This is a story about an old couple that showed up in Smithwick when I was just a kid.
One day Minnie and Charlie Campbell arrived in an old Studebaker car. When people around Smithwick said their name, they always left off the “p” and the “b”. It was Charlie and Minnie Camel.
I had never heard them mentioned in my 10 or 12 years or so I’d been around at that time in the early part of the 1960s. But that’s not surprising as they weren’t a very remarkable couple, until I got to know them. Then there was much mystery and intrigue contained in the lives of those people.
They never had children, nor did they have any 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 suppose.
Everything they owned was in that car. It was probably around 1963. They were familiar to many of the older folks around Smithwick. They had just appeared the same way back in the 1940s. They had camped out down along the river back then and started out this stay by camping out. Before long my Dad offered the Old House, which was where my grandparents lived when my PawPaw Theron passed away in the fall of 1958. MawMaw Nonie never returned there to live after his death. Since it was just sitting empty, it was a natural thing for the Camel’s to occupy it.
Charlie was a rock mason by trade among many other trades. Minnie was his helper. He was hired to do some jobs around the community by various ones, but mostly by Cecil Lewis, my dad. A rock basement for our new house was probably Charlie’s grandest undertaking while there.
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 63. (More on Charlie’s death a little later)
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 a velvet bag that he kept the level in. She wasn’t the finest seamstress, but it served as a means of transporting and protecting the level.
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. It was still with him near the end of his life. I wish I had made the effort get my hands on it back then, but that is a story that gets complicated, as I will tell later.
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 in the mail 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. Minnie 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 drove directly up upon getting the phone call. It was just over an hours drive, only because Cecil Lewis drove like a madman on a mission every where he went. 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 taken away and the crowds left, it fell to Big Jimmy Palmer, Kenny and me, to spend the night with Charlie. Our ages were 15, 15 & 12, with 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 telling 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 on. 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 in the other room. Charlie never went to bed that night. He set in his wooden creaking rocking chair by the fire. He would sob and let’s out loud moans, followed but extended periods of chanting. It was something that was completely foreign to us. Like he was speaking in tongues or something. I had never heard of them going to church before, but there was a religious happening there that night.
Charlie had a strong penchant for gathering and burning cedar stumps in the fireplace. The crackling of that fire with an occasion loud pop of that burning cedar made things that much more haunting.
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 with Minnie’s death it 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 a cold day, a bunch of us gathered and dug that grave with most everyone taking turns. Actually much of the work fell to the three of us young, strong boys.
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 Hillcrest Tavern. Buck Wickson 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 know what happened to Charlie.
Quite by accident one day several years later I saw Charlie walking along the highway. He was headed south on Lamar way out in north Austin.
I stopped and gathered my old friend up. 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 just across the street from the very famous in its time, Skyline Dance Hall on North Lamar.
He lived in some little tourist courts (tourist courts were the precursor of hotels) about a mile north of that Braker Lane location. It was a series of small stone buildings that were converted into one room living units. A bed, a counter where set a hot plate and a small loud refrigerator. The small toilet was walled of in a corner. The solid rock walls cause the place to always feel cellar like, with a damp musty smell. The place was called the Coxville Courts. Named for a little settlement on the north end of Austin. There was even a zoo across the street. The Coxville Zoo.
I would stop by to check on Charlie when I was out north, either by finding him at his room or at Dixie’s. In 1975, my work had me out of town for several months and I didn’t see Charlie for a time. One day I got a call from my Dad that he had been contacted about Charlie’s death.
Seems that 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. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office 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 ready to bury him in the county paupers cemetery, a Travis Co. investigator found some old mail in his room that had the old Marble Falls address on it. That’s how they found my Dad. Cecil took charge and brought him to Smithwick to be buried along side the love of his life, Minnie.
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.
Charlie would always tell us that Minnie kept up with their money and he didn’t know where she kept it or how much they had. I guess they thought, as we all did that she would outlive him.
Charlie wasn’t in a shape to do much looking so the first one and the other looked but never found any money. We were all pretty sure they didn’t have 2 dimes to rub together, so when nothing turned up, no one was surprised.
The funeral bill up at Clements Funeral home went unpaid. Charlie went on his way and moved to Cedar Park. The old house was pretty well turned over to the possums and coons. At some point Bonnie and Cec decided they better go clean out the pantry before things really got bad. They got ready to dump out an old sack of flour that was stuck down in the flour bin and there was a bank roll of $5,500 down in the bottom of the sack. That was a lot of money in the mid 60s.
Cecil went up and paid the funeral home the money they were owed and took the rest down and gave it to Charlie.
A Thanksgiving Feast Feast With Charlie & Minnie
Minnie wasn’t a tidy housekeeper by anyone’s estimation. I guess living in an old farmhouse, without a screen door would make it hard to keep things clean. Especially if you had a strong penchant for animals of all kinds and didn’t mind having them running in and out all the time. I think that was where the screen door probably went. A flimsy screen door wasn’t much for a billy goat or an old sow to conquer.
An announcement went out to all the Lewis clan and others that the Campbells, Charlie & Minnie were going to be fixing Thanksgiving Dinner and they wanted us all to come. This was probably in 1963 or 1964.
It was suppose to be a duck and dressing dinner. There were always plenty of ducks around, some wild and some tame.
Charlie slipped up over the stock tank dam that was just above the house, and shot a really large goose that had landed there. After shooting it he sent a couple of his old mutts in to retrieve the bird. Of course they weren’t your typical retrieval dogs so by the time they got it to dry land, Charlie had to wrestle it away from them.
I can just imagine the scene of this aging old fellow and 2 hungry dogs fighting over this poor goose with feathers flying.
I remember us arriving there horseback (our main mode of transportation back then) to see Minnie start a fire underneath the old cast iron wash pot of water. Then they threw the goose in this pot whole. After a few minutes they dragged it out by a wire they’d twisted around its neck. They started plucking feathers off of it. Afterwards came the part of cleaning the entrails out of it. The head was left on it.
Once that was done they lowered the whole bird back in the pot and left it for a little while longer. That was supposedly to boil off the fat. Minnie didn’t want it to stay in too long, because it would start coming apart.
Once all that met with Minnie’s approval they took the bird to the kitchen to bake it.
Late in the afternoon we all showed up for the feast. Owen and Effie came from over the hill, Jim & Hanna Cox with Jimmy came down and all of our family made a pretty good bunch.
When it came time to eat, us kids found a way to be out of earshot, down along the creek somewhere so we didn’t have to try “something new” to eat. Besides the thought of those living conditions and seeing the goose preparations earlier, which included watching Minnie and Charlie both spitting tobacco juice in every direction while dressing the fowl, we just didn’t think the smell of a cooking goose was that appealing.
The Thanksgiving meal with the Campbell’s was talked about for many years afterwards.
The Hudson Hornet
Charlie was a Studebaker man.
He always claimed he would never drive anything but a Studebaker. He and Minnie drove off one day and when they came back a few days later he had bought Minnie a car and it wasn’t a Studebaker. It was a very clean 1951 Hudson Hornet. The picture below shows what it looked like. He messed with it and never could make it run right so he parked it out under a tree and it set there for years. I wish I could find it now. I bet it would be with some money.
The lower picture is a Studebaker very much like they drove. When they’d drive up and open the doors on that thing there would be dogs pouring out of it and running in all directions. They enjoyed dogs and picked up every one they ever saw on the side of the road.
My Quest To Find Out More About The Life Of Charlie & Minnie
I have over the time written several stories about Charlie and Minnie.
That couple was always been a curiosity of mine. They claimed to have no living relatives. But I remember when Minnie died, Charlie had my mother contact some people, perhaps a sister to let her know of the passing.
There were some people, a couple of ladies and a teen daughter, not much older than me, that showed up from Oklahoma to attended the funeral.
I could remember that Mrs. Redd, Minnie’s Mother, it was told was with them when they first came to our family part of the county. Which was a long time before I came along.
Mrs. Redd was what I remember Charlie calling her. She camped with them on the riverbank. She was described as being very elderly, back then, in the 30s and 40s.
I found out that Charlie and Minnie was living with Mrs. Redd up in Oklahoma in 1930. The three of them were in Burnet County by the time the 1940 census was done. In early 1951 Mrs. Redd died in Round Rock. Charlie signed the death certificate.
I started looking to see what I could find out about Mrs. Redd.
The search continues, but knowing how they lived, even though the death certificate says she was buried in Oklahoma, I have found no sign of her through the searches I’ve done in Oklahoma or Texas. .
I know they had a strong relationship to Jarrell, Texas and Bell County. He would mention it often.
Thus far I’ve been unable to find where they took her to bury her. My best guess is Charlie and Minnie loaded her in the back of an old Studebacker and found a nice place somewhere in Central Texas where they had camped out in the bottom land of a creek or stream where the digging was easy in some nice loamy soil. It could have been up in Bell County or maybe at Smithwick. But they would have put her at a place of rest where they felt like she would have felt at home.
This pretty well sums up Minnie and Charlie. I plan to erect an additional headstone at their grave one day soon. Even though that slab of concrete with their names hen scratched in it is a fitting tribute to those old people, a piece of pink granite will be there for the ages. I know if I don’t do it, there will be no one left after Kenny and I are gone that will have any idea who those old people were. They enriched my life and that is the least that I can do.