Old Weird Houston

Five Historic Houston Spots That Need Markers

Too many of our local history plaques are tedious and Pollyanna-ish. Here are a few stronger propositions.

By John Nova Lomax August 27, 2013

Five local sites for future historical markers, remembering people, places and things ranging from tragic to well, mostly just sticking with tragic...But that's history for you. 

Never Poke A Bear

Place: 1002-1004 North San Jacinto.

What Happened There: On December 30, 1905, enraged that a Fifth Ward saloon-keeper dared name a bar after her, hulking, wild-eyed, hatchet-wielding anti-alcohol zealot Carrie Nation smashed up her namesake tavern.

Quote: "I requested that my name be taken from the place several months ago, and I told the proprietor that if he did not change the name I would come back and wreck the place,” Nation told the Houston Daily Post. “He promised that he would change the name. He failed to do it, and I had but one recourse. I am not a man and could not whip him; I did not want to use a pistol on him, and I simply wrecked the saloon."

What It Looks Like Now:

View Larger Map

Wow, the building is still there! 

The Ever-Elusive Birthplace of Rock and Roll?

Place: Possibly 612 Westheimer. Bear with a little conjecture here...

What Happened There: In 1949, somewhere in Houston, alongside his Hepcats, 19-year-old Fifth Ward native Goree Carter recorded "Rock Awhile," a hard-charging electric guitar-driven romp. Decades later, the late New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer cited it as the very first rock and roll song ever recorded. Sadly, Carter soured on the music business about five years later and all but retired from public performance in 1954 and died in 1990.

In 1949 many of the top rhythm and blues and country performers in the area recorded their music at ACA Studios, where the sessions were overseen by engineer Bill Holford. Carter recorded for Sol Kahal's Freedom Records label, a relatively well-financed operation, so it seems a strong possiblity that "Rock Awhile" would have been cut in what was then one of the area's most sophisticated studios. ACA moved a few times, to Washington Avenue and then to Westpark, but in '49, it was near the Westheimer curve. (We await word from local music scholar Andrew Brown: watch for updates.)

Quote: Robert Palmer, on "Rock Awhile": "The clarion guitar intro differs hardly at all from some of the intros Chuck Berry would unleash on his own records after 1955; the guitar solo crackles through an overdriven amplifier; and the boogie-based rhythm charges right along. The subject matter, too, is appropriate—the record announces that it's time to 'rock awhile,' and then proceeds to show how it's done. To my way of thinking, Carter's 'Rock Awhile' is a much more appropriate candidate for 'first rock and roll record' than the more frequently cited 'Rocket '88'…"

Listen for yourself:


What It Looks Like Now:

View Larger Map

Is the birthplace of rock and roll a Lower Westheimer parking lot? It very well might be.

Jelly Roll Morton's Bayou City Sin Den

Place: Fuller Street, which no longer exists. This marker would be placed somewhere near I-45 North at West Dallas.

What Happened There: In 1914, this was the home of pioneering jazz man and piano lord Jelly Roll Morton, who came to Houston from New Orleans to play music, run a haberdashery (mostly as a front), and, in the parlance of the day, "sport." (Read: gamble, pool-shark, hustle the local yokels, pimp and enjoy the favors of wild women.)

Quote: (Here's Morton explaining his decision to leave Houston, just ahead of the long arm of one officer Peyton of HPD.) "I was tired of Houston anyway. There wasn't any decent music around there, only Jew's harps, harmonicas, mandolins, guitars and fellows singing the spasmodic blues—sing a while and pick a while till they thought of another word to say. So I said, 'Okay, Peyton, goodbye to you and your ratty town. I'm going north.'"

What It Looks Like Now:

View Larger Map

At least Morton would have a straight shot beating feet north out of town.

Catfish Reef

Place: 400 Block of Milam 

What Happened There: In the mid-20th Century, the block was known as Catfish Reef, one of Houston's foremost tenderloins.

Quote: Taken from Sig Byrd's Houston:  

"The Reef is bi-racial. The light and the dark meet here. Generally speaking, the odd numbers, on the east side, are dark, the even numbers light; but the exception proves the rule.

You can buy practically anything here. Whiskey, gin, wine, beer, a one hundred and fifty dollar suit, firearms, a four bit flop, a diamond bracelet that will look equally good on the arm of a chaste woman or a fun-gal. You can buy fried catfish in Catfish Reef. You can buy reefers on the Reef.
Or you can, get faded, get your picture made, your shoes shined, your hair cut, your teeth pulled. You can get your teeth knocked out for free. You can buy lewd pictures, and in the honkytonks you can arrange for the real thing. The reef is a quietly cruel street, where rents are high and laughter comes easy, where violence flares quickly and briefly in the neon twilight, and if a dream ever comes true it's apt to be a nightmare."

What It Looks Like Now:

View Larger Map

Today's Catfish Reef: where parking is not that cheap and nothing else whatsoever is available. 

The Eloquent Colonel Sydnor's Slave Market

Place: Congress Avenue between Fannin and Main

What Happened There: For about the last 15 years leading up to and including the Civil War, former Galveston mayor John Seabrook Sydnor bought and sold slaves on the site. We should never forget this.

Quote: Taken from The City of Houston from Wilderness to Wonder, by O.F. Allen: "I have seen that eloquent auctioneer sell many slaves. He was an expert as an orator in the description he gave of the qualities and abilities of the slaves he offered for sale; and often attracted large crowds at his place by his eloquence and voice."

What It Looks Like Now:

View Larger Map
Filed under
Show Comments