The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, February 29, 2008, Columns

At the Taylor-Stevenson Ranch, they still cut their own hay for their livestock. Less than 16 miles from downtown Houston, the working ranch and the American Cowboy Museum welcome visitors to pet the animals and hear the stories of one of Texas' most astonishing African-American ranching families.

"We were considered a long way out at one time," says Mollie Stevenson Jr., the matriarch of the family that has lived on the ranch for seven generations. "Friends from Houston would pack a lunch and go to the bathroom before they came out to see us."

A tall, friendly woman with a quick smile, Stevenson still radiates the poise of a former professional model. Her handshake wraps your hand in a bear hug. Like any Texas woman, she won't reveal her age or how many acres she owns. After her mother passed away in 2003, Stevenson took over the ranch's educational mission.

"Spring is the best time to visit the ranch," Stevenson says. "That's when we have the most animals for the children to pet." Schoolchildren who visit the working museum go horseback riding, hear a story in a teepee, work on crafts, and meet the animals in the petting area. Besides the cows and horses, Stevenson has a brood of peacocks, rabbits, chickens, ducks, goats, and a Watusi cow. Of course, there is a homework assignment at the end of the tour. Families are welcome to visit the ranch, by appointment, as well as school and church groups.

The best part of walking around the ranch with Stevenson is hearing her family stories. The Taylor family arrived in Houston from New England soon after Texas' independence. Edward W. and Horace Taylor established a successful mercantile business and became pillars of a growing Houston community.

Edward's only son, Edward R. Taylor, returned from the Civil War suffering from tuberculosis. The family hired a former slave named Ann George to care for their son. The patient and the nurse fell in love, and the couple moved to a 640-acre ranch 10 miles outside of town.

Interracial marriages were illegal in Texas at the time, so the remoteness of the ranch provided them a certain amount of privacy. E.R. and Ann had six children; the three who lived to adulthood were among the first black Texans to attend college.

Although the ranch was successful, things really changed when oil was discovered in one of the water wells. Howard Hughes Sr. used his rotary drill for the first time in Taylor's pasture to bring in the second major oil field in Texas.

After E.R. died, the family managed to hang on to the farm by tenacity and a well-written will. "It wasn't easy during those times," Stevenson said. Her mother was largely responsible for retaining the family's rights to the land and the oil.

By all accounts, Mollie Stevenson Sr. was a savvy and strong-willed woman. Educated at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., she traveled the world before settling down on the ranch with her husband, Ben Stevenson, a seven-time all-American football player at Tuskegee Institute. Both Mollie Stevensons were inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2001 in recognition for their maintaining one of the oldest black-owned ranches in the U.S.

In 1986, the family donated part of the original homestead at Almeda and Reed roads to the city as the E.R. and Ann Taylor Park. The natural area provides cover to migrating and native wildlife. An all-weather hiking trail meanders to Ann's grave under an old oak tree tangled in grapevines. E.R. was buried in the Confederate soldiers' cemetery in Houston.

The Taylor-Stevenson Ranch and American Cowboy Museum are located at 11822 Almeda Rd., just south of Loop 610 and southeast of the Astrodome. Appointments can be made by calling 713/433-4441.

While you're in the area of South Houston, Mollie Stevenson Jr. recommends visiting the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum at 1834 Southmore off Almeda Road (713/942-8920) and the Black Heritage Gallery at 5408 Almeda Rd. (713/529-7900). For real ranch food, stop by Just Oxtails Soul Food at 4207 Reed Rd., where they serve a delicious assortment of vegetables, oxtails in a thick brown gravy, ham hocks, and fried chicken.

869th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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