Thursday, August 11, 2016

Stetson-hat wearing grandmother a memorable character

By Suzanne Carter Hahn

The 1963 movie "Hud" was based on McMurtry's novel "Horseman, Pass By." It was a cautionary tale, although told at least a decade after the fact. Hud was the product of generations who had carved a sometimes meager living out of an unforgiving land. He was thrust into a changing world he didn't understand. Major social changes seem to be more apparent from an altitude of 80,000 feet.

My brother and I lived that transition in the early 1950s. Early on he planned to leave ranching in his rearview mirror. The cities welcomed his hard-won skills. It took them a while longer to welcome mine. First I had to figure out that skills might be required.

Zillah was our grandmother. She lived in a small brick house at 509 Childress St. Today, the entire block is buried beneath the tons of steel and concrete we call the Houston Harte Expressway.

Few passing by would forget the sight of an elderly figure roaming the yard wearing a house dress, sensible shoes with stockings — and a Stetson hat — surveying a small herd of plastic Herefords. A fake sheep or two strayed nearby. At the center of it all was a 4-feet-tall ceramic cowboy, his whirling lasso flinging water in all directions.

Zillah loved the movie star Joan Crawford, Ranch Romance magazines, dipping snuff and having fun. She took pleasure in rising earlier than her next-door neighbor and took up painting, water colors of Hereford steers, close up and clearly ready to charge off the page. What Zillah lacked in talent, she made up for in production. Supply exceeded demand. Wish I'd rescued just one.

Zillah was born in Gonzales County in 1876, and in 1879 her father, Andrew Jackson Nichols, migrated west to Runnels County. Zillah described visiting her Gonzales relatives. She told of riding horseback to dances 20 miles distant, party dress tied to the back of her saddle, and how cold her hands got along the way.

But her family's role in the founding of Texas? Apparently not worth mentioning. Yet her kinsman, William Philip King, died at the Alamo — he was 16 years old, the youngest to die there. He went as a substitute for his father, who had a family to protect.

Zillah landed in Concho County when she married an English immigrant cowboy. They acquired land when it was more plentiful than people willing to live and work on it. When her husband's health declined, running the operation on the Concho River was left to Zillah. After his death she soldiered on.

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