Huntsville, Texas, home to prisons, seven-story Sam Houston

Huntsville, Texas, home to prisons, seven-story Sam Houston

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"Texas has the death penalty, and we use it! That's right. If you come to Texas and kill somebody, we will kill you back. That's our policy. Other states are trying to abolish the death penalty. My state's putting in an express lane."

- Comedian Ron White, a native of Fritch, Texas

Here's an interesting tidbit about Huntsville, the city in the east Texas Piney Woods where the Montana Grizzlies find themselves for Friday night's Football Championship Subdivision showdown with top-ranked and undefeated Sam Houston State University.

Almost one in every four Huntsville residents lives behind bars.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is headquartered in Huntsville, maintains five prisons within the city limits, and four more just minutes outside of town.

About 8,500 inmates - who are counted in the city's population of 35,500 - call Huntsville home.

Thousands more local residents work for the Department of Criminal Justice, the city's largest employer.

"It's an interesting dynamic," says Missoula Sentinel and University of Montana graduate Aric Schneller, who has taught jazz at Sam Houston State's School of Music since 2008. "If you didn't know differently, you wouldn't realize the city is known for its prison system. Huntsville is a nice little Texas town in the woodlands, very typical of a Southern town, with a town square where the courthouse is."

While Death Row itself is located 45 minutes to the east at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, Huntsville is where prisoners are executed.

It happens at Texas' oldest prison, the Huntsville Unit, known better as "The Walls."

"Old Sparky," the electric chair that executed 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964, has been consigned to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. Since 1982 - the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty - Texas has used lethal injection to execute more than 460 more prisoners, and, since 1999, has done so exclusively in Huntsville.

Like Deer Lodge in Montana, Huntsville is often synonymous with its state's prison system, even though Texas has approximately 100 prisons spread across the state, where it incarcerates the approximate equivalent of the populations of Billings and Missoula combined - more than 170,000 people.

But there's more to Huntsville - named by its founder, Ephraim Gray, for his hometown in Alabama - than its several graybar hotels.

***

The first thing most people notice in Huntsville is the seven-story-or-so tall statue of the university's namesake, Sam Houston himself, visible for six miles in any direction.

"Without a doubt, the most important figure in Texas history," says Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward.

Woodward should know. Being mayor of Huntsville - he was just sworn in last week - isn't exactly his day job.

He is also the curator at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, conveniently located on the Sam Houston State University campus at 1836 Sam Houston Ave.

It would almost be easier to list things in Texas that haven't been named after Sam Houston. The university and museum in Huntsville that bear his name are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are high schools, elementary schools, libraries, bridges, streets, highways, parks and forests named for him. Counties in three states. A Civil War-era U.S. Navy ship and Cold War-era U.S. submarine bore the USS Sam Houston moniker. The Beatles performed at the old Sam Houston Coliseum in 1965 - the same place where Elvis Presley was rushed off stage by police in 1956 when thousands of teenagers stormed the stage.

Most obvious, of course, is the city of Houston itself, located about 80 miles south of Huntsville.

"He has an unbelievable resume," Woodward says.

***

For instance, Sam Houston is the only person in American history to have served as governor of two states, as well as the only governor to have been a foreign head of state.

He was president of the Republic of Texas before it was annexed by the United States.

Houston served as governor of Tennessee before ever heading to Texas, where he spearheaded the Texas Revolution.

With the famous cry of "Remember the Alamo!," Houston and his rag-tag band of 910 soldiers routed Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, president and dictator of Mexico and self-styled "Napoleon of the West," at the Battle of San Jacinto, and changed the map of North America.

In 1836, he became the first president of the Republic of Texas, and after it became a state he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1846 to 1859.

Houston, whose second wife was a Cherokee woman named Tiana Rodgers, became a defender of Indian rights in Washington, where he once said, "I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone."

It wasn't the only time. A staunch unionist as well, many Texans of the day branded him a traitor to the South as he went against other Southern Democrats in key votes leading up to the Civil War.

"While it was the most unpopular vote I ever gave, it was the wisest and most patriotic," Houston said of one maverick vote.

Houston left the Senate in 1859 to run for governor of Texas in an effort to block secession.

"I see my beloved South go down in the unequal contest," he predicted in advance of the Civil War, "in a sea of blood and smoking ruin."

Thirty-two years after being elected governor of Tennessee, Texans elected their hero to the same office.

Two years later, they voted to secede. When Houston refused to take an oath of loyalty to the confederacy, he was evicted from office.

Houston's third wife, Margaret Lea, convinced the hard-drinking Houston to quit liquor. She was 21 when she married the 47-year-old Houston, and they had eight children together.

Sam Houston is buried in Huntsville, where he died in 1863.

As you can tell by the university that bears his name, and is home to the museum that bears his name, located on the street that bears his name, 80 miles north of the city that bears his name, history has judged Sam Houston well.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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