Cotton Barge - Ethel McCutcheon
8 January 1913: Before the Ship Channel project was completed in 1914, shallow-draft barges brought cotton up Buffalo Bayou as far as the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou where the Allen Brothers brought Houston into existence. From simple wharfs on both sides of the waterway longshoremen, many of them descendants of slaves, unloaded cargo into cotton compress warehouses. The compresses processed the fiber for manufacture of cloth products and collected the seeds for cotton-seed oil production. The compress shown here was operated by The Direct Navigation Company just downstream from the San Jacinto Street bridge and south of Baker Street. The distant rail bridge over the bayou carried the first leg of the rail traffic into the great central section of America on the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad.
31 March 2017: As commerce shifted to larger vessels berthed downstream on the Houston Ship Channel, the wharves and warehouses so busy in 1913 were demolished and the land was generally not developed for other uses until quite recently. Baker Street is now the home of several incarceration facilities, and the site where the compress was located has been repurposed as a parking lot for the Harris County Human Human Resources Building and the jails in the vicinity. In several areas scars in the asphalt show where the buildings once stood and parts from the compress foundation can be identified on the margins. The above photograph was taken from the opposite bank on the south side of the bayou, then a part of a homeless encampment under the Elysian Viaduct bridgeworks. The viaduct has been removed in recent years and the encampment depopulated. The cotton barges have been replaced by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s pontoon tour boat, Spirit of the Bayou, which carries parties of 10 from Allen’s Landing to the McKee Street Bridge and back for a fee.
Postmarked: 8 January 1913; Houston, Texas “C”
Stamp: 1c Ben Franklin #374
To: Miss M. Fry
Dear Miss Myrtle
We are having some cold weather, but I suppose ice & snow is nothing new for your part of the country. but we had a nice Christmas. and now I am hard at work again I hope your father is better now. Love to all, your Chum.
This postcard is one of a series of 13 postcards exchanged between Ethel and Myrtle, and in none of these does Ethel reveal her last name. Identifying such unnamed authors brings the investigator through a nested set of procedures. The first is to hypothesize a familial relationship ranging from sibling to cousin or more distant relatives. Myrtle Fry’s immediate family consisted of three brothers and two sisters, and she had 13 Fry aunts and uncles and 7 Blackburn aunts and uncles, but none with family members named Ethel.
Myrtle Dona Fry was just two days shy of her 28th birthday when Ethel wrote this postcard to her on January 8, 1913. A youngest child, Myrtle lived with her widowed father John Gilmore Fry and sisters Mary L. and Eva Alice after her mother Nancy Elizabeth Blackburn died in 1904. Killeen was a farming market town of 1200 citizens, a population that would remain stable through most of the early 20th century. Myrtle seems to have led a quiet life, never marrying but making a partnership with her sister Mary, two spinsters living together in the old family home, strongly connected to their Fry and Blackburn relations.
What brought Myrtle Fry and Ethel together is not evident from their postcard correspondence from 1911-1915. Ethel makes frequent mention of Houston’s annual Not-Su-Oh (Houston spelled backwards) carnival, the Gulf Coast Industrial Exposition celebrated from 1899 until 1915 as a fair featuring agricultural and horticultural products manufactured in Texas. Myrtle may have traveled to Houston and met Ethel in connection with the festivities. Many of the activities were centered on chaperoned youth events, so they may have encountered each other there and maintained communications for a few years thereafter. Miss Fry traveled to Houston in 1911, and Ethel laments not not seeing her “Chum,” as she often refers to her. They led quite different lives, Myrtle ensconced as her father’s dependent in a small town in Central Texas, Ethel a working girl in booming Houston.
They were almost exact contemporaries, Ethel was just 23 days older than Myrtle. As she wrote the postcard, Ethel was a stenographer living with her father Henry Lister McCutcheon (a watchman), mother Margaret Knox McCutcheon, sister Gertrude B. (a bookkeeper), brother Harry Knox McCutcheon and brother John L. McCutcheon (fireman at M&P Oil Mill). They lived in the 5th Ward northeast of downtown at 204 Bayou at Roanoke (later renamed Clinton). At the time the area was primarily industrial area, with residents scattered in between warehouses, factories, and industrial buildings. Ethel would have been familiar with Cale-Lane Oil Company [LINK], another cottonseed oil company one block west and north. Extracting the oil from cotton-seed was a big business then, and Ethel’s brothers worked just blocks from home. Harry Knox McCutcheon was manager of the Houston Cooperative Cooperage Co, a business manufacturing barrels conveniently located just behind the M&P Oil Mill at the east end of Roanoke Street where his brother John worked as a fireman and he sometimes clerked.
The McCutcheon family was Scotch and English, immigrating from the town of Carlisle in Cumbria just north of the Lake District and near the Scottish border. Ethel’s father no doubt remembered his childhood at 31 Scotch Street where his father, Henry Lister McCutcheon, was an ironmonger providing hardware for domestic use. Ethel’s parents immigrated on the S.S. City of Montreal from Liverpool to New York on 5 March 1881. Her Uncle Joshua immigrated as well and the brothers were in Austin by 1885 where Joshua was in partnership with John Thompson selling agricultural implements and farm and mill machinery, a trade similar to the McCutcheon’s father in Carlisle. The brothers moved to Houston by 1892, Joshua working as a machinery purchasing agent and Henry as a machinist at Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, a St. Louis Company [the site now underlays UH Downtown]. Henry and his family settled into their house at 204 Bayou by 1895 when Ethel was about 10 years old, and she came to adulthood there.
Ethel married on 20 December 1921 to Victor Arthur Lang, a city engineer living with his widowed mother Ida Thies and brother Walter Sydney Lang at 406 Williard in the Fairview Addition. Ida was the daughter of John W. L. Theis, a beer retailer in 1881 in Edmonton about 10 miles north of London, now a London suburb. Ida and her sister Bertha were born in Mauritius, a French Protectorate in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, younger siblings John and Agnes were born in Edmonton. Ida attended Atley Road School at 61 Usher Road as a girl, and immigrated to America by herself at age 22 on board the “Hammonia” arriving in New York 21 October 1887. She made her way to Houston, marrying Joseph Frances Lang, cashier at the First National Bank of Houston, and by him had 3 children, one of whom was born and died between 1900 and 1910. The Lang family lived at 1012 Houston Avenue just north of Washington from 1892 until after Victor’s father died 27 April 1911 leaving his Houston family and a European family of 2 sons and 3 daughters. The house was taken over by Beth Emeth Synagogue, and later replaced by a brick synagogue building, occupied in recent decades by Central Police Supply. Ida and her boys moved to 406 Williard after she became widowed, and it is not certain whether Victor and his bride Ethel McCutcheon lives there or elsewhere after they married. The marriage lasted less than three years before they were divorced, apparently no children were born to this union. Victor remained with his mother for many years until her death 31 August 1956, with Victor Arthur Lang signing her death certificate. Ida, Walter and Victor are buried in South Park Cemetery in Pearland, Brazilian County, TX and Joseph Lang is buried in the German Cemetery on Washington Avenue in Houston.
Ethel married again soon after her divorce on 11 September 1924 to James Port [Portervine or Poitevent] McMillan, son of Ada Bludworth and James Andrew McMillan. Ada’s father was Milton Houston Bludworth (1825-1880), and her grandfather was Portervine [or Poitevent] Bludworth (1776-1858) from which Ethel’s husband received his unusual middle name, often shortened to Porter or Port. Poitevent Bludworth was a student at St. Louis University in 1837, boarding in St. Louis, Missouri from his family home in Nachitoches Parrish, LA, a parish that then encompassed most of northwest Louisiana. The Bludworth family came to America early in the 18th century, first to Virginia then North Carolina and Louisiana as slave-owning plantation owners.
They came to Texas after 1850 to settle on the Gulf Coast at first in Jefferson County on the border with Louisiana, then to Matagorda Bay. The port of Indianola on the bay rivaled Galveston in the mid-nineteenth century as a port city but proved too vulnerable to hurricanes to persist after the 1880’s. Saluria Island was founded in 1847 on a sandbar in Pass Cavallo at the treacherous mouth of Matagorda Bay, a site even more vulnerable than Indianola. Only slightly above sea level, a few families eked out a living on the island as sheep and cattle herdsmen. A hurricane in 1875 wiped out 90% of the people living there, and what little was rebuilt was completely taken out by another hurricane in 1886. Poitevent Bludworth’s sons Milton and William were at Saluria in 1870, and Milton’s daughter Ada (1858-1930) married James Andrew McMillan (1857-1910) late in that decade. Their son James Port McMillan was born 31 March 1879. After Saluria Island Ada and James McMillan took their family to Rockport and after James died Ada made a poor living as a dressmaker and James Port McMillan worked as a general laborer. He was in Houston by 1917 when he registered for the WWI draft as a fastener for Universal Ship-Building Co., was described as tall with black hair and black eyes. By 1920 as a 40 year old single man, he was working in an oil refinery, rooming at a boarding house at 416 LaBranch. His mother Ada remained in Rockport with her daughter Lula (Coward) Pragler (later Teagle).
Ethel and James Port McMillan moved to the east side at 705 Wayside at Canal, but James died after less than five years of marriage on 19 April 1929 at 50 years of age. She continued to live at the house, first with her mother and brother John L. McCutcheon, until her brother died in 1935 and her mother died in 1940. She took in boarders and worked at various jobs, including janitorial work at Humble Oil & Refinery but kept her house. Ethel died 5 October 1962 and is buried beside her husband at Forest Park Lawndale in the McLelland plot with the epitaph “Beloved Aunt.” Her house is gone and the site is a convenience market and gas station.