Setting the Stage –
After the Union won the Civil War in
1865, Southern families were generally impoverished, which encouraged them to
migrate westward, with many settling in Texas.
The Texas economy of the late 1800’s
experienced tremendous growth. Most Texans engaged in farming or ranching. After
the Indians had been forced from the plains and the buffalo destroyed, Texans drove more than three million cattle north to the
railroads in Kansas between 1875 and 1885.
were the times into which John Melton Choate and Cora Zaid Gibbs were
born. Their ancestors had lived in Texas for a generation before
the War, and in the South for two generations before that – they were Southern
John’s Early Years – 1871-1895
These were the glory days of the cattle
industry in Central Texas. The great Longhorn cattle round-ups and drives over
the trails to Northern markets created much of the romance and legends of the
cowboy as the authentic American mythic hero.
John Melton Choate was born in 1871 in Waco, McLennan County, Texas, to John R Choat
and his bride of less than a year, Emma Sexton Haddox, on the day after her
When John was an infant, his father died of the “flu” in 1872, near Ft. Dodge - later
Dodge City, KS.
never saw, and had no personal knowledge of his father, after whom he was
years later, his mother married Vincent Murphy – that family eventually gave
John 5 step-sisters and 4 step-brothers.
spent his late adolescence and early manhood in the saddle, on the trail, and
working on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. His ambition was to become an
independent cattle rancher.
Zaid's Early Years – 1876 -1895
Mud Creek is a small rural community near Eulogy
in Bosque County, TX – an area with rich, well-drained soils and many streams,
rivers and lakes – it is “well-watered”.
In 1876, Cora Zaid was born
as the first child to Harrell Bascom Gibbs, son of a Civil War casualty as a
Confederate soldier from Marion County, Alabama, and Mary Candis
"Mollie" Jones. When her father was 21 and her mother 16, she first saw life in Mud Creek. In early 1879, when Zaid was 3, her mother died giving birth to her only sibling, Mary Candace "Mame" Gibbs.
Later that year, her
father married a 21-year old widow, California Virginia Teague. They relocated to Pontotoc, Texas, where he
operated a cotton gin, and later became the Sheriff and Tax Collector of Mason
County. Zaid lived at home and assisted her loving stepmother in caring for her
6 stepbrothers and 3 stepsisters. Picture of Zaid in 1899.
Romance in Pontotoc – 1895
During the summer in rural Texas communities,
there were few opportunities for people to socialize. Churches and schools occasionally sponsored
social events such as dances, picnics and concerts.
In 1895, John was
looking for some entertainment after a long ride back from Oklahoma. He attended a community dance in Pontotoc –
the kind that lasted 3 days and 3 nights.
That’s where he met the “spirited and beautiful” Cora Zaid Gibbs. They were described as the handsomest couple
They danced all
night. John tells that some of his
toenails were sacrificed that night “to the ardor of his passion, prolonged
dancing and tight cowboy boots – he wasn’t used to that much time out of the
A Texas Pioneer Family begins
After a short courtship,
John and Zaid were married in Menardville, Texas (now Menard) on 20 October 1895, two days before John’s 24th
birthday, and shortly before Zaid’s 19th birthday. After the wedding, over 150 guests were
served “dinner on the grounds” – there weren’t enough chairs, so the guests
were served standing under the trees.
After their wedding
vows, the major promise they made to each other – and kept – was that they
would never go into debt.
marriage was the anchor and linchpin of John’s life as a man, a father, a
cowboy, a farmer, and a city policeman.
Starting a Family on the Frontier
By 1890 Pontotoc, Texas included a hotel, general
stores, mills, and businesses related to the horse industry. A major school,
the San Fernando Academy, was opened in 1883.
A typhoid fever epidemic nearly wiped out the town in 1887 - they filled up their cemetery, and opened another.
With so much
of the population decimated, the school closed in 1889. That, and not being
able to bring the railroad through the town, caused the town's prosperity to
Soon after their marriage in 1895, John and Zaid started
their life journey together as modest sharecropper farmers on a rented farm
near Pontotoc, “raising cotton, watermelon, grassburrs, and kids.” Maybe the farm was Papa Gibbs other property - see map.
They possessed $50 cash, a saddle horse and a milk cow. Papa Gibbs
gave them a Hereford calf, and neighbors contributed a small flock of chickens
– an austere and unpretentious set of conditions to start a family on the Texas
Their first ranch – 1901
Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which
a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops
produced on the land.
John and Zaid were sharecroppers growing cotton and watermelons. It was never an easy task, nor a path to
wealth and economic security. And farming was never the preferred
occupation of a young man who had lived and worked as a cowboy in the glory
days of the cattle industry in Central Texas.
After 5 years of
farming, they had saved enough to buy a few goats and a few cattle, and to
lease a small ranch near Pontotoc, where they survived for the decade of 1900
to 1910. During that time, they produced five boys and two girls.
Against a background of
unrelenting personal poverty, as each new baby came off their production line,
they each were given to feel that they were "special" in that family,
and the social equal of their peers. They never whined about their limited
means, or felt that they were “poor”.
A Big Opportunity – 1910
Kaffir was a quiet little farming community 20
miles west of Eldorado, Texas. It
consisted of a store, post office and a one-room schoolhouse, where church was
held every Sunday.
The young residents got together in their homes
for parties. Groups would also go
“Kodaking” on Sunday afternoons, sharing each other’s company and taking a lot
of photos. Charlie Chick had the only
car in Kaffir – a Model T – and he carried the mail twice a week between Kaffir
Seeing what they thought
would be their big opportunity, John moved his family in 1910 to Kaffir in western
Land was cheap there, and they invested in acreage of their own, where
he ran cattle. His main support was from a job as the foreman
of the Mayer Brothers’ large cattle ranch, the T-Half Circle.
Family Tragedies in Kaffir
Three months after they
arrived, a dire tragedy struck when their eleven-year-old son, Wyatt, fell under a
wheel of a horse-drawn freight wagon, was crushed, and died an agonizing death
within a few hours [2 May 1910]. There is no record of their grief, nor how
they dealt within themselves with this devastating loss.
Zaid's next baby, named Chester,
had convulsions after his birth, died the same day [1 Nov 1911], and was
buried beside his brother at Bailey Ranch Cemetery.
A fire burned their house
to the ground, and they had to move into a new cattle barn for shelter for the
next two years.
They saw their eldest
daughter, Jewell, graduate from high school, lose her fiancée to a bronc-riding
accident, and take a job as a "governess" on the Tisdale ranch, where
a Christmas fire burned the Tisdale home - Jewell lost all her possessions,
Turning Mules into Money
San Angelo became a central railroad transportation hub for the
region in the 1880s. After a tuberculosis outbreak hit the United States in the
early 1900s, doctors could only recommend rest in dry, warm climates, so many TB
sufferers went to San Angelo for treatment.
With sons Harold and
Melvin, John ran a freight service out of San Angelo to
nearby towns. They’d load the
wagons at the railroad depot in San Angelo, and on a good day, would travel
about 15 miles before stopping.
Every morning it was “like
a rodeo” getting harnesses on those biting and kicking mules to get them
lined up on the wagon.
They would make
extra money breaking other people’s mules for $5 each. They’d harness a young mule, and position him next to an experienced mule. The young mule could get "all tangled up in the traces," and would pitch and kick – acting “just like a spoiled kid."
Sometimes the mule would
get dragged in harness for up to a mile, and would eventually get up “without
much hair left on him." By the time they made a round trip,
young mules were broken and ready to work.
A Few More Kids
The picture shows Jewell (3d from left, back row) and her school class in 1915.
The eldest son, Harold,
left home to work in the Howard County oil fields as a roughneck.
Two more children --
George and Merle Grace - were born, and Jewell came home to have her first baby
– Jay T - and sustained a childbirth injury that sapped her health for the next
A Tough Decade – 1920
When Howard County was organized in 1882, Big Spring became the county seat. In 1920 it was a small city of 4,273 that served as a shipping point for livestock, cotton and small grains.
Oil was discovered in the Big Spring area in 1926, and the city experienced a boom over the next ten years. Elbow was a very small, rural community with a country school 7 miles south of Big Spring.
By 1920, they sold their
cattle and their land. John had taken a county road construction job to keep
food on the table. At the end of the decade, they had abandoned their
ambitions to become independent ranchers and cattlemen, lost all their savings,
and reached their lowest ebb with the deaths of a baby and an eleven-year-old
Most likely on Harold's
advice, they decided to rent and move to a sandy-land cotton farm at Elbow,
where they again lived for 5 years before they abandoned rural life for good,
and moved to Big Spring in 1925.
It is known that John
and Zaid were hard-working, energetic, and sociable. They loved parties and
dancing, and found parenthood a natural and deeply fulfilling role in life. The
care and feeding of their healthy and diverse family consumed their best
energies and was their highest priority. Self-supporting, self-reliant,
and independent, they set a wonderful example and high standards of Christian
morality, honesty, and simple virtue in their home.
Although always poor as
a wage earner, they were never in debt, and cared deeply about their
reputations for trustworthiness and reliability. There was no malice in either
of them, no deceit nor dishonesty. They were simply simple folk, who had no
need or wish to appear in public other than they were in private.
They were proud of their pioneer heritage, but found no need to boast, and did not. And they played no favorites among their children or grandchildren. They were even-handed and even-tempered, and exuded a powerful sense of stability in themselves and in all their relationships.
They had legions of friends and admirers among their own generations, and among the younger generations, down to their last great-grandchildren.
Each child who grew to
adulthood was expected and encouraged to marry and to raise a family of
hard-working, law-abiding citizens, as they themselves did. Dignity and self-respect were
gained the old-fashioned way -- each earned his own, and passed it on. Children
knew definite expectations, limits, and discipline with love.
They lived their
Christian, middle-class family values, but did not boast about them, or try to
impose them on others outside the family circle. Their values were
"family-centered", in the light of evolving meaning of that
description, decade by decade. It appeared never to occur to them not to put
their children's and their over-all family's welfare ahead of their own.
"Sacrifice of self" in the Christian spirit, as their Methodist faith
instructed, was accepted as the bottom line of ethical conduct. Perfection was not the goal, and inevitable
failures to live flawlessly were treated by teasing good humor: smiles and not frowns.
The Choate Family Legacy
A flinty pragmatism emerged between the two and ruled in the family conduct, but they were not Puritans. Music, dancing, laughter, and good, old-fashioned fun could, and did, take over at any time, and always provided most of the sugar, which helped the medicine go down. As a consequence, their home was always filled with children, adolescents, and young adults, which included their children's friends as much as their own.
Their riches - and they had them aplenty - were not of the material kind, but in the family life they lived together, and the spirit of challenge and adventure with which they faced the world from the start, and which lasted until their deaths.