Farmer’s market: Arrington remembers old days, good eats
“God has a way of trimming trees,” J.B. Arrington says about Hurricane Ike.
The 83-year-old businessman, who one could reasonably say has done just about everything, sits among his mementos in a barn near Cow Bayou.
“You could be almost at Sabine Lake and see Mauriceville from there,” he says. “None of the homesteads had trees around them. Nowadays, a lot of this area has come back around to where it used to be, but some of the wildlife was long gone. At one time we had quail, roadrunners and even panthers.”
A fixture for many years in the Orangefield and McLewis communities, you might know Arrington as one of the busiest farmers / ranchers around.
Or – as your newest elected director to the Orange County Drainage District.
You might even have heard of something called J.B.’s Barbecue, founded 1972.
He says he “didn’t have an axe to grind” to run for the drainage board. In 1999 he was elected to the Orange County Soil Conservation District, a place where he could use his knowledge of farming and natural resources for the good of his neighbors. So the next logical step was the drainage district, he says.
“[Ike] has been a traumatic thing that has happened. [The board] is currently coordinating our efforts with the port board, the Sabine River Authority and the Corps of Engineers in looking into the future; in so far as trying to eliminate or at least hesitate any catastrophe that might happen.”
Not surprisingly, a levee system idea has made a few discussions, he says.
“All of our chemical companies that were flooded are just now coming back. Another [disaster] would wipe out the chemical industry in Orange County, and that really is the core of our employment in this area.”
J.B., married to the former Mary Kathryn Jones for 60 years, gets to the restaurant daily at about 4 a.m.
He checks on the smokehouse, which usually gets fired up most afternoons at 2:30.
“I had so much trouble getting loans and things to start that place, they called me ‘sheets’ because I’d been turned down so much,” he says.
He leaves at 7 a.m., when a manager arrives to tend the meat.
J.B. then gets on the road to check on his cattle, a “membership only” fishing area and other interests.
Arrington graduated from the old McLewis school, with seven others.
He was raised by his father, J.B. Sr., and grandfather, known to everyone as “Uncle Bob.” His other grandfather, Henry LaFleur, was one of the first rice growers in the area.
He remembers a bad fever tick outbreak among cattle, in the days when his dad worked the oilfields.
The family grew and sold tobacco, which they firmly pressed by lowering and raising a house stacked on blocks. They cured the leaves on an old wood stove and robbed honey from beehives to sweeten them.
“I got stung more than a few times doing that,” J.B. says.
There was always someone getting off the train at Orangefield looking for work, food and a cigarette; perhaps a drink of water from an artesian well near the Arrington place.
The family also sold smoked meat, and raised vegetables on a “truck farm.” Sometimes a few drifters worked for just groceries.
The town had a drugstore, a restaurant and a hotel with one telephone in the lobby.
“That was the road to Port Arthur then,” J.B. says. “But to get there, you had to hang out at Bailey’s Fish Camp and catch the ferry.”
It was the Depression. A lot of folks bootlegged homemade whiskey, and thought nothing of keeping 40 gallons of it at their home. A typical wage was 50 cents a day, working from sunup to sundown.
J.B. and his friends watched movies at the Strand, Bengal and Gem.
“If I had a quarter,” he recalls, “I’d go into town, meet a girl, take her to the movies, buy an RC Cola – and we would split that – then on the way home I could stop at Azie Davis’ stand and eat a hamburger.”
Once, a circus train came through and an elephant escaped. The animal became scared, confused and dangerous; and everyone from the sheriff on down took after it with loaded pistols.
“They must have put 100 bullets or more in him,” J.B. says.
The circus owners never brought legal action, being extremely happy no citizens were injured.
Many years later, Arrington acquired one of the guns used in the attack and now keeps it in a glass case.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, J.B. attended the University of Houston.
He made some extra money by driving a city bus and taking barbecue pits around to the stockyards.
“People paid what they wanted to pay and went about their business,” he says. “There was never an official charge.”
Finally, hanging around the stockyards enough got him a job on the inside.
“You might call it a job in public relations,” he says, “because we were shipping a lot of horses to Cuba and Venezuela and other foreign countries.”
Because of the unions, “cowboys” such as Arrington weren’t allowed to load the animals, but following several incidents – one in which some bulls trampled down Post Office Street in Galveston – the union managers relented.
“After that they wanted the cowboys to load the stock,” J.B. says.
“We shipped some of the animals by air, and on one occasion, the bulls were supposed to be rather tame. But this one, he got mad and started rampaging the others that were tied down. Normally when that happened, the crew would just open the doors and let ‘em run out, right over the Gulf of Mexico. I always wondered what the hell the fishermen thought when they saw something like that coming down.”