Reminiscences of Old Colorado County Boyhood Days With Captain Donovan [William Donovant] “Ole’ Cap’n”
By Dr. I. B. Sigler, Sealy
As a boy father had told us of the wonderful old Donovan plantation; of its roving fields of cane and its thousands of acres of cotton so white in the hazy autumn days; of the wonderful old sugar mill at Lakeside and. its great pecan trees.
Sometimes a privilege comes to us as we travel along life's highway and so it came to me when one day father told me that Captain wanted me to weigh cane at that old sugar mill, while my brother was wanted to run the centrifugal machine.
So, one day about dark in October 1894 we arrived at that romantic spot, and I was soon to know Captain Donovan; so lovingly called “the ole Cap’n” by darkies on the plantation. Long before we arrived at the sugar mill we could see the glare upon the sky as the firemen opened the furnace doors and fed bagesse into the fire. The report was general that the engines that ran the rollers to this old mill were once engines upon a steamboat on the Brazos. I believe this is true, because the exhaust from them could be heard a long ways just as the old river steamers upon the Mississippi.
History tells us that social institutions remain often for many years after the period has arrived when they have become decadent. And, so it was with the plantation life in the South. And the people of Colorado county and of Eagle Lake had a chance to see this upon the old plantation of Captain Donovan. Comprising some 12,000 acres, it was a segment of the old South, still living 30 years after the war's end.
I can remember yet, going up to the top of the old mill and viewing the hundreds of acres of waving cane and white fields of cotton in the Indian summer days of '94, while away to the south the timber line of the river could be seen. I often think how little the people of those days realized how fascinating was this old plantation, where the old South and the new South lived side by side.
Captain Donovan was one of the most interesting characters Texas ever had. In his character was blended the aristocrat and the democrat. From his store in Eagle Lake, he would drive out to the plantation in his buggy at times, more often he would ride horseback.
Cicero Howard, a colored man, was foreman over the cotton farms upon which the colored people lived, and he began there getting his report, and, he usually, carried several hundred dollars in silver to hand out along the way to Lakeside. There he had his office in a simple building, where he used to retire to rest after seeing that his horse was taken care of. Here was the mill he first operated, in which the Mexicans held forth during the sugar season. They stripped and cut the cane and at night that old mill, with its smoke and its Monte games was like a page from Old Mexico.
Captain Donovan's left arm was gone--shot away during the war, but he knew no fear.
At Lakeside, too, was his commissary and the houses where the men who ran the mills stayed, and the kitchen and dining room where they ate on the old plantation.
There was always a fall garden, with plenty of ribbon cane syrup and fresh vegetables, there was always plenty of good food. And when the noon meal time arrived Captain Donovan would sit at the head of the table with the men who worked in the mill and the store, like some old patriarch of whom we read. No man on that wonderful old plantation was too humble to address him.
The field hands, who cut the cane, were paid off in checks every night. The two field foremen would line them up, with a slip for their time. And sometimes I would start down the line and give each one a brass check, sometimes the store manager, Mr. Turnbaugh. And on the first of the month the ole Cap'n would come to Lakeside with several hundred dollars in silver and back of the commissary Mr. Hale, Mr. Turnbaugh and I would count up their checks and give them silver dollars for their checks. Generally the best gambler held the most checks.
Back of the commissar was a room about 20 feet square, into which we emptied the pecans as they came in. About twice a week we would load the pecans on wagons and, send in, sugar and pecans, to Mr. Brewster Gilmer, who was the bookkeeper at the old Cap'n's store at Eagle Lake.
Often the Cap'n wore a worried look on his face, and looking back now I can see why. Plantation A sugar those days sold for $3.75 a hundred, and YC for $3.50. The summer of 1894 we had abundant rains and that year cane was from 10 to 12 feet high and much of it weighed 35 tons to the acre. The first sugar ran about 160 pounds to the ton, of course this was not refined sugar as we know it now.
It was centrifugal sugar, dried in a hot room and packed in barrels. On top of each barrel was stenciled the net weight and Lakeside Plantation, Wm. Donovan.
The autumn of '94 was like those one reads of in stories of early America-perfect Indian summer with cool nights, and the blue haze hanging all over that beautiful farm.
Those old steamboat engines ran day and night, hoping against hope to get all of the cane in before some disaster befell it. On through January without a cloudy day, the old mills ground on, except Sundays. February came in still bright and clear, but, alas! disaster was to come to romantic old Lakeside soon for on the 13th and 14th we had one of the most disastrous snow storms in Texas history. Though the cane was wind rowed and much of it was covered up, nearly all of it yielded so little sugar its loss was a serious blow to proud old Captain Donovan.
(This is the first of a series of three articles written by Dr. Sigler for The Citizen. Others will appear later).
Colorado County Citizen, October 17, 1940, pages 1 and 4