“Oil City”

Charlie McLemore, Jake’s father, talks about growing up in his hometown of Oil City, Louisiana. During the first decades of the 20th century oil was discovered in Texas and Louisiana and until the Depression forced the speculation to pause, fortunes were made and lost. Oil City and the McLemore family were a small part of that history.

Oil City
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Oil City is my home
Ain’ pretty but I belong
Grey and gritty, right or wrong
Oil City is my home

Aught-five oil came from the ground
Oil City was a wildcat town
Wooden sidewalks and hitching posts
Boom towns ain’ got no ghosts

Aught-six grandpa McLemore
Had a little money but wanted more
Oil City was where grandpa came
Gamblin’ on the big oil game

Oil City is my home …

Few years pass and the fever died
Were other towns, other strikes
1917 it almost burned down
The whores all left town

Dad went to work at J.M Guffey
We stayed in Oil City
Grandpa went broke in the Depression
Kept chasin’ oil, died in Odessa

Oil City is my home …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore (1921-2001)

Jake McLemore’s father was Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore.

Charlie grew up during the depression, traveling with his father, Lee Allen, on trains, with other hobos, with the putative goal of finding work. When the crash hit the oil industry, it took longer than for most other industries, but eventually the bottom fell out of the oil business in 1932. The wells were capped and the rigs hauled away, leaving the men who had depended upon the work stranded in small oil patch towns with no other opportunities for work. Many of them joined the large numbers of itinerant men riding the rails. Some looked for work but many had given up and made do as best they could.

But when we think of hobos riding in boxcars we don’t usually think of children doing the same thing. But when families had no money, little food and nothing on the horizon, they simply sent their children away to fend for themselves, as best they could.

“At the height of the Depression, as many as a million teenagers traveled the rails looking for work and community, moving in vagabond packs and living in hobo jungles, finding both charity and brutality in the broken-back cities of America. They crowded the cars and hid down in the tenders where the coal and water were stored; they squeezed between cars and clung atop their bucking roofs. In 1932, about 75 percent of the nearly six hundred thousand transients on the Southern Pacific line through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were under the age of twenty-five.”

“Fathers, and sometimes sons, stayed in the network of “jungles” along the route, tucked amid the timber and hidden from view. Each camp had its own division of labor—one person went into town to find a potato for soup while another brought salt or an extra spoon. Pots and pans hung from tree branches; crude shelters were made from cardboard or tin scrap and sometimes built up in the trees. Pocketknives were like gold in the jungles. Blades were “hired out” in exchange for soap or a bowl of stew. In a pinch, a knife could be traded for a pair of shoes or sold for cash. Men cooked possums and jackrabbits caught in snares along the brush lines and traded their hides for food.” (Mealer, Bryan. The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. 2018.)

This was the kind of life Charlie McLemore lived during his childhood.

Charlie and his father worked picking cotton in California for a few weeks and also fruit when they could. They managed to work just enough to feed themselves, as well as, put a little aside. Eventually they got back to Oil City just as things were starting to come back.

By the time World War II started, and a need for oil exploded, Charlie was in his late teens. His father got work immediately at a refinery and from then on, the Lee McLemore family did okay.

Charlie went into the oil business as well, but oil was not the only resource product that supported the Oil City economy. Natural gas was even more abundant and Charlie got a job at United Gas Corporation, headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved his family there in 1960 a year after Jake was born.

Charlie worked at United Gas and survived the hostile takeover by Pennzoil in 1968, and became part of the management of Pennzoil United, Inc. He did pretty well, well enough to send his son Jake to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Retiring at the age of 70 in 1991, Charlie lived long enough to see Jake get married and have children.  Charles Taylor McLemore died in 2001 at the age of 80 from a heart attack a few months before 9/11, and several years before his grandson Lee’s death in 2004 in Iraq.

Despite surviving the Great Depression by riding the rails with his father, he was among the generation that experienced the economic boom after WWII.  Charlie McLemore saw nothing in his lifetime that undermined his faith in the American Dream.  A dream he lived out to the fullest.

“A Rusted Plow”

Jed Phelps describes life after his Pa died:  His sister Nellie marries a Texas rancher who brings them all to his ranch and puts sixteen year old Jed to work.  However, after a few years Jed doesn’t take to ranchin’.  He’d heard heroic stories about the Texas Rangers and joins up.  When that isn’t all he dreamed it’d be, he decides to go back to their farm in Tennessee only to find something less than he expected.

A Rusted Plow
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

After Pa died Nellie married Bob Dorsey
Brought us to Texas to the biggest ranch I seen
Had me punchin’ cows and breakin’ horses
I joined the Rangers when I turned nineteen

I’d heard about the Indian Wars
But by then the Kiowa were off the plains
We were so good they don’t need us no more
‘Cept to chase off a few fence cuttin’ gangs

Things won’t be how you remember
The truth ain’ what you want to hear
Leave the past behind you, it’s better
Than seein’ what’s waitin’ there

1888 I went to Tennessee
Wondered how the ol’ homestead looked now
Rode for a week and what greeted me
Was a crow sittin’ on a rusted plow

I found the block where I split wood
The barn was all but fallin’ down
Squattin’ on my heels, chewin’ a cheroot
Thinkin’ how Pa had been so proud

Things won’t be how you remember …

Went around back, found th’ graves
Cleaned them up as the sun sank down
A part of me wished I had stayed
But back then I couldn’t wait to get out

Spose I got what I came for
It’s sure all that’s here to be found
I’ll ride away to return no more
Not for any crow sittin’ on a rusted plow

I’ll ride away to return no more
Not for any crow sittin’ on a rusted plow

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Jethro “Jed” Phelps (1856-1888?)

Jed Phelps was the younger brother of Nellie Phelps, the grandmother of Earl Bowden’s maternal grandmother.  Earl Bowden was Louanne Bowden’s father, which makes Jed Phelps her great-great-great-granduncle.

By the time Jed was six he’d lost his older brother Burch and his mother.  Ten years later his father died leaving his sister and him alone on the family farm in Tennessee (see song “I Didn’t Know What Else to Do“).  Nellie married Robert Dorsey the son of a wealthy Texas rancher when she was 17, in 1873.  Dorsey brought Nellie and Jed with him back to his family’s Texas ranch, which was rather large.  Dorsey land stretched between what would become the future cities of Monahans and Abilene.

Abilene was established by cattlemen such as Charles Dorsey, Bob’s father, as a stock shipping point on the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1881. Monahans grew up around a deep water well dug a few years later when the railroad surveyors discovered that the lack of water for the laying crew and their animals would slow down construction of the rail.  Monahans’ digging of a water well produced an abundance of good water and the town would thrive.

Jed was a disgruntled young man, at sixteen he didn’t much like being bossed around by Bob Dorsey.  Having an active imagination Jed dreamed of joining the Texas Rangers whose fame of heroic deeds fighting the Indians and Mexicans he’d heard all about in the bunkhouse.  And so, that’s what he did as soon as he turned nineteen.

But by then the Indians had been run off and the Mexicans no longer posed much of a threat.  Mainly the Rangers were a mercenary band supporting the ranchers whose barbed wire fences were an obstacle for the old cattle drovers accustomed to driving their herds north unobstructed.

There had been a fence war raging between the cattlemen taking large herds across Texas to places like Kansas City and the ranchers who tried to preserve the integrity of their ranches.  This conflict eventually petered out when the railroad was completed since it made no sense to drive the herds north when they could much easier be loaded onto a train.

Disenchanted with this life, in 1888 Jed decided to return to Tennessee and the family  farm to see what was there.  More disappointment awaited him, and so he rode off again, never to be heard from again (see song “A Rusted Plow“).

Levi Motts (1845-1864)

Levi Motts (1845-1864).  Young confederate soldier in love with Ruby Robison.  He fights and dies in Battle of Mansfield, April 8, 1964.

Ancestors:  Randall Motts (1752- 1821); Lucas Motts (1797-1875); Luther Motts (1820-1871).

Randall Motts was an Englishman who came to the Colonies in 1782, entering first at Pennsylvania and then making his way across the mountains into Alabama.  He amassed twelve sections of land planted for cotton and became quite wealthy.  His son Lucas, always one for adventure and not a timid young man, headed west and settled in North Louisiana.  There he found a land ideal for growing cotton and created his own large plantation.  Lucas was Levi’s grandfather.

Lucas’s son, Luther Motts, Levi’s father, took over the day-today operations of his father’s cotton farm and managed it extremely well.  Levi grew up in a house of plenty, and took it completely for granted.  Happy to live off his father’s largess and not one to get his hands dirty, much less calloused, Levi spent his time playing cards, drinking and visiting the growing number of brothels in the new town of Shreveport.

Levi was not like like his father who balanced his somewhat reckless ambition with disciplined hard work.  Levi saw the South’s secession and march towards war as an adventure that he would not miss. Levi as was true for most of the young men of his generation, never thought of war as anything but a short term, almost harmless, righteous fight filled with excitement.  Having grown up reading the novels of Walter Scott, Levi imagined himself as one of those Scottish heroes embarking upon the opportunity of a lifetime to prove his mettle as a man standing up against oppression.  So it came as no surprise to his father and grandfather that as soon as the canons fired upon Fort Sumter, Levi volunteered in 1862 to fight in the Rebel cause.

Mustering out of Monroe, Louisiana Levi and his cousin Coleman Broussard  joined up with in Colonel Henry Gray’s brigade, the Louisiana Gray’s.  It did not take them long to find their way to the burgeoning red light district of Shreveport. There Levi met and took up with one of the young sporting girls there, Ruby Robison.  Cole was also smitten and Ruby seeing Levi for what he was, a rake and leaky vessel for her to place her future, encouraged Cole in his romantic dreams.  They were a inseparable trio, the two kinsmen and the beautiful and fragile young whore hedging her bets, so to speak.

Despite Coleman’s obvious romantic aspirations, Ruby couldn’t deny her stronger feelings for Levi.  Defying the conventions of the time she and Levi made plans for marriage as soon as the war was over.  However, the Louisiana Grays were called up to confront the Union troops already marching towards Louisiana after conquering Vicksburg.  Gray’s brigade is one of the units in Gen. Robert Taylor’s army tasked with stopping the Trans-Mississippi Campaign of Nathaniel Bank’s invading force at Mansfield.

While the Battle of Mansfield was a Confederate victory, Levi Motts was one of only about a hundred Southern men who died there on April 8, 1864.  When he went into battle, Levi knew that Ruby was pregnant with their child. This child, a girl Ruby named Pearl, is born in late December of 1864. Because of her illegitimate status Pearl chose to use the name Robison for most of her life (see songs “Levi Motts is My Name” and “Fannin Street“).

Coleman returned to Shreveport and Ruby alone.  She and Cole both loved Levi, and bonded over their shared loss and their prior closeness matured into kind of a love of their own.  Coleman would raise Levi’s daughter and he and Ruby would have more kids of their own.  But Cole never forgot he was her second choice and would never excite her heart the way Levi had.

Lucas Motts lived to bury both his son and grandson and watching as the Mott family fortunes are destroyed by the war and Reconstruction.

“Levi Motts Is My Name”

Levi Motts is My Name
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Levi Motts is my name
Come from Northwest Louisiana
I joined up with Colonel Gray
He said be ready to march today
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
If this war will ever end

Ruby Robison is my gal
Keeps a room down in the bottoms
We talked of gettin’ out of there
Make a new life anywhere
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
If this war will ever end

Ruby wrote me a letter
We were waitin’ outside Mansfield
Wrote there’s a baby on the way
We fought the Yankees April Eighth
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
If this war will ever end

Levi Motts is my name
Come from Northwest Louisiana
Lead ball went through my neck
That afternoon I bled to death
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
If this war will ever end

Continue reading “Levi Motts Is My Name”

The Battle of Mansfield

The Red River campaign of Union General Nathaniel Banks grinds to a halt when Confederate General Richard Taylor routs Banks’ army at Mansfield, Louisiana.

Gray and Taylor

The Red River campaign, which had begun a month earlier, was an attempt by the Union to invade Confederate Texas from Shreveport, Louisiana. Banks, accompanied by a flotilla on the Red River, would move northwest across the state and rendezvous at Shreveport with a force under General Frederick Steele moving from Little Rock, Arkansas.

The slow-moving Banks approached Mansfield and opted to take a shorter road to Shreveport than one that ran along the Red River. Not only was the road narrow, it was far away from the gun support offered by the Union flotilla on the river. Banks’ troops ran into Taylor’s force and a skirmish erupted. At 4 p.m., Taylor ordered an all-out assault on the Yankees. The Rebels eventually broke the Union lines, sending the Federals in a disorganized retreat. The Yankees fell back three miles before reinforcements stopped the Confederate advance.

Banks suffered 113 men killed, 581 wounded, and 1,541 missing, while Taylor had about 1,500 total casualties. But Banks was now in retreat, and the Red River campaign was failing. Taylor attacked again the next day, but this time Banks’ men held the Confederates at bay. Banks was unnerved, though, and he began to retreat back down the Red River without penetrating into Texas.

Ruby Robison (1845-1933)

Ruby Robison (1845-1933).  Young prostitute on Fannin Street; has daughter, Pearl, with Confederate soldier Levi Motts.  After learning that Levi is killed at the Battle of Mansfield in April, 1864, Ruby marries his cousin Coleman Broussard and has four other children.

Ruby came to Shreveport during the Civil War, perhaps with Union troops up the Red River from New Orleans following the occupation of that city. Born in Ireland in 1845, her family may have been among the large numbers of Irish immigrants who sought refuge in America during the potato famines of the mid-nineteenth century.  She most likely resorted to prostitution as a means of survival.

Ruby had a room in one of the dozens of brothels in downtown Shreveport area around Fannin Street, but her life took an unexpected turn when she met Levi Motts.  Ruby and Levi began to have serious feelings for each other and Levi swore that he would find a way to get her out of the life she’d known as a prostitute.  But the war got in the way, sending Levi off to fight and die in the Battle of Mansfield (see songs, “Fannin Street” and “Levi Motts is My Name“).

Ruby had let Levi know of her pregnancy and she gave birth to a daughter in 1865, whom she named Pearl.  Levi’s cousin, Coleman Broussard chose to marry Ruby and they had four children together.  Their first son, Lucas was the great-grandfather of Mike “Sarge” Broussard.

Ruby lived to the ripe old age of 88, living to see not only her daughter grow up, get married and have children of her own, but well into the lives of her great-grandchildren.

“Fannin Street”

Fannin Street
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

On Fannin Street, Fannin Street
There’s a room upstairs for the men she meets
She’s not theirs and never was,
Just what she does
On Fannin Street

There was one boy, fine and sweet
Not like the rest of Fannin Street
He was all she ever loved
In the room above
Fannin Street

On Fannin Street, Fannin Street …

The boy he said he’d take her away
From the life she led one day
He left for Mansfield to the restless beat
Of Marching feet
In columns of grey

On Fannin Street, Fannin Street …

In her room alone Ruby Robison
Heard that the Rebels had won
She went to Mansfield but there she cried
For the baby inside
And the boy who was gone

On Fannin Street, Fannin Street …

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Fannin Street, Shreveport

Fannin Street in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana, was the center of activity in the tenderloin district known as St. Paul’s Bottoms.

A Shreveport city ordinance of December 1871 addressed the issue of prostitution in an attempt to keep it away from the public sphere. In “An Ordinance Relating to and to Regulate Lewd Women,” the council stated clearly that it “shall not be lawful for any woman or girl who is known to be a lewd person to stand upon the sidewalk in front of the premises occupied by her.” The ordinance also stated that “no woman or girl who is notoriously known to be a lewd person shall be found to be strolling in any street, sidewalk, market house or alley, or drinking in any coffey [sic] house or saloon after 8: 00 p.m. at night.”

Before the creation of a segregated red-light district, prostitution thrived on the riverfront of Shreveport in an area known as “the Batture” (or riverbank) located near the docks. Large brothels operated in the riverfront area from the earliest days of the city’s growth in the 1830s. By the time the Shreveport City Council established a legal district for prostitution in an area of the city known as St. Paul’s Bottoms, named for nearby St. Paul’s Methodist Church, the world’s second oldest profession had prospered for decades.

Fannin red-light Shreveport,_1920

This was a low-lying area bordered by selectively chosen streets, as well as the Texas & Pacific Railway tracks.  The location did not represent the city’s best real estate, and the low-lying “bottoms” were far enough removed from the river to lack the benefit of breezes in the summer. Furthermore, the land was muddy and collected water, providing a prime breeding spot for mosquitoes. However, in response to the city ordinance, prostitutes, madams and pimps all began the process of relocating their businesses.

At its peak, Shreveport’s red-light district had over one hundred registered brothels.  The region primarily attracted white clientele for white prostitutes, although there were areas in the district that featured black or “mulatto” girls, including the Octoroon Club on Fannin Street that advertised such girls from the New Orleans area.

The typical rate for a “trick” was three dollars, a price that seems to have been fixed among those brothels attracting more prominent white clientele.  However, there were many small-scale operators in shotgun houses who charged less than the going rate.  Probably first used as low-cost housing for the rapid influx of workers into the city following the Civil War, the “shotgun house” was another important staple characteristic of the St. Paul’s Bottoms area.