August 9, 2017

Preserving the Preserve of Naturalist and Activist Geraldine Watson

  • By: Sophia Dembling
The exterior of Geraldine Watson's cabin

photo by: Pauline Singleton

Geraldine Watson's cabin remains at the Watson Pinelands Preserve.

Geraldine Watson was a tough cookie with a soft spot for nature. Born in Louisiana in 1925, Watson soon moved with her family to the Piney Woods of East Texas, where began her lifelong passion for the region’s unique and complex ecosystem.

Watson earned a degree in biology, and was among the activists who agitated to establish the Big Thicket National Preserve, presenting slide shows about the region’s ecosystems to hundreds of garden clubs and civic organizations, testifying in Congress, and resisting pushback from the lumber companies that were devastating the area’s old-growth forests. She also endured hostility from neighbors who feared they would lose their homes or be banned from hunting.

“Everybody hated my guts,” Watson said in a 1999 interview for the Texas Legacy Project. Her children were ostracized, and she was spit on and accused of hobnobbing with communists. Looking back, she said, “If I had known then what it would mean to my family, I never would have gotten involved.”

But the cause prevailed. In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed legislation establishing the preserve, which is now more than 105,000 acres. As its first naturalist, Watson catalogued the plants, delineated the ecological zones, and laid out a network of hiking trails. Watson, who also wrote two books on the Big Thicket’s ecology, worked with the National Park Service for about 15 years.

The Big Thicket National Preserve

photo by: Sophia Dembing

The Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve near Watson, Texas.

One day in the mid-1970s, while birding near the town of Warren, she spotted a piece of property so biologically rich—including cacti, ferns, orchids, and four types of carnivorous plants—she had to have it. “When she bought that first lot, she didn’t know how she was going to pay for it, but she was determined,” says Pauline Singleton, president of what is now the nonprofit Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve.

Piecemeal over about 25 years, Watson acquired 10 acres, which she called the Watson Pinelands Preserve. Watson died in 2012, but today her preserve is still free and open to the public—just as it was when she lived on it in the cabin she built with her own two hands.

“As my son David was away on a job and the rest of the family not in sympathy with my goals, I built it myself—masonry, carpentry, floor tiles, wiring, pluming (sic), etc. etc.,” she wrote in a history and purpose statement when she applied for nonprofit status for the preserve.

The house was a metal-roof, four-level A-frame built on a steep slope, and, Watson wrote, “I was determined that it would take up very little space and that it would be independent of the oil and power industry.” The first level was underground, with a glassed-in side facing the lake, the third level opened onto a deck. It had a grill and an insulated “refrigerator” built into the wall of the lower room, behind which was a water reservoir which kept food cool in the manner of the “old spring house.” A Franklin stove and fireplace provided heat, a nearby artesian well supplied gravity-flow water.

Geraldine Watson

photo by: Pauline Singleton

Watson died in 2012, but the preserve is still open.

The first time Watson built the house, she eschewed electricity and used no power tools. After a neighbor lost control of a trash fire and burned the house down, Watson rebuilt it. But this time, she installed electricity, “having decided I was too old and tired to hand saw oak beams and rafters.” Watson did enlist help to raise the rafters, but today Singleton wonders how she even got the wood to the site: “The lumberyard would not even ride the truck up the driveway. They would just dump the wood at the end of the driveway, which wasn’t in good shape. They were probably worried about getting stuck in the mud.”

Singleton first learned about Watson and the preserve in an article in the Houston Chronicle that included a phone number and invitation to visit. She kept the article, and in 2006, pulled it out and called.

“It was marvelous,” she recalls. “I parked at the entrance and went walking down the trail and there were wildflowers that I hadn’t seen in a long time,” she says. “I went down the boardwalk and Geraldine and Larry Williams, who was helping her on the place, were on her little deck having a cup of coffee. It was just like meeting old friends.”

Watson called her into the house, up the stairs, to the deck for coffee, then took her on a tour of the preserve. “I came back eight or nine times that year,” Singleton said.

The fourth level loft overlooking the living area

photo by: Pauline Singleton

The fourth-level loft overlooking the cabin's living area.

At that time, Watson had a home in nearby Silsbee with modern conveniences, but she spent several days a week in the cabin. “For someone who’s used to air conditioning and indoor plumbing, the comforts of life, it was really rustic,” Singleton says.

Still, she adds, “I don’t know if she knew enough about architecture to do this intentionally, but when there’s a breeze off the lake, it comes through the house. I won’t say it’s cool when it comes in, but it fares better than most modern houses without air conditioning.”

Watson wanted to ensure that her little patch of Texas remained preserved and open to the public and so deeded it to the nonprofit that now, through donations alone, maintains it. But while the flora and fauna that Watson treasured continue flourishing, her cabin is just hanging on.

“We have made some repairs,” says Singleton. “We were especially concerned about the roof. If you lose the roof, you lose everything below, so we repaired that. The wiring needs to be checked out; we cut the power off when nobody is there. The balcony we replaced with a metal roof. It was starting to rot and we were concerned about the supports. There are structural problems with the walls that were holding it up. We have been in a holding pattern, trying to just prevent further deterioration. I hope that someday we can obtain funding and do all the repairs that it deserves.

“I never look at that cabin that I'm not reminded of what a gritty, determined, and intelligent woman Geraldine was.”

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

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