A Visit with Cactus Jack Garner

"Mr. John Nance Garner will see you at your convenience. Come on out," the invitation read.

Come on out I did the following day from San Antonio to Cactus Jack's home in Uvalde, Texas, a community named after Juan de Ugalde, an Eighteenth Century officer who soldiered for the Spanish Crown from the wilds of Peru to the Ghost Mountains of what is now Big Bend National Park.

"Come in here, boy, if your name is Maverick," a strong voice called. "James Slayden got me Bandera County in my first Congressional District. He helped me to go to Congress. I don't fancy interviews much anymore, but I'll talk to you on account of Jim. Come in, boy. Come in." (Congressman James Slayden was my great-uncle.)

A sole attendant in the old and modest frame house led me to the former Vice-President of the United States. I saw a small, ninety-three-year-old man with bushy eyebrows and alert eyes who somehow reminded me of Saint Nick.

"Sit down in that chair," Mr. Garner commanded. Then, after pointing a warning finger at me, he said, "Let's get something straight. Don't you talk politics to me. When I left Washington the last time, all the newspaper reporters came down to the train to see me off. I told them I'd never cross the Potomac River again. Those newspaper boys gave me a big 'ha-ha,' but I still haven't crossed the Potomac so the 'ha-ha' is on them. No politics now, boy, understand?"

"Mr. Vice-President, I don't want to talk politics either. The magazine I am writing for isn't political. We want to know about the first member of your family who came to Texas, about any contact you had with the Indians, your early childhood, and what it was like when you first started in law practice."

"All right, son," Mr. Garner replied, "get your pencil out and let's get going.

"In the early part of 1842, my widowed grandmother, Rebecca Walpole Garner, left the mountain country of Tennessee with a mess of children. She drove an ox wagon by herself to Blossom Prairie, Texas.

"Her dead husband's name was John Nance Garner. She gave that same name to my father, who gave it to me. That's three John Nance Garners in a row.

"My father fought as a Confederate cavalryman, and after the Civil War he came home and married Sarah Guest, my mother. She was pure Irish. Her father came from Dublin."

"Mr. Garner, were you born in a log cabin like one of the history books says you were?"

"No. It was a log house with five or six rooms. A good house, too."

"Did you ever have any trouble with the Indians?"

"I never experienced any Indian raids or difficulty. Sometimes we would ride up to the Oklahoma Indian country and watch them play their brand of baseball. They had sticks with cups on the end which they would use to scoop up the ball. They would bloody each other. The first time I saw them do this I was only twelve and Lord-to-mercy I was so scared I cried. They were the only Indians I ever saw. I never saw any Indians later on in south Texas."

"Mr. Garner, one of your biographies describes you during your boyhood days as being active as a cat and full of the devil. What about that?"

"Boy, two cats! Two devils!"

We both laughed, and then I asked him about his educational background.

"Well, I walked three miles to a one-room school which wasn't open much more than four or five months a year because it was the Reconstruction Period and times were poor.

"I had an old maid aunt, Miss Kitty Garner, who taught me the most. She made me learn my A-B-C's from an old blue-back speller. That was a good book. It would say 'd-o-g dog,' and 'h-o-g hog.' And then there would be a picture of a dog and a hog.

"In those days I was a good little short-stop. Had to play short-stop. Too little to play anything else. Our team was called the Possum Trot Nine and we played town ball. You play town ball with a rubber ball."

"Tell me how you got to be a lawyer."

"Well, I went to Clarksville, the county seat of Red River County, and studied for a spell in the law offices of Captain M. L. Sims, an ex-Confederate officer. I got my license before I was twenty-one. Ran for City Attorney. Got beat, too."

"How did you happen to go to Uvalde?"

"One day old Doc Clark thumped my chest and told me I had tuberculosis in my left lung. He said I had to go to a dry climate, and said if I'd go to Uvalde he would give me a letter of introduction to his brother, John H. Clark, a lawyer. So I got on a train and late one night in December, 1892, or maybe it was January, 1893, I arrived at Uvalde."

"Mr. Garner," I interrupted, "one of the books about you reports that you had $151.25 in your pockets that night. Is that correct?"

"No, it isn't. I had $152.25 in my pockets."

"When did you first meet your law partners?"

"The next morning after I got off the train. It was at Mr. Clark's office. They were John Clark and Tully Fuller. Mr. Clark was the oldest, then Tully, then me. We decided that Mr. Clark would get three-sixths of the partnership income, Tully would get two-sixths, and I'd get one-sixth. We shook hands and that was that.

"It was a good law firm. Our offices were near the Sewell and Estes Saloon where I liked to have a drink now and then. I always admired good whiskey and drank it until a few years ago. But I have never been intoxicated in my life.

"When I was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and later Vice-President, I would meet some of the boys in a room at the Capitol after a day's work. We called it the Board of Education. I'd pour the first drink at 5 p.m. Then at 5:30 and only at 5:30, they got a second drink. Finally, there was a third drink at 6:00 p.m. and that was all, because I always believed that a man who didn't know how to drink was a plain darn fool."

"How did you meet your wife, Mr. Garner?"

"On a train going to San Antonio. She got on at Sabinal and then I was introduced to her for the first time. Her name was Mariette Elizabeth Rheiner, but I soon came to call her Etty. She and my mother were the finest women who ever lived."

"Mr. Garner, I know you became County Judge of Uvalde County, but didn't you also serve in the Texas House of Representatives?"

"Yes, indeed. That's where I got the name 'Cactus Jack'."

"How's that?"

"Well, resolutions were being offered to select the official state flower of Texas. I sent up a resolution naming the cactus bloom. Been called Cactus Jack ever since."

"And then you went to Congress?"

"Yes. I was on the Redistricting Committee which set up the new Congressional District from which I was elected. It ran from Corpus Christi to Brownsville up the Rio Grande to Del Rio."

The time had come for me to quit asking questions. Would he offer me a drink? That is the acid test in determining if you got along with the old man.

"Boy, do you want a drink?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, the doctor won't let me drink anymore. But you take a drink and strike a blow for liberty for both of us." We walked to the kitchen.

"Pour yourself a drink, Maverick."

"Yes, sir."

"Son, that isn't a drink. Pour yourself a real drink."

"Yes, sir."

On my way out I couldn't help asking him one "political question." I knew the answer would be a good one, if he would only tell me.

"Mr. Garner, didn't some northern congressmen throw some votes your way which helped you to become Speaker of the House?"

"Yes. He was a little fighting Italian from New York and my friend. His name was Frijole."


"Yes, Frijole. Like frijole beans. I never could pronounce his first name. His last name was LaGuardia. Got to be Mayor of New York City. A fine man, he was."

Now I was at the door. It was time to part. "Thank you, Mr. Garner, for the nice visit."

"Son, when you came in here I told you I was glad to talk to any relative of Jim Slayden."

"I regret I never knew him. He died when I was a baby."

"Well, you missed something."

"Thank you and goodbye, Mr. Vice-President."

"Goodbye, boy."

Maury Maverick, Jr., True West, October, 1962

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