Life’s Highway: Dad traveled a fast, rough and dangerous road
Clay Dunn flirted with the odds, walked on the edge on a quick rise to the top. By the time he was 27 he had been to hell and back. Lady luck rode with him.
Clay Jackson Dunn was the product of a pioneering background. His father, Allen, had come to Texas from Arkansas in a covered wagon with his mother, Sarah Jane, who apparently was a pretty tough cookie for a 26-year-old. She embarked on a 14-month journey in Texas that held many uncertainties and dangers. Her husband, Dr. Stephen James Dunn, had been killed a few months earlier in the Civil War. Sarah Jane sought a new life for her son and younger sister.
Abraham Lincoln was president of the Union when the trio arrived in Texas. The territory was almost lawless with only a handful of Texas Rangers. Outlaws and raiding Indians were still prevalent. The Dunns settled around Rising Star. Sarah Jane, my great-grandmother, home-schooled the two youngsters.
Allen caught and branded stray Longhorns, acquired land; and at age 26, my grandfather married 14-year-old Laura Dunn. This union produced eight children. My father, Clay, was their fourth child and second son.
My grandmother was a very religious woman, who raised the children in the Methodist Church. All, a law-abiding citizen, had gained respect in the territory. Nothing in their background indicates anything other than that they were good, law-abiding, Christian folks, who raised their children accordingly. Allen instilled a good work ethic in all of his children. I mention the above to establish the foundation my father Clay, came from.
Before his 15th birthday, Dad was the first of the boys to leave home. After graduating from the seventh grade, he took his diploma on the road, leaving home on a donkey. At Comanche, he got a job with the telephone company that a few years later landed him in Port Arthur. He had learned to drive while stringing wire and poles with the phone company. The Port Arthur Fire Department had obtained its first motorized equipment, the “Belle Stearns,” named in memory of Assistant Chief George Stearns’ wife. Dad was hired in 1915 to be the first driver of the first fire truck. Within a few months, he used up his saved money to purchase three cars from Linn Motor Company. He started Port Arthur’s first taxicab service.
The cabs made the long dirt road hauls to Sabine Pass to pick up and deliver seamen to their ships. The cab business was thriving when Clay was called to serve in World War I.
Death would soon become a daily occurrence for Clay, even before they reached the battleground. While crossing the ocean, influenza attacked their ship. Many mornings Clay woke up to find a soldier at his side dead. So many died that they soon ran out of flags to drop the bodies in the ocean and just got to throwing them overboard for burial at sea.
Dad marched every step of the way from one end of France to the other. Fighting was mostly hand-to-hand combat. Like most country boys, he was a good shooter, but he killed more of the enemy with a bayonet than he did with a rifle shot. At wars end in 1918, he returned to Port Arthur. His taxicabs had been wrecked, torn up and put out of commission. Clay started over with one cab.
One day a man he called ‘Captain’ hired Dad’s cab after Captain had been told that Clay knew where all the speakeasies were. Dad drove him around all day. The man asked Clay to drive him to Beaumont to catch the train. He told Dad he didn’t want him to stop anywhere; he wanted to get to Beaumont. Wrapped in some newspapers, Captain said, was $10,000 that he was giving him. Clay found out the man had taken orders for 1,000 cases of whiskey and the man was giving Clay $10 commission on each case. The man told him he would return each month and do the same because he trusted him. With so much money at stake, he had to have someone he could really trust. Dad said that amount of money was so great it scared him. For several months, the procedure repeated. Clay now had plenty of money. He expanded the cab business and went a step further. He hired Captain Livingston in Orange to build him a ship and started importing the liquor from Nassau himself. He paid $17 per case and sold it for $125. A load of 1,000 cases was earning him $90,000 a month. Clay was off and rolling and living the good life when the Ku Klux Klan got after him.
The Klan, in 1920 in Port Arthur, involved almost everyone who wasn’t Jewish, Black or Catholic. Clay’s brother, Carl, had been mistaken for him and had his stomach cut open and had carried his guts in his hands to the hospital. Clay went to the jailhouse and requested that Sheriff Walter Covington lock him up for his own protection until he could figure out his next move. Covington reluctantly locked him up, but when the Klan showed up, he let them drag Clay out of the cell. They took him out to the outskirts of town, now known as Port Acres, and tarred and feathered him and left him to die. A Catholic man had noticed a cross burning about midnight. The next morning he found Clay nearly dead. He took him home, hid him out; and he and his wife cared for him and saved his life. Up to his last day on earth, Dad couldn’t grow body hair where he was tarred.
For a couple of months, the law looked for his body. When his brother, Carl, was able to leave the hospital, he returned home to Rising Star and told his parents he believed Clay had been killed. Meanwhile, Clay had gotten a message out to his folks that he was alive and hidden out. After a few weeks, Clay got word to Joe Teage, a friend who picked him up and drove him to his parents. He stayed until he was fully recovered, could walk and use his arms.
According to historian W.T. Block, almost everyone in law enforcement, judges and so forth, belonged to the Klan in Port Arthur in 1920. Apparently Covington was also a Klan member. Clay vowed to kill him. He just missed him once when he learned he was in Mexico on vacation, but Clay arrived too late. For the rest of his life, Covington kept a law enforcement job so he could tote a pistol. He was convinced Clay would kill him if he got the chance.
An ironic story involved me in something that I wasn’t aware of. Walter Covington had a job as a jailer for the Port Arthur Police Department. It was located across the street from Mrs. Shuggart’s Boarding House. Covington ate lunch there every weekday. I had moved into the rooming house while I operated the pony ride at Pleasure Island. Harry Waddell, who just recently passed away, and I roomed together. Everyday I had lunch with Covington and the other residents. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me. When he found out who I was, he never ate at Mrs. Shuggart’s again. A policeman friend later told me that Covington believed I had been planted there to kill him. Clay hated anyone who hid behind a mask. He called them “gutless son’s-of-bitches.”
In August of 1922, the Orange oilfield boom hit big time with the discovery of the Oscar Chesson Wonder Well. Most of the Klan members disbanded after tar and feathering a doctor in Beaumont, a move that brought in the Texas Rangers. Clay, who had parlayed his seventh-grade diploma into a bachelor’s degree in the school of hard knocks, returned to the area and set up shop at Orangefield and embarked on a path that would earn him a master’s degree from the same school.