East Texas Piney Woods (Texas for Writers #4)

I’ve been thinking and thinking about what I might like to discuss next, and decided I’d go on with what I originally planned, which was to talk about the various regions of Texas in a little more detail, rather than skipping off to talk about–oh, weather or wildflowers or something.

So, I’m going to start east, in the Piney Woods, and head west from there. Or maybe south. Dunno.

East Texas is a little different from the Piney Woods. Some folks define East Texas–which is a distinct region of the state–as everything east of Interstate 45. However, the territory along the coast, around “The Golden Triangle” (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, right by the Louisiana border) is distinctly different from the Piney Woods area. It rightly belongs to the Coastal Bend region. Some people deny that Houston has any part of the Piney Woods, but those pine trees come down through Huntsville, Conroe and The Woodlands right into Houston. I put up this map because it helps to show the disputed definition of East Texas. Those stripey counties are the disputed area. I don’t think East Texas goes that far west. In my not-so-humble opinion, East Texas runs along that red area line, and then cuts south to Galveston Bay (that big blue indent). Everything east of that is East Texas. But only the red counties are the Piney Woods.

I’m trying to write this blogpost for writers, including things that writers need to know to set their books in Texas and to choose the types of setting they want to use. So. The thing about the Piney Woods region is that it’s full of those small towns that “hearth and home” authors like to write about. Tyler and Longview are the two largest cities in the Piney Woods, both sitting on I-20, each one a little under 100,000 people. Tyler is just under 100 miles east of Dallas and Longview is right at 40 miles farther along. There’s considerable countryside between Dallas and Tyler, not so much between Tyler and Longview.

A lot of cows are raised in the Piney Woods, amongst the trees. Just not generally on what you would think of as ranches. Most East Texans agriculturists would consider themselves farmers rather than ranchers, historically raising cotton. Around Tyler, they grow roses. The lumber industry has also been important in the Piney Woods–all those pine trees… Up until the discovery of the East Texas oil field in 1930, cotton, cattle and lumber were the main businesses in the region. Oil and natural gas are the biggest industries now, but the others are still important.

Caddo Lake bald cypress, lily pads and Spanish moss

The Piney Woods was historically a lawless part of the state. When Texas was ruled by Spain and later, by Mexico, settlement in the area was forbidden. So of course, people settled there anyway. Because of the Big Thicket undergrowth making it hard for law enforcement to get through the forest, a lot of outlaws from the U.S. settled there for a lot of years.  East Texas is considered the westernmost outpost of Southern culture. It’s more South than West, so a lot of those folks hiding in the thicket were moonshiners.

Underneath the tall pines, dogwood trees and Texas redbud trees bloom, along with Louisiana iris, and of course, bluebonnets in the open areas. Redbuds are early signs of spring, exploding in purple in February. Texas spring begins early.

One of the latest landmarks in the Piney Woods is the giant statue of Sam Houston on the side of I-45 just south of Huntsville. Oh, and on a tangent, I’ve heard New Yorkers complain that “Houston” should be pronounced “House-ton,” like the street in NYC. Thing is–the city of Houston was named after the man Sam Houston by people who knew Mr. Sam. They knew how he pronounced his name. You can’t tell a man how to pronounce his own name. So maybe “House Ton” is the way to say the street in New York. But “Hyoos-ton” is the way to say the city in Texas. Just sayin’.

Huntsville claims Sam because he lived there when he died. Sam Houston State University is in Huntsville. It’s always referred to as Sam Houston, as in “I go to Sam Houston,” or maybe “Sam Houston State.” Never one or the other.

Stephen F. Austin University is in Nacogdoches (pronounced Nacka-DOE-chess) in Deep East Texas, and is often shortened to “Stephen F.” as in “Joe just enrolled at Stephen F.” For those of you unfamiliar with Texas history, Stephen F. Austin was the man who organized the first Anglo-American colony in Texas. His first colonies were along the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, neither of which flows through East Texas, and he died in Brazoria County, which is the next county south of where I live, in Galveston County, so I’m not sure why the university is in Nacogdoches…

Texas redbud

What else do you need to know about the Piney Woods? Not sure. Except that it’s basically a duplication of what you will find in northern Louisiana.  Lots of trees. Lots of cotton fields. Smaller farms. A fair number of oil and gas wells. And more trees. Some parts have some nice rolling hills. Some parts don’t. The southern part of the Piney Woods is an hour or two from Houston. The northern part isn’t far from Dallas. But when you’re driving east from Dallas on I-20, you don’t really hit rural countryside until you get past the turnoff to Commerce (which is where East Texas A&M University is). Commerce is right on the edge of the Piney Woods. Just remember–you’re not really going to find a ranch in the Piney Woods, which takes up most of East Texas. Cattle, yes. But not a “ranch.” The land was just divided too small.  So if you want to set your book on a ranch, go west of Dallas. Or north or south. Just not east.

Questions?

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