WT Block Jr -- Biography of Will Block, Sr.
By W. T. Block, Jr.
William Theodore Joseph Block (Will Block, Sr.) of Port Neches, Texas, was born on August 2, 1870 (his tombstone erroneously says August 4) on Black Bayou, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, and is listed there in the 1870 census. His parents were Albert Joachim Bernhard Block (b. September 3, 1840 in Berlin-d. Aug. 18, 1893 in Port Neches) and Ursula Matilda Smith (Schmidt, b. Johnson Bayou, LA May 6, 1849-d. Port Neches on January 3, 1914). They were married in Orange, Texas on November 15, 1866.
I know very little about the childhood of Will Block, Sr., except that he must have performed 1,001 chores of hard work on the farm, much as his children did in later years. Dad was not enrolled in school in the 1880 census, so he must have started in 1881 or 1882. He once told me that he attended a one-room school near the old Will Merriman home at the intersection of Lee and Marion Streets for two semesters of about two months each, a school taught by a neighboring girl, Katie Remley. Mary Lou recalls Dad saying he had gone in school to the "5th reader." A century ago, a school term began when harvest was completed and ended when spring plowing began. Uncle Martin Block always said he learned more reading the weekly Beaumont Enterprise than he did in school. After 1886, Dad’s younger sisters attended a school on East Port Neches Avenue (behind the old Texaco asphalt plant), taught by Jim Rachford, and Aunt Clara said they carried large sticks to scare off the wild cattle.
Dad once told me that he and Uncle Earnest were once plowing about 1887, when wild boars came out of the marsh and put them up a tree. When they did not show up for dinner, Uncle Martin came looking for them. He had to shoot at the boars before they would leave the tree and return to the marsh. I think it was a great tragedy for Dad when his brother, Uncle Earnest, died of scarlet fever in 1893, the same year that Grandpa died. When great Grandpa George Block lived in Port Neches, he had begun the original Block Cemetery near Port Neches Park, and Grandpa Albert and Uncle Earnest were buried there at first. About 1905, when the Merrimans began building streets and surveying their property into town lots, Dad and Uncle Martin (fearing the original Block cemetery would not survive) had Grandpa Albert’s and Uncle Earnest’s bodies disinterred and re-buried in the new Block Cemetery, now Oak Bluff.
In 1892, at the ripe old age of 22, Will Block, Sr. was elected justice of the peace at Port Neches, was reelected in 1894, which showed the great respect tendered to him by his neighbors and peers (Beaumont Enterprise, November 22, 1908).
During the 1890’s, Will Block Sr. and Uncle Martin began farming on Grandma Ursula Block’s land, and Dad kept on farming her land until Grandma died in January 1914. He then began the process of buying his siblings’ interest in her property. After 1895, both Dad and Uncle Martin began peddling produce in both Beaumont and the newly erected town of Port Arthur. About the same time, Dad and Uncle Martin bought the old Staffen tract, on the northwest side of Block’s Bayou and now known as Magpetco tank farm, which they later sold to Knute Johnson when they quit rice-farming. During the same period around 1900, Will Block, Sr. was also heavily engaged in rice farming, as my photos of his rice farm reveal.
I had always believed that Dad met Dora Koelemay at a dance at the Orange Hotel, where she often played her zither and sang in Dutch. On September 6, 1898, Nederland celebrated the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina in an all-day celebration, and according to a full-page article in Port Arthur Herald of September 8, 1898, Dora, Kate, Pete, John, and Klaas Koelemay sang in Dutch and provided their own musical accompaniment. Mary Lou recalls that her mother had once worked as housekeeper for the Paul Millard family near Pitkin Park in Beaumont, probably in the fall of 1898, and had also worked for a while for a family in Port Arthur. And since during those years Will Block had sold produce in Beaumont and Port Arthur, they perhaps met in one of those towns.
Dad and Dora’s marriage in 1899 was the first for any member of Nederland’s original Dutch colony. By that time, Dad was already heavily engaged in rice farming as well as general truck farming. And in the photograph of the Will Block rice farm of 1900 in my photo album, several of the harvest workers included some of Dora’s brothers, Dora and Ursula Block in the buggy, and George Rienstra is quite recognizable in the photo. I have three separate Koelemay group pictures, all made by Klaas Koelemay in 1903, and Dad, Dora, Albert, Anna, and Clara come out well in each picture., In fact the best photograph I have of Dora Koelemay Block is probably in one of the group photographs.
Even though Dad probably had between 100 and 200 acres in rice in that era, he never "put all his eggs in one basket." The Beaumont Journal of December 25, 1904, observed that:
In those days, Will Block was always referred to as "W. T. Block of Nederland," and I still have in a photo album an original envelope given to me by Mary Lou that was addressed to "W. T. Block, Nederland, Texas." It contained a Texas land grant for some marshland along the Neches River, and was postmarked in Austin on June 24, 1917, three years before I was born. My brother Albert once told me that the Block mail box was erected at the corner of Block Street and Port Neches Avenue, by Uncle Abbie Block’s home, where they either picked up the mail on the way home from school or rode horseback to get the mail. I honestly believe Albert once told me he had a young steer that he could saddle and was broken to ride and he often rode the steer to pick up mail. In 1902, Dad and Uncle Henry Spurlock bought the King Mercantile Company in Nederland, and there was a write-up about it Port Arthur News in 1905 (also a photograph of it in Nederland, 1898-1973, p. 32). King Mercantile Company, capitalized for $25,000, became overextended in rice farm machinery, and when the "rice bust" came in 1906, it went broke, with Dad taking quite a loss in it. In 1903 Will Block was even a member of the Nederland School Board, even though he never lived elsewhere than Port Neches (Nederland, 1898-1973, p. 47), and about 1910 he was a member of the Port Neches School Board.
Should the reader not be aware of the fact, Grandma Ursula Block and two of her sisters, Louisa Smith and Lorne Jane Smith, married three Block brothers, all ex-Confederate soldiers, respectively, Albert, Charles, and George Lewis Block. Hence, Will Block, Sr. was a double first cousin to many of his kinfolk in Orange County, who were also Smith descendants. The Beaumont Journal of June 24, 1907 published a long article entitled "Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana Reunion of Pioneers and Descendants." It was generally referred to as the Smith-Block reunion, to honor the matriarch, Caroline Matilda Beadle Smith, on her 79th birthday. There were 186 persons present who were her descendants, not counting a host of others related only by marriage. The reunion was held the Saturday previous at Ursula Block’s farm (later the Will Block farm where I was born) because it was adjacent to the Neches River, and nearly all those attending came by sailboat or steamboat from Orange, Johnson Bayou, Beaumont, Port Arthur, or Sabine Pass. There was an excellent description of the (later) Will Block home, which follows:
Several different photographs were made of that reunion by Klaas Koelemay, copies of which are in my album.
When Grandma Block lived in the old place, the 1½ story house had only four rooms downstairs, divided by a hall or "dog trot" in the middle, a typical frontier East Texas house with a large upstairs bedroom, and a long gallery on the Neches River side. After Will Block moved in 1914, he added two rooms (kitchen, dinning room) on the back, which actually became the "front," when the road was built to the house. When Grandpa Block bought the land in 1876 (they bought only the house in 1871), he planted a number of pecan trees, six of which still survived until after 1935. The house was built upon round cypress blocks, 2’ to 3’ wide, and cut from the trunk of the tree. Dad also extended the hallway and built a concrete underground tank to catch the rain water from the roof. The tank had a hand pump, and it and the extended hallway were also under the roof. About 1910, there was a wooden picket fence around the old place, but Will Block later replaced it about 1920 with a wire fence.
After Dad and Dora’s marriage in 1899, the twins Albert and Anna (Knight) were born in 1900; Clara (Phillips) in 1902; and a baby girl that lived only a couple days was born in 1904. (The Smith Family genealogy gives Clara’s birth date as "June 8th" when it was actually January 8.) In further succession, Katie (Goolsbee) was born in 1906; Willie Mae (Winberg) in 1908; Mary Lou (Tullos) in 1913; Nell (Singleton) in 1915; and Rosa (Crenshaw) in 1917.
Dieu or Dora (Dieuwertje) Koelemay Block (b. Hoogkarspel, Holland on May 7, 1878-d. Port Neches March 7, 1917) came to Nederland with her family, landing at Galveston on March 1, 1898, and the Koelemay family ran the Orange Hotel for about three years. The daughters took employment as housekeepers at first, and the sons worked on the railroad. Dora Block’s father was Maarten Koelemay, Sr. of Berkhout, Holland, son of Pieter Koelemay and Dieuwertje Waterman. Her mother was Antje (Anna) DeJong of Andijk, Holland, daughter of Jan DeJong and Klaasje Koorman. Reputedly Dora was a very accomplished zither player and polka dancer. When my mother moved to Nederland in 1935, Dora’s zither and steamer trunk from Antwerp were still in the house.
Will and Dora Block’s marriage began in the Victorian Age, and probably comprised a typical East Texas farm family of 1900, although Will owned a steam tractor in addition to his horses and mules. Farm life earlier, then, and later consisted of a non-electric, wood-heated, block-ice refrigeration, and outdoor plumbing existence, which had already characterized farm life for centuries. The dawn to dusk labor continued by lamplight if there were peas or beans to be shelled or food to be canned. Their life would also have included baths in a #3 wash tub (or Block’s Bayou perhaps), clothes washed on scrub boards and boiled in a black wash pot, home-killed and/or canned meat, sawing and chopping fire wood, three or four cows milked morning and night, eggs gathered in buckets, and the chicken feed was corn shucked and shelled in a sheller. The social mores were equally as restrictive, for theirs was an age of starched collars, ankle-length skirts and dresses, regular Sunday church attendance, no feminine careers, other than school teacher; strict obedience to social conformity, and such other fashions and modes of behavior, that characterized the pre-World War I epoch.
Will Block, Sr. lost his mother Ursula on January 3, 1914, after which he and Dora moved their family from the house at the cemetery into Grandma’s house, which stood near where Jerry Dews home now stands. That was the beginning of the World War I era in Europe, and just as this country entered the war in 1917, Dora Block died on March 7, 1917. Will Block was thus widowed with eight children, one being Rosa who was a small infant.
In 1916 Will Block surveyed and platted the W. T. Block Addition to Port Neches, which has about 40 lots in it. In so doing, he surveyed Dieu Street, which he named for his wife and Katie Street, named for his daughter. Will built about ten rent houses in the addition, and perhaps others that he sold. One house that he sold in 1917 at the intersection of Port Neches Avenue and Dieu Street went to Sarah Jane Staffen, who worked in the Texaco roofing plant in Port Neches, and whose husband Robert (his mother Flora Block Staffen was Will Block’s first cousin), also died in 1917.
In May 1918, Will’s son, Albert Block was a member of Capt. Hornsby’s Machine Gun Troop of Texas National Guard and probably would have been called to active duty had World War I lasted much longer. According to the Port Neches 1918 city directory, Anna Block taught school in the old C. 0. Baird building in 1918. Also in that year, Clara Block worked in the Texaco office in Port Neches, which was where she met her future husband Charlie Phillips. And about June 1919, two or perhaps all of the first three children married, Albert to Lillian Crump; Anna to Bert Jarvis Knight, Sr.; and Clara to Charlie Phillips.
Over the years between 1898 and 1922, Will Block’s farming techniques also varied considerably. He quit farming rice about 1908 because the Neches River periodically was going brackish and salty during dry spells, with resultant damage to rice crops. I think he also quit raising cotton about the same time due to the introduction of boll weevils from Louisiana. Probably Dad had always had access to a small syrup cooker left over from Grandpa Albert, but about 1910, Will and Martin Block each put in a new sugar mill, which included a large, mule-drawn grinder, to pulverize and force the juice from the cane and into the cooker. Will Block’s cooking tank was about 20 feet long and six feet wide, made out of riveted sheet steel. Brother Albert told me once that on a dawn to dusk work day, Dad would cook and cap into cans 100 gallons of syrup, but that Uncle Martin could never cook more than 75 gallons daily. Although Uncle Martin cooked syrup until 1931, Dad shut down his mill about 1922, presumably because the cane borers were ruining so many stalks of cane. There could have been other reasons, one being that syrup-making required employment of several men, although the cane harvest and syrup-cooking cycle lasted only about one month. Mary Lou recalls that at one time Dad carried cane to Uncle Martin Block’s mill, which made syrup until 1931. After that, I remember the sugar mill as only the place where we stored our firewood. Willie Mae gave me a photograph of the Will Block sugar mill, which is in my album.
Jane Staffen had paid Will Block one-half of the purchase price ($500) for the house she had bought from him on Port Neches Avenue, and on each Texaco payday, she drove her buggy down to Will Block’s home to make a monthly payment. That continued for two years until May 1919, when she went to make her last payment and arrange for the deed transfer. Previously Will Block had expressed no other interest in her whatsoever until that May visit when she made her last payment, when he wrote a receipt and added, "Jane, will you marry me?" Mama said his question came as a shock and surprise for someone who had made no overtures to her previously, but she told him she would give him an answer soon. She and all the other 60 women at Texaco had already been told they would be laid off as soon as the Texaco men in the army returned to their jobs and she soon returned and told Will Block that she would marry him. Will Block and Jane Sweeney Staffen were married in June 1919, and I showed up on July 29, 1920. Two other children were born to them, L. Otis Block in January 1924, and Alta Grey (Fletcher) in 1930.
By 1922, Will Block, Sr. had returned to truck farming exclusively, and as I recall his main crops were corn, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, crowder peas, watermelons, butter beans, etc. All of the Block children worked in the fields when not in school. In fact, going to school was a special delight to get out of the hot corn patch or potato fields. About 1931, I recall that Rosa and I picked about six bushels of butter beans before Dad took us to see the only Ringling Brother’s circus I ever saw. About August 1920, Dad helped organize First National Bank. When I was three or four, I recall Dad taking me to at least one bank directors’ meeting in Port Neches, setting me on a chair, and telling me not to make a sound.
One by one, I watched as each of the girls left home - Katie, after graduation in 1923 as valedictorian, to C. I. A. in Denton, now Texas Women’s University. Then Billie left for nursing school at Galveston and Denton, and I often went with Dad to Galveston and Denton to visit them. Katie told me that one time Dad let her and Billie keep me overnight in their dorm room when I was about five years old, I guess. Mary Lou took business training at Chenier’s in Beaumont before going to work for Gulf States Utilities.
I will always believe that the Great Depression of 1929 contributed immensely to Will Block’s death. Farm prices slumped to nothing and even to "no sale" at all at times. About 1931, I recall Dad and I loading about 25 100-lb. sacks of Irish potatoes onto the old Model T Ford truck and taking them to Bell Commission Company in Beaumont, hoping to get from 25 to 50 cents a 100-lb. sack for them. Instead, they would not buy any potatoes at any price. We brought the entire load back to Port Neches, and I helped him carry a sack to the front porch of several rent houses, where the renter was unemployed. So in effect Dad was having to house as well as feed some his renters during those years. We had a bumper crop that year, and Dad "banked" about two or 300 bushels by pouring them on the ground in the pear orchard in front of the tool shed. He then covered them with sand, hoping to preserve them until the price went up a little around Christmas.
About February 22nd or 23rd, 1933, Will Block suffered a massive stroke and his impending death was feared. He died on February 26, the same day that Roscille Goolsbee (Lay) was born.
Will Block’s death was the greatest tragedy I (or any of us) had to endure during my youth, and being only twelve, I felt his loss immensely. To keep this biography from becoming unbearably long, I will mention only a couple more items, although I can think of dozens more. He was a religious man and seldom missed a Sunday at First Methodist Church. And if ever a man’s word was his bond, it was Will Block’s. He enjoyed tremendous respect from every one in Port Neches and all nearby towns. Although he did not smile much, he loved his children immensely, commanded their respect and obedience, and I really think that had Dad had to whip his children, he would have considered it his failure as a father. At least I don’t ever recall Dad’s having whipped me or any of my sisters. I recall going with Dad to the school superintendent’s office when Dad told Mr. Tuttle that he wanted individual shower stalls built in the girls’ locker room at the gym, which was accomplished forthwith. He was a very good shot with a grin.
Finally, Mary Lou’s mention of peaches reminded of early trips Dad and I made to Orange County to visit Block relatives between about 1923 and 1927. There was no Bridge City then, and a shell road ran from Dryden Ferry over the Neches River, to Cow Bayou, and on to Orange. On some occasions, we stopped at Uncle Gus Smith’s farm on Cow Bayou to pick two or three bushels of peaches, which was about all we could can at one time. Uncle Gus’ peach trees were large, and limbs were bent to the ground with Elberta peaches so large that they seemed as big as grapefruit to this little boy.