This is a story about an old couple that showed up in Smithwick when I was just a kid.
When people said their name, they always left off the p and b. It was Charlie and Minnie Camel.
Minnie and Charlie arrived in an old Studebaker car with everything they owned, including a couple of dogs.
They never had children. They claimed they had no other close family. They just had each other. Minnie was from Oklahoma. She always said she was part Indian. While she had a round pie plate face, she did have real high cheek bones. A sure sign of Indian blood, I guess.
It was probably in 1963. They were familiar to many of the older people around Smithwick. They had just appeared the same way back in the 40s. They had camped out down along the river back then and started out this stay by camping out.
Charlie was a rock mason by trade. Minnie was his helper. He was hired to do some jobs around the community by various ones, but mostly by Cecil Lewis, my dad.
My Grandfather died in the fall of 1958, so the old Lewis homeplace had been left vacant for several years and soon the old house became home to the Campbell’s.
It was always known that Charlie was much older than Minnie. When I looked up Minnie’s grave I was shocked that she was only 63 when she died.
There are ? marks by dates associated to Charlie on the Find-A-Grave website. No one really ever knew how old Charlie was.
Camping out most of their lives and the hard work of laying rock made Minnie look much older than she was. Her skin was as leathery as a riding saddle. Charlie was well into his 80s by the time they made their second arrival to Smithwick. Upon his death in 1975 he was claiming to be 95.But who knows. Charlie claimed to be 89 when they got to Smithwick in 1963.
As a young boy I enjoyed visiting with them. They had tales to tell. Charlie was an inventor. He claimed to have invented the racks with the little clips that stores and bars hung up bags of chips and peanuts on. Some one paid him a few bucks with a promise of more, but it never came. Or at least that was Charlie’s story. Minnie always agreed with everything Charlie said.
His greatest invention was a wooden level (he used levels a lot in the masonry trade). It had a needle in the center dial instead of a bubble. While now it doesn’t seem that high tech, at that time his prototype was very well put together. He had even worked with a jeweler to help balance and weight the mechanism and fashion a dial that read out in degrees.
Minnie had sewn, she wasn’t the finest seamstress, a velvet bag that he kept the level in. He had met with several companies that were interested in buying it, but he only would tell them about it and not show it, for fear they would steal his idea. He was always trying to save up enough money to patent it, but that never happened. I wish I knew what happened to the level.
Charlie chewed tobacco. Not like anyone else did. He would send off money to a cigar company in South Carolina and a few weeks later a big box would arrive with cigar clippings. The box would be full of pieces of tobacco leafs. He said it was much better than what you could buy at the store. I suspected it was more about price than taste.
Minnie dipped Copenhagen snuff. That was a finely ground tobacco, and I mean finely ground. It was like a tobacco dust. This was a fashionable thing for ladies to do many years ago. They would take a small spoon and place some in their lower lip and hold it there for long periods of time. Some would cut small peach tree branches a few inches long and chew on one end until it frayed, then dip it in the snuff jar and suck on it. With Minnie, she would sometimes snort the Copenhagen up her nose. That was always done discreetly. I guess it wasn’t very lady like to be a snorter.
After they had been around for a couple of years, Minnie up and died. We were living in Jollyville at that time, but came directly up upon getting the phone call. It was an hours drive, but the funeral home hadn’t carried her away by the time we arrived.
That became a Smithwick happening that evening. Seems like the whole community was there at the old house by the time we arrived. I remember it being really cold. Everyone mostly stood outside with heavy coats on.
After Minnie was transported away and the crowds left, it fell to Big Jimmy (a local kid and friend), Kenny and me, to spend the night with Charlie. Our ages were 13, 13. &10, me being the youngest. The old house only had a fireplace for heat so there was a roaring fire going.
Charlie set for what seemed like hours that night tell the three of us about his and Minnie’s life together. Much more information that we needed I’m sure.
Minnie hadn’t been the most immaculate house keeper. There were dogs and chickens and goats that freely roamed in and out of the house, so as the night wore on and we became so tired we decided to sleep in the only bed that Minnie hadn’t just been laying dead in. It was a little Hollywood bed (best described as a small day bed no bigger than a twin bed). I think that’s where the dogs generally slept. It was located in the corner of Minnie and Charlie’s bedroom, which was far enough away that no heat was felt from the fireplace. We found some heavy blankets and all three of us crawled in bed together with our clothes and shoes on.
The only light was the glow of fireplace. Charlie never went to bed that night. He set in his wooden rocking chair by the fire. He would sob and let’s out loud moans, followed but extended periods of chanting. I don’t think the three of us got much sleep either. It marked the longest night of my life.
Our Dad, Cecil, had told us to find Charlie’s little 22 single shot rifle and hide it, so it was in the bed with us. I guess he was afraid Minnie’s death would be too much for Charlie to take.
In preparation for the burial, several local men decided to dig the grave to help Charlie with the funeral expenses. So on that cold day, a bunch of us gathered and dug that grave, everyone taking turns.
She was laid to rest and Charlie was off to the next chapter in his life. He never really adjusted completely to losing Minnie. He stayed on for awhile but eventually he took up residence down in Cedar Park where an old friend of his owned the Hilltop Inn. Buck (last name escapes me) was his name. There was a little room in the back for him to stay. He swept the floors, carried out the trash and waited for someone to come in and buy him some beers.
He was there for a few years. I would go by to see him when I got down that way. One day I went by and the place was closed down. There was no way to find out what happened to Charlie.
By accident one day I saw Charlie walking the along the highway, going south on Lamar way out in north Austin. I stopped and gathered my old friend up. He said he was headed up to his girlfriends bar. A place call Dixie’s Place. It was at what is now Braker Lane and North Lamar. It set back off the street a ways under huge oak trees.
It was adjacent to the very famous, in its time, Skyline Dance Hall.
Charlie lived in some little tourist courts (tourist courts were the precursor of hotels) about a mile north of Dixie’s Place. It was a series of small stone buildings that were converted into one room living units. A bed, a counter with a hot plate and a small refrigerator that made a horrible noise. A small toilet was walled off in a corner.
The thick solid rock walls cause the windowless place to feel like a cellar, with a damp musty smell. The place was called the Coxville Courts. Named for a little settlement on the north end of Austin.
When I was a kid there was even a zoo across the street. The Coxville Zoo.
I would stop by to check on Charlie when I made my way out north, either finding him at his room or at Dixie’s.
This would have been around 1975. My work took me out of town to Huntsville, Texas for several months and I didn’t see Charlie.
One day I got a call from my Dad that he had been contacted about Charlie’s death. Dixie and Charlie had been in a traffic accident leaving him dead. I can’t remember for sure but I think they both were killed.
Travis Country didn’t know who to contact about the death, so the body stayed at the morgue for a couple of months. Just as they were getting ready to bury him in the country paupers cemetery, a Travis County investigator found some old mail in his room that had his old Marble Falls address on it. That’s how they found my Dad.
They brought him to Smithwick to be buried along side the love of his life.
The picture of the headstone, while it really doesn’t look like much, symbolizes who Charlie and Minnie were and how their existence was meager and simple.