Part 14: Sam Houston and the Enigmatic Stranger
Huntsville is a small city of around 47,000, located about an hour north of Houston. Its main industries are: 1. A large part of the state prison system and 2. The campus of Sam Houston State University. Back in the Dark Ages, I attended there, achieving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in less than three years, one very hard slog. During that time, the town’s population was pegged at 17,000. Subtract prison inmates and non-local college students and the actual tally of residents was likely closer to 12,000.
There was no Walmart, Home Depot, or McDonald’s. But there was an A &W Root Beer and a couple of greasy spoon joints where a full meal could be had for $1.25. On the town square was a one-screen movie theater, reputed by college students to have premiered Gone With the Wind just the year before, and the Texan Café, where I once contracted food poisoning. Amazingly, the café still exists in the same spot.
For students and townspeople alike, few places of interest were around to explore, mainly the rather small Sam Houston Museum, his "dog-trot" house, and larger “steamboat” house where Sam breathed his last. Even so, one weekend, my then-boyfriend and I discovered Oakwood Cemetery in a quiet neighborhood at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue I. It was like a sudden area of woods within the town, not well-kept, overgrown trees and underbrush, and lots of 19th century gravestones scattered about, many tall and elaborate.
Even during broad daylight, the place held a particular eeriness, though old cemeteries are always great troves of stories, babies who lived for just one day, teenagers and their mothers buried together, hardy oldsters who reached their nineties. I remember a grouping of large, beautifully carved stones, one being a fine sculpture of a young girl. So tragic.
The grave that especially caught my attention was near the street and belonged to General Houston himself. It was a long, horizontal stone box. His name, birth and death dates, March 2, 1793 to July 26, 1863, were carved across the stone top, and probably an epitaph of sorts that I don’t recall. The box sagged to one side and a large crack snaked diagonally from left to right. I had seen gravesites of other famous men, but this was pitiful. Why was Sam Houston so forgotten?
Years passed and recently, I perused online, curious to see how Huntsville has changed. Big surprise. My quick research came upon photos of Oakwood Cemetery as it is now. It looks beautiful. Apparently, historically-minded people had worked to clean up the place. Gone are the overgrown trees and underbrush, replaced with manicured lawn grass and flowers. Signage and historical markers point to gravesites of community leaders. Ownership was transferred by the Cemetery Association to the city and the property was named a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2003.
Also gone is the cracked, stone box that indicated Houston’s original burial site. I don’t remember the large memorial of light gray Texas granite that sits at the front of the grounds, though the Oakwood website states it was placed there in 1911, so it must be true. In three sections, Sam is in the middle, riding a horse and waving his hat. On the left side is an angel-looking creature, labeled Lady Victory. On the right is another angel-type creature, labeled Lady History. Impressive. It faces Avenue I and is well-lit at night.
During this investigation, I came across a Huntsville legend, a recent one, begun sometime after I graduated and moved on. It seems that every year on the night before Sam’s birthday, someone arrives bearing a plate containing six oysters, three sugar cookies, and a cup of coffee with three lumps of sugar. These were foods that Houston liked, having mentioned that information in a letter. The plate is left next to the grave without so much as a Happy Birthday note.
No one knows the name of the delivery person and no one knows how long the ceremony has been performed. Most in Huntsville agree it’s been at least ten years, although the time could be longer, maybe double that low-end estimate.
In 2022, a fellow named Michael Marks, a writer for the Texas Standard, decided to attempt unmasking the unknown, once-a-year visitor to Sam Houston’s gravesite. On the late evening of March 1, Marks went to Oakwood Cemetery, intending to simply sit in his car and wait.
To pass the time, he listened to various programs on the car radio. Hours crept by and he considered giving up the quest, rather like the child who desperately wants to see Santa filling the stockings, but can’t remain awake long enough. But no, Marks shook off the feelings of defeat and continued the wait.
A few minutes past 3 a.m., car headlights appeared, coming from behind. The vehicle rolled past Marks’s hiding place and in the floodlights of Houston’s memorial, the car’s driver parked nearby, across the street. Time dragged, until finally the driver’s door opened. A man wearing a dark hat and clothes got out. He held a plastic bag from a grocery store.
Mr. Marks slipped from his car and boldly said, Good evening. The other man spoke calmly, Good morning. He didn’t hurry away, as though caught red-handed. In fact, he didn’t seem at all bothered by encountering another person in the middle of the night. He walked to the memorial and knelt. Then he pulled items from the grocery bag — a tray, a plate, oysters, cookies, and a coffee cup. He arranged everything neatly on the ground next to the monument, then rose and stood wordlessly for less than a minute.
His mission was complete and he turned to leave. Marks chose that moment to close the small distance between himself and the enigmatic stranger. He introduced himself and asked the fellow’s name, which was given without hesitation. Perhaps more important was Marks’s other question. Why? The man replied that, years before, he and his small group of friends had discussed doing something to show respect for Houston, the Great Man, so they brought this plate of food in the early hours of his birthday, instead of flowers. It was their hope to remind people of Sam. He had been a real person, an honorable gentleman who made great sacrifices to help begin Texas.
The initial idea had been for just a one-time thing. But the next year, the friends did it again, and the next and the next. Townspeople started to notice the odd phenomenon and then it wasn’t a lark for the friends anymore. It was a responsibility to keep it going. After this short conversation, Marks and the gift-bringer parted ways.
The following day, Marks called a friend who had expressed much interest to know the identity of the memorial visitor and Marks gave it away. Nevertheless, they agreed it should go no further. The friend commented, Life needs more mysteries.
Most locals don’t want to know who’s bringing the plate of food once a year. They want the name to be a guarded secret. That way, the story is a cherished fantasy and can remain so.
Nowadays, Mr. Marks says he will indeed reveal the name of the stranger if someone asks. But a questioner should be cautious. Back to the Santa analogy — if you discover the fellow in the red suit and fake beard is really just your dad, the fantasy vanishes, never to return.
Sam Houston Memorial, 1911, by famed sculptor Pompeo Copperini
Oakwood Cemetery, established 1847
AustinChronicle.com, Day Trips: Sam Houston’s Grave, Huntsville
TexasStandard.org, Searching for Sam Houston’s Mysterious Graveside Birthday Visitor,