Marilyn and The Ava
Marilyn Joe Bailey McKeown was raised on the banks of Cow Bayou. Her dad, Joe Bailey, owned and operated Joe Bailey’s Fish Camp on the downstream side of the Cow Bayou swing bridge on Hwy 87. Her family lived on the property the Fish Camp was located on.
“Joe Bailey’s” as it was known was a great place to eat, listen to music, dance, and just have a good time in general. For a time the dock behind the Fish Camp was the home of the Ava.
“When I was about ten years old daddy told us he was going to an auction at Texaco in Port Neches. They were selling off equipment and mother and daddy were thinking about adding a restaurant and thought Texaco may have some kitchen equipment for sale. Mother told me later that Daddy had bought a boat and was going to sail it home,” said McKeown. “When Mother told me it was about time for the boat to be coming home, we went out and stood on the boat dock and waited. Looking down the bayou, I finally saw the boat coming. It kept coming and coming! It was the biggest boat I had ever seen!”
The little girl was seeing the Ava for the first time. The Ava had been the company yacht for the Texaco in Port Arthur. Formerly the Texas Company, Texaco was one of the large oil companies that formed after the oil discovery at Spindletop in 1901. The refinery in Port Arthur was one of the largest in the world and Texaco had docks and other facilities on the Neches River at Port Neches.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, company officials would come to Port Arthur to do business at the refinery and they would often be taken out and entertained on the majestic Ava. Ava was a trim lady, about 60 feet long, painted white with green trim, and 10 square windows and six portholes on each side of her main deck. On the upper deck were eight square windows on each side. There was an awning over the fan deck and the framework to hang an awning on the forward deck, ahead of the pilot house.
She was a grand vessel for the executives to cruise on and admire the scenery while sipping drinks and eating fresh Gulf Coast seafood under the awnings.
Ava was outfitted with fine china, silver, and linens, all bearing the corporate logo. Her furniture equaled that of the finest hotels. There was a piano, poker tables, a pool table and even a dice table to shoot craps on. She was outfitted in the finest fashion to carry Texaco’s highest officials.
But, like a beautiful lady with a wart on her nose, the Ava had a flaw. She had a flat bottom. At the time she was constructed, no one paid any attention to that detail. As long as she sailed the Neches River and Sabine Lake in calm waters, she was wonderful. One time however she was taken outside the jetties at Sabine Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico. All was well until a series of “rollers” came upon her from the side. Rollers are low waves that come one after the other in an almost rhythmic way. They pushed Ava onto her side, she rolled upright and was hit by another wave and then another. When the rollers stopped, the Ava was in a chaotic state. Everything loose had been flung around. The flinging was so hard that the dice table ended up atop the piano.
The Ava was turned toward Port Neches and never went into the Gulf again. She spent the rest of her time with Texaco docked at Port Neches and sailing the Neches River and other inland area waterways.
Tycoons tire of their toys and the Ava for all her grandeur was merely a toy. After being docked, unused for several years the decision was made to auction her off to the highest bidder. That turned out to be Joe Bailey and the Ava became his personal yacht.
“She was very nice. They left all the furnishings and the furniture on her. There were so many nice things I could hardly believe it. After she was cleaned up, it was fun to take trips on her,” said McKeown.
After sitting unused by Texaco for years, her white and green paint needed attention. The mahogany floors needed to be sanded and refinished, and there was a lot of brass to clean and polish.
Joe Bailey was a well known man with many friends, several of them came to help him clean and restore the Ava. “We had friends that helped us a lot. Viola Tillery made some drapes and bedspreads. June and Vern Pepper, Clifton Delahoussaye, and A. J. or maybe O.J. Porterfield helped with the scrubbing, sanding and polishing that need to be done. Bettye Guidry, a friend of McKeown’s said that she remembered all the sanding and varnishing and painting that needed to be done. “It was never ending,” said Guidry. Guidry was one of McKeown’s friends that often help maintain the Ava.
“We all had a good time on the Ava. The galley was my favorite place because it had a dumbwaiter. I had never seen one. It was linked to the dining room with a bell on each end. The bell would be rung so that someone would know to pull the rope to either raise or lower it. My friends and I would pass messages to each other with the dumbwaiter,” said Mckeown.
The engine room contained two nearly new diesel engines. The engine telegraph was another source of amusement for McKeown. “I liked the telegraph, you could pull the handles and the thing would go ding, ding, ding in the engine room. The engines were always kept very clean. I liked going into the engine room, but I was not allowed to go into it if they were running unless there was an adult with me,” said McKeown.
The Ava was always docked facing upstream. To turn her around for a downstream voyage required the captain to do a delicate ballet of forward and backward motions with careful turns to keep from hitting the bridge pylons.
“I only remember going on one overnight trip. I don’t remember where we went but I remember watching the shoreline and an occasional flock of birds, and a few tugboats and barges. My friend and I played canasta and listened to a singer belting out songs and playing the piano. We ate shrimp and hamburgers and played with our Barbie dolls outside on the top deck, “said McKeown. “Eventually we went into one of the rooms that had eight bunks in it. The vibrations of the motors and the music put us to sleep.”
The day finally came when Bailey decided to sell the Ava. She was not being used much and he decided to pass her along. In her later life, the Ava was dry docked and used as a restaurant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
McKeown grew up, married, and lived in several countries before settling with her husband and children in Australia. Bridge City will always be her home and memories of her life on Cow Bayou remain close to her heart. When she smells a salt breeze and gets a whiff of diesel fuel, she once again becomes the small girl on the big boat on Cow Bayou.