What Life Was Like For Katy’s Earliest Families?
© Katy Magazine – Katy, Texas 2005
By Katrina Katsarelis
Photography courtesy of: Roberta Wright Rylander
If you stop and look around Katy with its shopping mall, car dealerships, stores, and sprawling homes, it’s hard to imagine what life was like for Katy’s earliest settlers. Folks who chose Katy as their home in the late 1800s did so for very different reasons than people do today. Back then, Texas was considered ‘wild country,’ so these early families were a courageous bunch, lured by cheap land and a strong desire to own a piece of Texas. With little more than their dreams for a better life, these families boarded the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (M-K-T) railroad destined for a place people called Cane Island. The name Katy came later and historians believe the city was named after the M-K-T railroad, which was better known as “The Katy.” Another legend says Katy was named after the saloon keeper’s wife of the same name, who was always there to greet weary travelers with a stiff drink. It was said some visitors would arrive and immediately head off to the saloon to ‘go see Katy.’
North and Midwest Influences
Roberta Wright Rylander, 83, a Katy historian, says most of the families came from Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Other folks came from Indiana, Nebraska, and Kansas. A man named Adam Henry Stockdick was hired by the railroad to promote Katy and encourage other families to move here. Stockdick arrived in 1895 and began organizing the land for sale, staking out the areas, drawing up maps, and preparing legal documents for the sale of property. Stockdick was the town’s ‘land man’ who placed ads in newspapers touting the orange orchards, rice farms, and oil lands of Katy. A savvy real estate land man, Stockdick knew how to showcase Katy in its best light. “It was best to invite potential buyers to come for visits during early spring or fall, because once people saw the mosquitoes, heat and humidity, some never wanted to return.” says Rosanne Stockdick Lopez, a 4th generation Katy native and great-granddaughter of Adam Henry Stockdick. Despite the heat, humidity and insects, many families moved to Katy and began farming a variety of crops until finally one thing stuck. Rice. Word continued to spread about Katy’s rich soil and cheap land, and soon rice farms sprung up all over Katy’s outlying areas. The rice crops generally did very well, as long as the weather held out. When the weather was bad, crops suffered and families lost their land.
Katy Overcomes Hardship
Many families arrived in the late 1800s and had just started to settle in when disaster struck. On September 8, 1900 the skies grew black as the Galveston Hurricane pummeled the gulf coast with 120 mile an hour winds and 15-20 foot wave surges. The ruthless winds traveled all the way to Katy, leaving thousands dead in its path. The hurricane was deemed the worst natural disaster in U.S. history killing an estimated 6000-12,000 people. Although nobody in Katy perished, historians say the 1900 Galveston hurricane was more deadly than any storm in the U.S. before or since. Virtually every structure in Katy was completely destroyed or structurally damaged. At the time, lumber was not abundant or affordable so resourceful Katy settlers used debris to rebuild what they could. “If a building was no longer usable or needed, they stripped the usable building material from it and used it to build new homes, stores, or buildings,” says Lopez. Lopez says the 1900 hurricane is the reason there aren’t that many historical buildings left in Katy.
Families Helping Families
The only silver lining of the 1900 hurricane was the genuine human kindness that arose from the devastation. “Even though there was a lot of damage in town, the citizens shared whatever they had with those who lost everything. They shared clothes, shoes, food, and all basic necessities,” says Lopez. “It was a very hard time for everyone, and it took a long time to rebuild and recover.”
Over the next several years, many farms failed while others weathered the storm and made it through. With true Texas diligence, farmers kept trying to make a home for their families, and grew whatever kinds of crops they could produce. When bad weather caused crops to suffer, the land would be taken back by the bank. The farmers would apply for more loans and start over; many kept trying until they could eke out a living and pay off the land. Others gave up and left Katy. Bad weather was always a major factor in the lives of the early rice farmers. “The people of Katy learned to have a genuine respect for hurricanes and tornadoes,” says Lopez.
The Old Oaks of Katy
When the settlers arrived, Katy was only a bald prairie with barely a tree in sight. According to historians, nearly all of Katy’s trees were planted by early settlers to provide shade for the homes and the town. “Every beautiful old oak that you see in Katy was carefully planted and maintained,” says Lopez. Lopez says her great-grandfather Stockdick, Katy’s ‘land man’, was always on the lookout for acorns whenever he traveled into Houston. “When he saw a really beautiful oak tree, he would stop and pick up several acorns from around the tree, bring them home, and plant them. Lopez is says many of the statuesque trees in and around Katy are descendants of the beautiful old oak trees her great-grandfather scouted in Houston.
A New Way to Cool Off
By the mid 1900s, the people in Katy discovered another way to cool off. By then, many fortunate farmers had built rice wells to irrigate their crops which doubled as ice cold swimming holes. Huge pipes pumped ice cold water into a pool that was then pushed on through long canals and into the rice fields. Lopez recalls, “Every year my Dad would clean out the hole so it was fairly deep and wide. He kept one side shallow for little kids before he began making the long canals to the rice fields. We couldn’t wait for him to turn on that pump to start flooding the fields. During harvest time, farm hands knew that at 5:00 p.m. they were allowed to go jump in the swimming hole.”
Early School Life
Most of Katy’s school children lived on farms and went to school at home or in a one room country school in the outlying areas. Some of Katy’s founding fathers set aside land for the original ‘Katy School’, a modest wood structure located at Avenue A and 6th Street. The first school teacher, Mrs. Edna James, taught students there until the new brick Katy School, built in 1909. By time the Katy ISD was organized in 1918, the high standards and student expectations had already started formulating. When the Katy ISD was founded, children from all the small farm schools were brought together in the town of Katy. Historians say the Northerners and Midwesterners who came to Katy were a fairly educated group who wanted their sons and daughters to be properly schooled. Some of Katy’s early educators had unique teaching styles and were immersed in the student’s lives because they usually lived with local families. According to Roberta Rylander, the most sought after teacher in Katy’s early days was Mrs. Mary Wilkenson. “Mary was from Brown and she married Mr. Clark Wilkenson and he moved her to Katy,” says Rylander. Wilkenson’s students did very well and also enjoyed their teachings. Rylander says Wilkenson was unique because she was extremely patriotic and instilled a sense of pride in her students. “Everybody wanted their children to have Miss Mary.”
Katy’s early citizens worked very hard but they also enjoyed socializing and gathering together. As a Christian community made up of mostly Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians, local entertainment generally centered around the church. Sometimes the Katy Ladies Aid Society or other organizations raised money by holding Box Suppers where single ladies in town brought a dinner in a fancily decorated box and the men bid on the boxes. The man who bid highest on a certain box would share the dinner inside with the box’s female donor. “Boys tried to hide outside to see who brought which boxes,” says Lopez.
School activities were also a big part of Katy life. Mothers regularly attended school spelling bees and recitation programs during the day, while fathers worked on the farms. The women also attended quilting bees or joined the Ladies Aid society where they raised money for various causes. By the 30s, the Katy Literary Club and a Garden Club was formed. Rodeos were also an important as a form of entertainment and Katy set up a practice arena right in town where young people could practice and perform.
So the next time you look around Katy, think about its earliest citizens who worked hard to create Katy with little more than their bare hands. Every time you see a beautiful old oak tree in Katy, remember that someone most likely planted an acorn there for future generations. Think about the rice farmers who probably worked the very land your home rests on. The perseverance and resourcefulness of Katy’s original families set the standard for the high-achieving, caring people of Katy today. For families living here now, Katy still offers all the big city amenities with the same southern hospitality of a traditional Texas city. The Katy Herald of summed it up best back in 1909.
“Taking all in all, the healthy climate, good drinking water, well-educated and sociable people, and the numerous advantages, there is no better; no more desirable place in the United States than Katy for a permanent residence.”
– The Katy Herald, February 19, 1909
Special thanks to the following people for contributing to this story:
Carol Adams, president of the Katy Heritage Society. Adams also serves on the Katy Heritage Park Board, the team who is overseeing the development of Katy’s new historical center, Katy Heritage Park.
Rosanne Stockdick Lopez, owner of ABC Country Store, and 4th generation Katy native. Lopez is a descendant of the Stockdick and Peck families. Lopez, her grandmother, Ruth Monigold Peck, her Mother Floy Peck Stockdick, her Dad W. C. Stockdick Jr, and her three daughters Amy, Bethany, and Courtney all graduated from Katy High School. Lopez is very interested in preserving Katy’s history and has a display in the store showcasing Katy’s history.
Roberta Wright Rylander, a well-known Katy historian and a descendent of the Schlipf and Wright families. Roberta Wright Rylander and the late Fred Rylander generously donated property, homes, photography, and other items to the Katy Heritage Society which was founded in 1979. In 1991, she authored Applauding the Past of Katy, a self-published book that documents Katy’s history. Rylander recently had an elementary school named in her honor by the Katy Independent School District.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2003 Edition of Katy Magazine. Katrina Katsarelis is the editor and publisher of Katy Magazine.
SIDEBAR TO ARTICLE:
Katy Heritage Park
The Heritage Society and the City of Katy Team up to Keep Katy’s History Alive
As a way to commemorate and preserve some of Katy’s rich history, the Heritage Society and the City of Katy have teamed up to create Katy Heritage Park. Located east of Avenue D. on George Bush Drive, Katy Heritage Park will be the resting place for several old town buildings and homes that are currently being restored. Eventually, the Heritage Society has plans to decorate the homes and buildings with authentic furnishings from Katy’s early days, and even staff the park with docents and volunteers. The Heritage Society has contributed their buildings, period clothing, household items, and furniture while the City of Katy is providing the space and sharing in the cost of the utilities to run the park.
“Our goal has always been to preserve and restore locally significant historical landmarks. We want to protect these resources for the use, education, economic benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations,” says Carol Adams, president of the Katy Heritage Society. “In order for residents and visitors to really appreciate the city of Katy we need to recognize how we got here.”
The Katy Heritage Society moved three homes and the original Katy post office to this location last July and will continue to expand and enhance this area in many ways. A Katy Heritage Park Board has been formed to oversee the development of this new historical showplace. Plans are underway to furnish the buildings, enhance the park with period lighting and sidewalks, create a tourist center, and much more. Both the City of Katy and the Heritage Park agree this project is still a work in progress but they are off to a great start.
“I have to take off my hat off to the heritage society for restoring and keeping these homes, and for having the vision to do what they’re doing today,” says Mayor Doyle Callender. “People in Katy are proud of their past and they want to retain some of it.”
To join the Katy Heritage Society and help preserve Katy’s past, visit www.katyheritagesociety.com.
Taken in front of the L.G. Tucker home in early 1900’s. (l-r) Oscar Cobb, Dr. Green, Jessie Stockdick, W.H. Weller & Mrs. Weller in their Maxwell, Mrs. L.G. Tucker, Beryl Breedlove, Edna Weirather, Agnes Shea, Fred Daley, Harriet Cobb, Bernard Hayslip, Ed Stockdick, L.G. Lucker, Lilly Cobb, Jennie Hayes, J.H. Wright, Jake Cobb.
Photo courtesy of Roberta Wright Ryandler