A Historical Column From The Fayette County Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office
Joel Alexander O’Daniel Cole 1901-1999 – Part 1
By Terry Cole
“The Berry brothers, Thomas Owen, Jack, and their Uncle Alf, come into Texas to overthrow the Spanish government. They was told to go home but they got around where La Grange is now and found some good thickets to hunt bear and started trading with the Indians so they just stayed. When Austin come in he give the land they was livin’ on to somebody else. Ole man Zaddock Woods said to them... ‘ya’ll go file and ya’ll can have either place, it don’t make me no difference.’ So that’s what they done, and the one brother give half his land to the other one to go file because he couldn’t read or write.
“Ole man Dave Berry was 70 years old when the Dawson bunch come by his house at Blackjack Springs. They had to come right by it. They didn’t want to take him and the whole bunch had to wait while he wet a piece of rawhide to tie the lock on his rifle.”
These are the kind of stories I grew up listening to from Joe Cole – the same stories he grew up listening to. His Mama was Rosa Berry Cole. His Papa was Norman Richard Cole, named after Norman Woods, an early Texas hero. He was related to the two Scallorn brothers, Elam and Wesley. John Wesley had fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. Both brothers and Dave Berry died in the Dawson Massacre. A great uncle Charlie Smith was a Texas Ranger killed in a gunfight with an outlaw.
Joe learned these old stories and had a lifelong love of Texas history. He read every Texas history book he could get his hands on, saying, “The truth is a whole lot more interesting than fiction.” He also learned from former slaves things that weren’t discussed around the dinner table.
By age 5, he was helping his Pa herd cattle when he went on buying trips. Before he could read and write, he knew every cattle brand in the country. At 9, he and his family had been to New Mexico in a covered wagon. I’ll let Joe tell you about his early education.
“We lived on a farm and ranch together. When you got big enough, you went to work. My Daddy had lots of cattle, and the farm raised cotton. School never did start ‘til the 15th of September, and it was out the first of May. They needed the kids…picking cotton, chopping cotton. When I was 13 years old, I could plow, yoke steers, work oxen.
“I never went but one day to school. That ain’t no lie. We lived eight miles from school and I had to walk. Well, the first day of school they got me up kind of late. They got me off in such a hurry, damned if I didn’t forget my dinner. When I got to school the kids were just turning out for dinner. So I turned around and went back home and got it.
“By the time I got back to school, they was turnin’ out to go home. Eight and eight is 16, 16 and 16 is 32 miles I’d walked that day. The next day I felt so drowsy, I just never went back to school. One day is all I went. If I hadn’t forgot my dinner, I’d be President of the United States.
“I’m pretty smart like it is. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get no education, cause everybody thinks I’m a damned rascal anyway.’’
Joe had two brothers, Norman Richard II (“N.R.”), Berry Lee, and a sister, Rosie. When the boys weren’t working, they spent their time in the woods, usually hunting with dogs. Unknown to his parents, by age 10 Joe started carrying a Colt cap-and-ball pistol. He used it to put meat on the table and make money from hides. As a teenager he worked on ranches in South Texas and the Big Bend. Around WW I the family moved from Muldoon to Cottletown in Bastrop County because it was still open range. Joe and N.R. drove a herd of cattle down the main street of Smithville across the Colorado River Bridge.
In his 20s, Joe married Bessie Lee Robbins Armstrong from another early Fayette County family. She had one son, Collis Armstrong, by her first marriage, and to this marriage Zane and Bessie Jo were added.
He made his living hiring out as a cowboy, trading horses, roping in rodeos, owned a string of bronc horses, and rode broncs in a wild west show. He brought in wild hogs from the Big Thicket to fatten on acorns in the fall of the year. He traveled around the countryside fixing treadle sewing machines and clocks. One time he worked for the telephone company 30 days and was fired 31 times. He started dealing in antiques and put seats in thousands of rawhide bottom chairs.
(To Be Continued)