Who knew there was a 300-acre paradise hidden down at the end of Old Fish Hatchery Road?
I was looking for places that our new Sam Houston State University faculty had never been. I wanted to create a practical tour with places that the faculty might need – license plates, driver’s licenses, both post offices, as well as historic parts of Huntsville and Walker County. But also, parts of the university they might never have a chance to see.
I have lived in Huntsville for over 25 years and had never seen the Nature Preserve. I learned from a colleague that the university owned a 300-acre tract out at the east end of the county. Like most of us in Huntsville, I had heard of Old Fish Hatchery Road but had never taken the time to drive out that way.
It seems that the 1930s were particularly good to Huntsville and Walker County. The federal government, through the CCC, built the State Park. At the same time, the WPA built a fish hatchery. The plan was to restock lakes and ponds with the fingerlings that were bred in the 39 tanks that were dug out of the forest.
By the 1940s, the property was taken over by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. They ran it as a hatchery for a while but the 300 plus acres were eventually given to the university. No one managed it and it was allowed to drift into somnambulant ruin. Biology professors used it for research but there was little upkeep and no budget.
Our new faculty, I decided, ought to at least be aware of the place. On a whim, and since I needed to walk the dogs anyway, I drove east on Highway 2821, out past the high school, and through a quiet country neighborhood to the end of the road.
A heavy metal gate. A sign indicating Sam Houston State University property. And a thick forest beyond. I looked for a guard. A sign forbidding entrance. Some indication of human habitation. Nothing. Only the silence of a native woodland.
To my surprise, as I approached in my car, the gate swung open on silent, well-oiled hinges. Feeling a shiver of anticipation, dread maybe, a little fear that I might get lost, I left my car at the front gate and, with my three dogs scampering past, I entered the Preserve.
It was as if I had entered another world. What struck me first was the soft carpeting of leaf-fall along the wide dirt road. Deep greens, dry brown, brittle gray and touches of gold, all melded into a soft Impressionist hue. Overhead, sixty-foot pine trees and dry, empty branches of oaks and maples arched into a Gothic, Antonio Gaudi-like cathedral. Layers of leaves and thick blankets of pine needles covered the floor of the forest, tamping down the underbrush, leaving open glades under the branches.
Accustomed to the sounds of humanity, the silence of the forest seemed oppressive. But as I listened, it was anything but silent. Birds chirped and twittered as they flitted among the branches. I wished my friend, Dr. Neudorf was with me to tell me which were which. In the distance I could make out the raucous honking of Canadian geese and the deep-throated croak of bull frogs, and, could it be? the slap of a beaver tail on water.
As I walked farther along the road, it narrowed. I realized I was walking along a berm with ponds of murky water on either side. These must be the fish-breeding ponds. In places there appeared ancient, concrete water channels, cracked and black with mold and old age. Trees had grown up in the ponds, branches had fallen over into the water, and underbrush crept down the banks. The whole place felt as old as time and as abandoned.
I felt a surge of guilt as I saw a white pick-up truck bumping toward me from a side road. Would I be accused of trespassing? The truck stopped. In it were two Sam students, a young man and a young woman. They introduced themselves as I did, and explained that they were Forensic Science students putting out rats to see how long it would take them to decompose!
As they drove off, I wondered if my dogs, or more likely wild animals, might disturb their experiment. I turned down the path they had come from and found they had taken care of that problem. Large, 2 foot by 3 foot by 4 foot wire mesh cages had been anchored down over about thirty cardboard boxes, each containing a gutted white rat. Yuk. The things students have to do for knowledge!
Wandering without direction, wondering whether I would ever be able to find my way out again, I emerged into a clearing where several cars were parked beside a small building. A plump, round faced young woman hurried out to greet me and asked if she could help me, without much evident intention of doing so. It seemed I had accidentally stumbled onto Sam Houston State’s Forensic Science “Body farm.”
Our university has the preeminent Forensic Science department in the United States. Within its branches is the Applied Anatomical Research Center. Dr. Joan Bytheway, who heads the program, has been called on to determine causes of death for mass graves in the Middle East and around the world. She is renowned for her skill, and she is training students to follow in her footsteps.
And they do it in the “Body Farm.” Behind the laboratory building, I could see a double-fenced enclosure, covered with thick green plastic netting, and topped by rolls of heavily barbed concertina wire. When bodies are donated to the Forensic Science department, they are placed in the enclosure and studied for decomposition, much like the rats, but more useful. It is not a place that encourages visitors.
Just then, a large bear of a man emerged from a forest path. His wide reddish-white beard curved around a cheerful smile, Santa Claus-like. His hair glittered a reddish blonde that must have come courtesy of his Viking ancestors. He wore a dark green hunting vest with its myriad pockets, and carried a camera and binoculars slung around his neck. A small yellow lab puppy gamboled at his heels.
This was the Manager for the Center for Biological Field Studies, Alan Byboth. He welcomed me, pleased that someone might take an interest in the property. With all the dogs following, we hiked back to his office, a tiny cubbyhole tucked into a corner of an old building. At least it wasn’t the eighty-year-old wooden WPA building.
He was hired five years ago as a manager of the property on “soft” money which meant there was no guarantee of a continuing job or any funds to clean up the 300 acres. Nothing daunted, he used what he could beg or borrow from the Biology department and the university in order to make the space habitable.
He moved an old wooden post office building from the University out to the site and rebuilt it as a laboratory for student classes, adding a spacious front porch. He cleaned up the old concrete fish hatching tanks and made them available for his fellow biologists. He rescued an old abandoned mower that he used to cut hiking trails and to mow down the berms.
By the following year, he had been added as a line-item to the budget but was given very little in the way of funds for the upkeep of the property. Slowly, over the next three years, he received grants and HEAF funds that he used along with the yearly pittance of $8,000 to maintain the 300 acres, paint, repair, and rebuild the old WPA buildings and make the site useable by other biologists and their students. He became an expert at getting by on very little, scrounging for supplies and material.
With little support, he helped develop programs to use the preserve to study air quality and climate change. He researched old records of the original flora and fauna of the county, especially those that might have become extinct or were in danger of becoming so. He searched out seed pods from native plants and found ways to reseed the ones that had been lost.
Behind his office, he had used the empty space to set up a wood-working shop. I had noticed large, comfortable wooden Adirondack chairs on the porch outside the old post office. Here was the answer. The pieces for the chairs were laid out in neat rows on the benches and a half-completed chair stood at one end. All of the wooden repairs and construction he had done himself.
Sitting on a table near the entrance of the shop stood the figure of a small gray bird, about 6 inches tall, clinging to a wooden perch. The bright, black eyes and the painstakingly carved feathers on the little bird looked so real, I couldn’t help but reach out to touch its back. I stared with awe at the contrast between the rough gray feathers of the bird and the satiny smooth red finish of the perch. A small jewel of creativity.
Here, tucked away in the forest, a master artist works with quiet determination, unknown, unappreciated, and unconcerned. What a treasure. What a find! Definitely tour-worthy.