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24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: Drink from a spring

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

All I can remember is that it was hot, deadly hot in a river bottom kind of way. Close and muggy like a steam room. The kind of hot where even the cicadas sound all worn out and tired in the middle of the day, and the birds quit singing to save their strength for the afternoon.

It was late in the epic Texas drought of the '50s, though. I know that much, because I wasn't driving yet.

My grandfather Dee stopped his old Chevrolet in the meager shade of a gigantic pine that sat just off the dam of the lake, grabbed his Pflueger Level Wind from the trunk and told me I could sit or fish. He didn't care.

There was no air conditioning in that old beast and certainly no wind at midday. I could sit there only a few minutes before I had to get out. We'd been fishing all morning, and I was burned up in some way I'd never been before. I needed relief. I didn't want to interrupt his fishing, but out of desperation I walked over and told him that.

"Come on," was all he said.

Stoic and short and half-Cherokee brown, Dee didn't ever say much. He just started walking around the lake, down behind the dam to a little grove of sweet gums growing in the marshy edge of the drainage.

He stopped in the shade, looked around to get his bearings, then squatted to the ground and began sweeping away a layer of leaves. Using his hands as a scoop, he ladled out a double handful of wet semi-compost to reveal a hole in the ground, filled with clear, cold water.

"There you go," was all he said. It was all he needed to say. Little puffs of perfect, white sand crystals bubbled up from the bottom and drifted back down as new water re-filled the hole. As he walked away, I got down on my hands and knees and began slurping the sweetest, coldest, most refreshing drink of my young life.

Dee later told me he'd drunk there when he was a kid, just as his father — a hard-as-nails, itinerant lumber man — had more than 50 years earlier.

Today, I'm driving along the county roads of southern Panola County, trying to find that old spring and maybe visit a couple of others that have kept folks alive through hard times in Texas. This increasingly elusive experience, drinking from a natural spring, is Number 17 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.

There are thousands of springs in Texas. Some are large and well known. Most are smaller. Many have failed or have been forgotten. The springs helped define Texas in the early days. Native Americans and settlers often clashed over access to, or control of, water sources. Cross country travel routes were often defined by where they were.

Every county once had a spring or two, usually for public use, where people could stop for a drink or to fill up a bucket or two for coffee, or maybe to force down the gullet of a cranky, rusty radiator. Those places are gone.

My kids — my grandkids — have never drunk from a natural spring, and they are poorer for that, never knowing firsthand the importance of those water sources.

"People get spoiled," says my childhood friend Darrell Yates. "They like to see that water come out of the faucet when they make their coffee every morning, but they don't really know where it comes from."

Darrell's ancestors were early settlers in this country and he, along with Killis LaGrone, have come with me to visit Midyett Springs, south of DeBerry. This is where Darrell grew up. Once the site of a thriving farm and ranch community, Midyett now is nothing more than a scattering of houses and a little pavilion thrown up over the big spring there.

People once came here for mineral bath cures. Now there's just an oily piece of plywood thrown over a culvert pipe that houses the spring itself. We're just down the hill from the former school house, now a Baptist church, where my dad first started a brush arbor church around 1950.

We pull up the plywood, brush away the cobwebs and find a peaked, but perking, spring. Nobody wants to drink the water, though. "You don't know what's in there with this thing right on the road like this," Yates says. "Some people will do anything for mischief."

I figure I've come this far, I'll risk it. I scoop up a handful and get a taste of the minerals, some dirt and maybe a hint of diesel. Back to the truck.

A mile away on land that Yates owns, we find an old spring — its housing cut from a cypress stump — bone dry. "It was running when I first found it," Yates says. "I drank out of it then, but it went dry about five years ago."

Ten miles down the road in Deadwood, we step out of the truck at the site of another erstwhile water source. We're on land that LaGrone's ancestors claimed in the late 1840s. The four families of settler Adam LaGrone picked this spot, as so many pioneers did then, because of the water.

It's a hundred degrees now. We stop beside the bleaching skeleton of a whitetailed deer.

Nearby, LaGrone pushes a boot down in damp sand where a spring used to be. It's dry now, the only reminders of its former self: a slight drainage running down to a stagnant postage-stamp pond and a few stunted willow trees.

"These springs could only support so many people, but they'd come here to bathe and drink. We found arrowheads here," LaGrone says. "Now it's gone. I've drunk water out of this spring with three generations of my family (grandfather, father and himself), but it's disappointing not to be able to show my own grandkids that spring."

In the Hill Country several hundred miles southwest of here, where springs are coming and going all the time, water is becoming increasingly scarce. In Spicewood, Murry Burnham stands beside a hole in the rock where 50 gallons of cold water pour out each minute. It's a spring that has sustained his family for 150 years. "My great-great granddaddy built that spring house," Burnham says.

Today the water runs directly into the Victorian home built by his ancestors. The plumbing has been updated a few times over the years, but the water has always been the same. "It got down to maybe 15 gallons a minute during the '50s," Burnham says, "but it's never stopped. One just down from the house stopped running this spring, but this one never has."

An outdoorsman who has hunted the world but tamed and fed as many animals as he's killed, Burnham has a connection to the rocks and live oaks and cactus. He's cold-camped for days along mountain meadows and on islands in the Rio Grande, getting his water out of the ground and living off what he was able to kill and haul into camp.

He's 83, and he's been a mentor to me, giving me insight into animals and their behaviors and helping me understand the foundations of our relationship, as humans, with nature and the land and the animals.

We just sit quietly for a few minutes, talking about hunting a little, listening to the tinkling of the spring water as it gurgles out of the ground, not saying what we're both thinking.

"This is a good spring. I'm sure the Indians hated to give it up," Burnham says. "Everybody used to drink out of a spring. Now they don't."