By Renee Hart Wells
Calling cards lettered in ornate script, fawn hides tanned to white suede, fiddle and bow tuned for dancing, gentle horses trained at command, venison sold to workmen, and baskets woven by hand-large vegetable baskets, smaller egg gathering baskets, and tiny darning baskets. All of these were the work of a gentle but strong and independent man, Fount Simmons, who lived and worked in the heart of the Big Thicket.
Fount was born in 1860 and died in 1948; his parents, Bill and Catherine Simmons, met and married at Old Hardin, the first county seat of Hardin County. They established a home and lived the life of most pioneer families, caring for their stock, tending their garden, and hunting the seemingly endless supply of game in the woods around them. However, when twelve-year-old Fount fell ill with fever, there was little the family could do for him except apply cool compresses of Madeira vine leaves and spring water to bring down the fever. After three days the fever broke, but Fount's legs were paralyzed, his illness possibly polio.
Unable to walk, Fount got around by pulling himself along with his arms in a sliding crawl. Catherine made padded covers for his pants legs and he became quite agile, pulling himself anywhere he wanted to go, inside or outside the house. The other children took him to school in a wagon and Fount studied diligently, learning penmanship, grammar, arithmetic, and other subjects taught in that day. He hitched a goat to his wagon to go longer distances, but his father Bill knew that this would not satisfy his son for long. Fount would want to ride and hunt like a man. Bill got his son a saddle and advised him how to choose and train a gentle horse, one that Fount could use for his new life.
Bill Simmons died in 1874 and from then on, crippled or not, Fount had to help make a living for the family. Almost daily he saddled his well-trained horse from the high porch of his house and rode out into the woods, deer hunting. Killing an animal meant that he needed to get a rope on the carcass, throw one end of the rope over a tree limb, and lower the meat onto his horse. He could get off his horse to tie the rope and then with his tremendous upper-body strength, he grabbed the saddle horn and mounted again. Fount became so proficient at hunting that he was able to make a living selling meat, even securing a contract to provide venison for the workers laying the Santa Fe railroad track.
His neighbors elected him to two terms as county tax assessor, but this was not the life for him. Fount decided not to run again and returned to his life at Thicket. Cheerful, never complaining about his lot in life, Fount was in demand as a fiddle player for the country "josey parties." He also enjoyed tanning hides for chair bottoms and other uses. His niece, Minnie Vickers McKim, reported that his fawn hides were tanned like soft white suede. Also, Fount had learned penmanship at school and he continued to practice the delicate strokes and shading until he could sell his work. Calling cards, invitations, and even funeral notices were hand written in those days, and Fount's fancy lettering was in demand.
After game laws with designated hunting seasons were established, Fount taught himself another skill to supplement his income. This skill was basket weaving with hickory splints. People in the country needed containers of all sizes to hold garden produce and household articles and Fount's baskets were expertly made. Best of all, this resourceful man could sit on his porch and patiently weave his beautiful baskets, visiting with friends and his brother Rad or watching the activity at the tomato-packing shed across from his home. Fount Simmons epitomized the character of the Big Thicket pioneer, strong, resilient, and independent, facing the reality of his situation without complaint.
Abernethy, Francis E. Tales from the Big Thicket. Austin: UT Press, 1966.
Loughmiller, Campbell and Lynn. Big Thicket Legacy. Austin: UT Press, 1977.
Minnie Vickers McKim to Ralph Ramos, Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 12, 1975
Archer Fullingim in History of Hardin County. Dallas: Curtis Media, 1991.