Angelina County is defined by two rivers, the Angelina on the north and the Neches on the south. It is the Neches, which lies only a few miles through the woods southwest of Burke that had the most influence on the area. The author's family did know much about the Angelina, but we were all familiar with names of features on the Neches like Rocky Ford, Delaney Crossing, Cross Slough, Holly Bluff, and Deep Eddy.
It was the Neches River and the Indians that lived along it that brought trader Tom Bradley from San Augustine in 1835 to the prairie that took his name. By 1850 the cattlemen had arrived in Pine Valley, and the Neches and its environs provided water, forage, and a natural "fence" to keep the cattle confined to an northwest-southeast corridor. The route of the Opelousas Cattle Trail ran essentially parallel to the Neches on the north.
When the logging era began and before the railroads arrived, the Neches provided the means to transport logs cut from the longleaf forests on the north side of the river to sawmills in the Beaumont area. Steamboats brought supplies back up the river from the Gulf Coast.
In later years the River was a source of fish to supplement diets. It was always hard to distinguish the serious part of fishing from the fun, and several generations of Burke residents found recreation fishing the river. They usually traveled to the river via Pine Valley. Cross Slough near the river was also a popular destination.
The author has fond memories of camping out on the high banks at Holly Bluff on the Trinity County side of the River. The Angelina County side of the river was too low for camping except for the hardiest. The Murrah brothers, Elroy, Hubert, Chester, and Charles (Buck), and families would travel along dusty two-track roads through the woods in Trinity County to Holly Bluff Campground. At the time the campgroud was just an unimproved spot (no tables, shelters, or toilets) beside the river worn bare by campers. We would pitch tents improvised from tarpaulins with cheese cloth "mosquito bars" to keep the pesky flying critters away. The author's parents would throw a set of springs and a mattress into the bed of their 1951 Chevy pickup and would drape a mosquito bar and tarp over small stakes cut from nearby saplings in the frame holes. Uncle Hubert Murrah had the fanciest sleeping quarters, a green plywood topper on his pickup for camping, a veritable RV of its day.
Breakfast often consisted of biscuits and gravy containing vienna (pronounced "VI-anna" or "VEE-ny") sausages. Somtimes the cofee would be boiled using muddy river water in a large coffee can placed directly on the fire. It was a pearl of folk "wisdom" that the water was safe since the river "purified itself" every so many feet. A pair of pliers served as a handle to pour the ugly, smelly result into cups. It was at those times the author was grateful he did not drink coffee!
The grown men would set trot lines from Uncle Charles' boat up and down the river at favorite spots and bait them with crawfish seined from a cattle tank on the farm or catalpa worms picked from a catalpa tree in the yard. Sometimes they even baited the hooks with Ivory soap! The dumb catfish could not tell the difference. They would check the trot lines all through the night and in a couple of days would have a large supply of fish in a live box. Occasioinaly they would let a kid such as the author go on one of the runs to check the lines. They caught mainly catfish and drumfish, but occasionly the caught a buffalo fish. The catfish were never of the giant variety that were said to inhabit the river. The author's grandfather was said to have once caught a catfish so large that when it was placed in the back seat of a car its nose stuck out one door and its tail draped out the other.
The highlight of the trip was a fish fry on the last day of the trip. Shortly before the meal, one of the men would hang a catfish with a string through the gills from a tree limb and skin it. He would cut the tough skin just behind the gills and use a pair of pliers ot strip the skin down to the tail. From the skinned fish, he would cut filets and other pieces. Another of the men would use a large knife to remove the scales from the drum and buffalo fish and then cut them up. Uncle Charles, who was the most avid fisherman in the family, would break out his Coleman stove, fill it with "white gas", and pump up the reservoir to feed the fuel. Aunt Clarice or the author's mother would fill a large cast iron pot or skillet with Crisco and heat it until the temperature was just right. She breaded the fish with a mixture of salt, pepper, and cornmeal and plop them into the grease. When the fish started to float in the grease it was done. On another Coleman stove someone else would cook up a mess of French fries. When it was all done we ate our fill of fish and potatos and washed it all down with ice tea. The ice was usually purchased as a block, and pieces were chipped off for the tea with an ice pick.
Usually there was plenty of fish to take home and preserve in the freezer. Later we would all gather at a roadside park, such as the one south of Diboll on US 59, and have another fish fry.
The author's father, Elroy Murrah, fished only when the family gathered on the river, but the author's grandfather, Frank Johnson, was a confirmed "river rat" who preferred fishing to all else. Gertrude Johnson Murrah tells the story of Frank's being too "sick" to plow in the fields and his spending the day on the front porch "recuperating" on a pillow atop the back of an inverted straight chair. Frank had been raised mostly by his grandparents and was considered "spoiled." Later along came his brother-in-law Gordon McCarty in his wagon and shouted in his booming drawl, "Frank, let's go a fishin'!" Frank's illness vanished instantly, and soon he and Uncle Gordon were on their way to the River.
Richard M. Donovan has drawn a beautiful portrait of the Neches River and its natural wonders in his recent book "Paddling the Wild Neches."
One of Bradley Prairies advantages to early farmers is that it is high, open ground not divided by large creeks. The major creeks in the area are Stovall and Cedar Creeks. Stovall Creek rises south of the Angelina County Airport and flows south to the Neches River.
Cedar Creek rises in southwest Lufkin and lies northwest of Burke as it flows southwest into the Neches. One of the tributaries of the Cedar is Hurricane Creek south of Lufkin at old Boles. It gained the sobriquet "Stink Creek" from several generations who crossed it on the way to or from Lufkin along FM 324. The foul smell came from the raw sewage from Lufkin until a modern treatment plant was built at Boles.