Liberty County History

An occasional gathering place for articles, documents, photographs, records and other ephemera dealing with the history of Liberty County, Texas.


Kevin Ladd is director of the Wallisville Heritage Park at Wallisville, Chambers County, TX and lives in Hardin, TX. He is chairman of the Liberty County Historical Commission and writes for "Texas Illustrated," a monthly publication of the Liberty Gazette newspaper, which is devoted to local history and folklore.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

John V. Clay (1912-1986)

I first encountered John V. Clay in the late 1970s during a Liberty County Historical Commission field trip to the Big Thicket Museum at Saratoga, Texas. Sandy Pickett, our chairperson at the time, encouraged everyone to bring a brown bag lunch. At some appropriate time, she said, we would pause in our journey to break bread for the noonday meal. Mr. Clay arrived on the scene in what I would later learn was his customary attire: comfortable khaki pants and a large shirt of like material. The shirt was worn outside of his pants, as opposed to being tucked in, partially obscuring a sizable belly. He finished off his outfit with comfortable shoes and a large brimmed hat of the style made popular by Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive" Buck, the noted big game hunter of yesteryear. His appearance was made all the more remarkable by the presence of an attractive, younger woman, clearly half his age, who could only be described as buxom. As a young boy once said to Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she possessed a great deal of raw animal magnetism. Mr. Clay escorted her around in a courtly, chivalrous manner. When it came time for lunch, they produced an entire smoked turkey and a huge bowl of potato salad. He proceeded to share his bounty with everyone in our group. Our meager sandwiches and potato chips paled in comparison. I liked him right off the bat. Over the years, I learned lots of things about him, but that episode was John V. Clay in a nutshell.

The young woman was named Phylis Harris. She was fair of skin and wore her auburn hair long and elaborately arranged. Like everyone else, I eventually asked Sandy, “Is that his girlfriend?” Sandy politely answered that, no, they were just friends. Whenever the occasion demanded it, Phylis would be at his side again and again over the next few years. None of us would ever come close to knowing the real story behind their relationship until after his death.

He came into the world at Houston in 1912, one of five sons (and one daughter) born into a good Catholic family. His father, William Conrad Clay, came from old German stock and his surname had long since been reduced to those four letters. He operated a store of the general merchandise variety. His mother, Mary Theresa (Culliton) Clay, was devoted to the Catholic faith and aspired for many years to see one of her sons enter the priesthood, particularly the Franciscan Order. None of the boys ever made that leap of faith, and even late in life he would become angry all over again at the mere thought of the pressure they endured. Someone in his family tree bore the name Vollmer, which became his middle name, although he didn't like this information to get out to the public.

John graduated from St. Thomas and briefly attended Texas A&M, but the rigors of scholarship did not appeal to him then – although it would later on in a grand way. He went to work, instead, in 1936 for Shell Oil Company, a career interrupted only by his service during World War II with the Seabees. The name, he said, stood for “confused bastards.” He was nevertheless assigned to Guadalcanal and other places in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, serving out his final months in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. When it was all over, he came back to Shell and married a young widow by the name of Juanita, who had a young daughter named Mary. John V. built them a quant log house in the Cloverleaf area of Channelview. He raised wonderful camellia bushes, which grew into enormous treelike dimensions and ranged from white and red, to pink and lavender. He eventually retired from Shell in early 1963.

By that time, of course, his aged mother had long since abandoned all hopes of having a Father Clay within her family and instead turned her attention to a lifelong fascination: The Franciscan Missionary Order. She was principally interested in Mission Nuestra Senora de la Luz (Our Lady of Light), which had been established somewhere near Wallisville in 1756 and abandoned fifteen years later. She had spent much of her life studying about the mission and the followers of gentle St. Francis of Assisi who were once stationed there. Built of saplings and a crude stucco made of mud and moss, the buildings that made up the mission had long ago fallen victim to the elements.

Sometime around 1949, Mrs. Clay talked one of her other sons, W. C. “Bill” Clay, into joining her in the search for the mission site. On Sunday afternoons they would take long drives through the hamlets and haunts of Chambers County, searching for any place that might remind them of the written records. Their efforts, however, resulted in no great discoveries. John took up the search in 1959 when his mother’s health began to fail.

He haunted libraries across the state, began a lively correspondence with historians and scholars of various disciplines, and taught himself to read the Castillian Spanish common to official correspondence of the 18th Century. His letters were much like him, filled with grandiose words and colorful phrases, courteous to men and gracious to women.

One day at the Fondren Library at Rice University he stumbled onto a reference to a map of the complex that had been prepared by a Spanish engineer. The map, at one time filed away in a London museum, had been relocated and then misfiled during the Blitzkrieg. The discovery of the 1767 Nicolas de la Fora map gave Clay something to work with. He would study the modern maps of the Trinity River, comparing each bend with the Spanish engineer's map, and eventually deciding the place was located just north of Wallisville. He went out one day with a tractor and an auger, backed up to a few spots, and eventually pulled up artifacts left by the Spanish. This method, an archeologist's nightmare to be sure, led to a state-sponsored dig at the site in 1966 and verification that this was, indeed, the actual location. In the waning days of his mother's life, John brought her out to the site and showed her around. Here is where the chapel stood. The kitchen was over here. The missionaries slept in a building that stood right here. It was a remarkable feat, seeking that which was once lost and restoring oneself in the eyes of one’s mother. The late Jim Kyle, longtime feature editor for the Baytown Sun newspaper, one time asked him, "John, why did you do this? What was your motivation?" Without batting an eye, John Clay said, "Jim, my Mother asked me to."

He did not stop there. He became enthralled with the old houses of Chambers and Liberty counties, capturing them in photographs with his trusty Graflex camera. It was officially known as the Pacemaker Crown and Speed Graphic, a fine old device that required a tripod, hood, light meter and a lion's share of patience. It produced remarkable photographs, and he eventually captured every old home in Chambers County and most in Liberty.

He became fascinated also with Colonel Juan Davis Bradburn, the controversial commander of Fort Anahuac, an American in the employ of the Mexican military. No one has every accurately determined the last resting place of Bradburn. John V. Clay tried his best, ordering maps and probing through old records, but never hit paydirt. In the process, however, he produced a remarkable collection of papers on Bradburn's life and times.

When I went to work for the Wallisville Heritage Park in the fall of 1981, Mr. Clay had already been there for a year and worked almost full time as a volunteer staff member. His chief mission was copying the photographs brought in by Chambers County residents. This project led to an extensive collection of copy negatives documenting early families, homes, businesses and events.

He made his journeys from Channelview to Wallisville in a well-beaten AMC Spirit vehicle, which was painted a rustic brown and bore many battle scars and war wounds from encounters with inanimate objects. A plastic pith helmet usually rested upside down on the passenger's seat in the front or sometimes perched on top of the floor-mounted gearshift. It sat there patiently waiting for any unexpected trips into the woods or onto the grounds of some abandoned homeplace. On one extremely hot and humid day, the pith helmet simply melted and flattened itself out. He spent the rest of his life searching for another one, often trying other hats, but never finding one that was its equal.

He was diagnosed with colon cancer in early 1986, and we hastily arranged a "John V. Clay Day" in Chambers County that April. Judge Price Daniel of Liberty, the former governor of Texas. delivered a wonderful speech. The Texas Historical Commission presented him with an award for his discovery of the mission site and "El Orcoquisac." Phylis Harris, as beautiful as ever, arrived dramatically a few moments late and took a seat on the stage next to him. He was in his glory. On the way home that evening, I tried hard to convince myself that he wasn't really about to leave us. I started crying every time I contemplated his death. Over the previous five years, he had become an important part of my life. I enjoyed his jokes, and he enjoyed mine. I enjoyed his stories about the Spaniards and the missionaries. Through his words and colorful tales, these people almost leaped from the page and shook my hand!

John V. Clay died on September 26, 1986. We buried him in his khakis, as he would have preferred, in the family plot at Forest Park Lawndale in Houston. Sometime later, Phylis Harris admitted that she was not really his girlfriend. She had just been playing an elaborate charade, at his request. In a technical sense, she might have been classified as his step-granddaughter. His wife, Juanita, who had died in 1977, was her grandmother. Phylis wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and told of all the things she and the other grandchildren used to do with John. He would load them onto a rug, lay down on the floor and then launch them across the floor of his log house. They would load up into his car for one great adventure after another. “He made every day special,” she admitted. All alone after her grandmother’s death, he would ask her to accompany him to one event after another and laugh uproariously at what everyone would say about this old bald-head man and this young woman. “I just played along,” she said. “It was the least I could do.”


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