I knew two things about Indianola. I found it on the map when I lived in Victoria and thought it sounded cool. And Charlie Robison had a song about it that I liked pretty well.
What I don’t know is how a book about Indianola popped up on my computer screen. I don’t even remember what I was searching … eBay, Amazon, Google, whatever. But when I did stumble across it, the title was all it took: “Indianola: The Mother of Western Texas.”
For $10 on eBay, it was on the way.
It is not my policy to buy mystery 1977 history texts without checking out several pages first to see if the author can actually string words together in a pleasant fashion. But I took a chance.
As it turns out, it wasn’t all that bad.
It’s astonishing to think that a German prince (Carl zu Solms-Braunfels) could pick out a spot on the Texas coast, have three boatloads of German immigrants show up in December 1844 to an empty beach and within three decades there is a thriving port to rival Galveston, known across the globe and boasting every type of business one could want.
Then in 1875 an enormous hurricane nearly obliterated it. In 1886, another came to finish the job. And Indianola was gone.
Our author, Brownson Malsch (who wrote two other books, both about Captain Manuel T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers) does an excellent job at the beginning of the book, detailing the German genesis of Indianola (then Indian Point) and finishes strong with the outrageous devastation of the 1875 Hurricane.
In between it certainly drags in some points. You can tell where he found a great bit of source material and where he is piecing together a chapter with financial records. Worst is the jockeying over various railroads and would-be railroads. I just couldn’t keep track, so to speak, of the SA&MG, the GWT&P, the ISA&EP … it got tiresome after a bit.
And that title? Indianola was 'mother' of western Texas partly because she was the port through which many immigrants arrived, but mainly because the supplies that kept those settlers going — and the military personnel stationed in western Texas — came through Indianola.
In a bit of literary cruelty, Malsch saves the best descriptions of Indianola at the height of its power for the chapter immediately preceding the chapter on the 1875 hurricane. There are saloons and seamstresses and surgeons and custom tailors. A few pages later, he is telling us how these buildings were swept wholesale into the sea.
After detailing the 1875 hurricane, Malsch loses steam. The final eleven years before the next great hurricane is covered flaccidly in the final chapter, much of it dealing, again, with railroads. The postscript is a weak look at Galveston’s hubris in ignoring the lessons of Indianola. It didn’t work out well for them.
Overall rating: 6 out of 10.
Author’s language skills: 5 out of 10.
What I learned that will most likely stick with me: German immigration, coastal geography, how goddamn fast a town can rise and fall