Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

August 1, 2013

Goodbye to a legend

John Graves dies at 92


Mineral Wells Index

— By LIBBY CLUETT and CLINT FOSTER

GLEN ROSE – John Graves, the author of “Goodbye to a River” and other iconic books about rural Texas, died shortly after midnight, Wednesday, at his home near Glen Rose, just six days away from his 93rd birthday.

He had reportedly been in ill health before he passed.

One of the of the state’s most celebrated and beloved writers, Graves was best known for his 1960 book “Goodbye to a River.”

Widely recognized as a classic, the book depicts a three-week, 175-mile canoe trip Graves took down the Brazos River with his dachshund.

Concerned the section of the Brazos from Possum Kingdom Lake to Granbury would be drowned by a proposed series of several dams, Graves set forth on his famous “farewell” canoe trip down the river, during the fall of 1957, beginning just below Morris Sheppard Dam.

In his narrative account, Graves shared his childhood memories of the free-flowing river and surrounding country. He also mourned the loss of the river, as he once new it, and lamented the future, as plans to build dams and alter mass areas of land were in place at the time.

“Goodbye to a River” endured as one of the most widely-read and acclaimed books about Texas and was nominated for a National Book Award.

Some Palo Pinto County residents responded Wednesday on Graves’ impact on and depiction of this area.

“He was talking about the heart of Palo Pinto County in ‘Goodbye to a River,’” said longtime resident, outdoorsman and local historian Don Price.

Price moved to the area in 1946, while in high school and helped his family run the Western Auto store in Mineral Wells and knows the river and Graves’ writings well.

“About half the book is about Palo Pinto County, and it’s well-researched,” Price said. “Of course, he adds some fiction to it, because it’s a ‘flowing narrative,’ that’s what he called it.”

Price said Graves “took the [1957] float trip after the drought broke, after seven years. Before that, the river was all potholes. You could [ruin] the bottom out of a boat, dragging it from pothole to pothole.”

“John Graves is blessed with vivid description. If you’ve ever floated the river, you’ll have no trouble following his narrative, because he makes it so vivid.

“As far as I’m concerned, his book is the ‘Bible’ for an outdoor lover who wants to know about the core values of the Brazos River watershed in Palo Pinto County,” said Price.

“When Graves’ book came out, a lot of locals read it. I’ve read it five times,” Price said. “I wrote him about that and he said it was one of the best compliments he’d ever had.”

Price tried, but he was never able to get in Graves’ Advanced Creative Writing class at Texas Christian University.

“We met on numerous occasions,” recalled Price, who also wrote Graves. “Every time I wrote him, he replied in a hand-written letter … which I treasure.”

“He impressed everybody with his modesty,” he added.

Even today, among Price’s peers, he said, “Graves’ name is still referred to and chapters cited among people who like to read serious history of the upper Brazos country.”

“He made enough royalty out of his book to buy and pay for 400 acres of land near Glen Rose. It was rough land and he ran goats on it, because it couldn’t support anything else,” explained Price.

Graves called his home Hard Scrabble, which was also the name of one of his books. In addition to “Goodbye to a River,” he wrote “Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land” in 1974 and “From a Limestone Ledge” in 1980. The books became known as his “Brazos Trilogy.”

“I think he and Rattlesnake Annie were instrumental in keeping them from damming the Brazos, between PK and Granbury [lakes],” said Lela Abernathy, a journalist, poet and fifth-generation Palo Pinto County resident.

“He’s a good writer; he says a lot with few words,” she added. “He’s my favorite Texas author and his narratives were written from scholarly, historical and naturalist points of view – and he was well-versed in all three fields.”

“Some of my family are featured in ‘Goodbye to a River,’” she said, citing the story of her relative, Jodie Corbin, who was with Jesse Veale when Veale was killed by Native Americans. “He has made the history of the county and some of my ancestors come alive.”

For Mineral Wells resident and recent award-winning writer Gerald Warfield, Graves is synonymous with other well-known naturalist writers that helped define regions of the United States.

“For me, there are writers that are identified with different parts of the country – John Muir [for California’s Sierra Nevada mountains] and Henry Beston, who painted beautiful word pictures of Cape Cod – but this was our man,” he said. “This was our representative for the natural wonders of this part of the country to the rest of the world.”

“He was the guy who represented us beautifully,” added Warfield, explaining that parts of Texas are “kind of sparse at times and Graves painted the best of this area. The way that he represented the Brazos watershed, he really lifted that out as the jewel of this part of the country.”

Joyce Rochelle is the owner of Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, on the Brazos River, a business started by her late husband Harlan’s grandparents in the 1920s. Although she never met Graves, she recalled Graves “came by here several times and visited with our grandparents, while writing [‘Goodbye to a River’].”

When asked if the award-winning narrative of the Brazos River has impacted her business over the years, Rochelle replied, “Oh, definitely. People buy the book and read about the area and that entices them to come out to the area.”

“His name is a public sentence at this place because so many people are interested in the history of the river – there’s a lot to it,” she said, noting the river’s historical and archeological connection to Native Americans.

“There are hundreds of customers who come out and said they read the book and now they want to see the beauty of the river,” Rochelle added.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.