Lance Rosier, was a self-taught naturalist who worked for the preservation of the Big Thicket, a wooded region noted for its biological diversity and located in East Texas north of Beaumont. Rosier was born to Cornelius Nicolas and Louella (Jordan) Rosier on a farm south of Saratoga in Hardin County, Texas. Sources differ regarding his exact date of birth. Federal census records vary from 1892, 1893, 1896, and 1897. His World War I draft registration recorded June 5, 1896, while the same record for World War II listed June 6, 1895, as his date of birth. His headstone has the engraved date of June 6, 1886. As a child, he was close to his aunt, Mattie Jordan Evans, who had no children of her own. When his parents later moved, he went to live with her at her boarding house, the Vines Hotel, in Saratoga. It was a booming oilfield town, and the boarding house was so busy that two guests slept in each bed in a twenty-four-hour period, with each tenant having it for a twelve-hour shift.
Rosier grew up in the heart of the Big Thicket—a region that featured dense underbrush that made the thicket almost impenetrable and teeming with wildlife such as bear, snakes, and birds, including the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker. He was fascinated with plant life. He devoted his days to traveling on foot through the Big Thicket and learning the location of every plant and animal in the area. Rosier’s way of life was different from his contemporaries, as he remembered: “I was a black sheep….When other boys hunted jobs, I hunted shrubs and plants. Everybody looked down on me, even my own family.”
Although he had a modest formal education and did not attend high school, Rosier continued to learn about the Big Thicket. He pored over library books about plants and traversed the thicket to study its flora and fauna. After serving briefly in World War I, Rosier was discharged from the U. S. Army, as he only weighed 117 pounds, and returned to the Vines Hotel. The 1920 census listed him as an oilfield laborer. Although he did not have a traditional nine-to-five job, he was chosen by oil companies and surveying crews to guide them through the densely-wooded thicket.
In the 1930s Rosier was part of a movement that brought new attention to the Big Thicket and its need for preservation. In 1933 a group of prominent area citizens formed a new organization, the East Texas Big Thicket Association (ETBTA), with the goal of conserving the thicket in its natural state, much of which had been lost due to lumber and petroleum industries and development.
The ETBTA realized that the creation of a national park showcasing the Big Thicket would be ideal, and, in order to gain support for the park, they needed to document the biological diversity of the area. They contacted the leading biologists of Texas, Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory, who, in 1936, utilized the encyclopedic knowledge of Rosier in hikes throughout the thicket. Although Rosier played a key role in the success of their book, Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket Area, he was not acknowledged in the publication. Rosier, however, gained knowledge of the importance of the use of Latin names when documenting plants.
In the late 1930s the ETBTA was at its peak and had not only helped publish the Biological Survey of East Texas but was also gaining support of members of the U. S. Congress and the National Park Service for the creation of a Big Thicket national park. But World War II came with its monumental need for lumber, and the movement was halted. After the war, the ETBTA never regained its momentum and formally ended in 1957.
But Rosier never faltered in his commitment to the Big Thicket. Through the years, he led anyone who was interested in tours of the thicket, including school children, photographers, club groups, and scientists. Interestingly, he assisted with efforts to bring industries in addition to oil and lumber to the Big Thicket, including utilizing the perilla plant to make paint or livestock feed.
Rosier took an audacious step toward preservation of the Big Thicket when he called a meeting of individuals interested in reviving the Big Thicket organization in 1964 in Saratoga. They founded the Big Thicket Association. Although Rosier was initially the president, he soon recruited and was replaced by Liberty mayor, Dempsie Henley. Rosier remained the inspiration of the organization, however, and gave tours highlighting the beauty of the Big Thicket and its botanical wonders.
Rosier achieved national fame on tours which pointed out not only the beauty but the destruction of the thicket: He showed U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas the stump of the Witness Tree, a dead magnolia tree which, before its poisoning from arsenate of lead, was 1,000 years old and a feature pointed to by those who wanted to create a national park in the Big Thicket. Douglas was fascinated by Rosier and immortalized him in his book, Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness (1967).
Artist Michael Frary described Rosier’s knowledge of the Big Thicket and zeal for sharing his knowledge with others:
Lance took us to see fields of carnivorous plants, four or five different varieties. He showed us where bears had scratched the bark on trees; he showed us beaver dams, “bee” trees, sassafras trees, iron wood, huge magnolias, biggest holly tree in the world, sweet gums—ten feet in diameter—rattan and wild grape vines hanging from limbs of trees one hundred feet above the ground. Lance identified with every living thing in the Thicket. He was the St. Francis of the Big Thicket.
As the years passed, Rosier’s fame grew, and he became known as “Mr. Big Thicket” and received mail throughout the country with only that title on the envelope. Lance Rosier died of cancer on March 12, 1970, at Liberty, Texas. He lived his entire life in Hardin County and resided for most of that time at his aunt’s Vines Hotel. (His Aunt Mattie Evans died in 1960.) Rosier never married and had no children. He was buried in the Felps Cemetery between Saratoga and Thicket in Hardin County near his beloved Big Thicket.
Senator Ralph Yarborough memorialized Rosier in a speech to the U. S. Senate: “He touched our hearts when, his voice filled with sadness, he recounted the ways in which his Big Thicket was being destroyed. He asked whether something might be done to save the Thicket so that others might follow where he had walked and that they might wonder at the precious gift nature had bestowed upon this land.”
In 1974 the first national preserve, Big Thicket National Preserve, was created. It differed from national parks in several ways including being composed of noncontiguous units. Lance Rosier was honored by having the first and largest, at nearly 25,000 acres, unit named in recognition of his contributions to the preservation of the Big Thicket. It is located in Hardin County where Rosier lived. The unit contains large wilderness areas, including the largest baygall in the Big Thicket, and boasts a marvelous diversity of plant and animal life in five ecosystems: baygall, beech-magnolia-loblolly, oak-gum floodplain, palmetto-hardwood, and pine savannah wetland. Some of the thicket’s largest sweet-bay magnolias and swamp tupelos can be found here. It is a fitting tribute to “Mr. Big Thicket.”