Through a Cockeyed Gate

“Ours has been a desultory ramble, as rambles should be.”

William Senior,  By Stream and Sea (1877)

I was rambling over back roads and chanced to pass a cockeyed gate.  Over the gate there was a sign indicating that it gave way to the Hammond Colony Cemetery.  Now when I ramble over back roads, I ramble slowly, progressing when possible at about ten miles an hour; but even to the eye of so sedate a traveler, this Hammond Colony Cemetery appeared to be nothing but the usual mix of dusty thickets and rank bunchgrass.  It lays on one side of the valley at the head of Pin Oak Creek, in the sand hills of Robertson County, and in comparison to its surroundings looked like much of a muchness.

Above the cockeyed gate.

I normally stop at this sort of country cemetery, especially one fronted by a cockeyed gate, but the hour was late and supper was calling, so this time I drove on.

The curious name of Hammond Colony stuck with me, though.  Country cemeteries are hereabouts most often named for a church, a family, or a rural neighborhood (what Texans called a community).  Sometimes they are named for the party of pioneers who first settled the vicinity, and who referred to their clustered frontier farmsteads as a “settlement” or a “colony.”  There is, for instance, a Walker Settlement Cemetery on the crest a prairie hillock not far from where I write.

My first thought was therefore that this Hammond Colony must be one of these.

After a little digging (metaphorical, I assure you), I discovered that this Hammond Colony was a different matter.  B. F. Hammond was an Alabama Doctor who came to Texas with about 100 slaves in 1853.  He owned two large plantations in the Brazos River bottom, and was in the last half of the nineteenth century a magnate of Robertson County.  Following the Civil War, Hammond divided his plantation among those former slaves who were willing to remain as sharecroppers, and the Hammond Colony seems to have been part of this general reorganization of Hammond’s estate.

I have found no record of the event, but some portion of Hammond’s former slaves appear either to have left or been taken off of the bottomland plantations, and to have settled or been settled at this colony at the head of Pin Oak Creek. I do not know if Hammond provided the land or acted as landlord, but both appear likely from the fact that the colony bore his name. My guess is that Hammond settled superfluous and possibly recalcitrant labor on this decidedly marginal land, rather than turn them loose as vagabonds.

Across Pin Oak Creek to Hammond Colony Hill

But I am open to correction.

I have found but one mention of the Hammond Colony in the record. This is from 1879 and reads:

“Fifteen wagon loads of exodusters came here [Hearne] to take the train for Kansas. They came from the Hammond colony, five miles east of Hearne, and number about 100 souls.”*

Exodusters were Blacks who left the South in the hope of obtaining free Federal land in Kansas in the 1870s, and this large exodus from the Hammond Colony suggests that a small patch in the sand hills was not everyone’s idea of felicity.  Other Blacks left the Colony for nearby towns such as Hearne, which the new railroads had brought into being.  In time, the hill at the head of Pin Oak Creek returned to desolation, and all that remained of the Hammond Colony was this plot of mostly unmarked graves behind that cockeyed gate.

I went back to the Hammond Colony Cemetery yesterday, and  this time I stopped and went through that cockeyed gate.  I had learned that a minor celebrity was buried there, and so hoped to find her headstone in that wilderness of thickets and bunchgrass.

Rosie Lee Moore was born in the Hammond Colony in 1899, and she went on to become the last living model of Aunt Jemima, the famous trademark of the Quaker Oats Company.  Mrs. Moore toured the country in the 1950s and 60s, encouraging Americans to eat more pancakes and syrup, and when she died in 1967, her bones were laid in this place where she was born.

I feel a certain connection to Mrs. Moore because it was her likeness that I saw on the syrup bottles of my youth, and it was from her likeness that I formed my early and entirely favorable impression of Blacks as jolly people who made good food.  Life has forced some amendments to this early impression, but the memory is pleasant and Mrs. Moore can claim much of the credit for it.

It takes some fortitude to pay one’s respects to Rosie Lee Moore, for her grave lies in a thicket near the back of the cemetery, and to reach it one must cross a rank prairie laced with sandburs.  And crossing a rank prairie laced with sandburs involves scratches on the order of what one can expect from scrambling over four barbed wire fences in shorts.

When I at last beat my way through to the gravesite, I found that I was not the first pilgrim to pass through the cockeyed gate.  In fact, I found that I was a miserable and unworthy pilgrim who had neglected to bring the customary gift, for those who had gone before had left by the grave their gifts of good corn syrup.

Grave of Rosie Lee Moore

The moral of this story is that cockeyed gates should be opened, even at the hazard of sandburs. There is more to this world than can be seen from the road, even if one is progressing at the sedate rate of ten miles an hour.  And an apparent wilderness of thickets and bunchgrass may conceal nothing less than the shrine and barrow of a pancake queen.


* ) Galveston Daily News (Oct. 30, 1879).

7 thoughts on “Through a Cockeyed Gate

  1. Thank you — I always enjoy reading about your Texas adventures. Do you think that people like Mrs. Moore — folks who have a public presence but not on the order of a major celebrity — know how they touch the lives of strangers? This isn’t just an issue for modern mass culture . . . travelling entertainers, educators, preachers, and such have been making brief appearances in the lives of other souls for as long as we’ve had roads and caravans. I suppose the egoism of some may inflate the estimation of their own influence, but what of the types that are just doing their job or mission, perhaps humbly, devotedly, or even necessarily — in chasing their wage? Maybe, Mrs. Moore was one of these latter folks . . . maybe, she knew that she was the reason for Quaker Oats’ syrup sales, maybe she knew that she was an ambassador of Black America, trying her best to represent well. Maybe, she had moments when she just tired of the gigs and thought that she was a clown doing meaningless tricks. I wonder whether she ever got (gets?) to find out what she meant to a young boy who saw her face at breakfast for so many years. The Christian Buddhists would doubtlessly tsk, tsk — their idea of the beatific vision probably leaves no room for such particular enlightenment. I suspect that they’re wrong.

    • We all impress people in ways we don’t intend. When I meet old students, they often tell me that they have always remembered me saying something that I do not remember saying. I think this is what highfalutin academics mean by intersubjective meaning. Meaning is made when two subjects meet, and where their two subjectivities overlap. When I was a boy, pancakes, syrup and a jolly face spoke to my juvenile subjectivity. I do think Mrs. Moore was as much an ambassadress for Black Americans as she was for Aunt Jemima products, and I hope she knew it. I hope she did not feel demeaned as many who came after feel she should have. One could do worse than to have a reputation for jollity and good cooking!

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  3. Wow! Great find, Sir! I’m glad you braved the briers and thickets and barbed wire fences to find this obscure, mostly forgotten grave. I may have to pay it visit sometime in the near future. Your article brought to mind a few passages from The Wartime Journal of a Georgia Girl, by Eliza Frances Andrews. Miss Andrews wrote:

    Our negroes have acted so well through all these troublous times that I feel more attached to them than ever. I had a long talk with mammy on the subject to-day, and she says none of our house servants ever had a thought of quitting us. * She takes a very sensible view of things, but mammy is a negro of more than usual intelligence. “There is going to be awful times among the black folks,” she says. “Some of ’em ‘ll work, but most of ’em won’t without whippin’, and them what won’t work will steal from them that does, an’ so nobody won’t have nothin’.” She will never leave us, unless to go to her children.

    * I am sorry to say that my dear old mammy – Sophia by name – while so superior, and as genuine a “lady” as I ever knew, in other respects, shared the weakness of her race in regard to chastity. She was the mother of five children. Her two daughters, Jane and Charlotte, of nearly the same age as my sister Metta and myself, respectively, were assigned to us as our maids, and were the favorite playmates of our childhood. They were both handsome mulattoes, and Jane, particularly, I remember as one of the most amiable and affectionate characters I have ever known. Just before the outbreak of the war they were purchased, with mammy’s consent and approval, by a wealthy white man, reputed to be their father, who set them free, and sent them North to be educated. Jane, who had married in the meantime, came to visit us about a year after the close of the war, and took her mother back home with her. But the dear old lady – I use the word advisedly, for she was one in spite of inherited instincts which would make it unfair to judge her by the white woman’s standard – could not be happy amid such changed surroundings, and finally drifted back South, to live with one of her sons, who had settled in Alabama.

    When I first read of old “Mammy” in this book, my first thought was of “Aunt Jemima” and her syrup we always had on hand when I was growing up.

    Miss Andrews writes later in her book (pg. 347),

    All these changes are very sad to me, in spite of their comic side. There will soon be no more old mammies and daddies, no more old uncles and aunties. Instead of “maum Judy” and “uncle Jacob,” we shall have our “Mrs. Ampey Tatoms,” and our “Mr. Lewis Williamses.” The sweet ties that bound our old family servants to us will be broken and replaced with envy and ill-will. I am determined it shall not be so with ours, unless they do something to forfeit my respect.

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