200 years ago, the fledgling United States experienced the first of its trademark economic downturns linked to a market crash of some type. Back then, these recessions were called “panics.” The Panic of 1819 was a phenomenon brought on by wild, unregulated lending toward an equally insane land rush into the recent Louisiana Purchase.
One of the self-inflicted victims of this Panic was a lead miner who managed to acquire some old French claims not too far south of St. Louis. He had emigrated to the west bank of the Mississippi River from Virginia with his family, leaving behind a previous mining settlement there he had named Austinville.
Initially, Moses Austin made a small fortune in lead when British demand for the weapons-grade metal rose while the former mother country and her allies fought Napoleon. But then the U.S. greedily declared war on Britain in 1812, and the crown quit buying anything from its former colonies for almost three years. Now with the land and banking crash of 1819, an exhausted Austin found himself utterly broke. But at age 59, he still thought of a way to restore his fortune. He would go to Texas.
It is a miracle in and of itself how Austin was able to obtain a land grant from the Spanish authorities, but the latter entity saw colonization as a means of trying to control their single biggest problem with Texas: illegal immigration – of Americans! But Austin’s grueling overland trip from Missouri to San Antonio and back during winter destroyed what was left of the man’s health. On his deathbed, Austin wrote a letter begging his reluctant son, an Arkansas lawyer named Stephen, to carry on the project. Stephen only made the trip southwest after his mother, Mary, urged him to honor his father’s wishes.
And yet Stephen himself needed his own new start. He came oh-so-close to a congressional delegate seat in the newly formed Arkansas territory. A land dispute hit Stephen at about the same time, with the result being the cancelation of a small judgeship he held. Texas stood for the son of Moses Austin the promise of a land project integrating all his skills and interests – politics, writing, mapmaking, cross-cultural diplomacy and the rule of law – together for a good cause: lawful transformation of the rich lowlands of the Brazos, Colorado and Lavaca Rivers into stable, prosperous homes along its coast.
10 years ago, linked to yet another speculative crash, the income of my tiny consulting business took an 84% nosedive. By the summer of 2009, I could no longer afford to stay in my Mesquite, Texas apartment and staved off under-the-bridge homelessness with the help of friends and housesitting gigs. After a planned Labor Day weekend trip to see my folks down along the Colorado River, I did not know where I would be sleeping once I returned to North Texas.
Due to events which occurred that weekend, I unexpectedly returned to my hometown of Greenville after an eleven-year absence. I was no longer broke; I was now broke with three kids. My sweet aunt, Donna Stainback, and the kindest man I know, her son Tim, took away the homeless nightmares by allowing me and my gang to use an available duplex they had. The most generous man I know, Aunt Donna’s other son, Kent, made sure I could get groceries for the place among other things.
We still struggled for another year, as contracts were few. My pickup got repo-ed in the dead of night, and after scraping the money together to spring it, I had to find an unknown reserve of charm to get the meanest junkyard secretary in the Metroplex to process my paperwork in time to make a prior commitment. We were even robbed one day while I was getting the kids from school. The thieves carried away what little we had left using my laundry basket.
Then in August of 2010, an old friend of mine who happened to be the local state senator, Bob Deuell, said he needed the basics done for his reelection campaign that fall. I said I had some flexibility in my schedule. He instructed me to email his Chief of Staff in Austin, Don Forse, a list of the duties I would perform in exchange for a contract lasting three months.
I had $80 to my name and watched as it became 75 cents over a matter of days. I was so poor that I had canceled our Internet and had to use the computers over at the Walworth Harrison Public Library. I hurried in, logged on, and sent Don an email listing everything Bob and I had discussed. I even threw in some bonus tasks to sweeten the deal.
I concluded the email to Don with, “I know this isn’t your problem, but if I could get the first contract payment by Wednesday (that would be September 1, and I was writing on the prior Thursday), I would really appreciate it.” I then clicked Send.
I made the short drive from the library back to our duplex. But before I could get out of the truck Bob lit up my phone. Upon answering, he insisted, “Come to the office in the morning and get a check!”
This moment is but one example from the past ten years of how Providence – through so many exceptional people – has been overwhelming to us. “Us,” because the greatest gift during this time came in 2011 when I met Cheryl. Perhaps the biggest miracle of my life occurred in 2013, when I actually made the right decision for a change and asked her to marry me.
Of course, this does not mean things went straight into ever-after mode. There were at times harrowing difficulties – one in particular that I don’t wish on my worst enemy. But, always there was God’s grace. There were the friends he gave us. There were those who encouraged. There were those who provided us with faith when ours was either weak or offline.
Last summer, I was recruited by Don and another old – and I mean old – friend from my Hill days, Maj. Pete “Suga” Phillips, USMC ret., to come work at the Texas General Land Office as part of the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. For the past ten months, I have been doing work in the 49-county storm-impacted zone, assisting local elected officials and other groups with understanding the state’s assistance programs. The main territory I was assigned centered around my parents’ home in Columbus, along the Colorado River.
One day, after a meeting in Prairie View, I was cutting across the country back toward Columbus when I approached the FM 1458 bridge across the Brazos and into what remained of Austin’s original colony: Austin County. As I drove across and up onto the opposing bank, there was San Felipe de Austin State Historical Site, where Stephen had built his home and headquarters. It’s kind of unimpressive as far as historical buildings go, but there’s this quaint peace there if you step out on to it. There’s a sense of, well, promise.
This spring, the opportunity presented itself to completely relocate to Austin the capital city and work on the storm recovery programs at GLO headquarters, and Cheryl and I have made the decision to move. I work around the corner from the map vault in the Stephen F. Austin State Office Building. I sit directly above the airtight library that preserves the 1859 land patent of my first ancestor to come to Texas, a Prussian who built a sawmill in Nacogdoches County shortly after the state was annexed by the U.S.
A short drive – in the Texas sense – out to the west of Austin, Cheryl’s mother lives on Hill Country ranchland purchased by her own German ancestor four generations ago. Cheryl’s brother lives nearby where he is the offensive line coach for the state champion Mason Punchers.
My sister, brother-in-law and their wonderful daughters have been in town for seventeen years, where he is an architect on Congress Avenue for the firm that designed the tony Domain commercial center. Mom and Dad are now only ninety minutes away to the southeast, where Dr. Bahm continues his 45 years of treating anyone who will “lie still.” My mother remains that person who has always prayed faithfully for her children not just to grow toward Christ, but at times just to come home and begin growing again.
And so, there’s a sense in which Cheryl and I are coming home. But not really. Greenville is most assuredly the place that made me. This includes my imagination-filled childhood, my troubled post-college years prior to DC, and the past ten. It’s been a place of joy and heartbreak, of frustration and rest, of success and disappointment, of pain and healing.
Foremost, it will always be a place where I experienced the presence of Jesus through my friends. That’s what I think of when I think of Greenville. That’s what I’ll always think of, especially of the past ten years – not years of panic, but ones that God made rich with everyone he sent into our lives while we sojourned on the Blackland.
Come see us in Austinville – all are welcome. Well, almost all are welcome. I think the only people who’ve ever blocked me on social media are already in the state capital. That’s ok – I got here as soon as I could.