I’ve always been fascinated with history, but a part of that passion for history arises in an unusual form — trees.
When examining any old structure, a barn, house or even an old well, I’ve always found myself looking at the trees around me. Questions arise such as: “Was this tree here originally?” or “Did someone, long ago plant this tree?” Perhaps the most common observation of trees comes in the front yard of old houses who usually have equally old trees. Did these trees spring up in their natural environment or were they strategically placed by homeowners of long ago? This observation of trees coupled with a passion for history, especially local history, has led me to observe an oddity right here in Van Alstyne… the Catalpa tree.
While I am fascinated with old, large trees, I am perhaps the farthest thing from a tree expert. I know pecan trees have pecans; oak trees have acorns… I think; and peach trees make for a nice summer snack. Therefore, I will describe a Catalpa tree as plainly as I possibly can. It is that tree with the large “elephant ear” leaves, white flowers in the spring and the long stringy bean pods that hang from its limbs. Hopefully I’ve described the tree well enough that you know exactly what I am talking about. If so, you have suddenly realized, just as I have, that Van Alstyne has an unusually large amount of these trees…especially around the older homes. But why?
To answer this question, I dove into old newspaper archives hoping to find an article about the residents suddenly choosing to plant Catalpa trees all throughout town, unfortunately I had no such luck. However, what I was able to find were excellent reasons why the founding families of Van Alstyne might have chosen to plant these remarkable trees.
From my grandparents, I learned that Catalpa trees attract a special type of worm which is ideal for fishing. The Wylie News reported on June 19, 1969 that “Fisherman who plant trees will make sure they have at least one catalpa tree in the yard, says the fishing authorities at Mercury outboards. For this is the source of the long, green catalpa worms considered a delectable dish by many species of fresh water fish. Catalpa worms are the larval stage of sphinx moths. They often grow to three inches long and are found only in catalpa trees, their sole source of food. They are harvested by shaking the tree and picking up worms that fall to the ground. Keeping them is easy. A box with catalpa leaves in the bottom works fine. To save them for later use, put them in a can with cornmeal and keep the can refrigerated. They can be strung on the hook like an ordinary fishing worm.”
Another intriguing attribute of the Catalpa tree is its timber and its growth rate. The Sunday Gazetteer in Denison said on March 4, 1906 that “the catalpa is another tree that may be grown very quickly and is a very valuable timber, good for posts and fine for the cabinet maker.” In fact, the wood was so good and sought after, that early railroad companies invested in planting these trees for their railroad ties. Some companies are said to have even planted these trees alongside the tracks for future harvesting. In 1908 a local paper reported that the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railway had 100,000 catalpa trees planted along its right of way. On January 25,1911 the Sherman Daily Democrat reported that the Louisville and Nashville Railroad “has growing, on tracts of land along its lines, about 2,000,000 catalpa trees, many of them on grounds surrounding the homes of track foremen where they are valuable for shade.”
The trees were also used as a luxury or decorative tree. One report in a paper mentioned the use of the catalpa flowers as a decorative piece, combined with honeysuckle. The large estate and plantation home of Sophia Porter at Preston Bend was fondly noted as hosting a large amount of Catalpa trees, which she planted herself from seeds given to her by Albert Sidney Johnston, this according to Mattie Davis Lucas in her book, “A History of Grayson County, Texas.”
The Catalpa tree was so appealing to the town of Achille, Oklahoma that on May 4, 1911 the Sherman Daily Democrat reported that “the town site company at Achille has just completed planting 2,000 catalpa trees. All the east and west streets of the little town have a tree every twenty feet.”
The Catalpa trees were available from a variety of places, including T. V. Munson of Denison. On May 9, 1909 the Sunday Gazetteer in Denison stated, “We heard Monday that there had been about 5000 Catalpa trees set out in the county (Grayson) the past season. The trees grow very rapidly and make excellent material for telephone poles and fence posts.”
According to the Denison Press on May 26, 1937 the Catalpa tree was native to the central Mississippi River basin, but was being found naturalized in eastern Texas. Perhaps the most informative information about the Catalpa tree from Grayson County sources comes from an entire article devoted to Catalpa tree that was published by The Denison Daily Herald on June 6, 1908.
The article states in part: “The catalpa, which grows to perfection in this section, has received very little attention, yet there are few magnificent specimens of the tree about Beaumont streets. It is a beautiful shade tree and its value is set forth by the Louisville Courier-Journal in forty reasons why it should be planted. This tree should receive far more attention in this section, especially as it thrives on the otherwise treeless prairies.” The article went on to state 40 reasons why people should plant the Catalpa tree which included: “By 1925 American forests will be exterminated.” “Most durable wood known.” “Nothing better for telegraph poles.” “Superior to oak furniture. Lighter than pine. Stronger than oak. Tougher than hickory.” “Makes best wood pulp and book paper.” “Used during centuries for boat building.” “Fewer insect enemies than any other trees. Fewer diseases than other timber trees.” “Roots never clog sewers.”
So we may never know exactly when there was an influx of Catalpa trees planted here in Van Alstyne, but they have certainly withstood the test of time and development and have, perhaps, proven to be a wise choice made by those who once called Van Alstyne home. With the countless articles promoting the planting of the Catalpa tree, it is likely that it appealed to citizens for its various uses and as a result, residents of Van Alstyne began planting the tress throughout town.
The Sunday Gazetteer in Denison said it best on March 4, 1906. “So let us quit worrying about the life insurance graft and get a graft of our own, one that we can control, one that the insurance presidents cannot take away from use. Let us go to work and plant in Texas the pecan, the walnut and other nut bearing trees and let us bud them to fine stock and let us care for them and reap the harvest. Let us take the locust, the catalpa and other trees and make timber for the future. We have served Manhattan Island too long already. Let us serve Texas awhile.”
For a longer version of this article, visit vanalstyneleader.com.
Dusty Williams is a 9th generation Grayson County Resident and President of the Van Alstyne Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org