The Big Thicket Bear Hunters Club of Kountze
“They Dream Of Killing the Bears”
By W. T. Block
The old bear hunters of Hardin County had two things in common - they hunted bears until their youth gave way to old age, and they became windy raconteurs, talking each other to death about the big bear that got away. In fact around 1925, a half dozen or so old bear hunters met each Saturday morning under the big beech tree beside the Nona-Fletcher sawmill office in Kountze. They played “42” dominoes and swapped bear-hunting yarns for three hours before dozing off to sleep and snoring in their hide bottom chairs.
Old John Kilrain, known locally as “Old Kil,” often passed by the mill office, exercising his dogs, while the bear hunters were playing dominoes. Kilrain, an old Negro, had been born a slave in 1864 before emancipation, and had led many of the bear hunts after 1890, his dogs always sticking to a bear’s trail until the latter was cornered. Kil always had a little ditty, which he sang as he passed the dozing bear hunters, as follows:
“The old dogs
sleep in the sunshine,
Strangely almost nothing was written about bear-hunting in Southeast Texas prior to the Civil War although an occasional tale about black panthers was published. About 1830 James Barnes, the pioneer patriarch of that family in Northwest Tyler County, killed 14 panthers in one day, winning for him his lifetime appellation of “Panther Barnes” among his friends. However, bear-hunting stories were principally non-existent prior to the 1870s.
In 1878 an article noted that some Southeast Texans made almost a profession of slaying ‘Old Bruin’ if he came within rifle range. Yet it was well-known that those earliest bear hunters ate every bear that they killed, killing for sport being wholly unknown to them. Galveston Weekly News reported in 1878 that: “Mr. A. Stephenson, the old bear hunter of Southeast Texas, killed 33 bears last season, and so far this season, has killed 49 bears...”2
A story about the Sour Lake Hotel in 1878 reported that the surrounding forests were filled with bears, panthers, deer, and bobcats. A Galveston Daily News reporter noted that while he was there, two hunters and their dog were trailing a bear near the hotel, when suddenly old bruin turned on them, killed one man and the dog before the reporter added:3
“...The other man came up and rushed after Old Bruin with his knife. Bruin rose upon his hind legs, gave him a hug, and then crushed his skull in his mouth like an egg shell... when a man named Steele arrived and shot the bear dead...”
“The two men killed by the bear were named Scott - father and son. The senior, old John Scott was a chief of the Alabama Indians living in that country...”
Another story was labeled “The Hunter’s Elysium,” and first appeared in the Liberty Vindicator in 1889. Judge Hightower and his friends were hunting bears in the Big Thicket when suddenly they heard a yelp from Old Statler, the judge’s favorite hunting dog. The bear found an opening in the jungle, where he chose to stand and fight off the dogs.
Old Bruin, fighting fiercely with every claw and fang he could muster, soon killed Old Statler and was seen attacking another dog when Hightower, his hunting knife drawn, jumped up on the bear’s back. The judge stabbed the bear twice in the animal’s heart before Old Bruin sank slowly to the ground. Hightower had saved the rest of his dogs, while his companions stood by too terror-stricken to move.4
One day in 1936 when I was age 16, I sat on the passenger side of a pickup truck, while my brother was inside the Nona-Fletcher sawmill office in Kountze, talking to Pink Wiggins (Mrs. Wiggins was my 3rd grade school teacher in Port Neches in 1928). In front of me an old man sat on a bench, whittling a pine stick while two hounds sat there beside him. Occasionally he patted one dog on the head while the other one licked his hand. The old man was dressed in patched bib overalls and knee-high boots, wearing also an old slouch hat and a tied bandana handkerchief.
“Who is that man?” I asked my brother when he returned to the pickup. “His dogs sure seem to love him.”
“That’s Uncle Ben Hooks. He is the richest man in Kountze and perhaps in all the county. He owns this sawmill, a few thousand acres of timber, the Ariola oil field, and a few oil wells over at Saratoga.”
“Goodness!” I pondered. “He don’t look rich to me. I wore better clothes than that when I used to pick butter beans out in the field.”
“There ain’t no put-on or pretense with Ben Hooks - what you see is what you get.” my brother surmised. “He can buy and sell everyone else in this county, but he lets them wear the ties, tux, and top hats. Some people call him “Mr. Big Thicket,” because he has killed lots of bears, and he used to own 14 bear hounds until Mrs. Hooks made him git rid of them.”5
I told my brother I wanted to learn all I could about Ben Hooks for by then he intrigued me a lot. He replied, “Go talk to old Tom, who used to hunt bears with Uncle Ben. Tom is that man sitting across the road there in that hide-bottomed chair.”
I hurried across Highway 69 to where Tom was sitting and asked him about Ben Hooks. In between extruding a couple squirts of tobacco juice, Tom began in a disturbingly slow drawl as he said:
“Shore, I hunted bears with Ben Hooks lots of times. Also with Bud Hooks, Mr. Ben Lilley, Judge Hightower, Bud Brackin, Warren Brown and Doc Tucker. Ben Hooks learned bear-hunting before 1900 from Ben Vernon Lilley, who in them days was the government trapper in Hardin County. Lilley was the all-time bear champion here, killing 118 bears in 1906.”
“Ben once told me,” Tom continued, after stopping to bite off another chew, “that when he was a kid, the Indians still came to Sour Lake to skim off the oil splotches on the lake, which they used to soften their rawhide or put on their sores.”
“I once heard Ben say that all the timber and oil in the world would not help a man who had never read a book. Ben always wished he had had more schooling, but when he came here from Georgia, there wasn’t much schooling to be had anywhere in the thicket.”
Hooks was a small boy when his father loaded his family into a covered wagon in 1849, and he did not stop until the wagon reached Village Creek. After he reached adulthood and was logging timber, Ben paid delinquent taxes owed on virgin timber lands, until by 1915 he owned a thousand acres, worth $40 an acre. He kept buying until by 1935 he owned 13,000,000 board feet of timber still standing in the forest.6
One day in Jan. 1907, Kountze and the East Texas Railway station were all aglow with expectancy, that is, expectant that the presidential train of Mr. Theodore Roosevelt would arrive any moment, so Teddy could go on a Big Thicket bear hunt. Many months earlier a bear hunt invitation had been extended to him by Judge Hightower, and “everybody who was anybody” in Hardin County was at the train station that morning, ready to welcome and shake hands with the president. Only 2 days earlier, Hightower had received a telegram that the president was near the end of his Mississippi bear hunt, and the next day the presidential train would leave for Kountze.7
In those days, everybody loved Teddy, the man the first woolly toy bear was named after, and everyone wanted to see him step off the train. Judges J. M. Combs and Hightower were there, as was District Attorney Bob Sullivan. All the bear hunters were there too, Lilley, Ben and Bud Hooks, Uncle Bud Brackin, Warren Brown, Dr. Hardy Tucker - all of them dressed in a sheepskin coat, lace-up leather boots, and armed with a Springfield or Winchester rifle.
“Old Kil” (Kilrain) was there too, struggling to keep his barking bear hounds under control. He planned to take the president out on the “Four-Notch Trail,” where a few bear trails could usually be found quickly. Inside the station, Mrs. Hooks and a few other ladies had spread a table with crocks of boiling coffee and dozens of doughnuts, for Teddy’s train was due to arrive by 9 A. M. But alas, Teddy’s train did not arrive; a telegram did arrive, stating that the Kountze trip had been cancelled since the president was needed back in Washington to attend to an urgent Panama Canal finance situation.8
One day in Jan. 1927, Dean Tevis, the Beaumont Enterprise reporter, arrived in Kountze with intent to interview W. L. “Uncle Bud” Brackin at his Honey Island home. Brackin was believed to be the champion Big Thicket bear hunter, who was still alive. Tevis then took the dirt road to Honey Island, where he found “Uncle Bud” and his daughter, sitting on the long gallery of the old “dogtrot” house. Bud Brackin, while still a boy, had arrived with his father from Alabama in 1859, and they had lived in the same old house for the past 56 years.
One Saturday of every month, “Uncle Bud” and his daughter hopped the Santa Fe local from Honey Island to Kountze to do their shopping. While the daughter bought the needed staples - sugar, flour, dried beans, etc. - that kept the Brackin household intact, Uncle Bud visited the bear hunters’ club, seated under the beech tree beside the sawmill office. Brackin enjoyed listening to the bear-hunting yarns, as told by those who “were windier than he was,” one of them being “Old Kil,” who owned the bear hounds. Brackin loved to hear the old Negro laughing and speaking in his unique black dialect, as much as the bear tales that Kilrain told.
“Humbug!” Uncle Bud told Tevis when the latter said he wanted to publish Brackin’s bear-hunting adventures. “They'll say Bud Brackin is gittin mighty windy in his old age, when actually I know some men in Kountze who are a lot windier than I am.”9
Brackin told Tevis that his father had stopped at Honey Island because of the abundance of honey and bee trees that gave the locality its name; and Brackin’s father loved wild honey even more than John the Baptist. Brackin also believed that the meat of the Big Thicket bears bore a special flavor because of the plentiful wild fruit and honey. In springtime there were plenty of wild muscadines, mayhaws, black and dewberries, and gall berries for the bears to eat. The nut mast on the ground was plentiful too, and many bears would climb the oak trees to forage for acorns before the mast began falling.
“I killed my first bear on Bad Luck Creek in 1875 when I was 25 years old,” Brackin related to Tevis, “and from then until 1912, when I killed my last bear, I had killed and skinned 305 bears. But I never killed a bear for mere sport though; we ate every bear I ever killed.”10
“And that’s the honest-to-goodness truth,” acknowledged Bud’s daughter, who was rocking on the porch beside him. “Mom and Dad raised all nine of us on bear meat. And if Mama ran out of bear lard, and had to substitute hog lard, her biscuits just did not taste right. So she would make Papa drop his plow handles and go kill her a bear.”
When old age and arthritis began creeping up on Bud Brackin in 1912, he gave his hounds and old ‘73 Winchester to his son Corbett Brackin. Since the bears were getting scarce by 1912, Corbett retrained the hounds to hunt and trail deer and bobcats.
Bud Brackin did not mind claiming his role as sage and grand champion of the unorganized - perhaps disorganized would be better - club of Big Thicket Bear Hunters, but he did not cotton to the role of “grand raconteur of Honey Island,” or the biggest liar in Hardin County. As stated, he said there were others in the county who were a lot windier than he was, and could fill those shoes with ease.11
On another occasion, Tevis interviewed another old bear hunter, Warren Brown, who had lived in Brown Settlement on the Four-Notch Trail since his family left Mississippi in a covered wagon in 1874. By 1924 Brown had grown old and quite ill, forcing his son, Hardy Brown, to do most of the talking. Young Brown said that his father’s best bear kill for one season had been 63; only about half of Ben Lilley’s record of 118 bears, and his lifetime total amounted to 255 bears killed and skinned.12
Warren Brown’s dogs, “Clint” and “Guard,” were said to be of “Cotton-stock,” meaning they were of a blood line sired by a dog owned and trained by W. D. Cotton, who lived on the Four-Notch Trail back in the 1840s. The two dogs always tried to keep a bear from climbing a tree, but on one occasion they failed. As the bear started up a pine tree, Clinton grabbed the bear’s tail with vise-grip turtle hold, and Guard clamped his jaws around a hind paw. The bear climbed 20 feet up the pine tree with the dogs still hanging on. When the bear started back down, Brown feared the bear might fall and his 400 pounds of weight might kill the dogs. When Old Bruin was about 4 feet from the bottom, Brown shot the bear in the head, and luckily both dogs escaped unharmed.
As a bear tale raconteur, Warren Brown always had a litany of yarns on the tip of his tongue until he got sick. His favorite story was about “Old Cuff,” the biggest, meanest old 500-pound black bear to be found anywhere in the thicket. The Browns, like all the Big Thicket families, depended on a supply of smoked pork to last them for six months of the year, and the mother of most of the Brown’s piglets was an old pet sow named Sal. The acorn mast fed hundreds of wild feral hogs in the creek bottoms, and Brown did not mind when Cuff killed a wild hog, but Sal was strictly off-limits.
One bright moonlit night, Mrs. Brown heard a ruckus out in the barnyard. As she went out the back door, she could see Old Cuff dragging Sal through the clearing toward the creek. She rushed back inside and hollered: “Warren, come a-runnin and bring yore gun. Old Cuff’s killed Sal and he’s draggin her toard the crick.”
Brown pumped a 44-calibar shell into the chamber of his ‘73 Winchester as he ran toward the clearing. He got within 25 yards of Cuff before the big bear growled and stood up on his hind feet, leaving a big black shadow in the bright moonlight. Brown then took aim at the center of the black shadow, assisted only by the moonlight, and after he pulled the trigger, Old Cuff sank to the ground, the bullet having lodged in his heart. But sadly, it was too late to save Sal, for the sow was already dead.13
In 1924, Hardy Brown made an all-day hunt in the Big Thicket without finding a single bear track. In the winter of 1922, John Hill, an old bear hunter of Batson, and Dan Griffin of Pine Ridge killed the last bear that Hardy Brown had knowledge of, a big 400 pound bruin. Brown said that after 1915, the wealthy sports hunters of Houston and Beaumont, with their big packs of dogs and high-powered rifles, had wiped out the few remaining bears left in the thicket.
I remember a visit that my mother, father, and I made to Harmony Settlement, southwest of Woodville, in 1925, when we spent the night with relatives in an old “dogtrot” house. Sometime after midnight, I was suddenly awakened by the yelps of nearby hounds, and soon after, I heard the sounds of paws of a heavy bear striking the flooring in the dogtrot. Shortly afterward the barking hounds shuffled through the dogtrot as they pursued the bear. I don’t think I ever went back to sleep that night.
The passing of the black bears from the Big Thicket marked the passage of an era, leaving the surviving bear hunters with nothing to do except doze in the shade of the beech tree and dream about killing the bears that were about extinct. And now the Big Thicket bear hunters are as extinct as the Big Thicket bears they once hunted. Luckily the black bears are far from extinct elsewhere in the United States and perhaps some day a few of them will be released once more to restock the area. At present it is sad there are none left to browse on the mayhaws in the baygalls or gather the acorn mast left in the creek bottoms.