I’m looking forward to going to Market Square Sunday evening to celebrate Houston’s 175th anniversary. I’ll probably spring for a beer at Niko Niko’s, and maybe nosh on a falafel. I might even go crazy and have a cupcake.
This all sounds lovely. But, as a celebration, I’m guessing it would look pretty pathetic to the city’s founders. I’m thinking about the way that they celebrated the first anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto on that same spot, back when Market Square was called Congress Square.
Here’s how Marie Phelps McAshan described the festivities in her book A Houston Legacy: At the Corner of Travis and Main: “At midnight [the upper class of early Houston society] went to Ben Fort Smith’s City Hotel, to dine on turkey, ducks, rabbit, flounder, candied yams and champagne.”
In pre-global warming days, it also got cold enough here to kill people. One commentator said that Houston in winter “was as cold as Boston Commons.”
And as Sam Houston and company danced and dined, the less genteel elements of the San Jacinto veterans (known as the Rowdy Loafers) claimed the Square for their own. “[They] couldn’t care less about satin and ruffled shirts," McAshan wrote. "They were celebrating to the explosion of guns and dancing around a big bonfire while oxen pawed the mud, bellowing and jangling their bells.”
I leaned on McAshan’s book heavily when I wrote a history of Market Square for Downtown Magazine. I also relied on Stephen L. Hardin’s amazing book, Texian Macabre, The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston. Hardin writes with tremendous flair, and goes into great detail, as he describes early life in Houston. To say that the city was primitive would be an insult to primitives.
One chapter is titled, “The Most Miserable Place in the World,” which is how Representative (for the Republic of Texas) Kelsey H. Douglass described Houston during his sojourn here. The muddy streets were strewn with animal carcasses and human waste, which together emitted “a stench disgusting and poisonous in the extreme,” Douglass wrote to his wife. Then he admitted, “We live like hogs.”
Hardin quotes German immigrant Gustav Dresel on the subject of swarming rats. “Thousands of these troublesome guests made sport by night . . . Human corpses had to be watched during the whole night because otherwise these fiends ate their way into them. The finger of a little child who lay alone in the cradle for a few hours was eaten away. This I saw myself.”
We can well imagine the heat our Houston predecessors endured. Forget not having air conditioning. They didn’t even have proper windows. They’d have to knock a board out of their hastily constructed houses to let in any air at all — which, given the ferocity of the mosquitoes, was a mixed blessing at best.
To say that the city was primitive would be an insult to primitives.
But, in pre-global warming days, it also got cold enough here to kill people. One commentator said that Houston in winter “was as cold as Boston Commons.”
I could go on, but if you want more thrillingly gruesome details you should really check out Hardin’s book, and McAshan’s as well, if you can put your hands on a copy.
So, on the occasion of Houston’s Dodransbicentennial, let’s look back at what we’ve gained, and what we’ve lost. Houston isn’t really “the most miserable place in the world” anymore, though in these days of drought and blazing heat, we might be tempted to say so. We get to air condition our misery, if nothing else.
On the other hand, compared to Sam Houston and the Rowdy Loafers, I’m not sure we really know how to party.
Don't miss the CultureMap guide to Houston's 175th birthday celebrations.