When I was growing up in Houston’s industrial suburbs, “town” meant Houston and more specifically, the downtown district. You know – tall buildings. After relocating to Lake Jackson in 1982, I never lost that almost automatic reference to “town” as my way to refer to Houston. And it was easy to tell old friends that we had moved south of town to a place called Lake Jackson, hence this journal goes under the heading of South of Town, Lake Jackson.
Lake Jackson was a bit of a culture shock. After all, I was nearing forty and had never experienced life in a small-town on an extended basis. People were polite. They smiled as they took turns, even at the uncontrolled intersections in its curvy, crazy little downtown.
But the single most shocking thing I saw happened in a little store three short blocks from my house, the Lake Hardware store on Oyster Creek. (It’s no longer there. Fire took it a week ahead of 9/11, but they quickly re-located and re-built.) You need a lot of little things when you move into a new residence. There were all the little things that broke, new things that needed to be installed, and the tools and supplies to handle all the jobs of homeownership. I had quickly learned that Lake Hardware was the place to go.
The owners were almost always on the premises. Sehon and Lysbeth Warneke would wait on me patiently and help with any purchase, no matter how small. A couple of 1-1/2 in. bolts with nuts and washers for 28 cents and they treated me like I was one of their best customers and worthy of as much attention as they would give a big spender. I had never seen anything quite like this in town. The people at Ralph’s Hardware in Spring Branch were good but the level of service tended to ramp up with the size of the bill.
I will never forget the Saturday morning I was at Lake Hardware to buy a couple of screws and Sehon was helping a woman with the things she needed for some small repair. She had a few boards, some nails, paint, and other small items in a bag. She asked Mr. Warneke if they delivered.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Just up the street on Birch. But I don’t think I can get all that in my car and into the garage.”
“You take the bag and get in your car and head that way,” he said. “You need to try to get there before I do. Watch for me and wave at me when you see me coming.”
I watched through the store’s display window as Sehon headed north on Birch with the boards on his shoulder.
I was shocked. Things like that just didn’t happen in town, the big city up the road that I had just come from. And it was the first thing I thought of when I read yesterday that Mr. Warneke had passed away at age 88.
Sehon was an interesting man. He was totally local, fully Aggie, and nothing but customer service when it came to his business. I didn’t know him well, but he still taught me a little about the special virtues a city boy like me could learn in our little city south of town.
He loved history, especially that myth-based version of Texas history that he and I both learned in our segregated white schools before they started to touch it up with a few more facts. Sehon and I were both saturated in the stories of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. When Sehon saw the gigantic statue of Sam Houston on Highway I-45 near Huntsville, he decided that the “Father of Texas”, Stephen F. Austin, deserved to be remembered like that in Brazoria County.
He got in touch with the sculptor who had executed the Huntsville work and contracted with him to do a similar statue of Austin. Seventy-six feet tall, he stands today, appropriately white as an Easter lily, by a railroad switching yard in Angleton looking out toward the area where Austin and his poppa, Moses, organized and governed the settling of 300 or so Anglo families in the area around Brazoria and West Columbia. You will see it just to your left on Highway 288 as you travel south of town toward Lake Jackson. Trust me. It’s hard to miss.
Sehon raised the money (and gave a great deal of it) to make that monument happen. There were some city slickers who thought it was kind of a foolish undertaking, especially with the re-write of the history that was just getting underway. But Austin’s legend is hard-wired into most of us native Texans. Mr. Warneke saw to it that it will live on. And so will the memories of Sehon Warneke, the Legend of Lake Hardware.