lake ever looked, a neatly-kept hole in the ground with water in it, unrippled. A pair of lovers was walking by it, and they stopped to kiss by the cemetery. Since, overall, the entire area looked like a slum reclamation project in which everything but the cemetery had been bulldozed and a hole of water added as a flourish, I could only figure that they showed a certain delicate intuition in kissing by the one beautiful thing in sight, other than each other.
Not one stone is left of La Réunion, a co-operative socialist venture formed by French, Swiss, and Belgian immigrants in the mid-1850’s, just west of the new settlement of Dallas. The central, living quarters of the colony’s tract of roughly two thousand acres overlooked the Trinity River facing Dallas, on land that proved difficult to farm. La Réunion is supposed to have enjoyed a beautiful view on “the worst agricultural land in Dallas County” (Hill). For whiteness, boniness, flakiness and infertility, Founder Victor Considerant’s limestone bluffs likely resembled human skulls, if they were anything like other Trinity bluffs. Yet it may not have been the land that defeated the colonists. They created some excellent kitchen gardens. Maybe it was the weather that got them: the unexpected extremes of heat, and the killing cold snaps coming after deceiving mildness. Hunting was more satisfactory: “Prairie chickens were so plentiful they often darkened the sun as they flew by in such great numbers” (Santerre). Grasshoppers flew by, too, but decided to stop. In 1856, La Réunion was visited by a plague of locusts that ate the corn and stripped even the ancient hardwood forest. It is perhaps characteristic of these well-educated settlers that they might be eaten out of their homes and yet find the experience scientifically interesting. In the La Réunion collection of the Dallas Public Library is a paper called “Observation of the migratory grasshopper or western locust” by J. Reverchon for Prof. G. Boll, Naturalist. ”
The colony’s doctor, Dr. Augustin Savardan, was one of the earliest of La Réunion settlers, and one of the earliest to leave. Once back in France he published Un naufrage au Texas; observations et impressions recueillies pendant deux ans et demi au Texas et à travers les États-Unis d’Amérique. The English title, A Wreck in Texas, has a nice little rhyme to it. Judging from what little I can translate, the book is a scathing rebuttal of Texas as a green and fertile land, where, as Victor Prosper Considerant reckoned in Au Texas, “the annual prairie fires are largely responsible for the scarcity of snakes, and the breezes account for the scarcity of insect pests.” Savardan found snakes and insect pests in such style and abundance that he devoted an entire chapter to them. It wasn’t even possible to bivouac without getting chiggers, although at first Savardan didn’t quite know what he was getting. The following, tentative translation of a little bit of Chapter Eight, “Les Serpents et les Insectes” suggests that the insects were a more serious plague than the snakes. In fact, Savardan has some nice, and even quite metaphorical things to say about Texas snakes, although he nevertheless killed as many of them as he could catch:
Snakes and Insects
“In Texas, despite what Mr. Considerant says, there are many snakes, as well as a great variety of them.
In our yard, under our shed, in our workshop, under our floor – the “crotale” or rattlesnake and the copperheads were very common the first year, and even now are not infrequently found there.
In addition to these two venomous and dangerous beasts, one also finds (though more rarely), a snake I have not seen, but which I am told is called the cottonmouth because of the whiteness of the interior of its mouth, which contrasts with the somber color of its skin.
The few examples we have of the bites of these snakes lead us to believe that their venom is not very strong in northern Texas.
Before my arrival in Réunion, a woman was bitten by one of the cottonmouth vipers. Mr. Roger recounts that after thoroughly cleaning the bite, he made the woman drunk with whiskey, and the next day she was cured.
One of our dogs, in the presence of a hunter, was bitten on the lower lip by a rattlesnake. Its head and neck remained very swollen for a few days, but the swelling dissipated gradually, without cauterization of the bite (which we never could find) and with no treatment beyond a few drops of ammonia in water.
During our voyage from Houston to Réunion, in 1855, one of our hunters was bitten on the hand by a large water snake, and the bite, just thoroughly sucked out and carefully washed, did not cause any further malady.
None of these snakes exceeded two meters in length, and the biggest were no longer than the average arm.
None attacked humans without provocation. They all fled at our approach; but this is the marked difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes: the former retreat slowly, majestically, as if they knew the power of their means of defense, while the latter, especially in hot weather, flee with a rapidity that makes chasing them very difficult.
The non-venomous snakes are numerous and varied.
The most common is the “chicken snake,” literally couleuvre à poulets.
This snake was, in Réunion, the familiar guest of our habitations, and above all of our chicken coops, where it distressed the superintendent of our farmyard.
I have killed two, which, climbing up an oak in the pursuit of bird and squirrel nests, entwined in such a way as to form a beautiful braid nearly two meters long and perfectly representative of the caduceus of Mercury.
Finally, we could always find pretty little snakes, generally twisted among tree branches, where, as they were always completely green, a beautiful soft green, they were often confused with the foliage; and it was often noticed, when we put our hands on them, that they startled up no less fearful than feared.
Two others also merit a mention: one marked longitudinally with green, red, and yellow stripes, and another with red, blue, and yellow stripes, side by side in alternating rings along its entire length.
All of these little snakes, so perfectly inoffensive, would have been as contented as our pretty Blue-Collar snakes in France to dwell in intimacy with man; but their fatal resemblance to venomous snakes caused us to kill them all without distinction. Thus it is, in this world, we hunt down honest ideas—truly worthy ones, perhaps—without examining them; but, under the pretext that they resemble villainous ideas concealing poisonous perfidies, we act with the zealotry of that cardinal legate who, at the siege of Béziers, ordained that everyone in the city should be put to death, ensuring that no heretics escaped, and leaving, to the grace of God, the good and the bad to be sorted out Hereafter, and divine justice dealt out accordingly.
As for insects, none of us could understand to what M. Considerant owed the honor of finding them so rarely in Texas.
We first became preoccupied with this during our voyage from Houston to Réunion. Scarcely had we begun to bivouac in the prairie before each of us, without exception, had his legs engulfed by irresistible itching caused by a considerable number of pustules. Some claimed that it was the price to pay for acclimatization, but when people with younger and sharper eyes looked more closely, they recognized that the pustules were caused by an infinitesimally tiny species of tick, similar to the ones called “rougets” (red mullets) in France, which penetrates the epidermis, probably in order to shelter its young family, and produces numerous pustules.
I have never seen this insect; but during the three summers we spent in Texas I and everyone else have provided them with ample pasture, proving that this is not at all an effect of acclimatization, since the Americans are no more exempt than foreigners, and all legs that rub against the prairie grass are rapidly covered and soon after literally flayed by irresistible and persistent itching caused by these insects. This invasion did not take long to extend to the rest of the body and cause the same disorder.
In some of the settlers, the itching brought about a rash of boils that constituted a serious and very painful malady in which the ulcers, which were impossible not to scratch, were very difficult to cure. Every year, almost nobody managed to escape this scourge, and our friend M. Daly was, for three months, gravely ill enough to be forced to stay in bed almost the entire time. It is a sad fact that during this time, to his chagrin, he was not visited by his old friend, M. Victor Considerant, who, only when he was about to leave the colony and comments on this issue had been forwarded to him by M Cantagrel, did our executive officer recollect that he had at least some duty to fulfill in this circumstance and came to apologize for the long forgetfulness of him and his family.”
Dallas: The Making of a Modern City, by Patricia Evridge Hill
White Cliffs of Dallas: The story of La Reunion, The Old French Colony, by George Henry Santerre (1955)
The gravestone of La Réunion settler Emile Remond and his wife, Ceaserine Santerre.
Emile Remond had come to Dallas at sixteen, joining his half-brother at La Réunion the summer the grasshoppers ate everything in 1856. The colony was then only about eighteen months old. And it didn’t have much time left. As it turned out, Remond was one of a handful of settlers who never left the area for long, never went back to Europe after La Réunion folded. He remained in the neighborhood of the failed colony after the Civil War, in which he joined the side of the failed Confederacy, apparently as a flag-bearer.
It’s possible that what kept Remond here was his interest in geology. He was a pioneering student of the possible uses of Dallas minerals for industry and profit. The very soil that La Réunion foundered on featured in Remond’s sales pitches about the commercial value of West Dallas resources. When Remond calculated the value of Dallas clay he was thinking about bricks, mainly, “fireproof” bricks made with naturally occurring aluminum. But he was also a booster for Dallas-made sewer pipe to perfect the growing city–and cement. A skilled brick-maker in an era when bricks were still fired by artisans in small batches, Remond may have underestimated the appeal of cement, which required no artistry, and could be quarried by low-paid workers.
A year before his death in 1906, he was interviewed by a writer (uncredited) for The Dallas Morning News, in an article headlined with the zinger “Dallas County Clay”:
“’The Dallas shale formation,’ [Remond] said, ‘is of a cretaceous lignitic semi-carbonaceous combination, containing oil, but not oil yielding, fine grained argillaceous, surface calcareous. Below this it is free of lime, is a sedimentary silt deposit of impermeable schist, unctuous, soapy, heavily laminated, of great density, fine grained, impalpable and soft when fresh. The surface is fossiliferous and metamorphosed, rich in metal (aluminum), a silvery clay, the sonorousness of which is due to the metal.’”1
It would be strange if French-born Remond actually spoke like this. The unctuousness of sedimentary schist and the “sonorousness” of “silvery clay” complete what has to be the most exact and sensual description of Dallas dirt ever to appear in news writing, even in Dallas. With this unreal-sounding quote, Remond seems cheated out of his own realness. The clay is more alive and human than he is, and is sonorous besides.
Morning News articles around the time of Remond’s death suggest that he had become a personage in a small, local way, and worthy of praise, even of mythologizing, as a poor man of vision, a populist hero who had seen the potential of West Dallas dirt even while “[p]ractical [Dallas] business men refused to believe him and declined to entertain his proposition to furnish positive proof if they would provide financial backing.” Cement would create 2,500 jobs, supporting 7,000 people, The Dallas Morning News reckoned.2
In fact, twenty five years after West Dallas was saved by the cement industries made possible by Remond’s mineral studies, the place was still unincorporated, and distinguished from Dallas proper across the Trinity by mud, and no city services, and bad jobs at the cement plants, and a powerful strain of lawlessness. In this slum, Bonnie met Clyde.
Which wasn’t Emile Remond’s fault. He thought that West Dallas soil was unappreciated. Maybe he hoped to make some money off of its profitable qualities. Whatever his vision of the future was, it couldn’t have been Cement City, and the RSR lead smelter within 50 feet of public housing, and the biggest lead Superfund cleanup site in the United States. That would have been a vision of Hell, for which Emile Remond lacked the pessimism.
1(July 18, 1905) “Dallas County Clay: Discoveries Made by Prof. E. Remond After Investigations of Many Years”, The Dallas Morning News, 15. Retrieved from The Historical Dallas Morning News.
2(October 1, 1907) “Results of Remond’s Faith in West Dallas’ Mineral Wealth: Story of the Long and Persistent Efforts Made by Old French Colony Settler to Arouse Active Interest of Men of Money in the Mineral Wealth of the Country Just to the West of the City—Disappointment in the End, but Campaign Conducted by the Faithful One Results in the Establishment of Manufacturing Plants Affording Support to Thousands of People, The Dallas Morning News, 22. Retrieved from The Historical Dallas Morning News.
Below me, the Trinity River (unless that was a little creek; I’m still not exactly sure) passed through the deep shade of an ancient and unstable looking railroad bridge. The water was misted with chill and reflecting back the last rays of the sun. In this mood, not a powerful one, when the water is just silver sky, and all innocence, it does make the US Army Corps of Engineers look unreasonably pig-headed about strict flood control requirements. It lazed under several weather-beaten bridges, until it finally ended up underneath my bridge, on which VIP’s (I guess), or workers, or party planners, or security guards were walking, looking small: some promenading like people who are going to be entertained, and some, like workers, hurrying on business on the bridge, whose delicate lines against the darkening sky would end up in the camera . . . not quite as sharp and cool as they had been in life.
I don’t know what made me take pictures of the piers. I wonder sometimes if I just love concrete. Plus, the shadows were deeper underneath the bridge than elsewhere, and I wanted dramatic light. Through the piers, I saw the city, bright under the sun. I hadn’t expected this parting shot to show just how the light had been at the end of that day, most beautiful of all.
You couldn’t tell that La Réunion Cemetery was beautiful until you were inside it, looking out. It was chained shut. I climbed over the fence door, where an extra metal bar allowed more footholds and there were no sharp link ends on top. My daughter was small enough to take the dog’s route, pushing herself on her back through a hole under the chain link, and keeping up an anxious patter about fire ants–not unreasonably—and about whether the Chihuahua was rabid. It had left the cemetery and was barking at her from a safe distance: that dog, approaching and retreating in a dance without dignity, and my daughter scooting backwards into the cemetery, also without dignity, deeply interested two boys who were hanging over the back of their fence. They watched for a long time, very quietly. Perhaps they hoped the dog would bite her. It would be something interesting.
When Ingrid got in she went leaping around in the grass, which was enticingly green and tufty. She apologized once for leaping on a grave, but it was probably under a tuft of grass. The cemetery looked made for such spring lambs. It would never be so pretty at any other time of year. There were big clumps of white flags, always the first irises to bloom and the ones that fade the quickest. No matter if the soil gets as hard as bones by July, and if acres burn down, and the drought proves prayer proof, the white irises come back every spring in old cemeteries all over Texas. It was mid-March now, and the flowers, always sort of wet and fragile at their best, were in every stage from birth to death, from new blooming, to mushy and curling back, to dried brown and gone.
There was a single wine cup wildflower, claret-colored and exquisite. And when the sun started down over the apartments, leaving a pale, streaky sunset sky, the mesquite and the oak tree became dark against it, with their limbs struck up bouncing by the breeze that suddenly came up. You could picture, if you tried, a vast landscape as perfectly made as the little time capsule of undeveloped Nineteenth Century in which you stood.