Geraldine Ellis Watson, naturalist and conservationist, artist, author, ecologist, and one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, was born on February 8, 1925, to Herbert Guy Ellis and Retha (Goznell) Ellis in Bon Ami, Louisiana, a small lumber milling town. Her family had worked in sawmills for four generations, and she grew up witnessing the economic and social abuses of the lumber industry. When she was a small child, the family moved to a farm near Doucette, Texas, in Tyler County, where her father was a machinist at a sawmill. The family was recorded on the 1930 federal census as living in Doucette. In 1940 they lived in Jasper, Texas, in nearby Jasper County.
Her parents were both nature lovers who taught her lore about the Big Thicket. Her mother took the children for hikes in the woods where they picked flowers and learned about plants that were valuable for medicines and dyes. Her father was an enthusiastic outdoorsman who often took his daughter on fishing trips. Geraldine developed an early interest in art and began painting when she was nine years old. She graduated from high school in Port Arthur and continued her education at Port Arthur Business College.
On December 24, 1952, Geraldine Ellis married Earl Pendleton Watson in Jefferson County, Texas, and subsequently the couple had five children: Marvin, Bobby, David, Retha, and Maria. They lived in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area before eventually moving to Silsbee in Hardin County. The Watson family was active in the Silsbee Church of Christ where she was a member and taught Sunday school classes.
Her artistic interest continued from her childhood, and she studied with artists at the Beaumont Art League and the Silsbee Art League, which she organized and served as its first president. Working in her favorite medium of oils, Geraldine Watson later presented her paintings in a number of exhibitions and won regional awards. She also gave art lessons.
In 1964 Watson became involved in a “burning cause”—the preservation of the Big Thicket. The Big Thicket Association (BTA) was formed in the fall of that year, and she became an enthusiastic board member of the organization. Around this time, Houston Thompson, an attorney and the publisher of a Hardin County newspaper, The Pine Needle, asked Watson to write a weekly column, and she readily agreed. In 1965 she began her column “The Big Thicket—Its Past, Present & Future.” Her passion for the plants of the Big Thicket was reignited by her work in the BTA and ThePine Needle. She enrolled in what is today Lamar University where she learned more about the natural world and began an herbarium. By the time that the BTA was founded, much of the Big Thicket had been deforested by the lumber bonanza of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and by development, as more roads, homes, and businesses were built. Nevertheless, Watson utilized her knowledge to identify those units of land that were good candidates for preservation due to their distinct ecosystems.
Her knowledge of the Big Thicket and passion for its preservation led to her reputation as a reliable and popular tour guide. Her tour parties included journalists, scientists, environmentalists, politicians, officials of the National Park Service, as well as many local organizations and school groups.” When there were rumors that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted in the Big Thicket, Watson gave tours to hordes of birders and writers for the best-known publications of the era, including National Geographic and Life.
In the early 1970s Watson played a key role in the crusade to create the Big Thicket National Preserve. In 1974 she testified before the U. S. Congress and spoke on the scientific and the economic value of the Big Thicket. She stated that very little of the region’s flora and fauna had been studied and that this tremendous resource offered culinary, commercial, and medicinal potential, the value of which was still unknown. She testified:
Today, I wish to speak simply as a citizen of the Big Thicket. Most of us are poor people here. According to the 1973 Survey of Buying Power, the average effective buying income per family in this five-county area is $5,950 yearly. That’s poverty level! Our young people have to leave home to find jobs. We need the boost to our economy that a National Preserve will bring.
Watson and her fellow crusaders achieved success. In 1974 the Big Thicket National Preserve, the nation’s first national preserve, was created. Unfortunately it came at a cost to Watson and her family: “During the ten years that we were trying to get the bill passed to create the Big Thicket, my children, who were growing up in the area, faced a lot of persecution. It would take a book to tell you how they were treated. It was pretty bad. If I had known then what it would mean to my family, I would never have got involved in the Big Thicket. You never go against the powers-that-be in an area that has a one-product economy.”
After the Big Thicket National Preserve was created, Watson worked for the National Park Service as a park ranger/ecologist for fifteen years. She served as a liaison between the local people—many of whom viewed the land as their hunting ground, one that their families had used for generations—and the National Park Service. She delineated the vegetation zones of the units of the Big Thicket National Preserve and collected and cataloged the plant life of the Big Thicket. She published a book, Big Thicket Plant Ecology: An Introduction (1979).
When she was in her sixties, Watson took a trip down the Neches River by herself, rowing a boat that she had built herself, and camping on sandbars. This trip inspired a book, Reflections on the Neches: A Naturalist’s Odyssey along the Big Thicket’s SnowRiver (2003). The book, which included sketches by Watson and her daughter Retha, was written in a stream of consciousness style with recollections of the colorful people and the history of the region, as well as its natural history. It also provided a window into the philosophy and worldview of Watson, who, in her introduction, wrote, “Still another reason for my trip was to show women of all ages that they can still have adventures.” Later in life, Watson also depicted in her paintings her memories of family activities and local history in a series she called “The Good ol’ Days.”
Never entirely satisfied with the National Park Service’s management of the Big Thicket National Preserve, Watson created a preserve of her own consisting of approximately eleven acres located four miles southeast of Warren, Texas, in Tyler County, on the shore of Lake Hyatt. She designed and built a small A-frame cabin that became her retreat. She initially called it Watson Pinelands Preserve, which boasts a diverse flora and fauna, including several species of carnivorous plants, rare orchids, longleaf pines, and wild azaleas. Watson wanted her beloved preserve to be saved for future generations. In January 2009 she incorporated Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve, a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, and deeded the land to the corporation. The preserve is open to the public at no charge 365 days a year during daylight hours.
Geraldine Ellis Watson was so influential in her conservation efforts that she was included in Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage & Conservation (2010). She died on April 6, 2012, in Austin, Texas.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Austin American-Statesman, April 14, 2012. Houston Chronicle, April 15, 2012. Ron Kabele, “Unconquerable Soul,” Texas Parks & Wildlife, April 2012. The Pine Needle (Silsbee, Texas), February 2, 1967. Lois Parker Local History Collection, University Archives and Special Collections, Lamar University. David Todd and David Weisman, eds., The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage & Conservation (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010). Geraldine Ellis Watson, Reflections on the Neches: A Naturalist’s Odyssey along the Big Thicket’s SnowRiver (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2003). Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve (http://watsonpreserve.ning.com/), accessed March 23, 2021.
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