The Sage of Padre Island: Louis Rawalt
"Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices."
-President Harry S. Truman
"The ways of the sea are strange. They say whatever it takes away from you, it brings back. I'm inclined to believe that it does."
It is said that the "Greatest Generation" is defined as those who fought in World War II, or as the women and children who stayed behind in the homefront and supported the soldiers overseas. These were the Americans who grew up during the years from 1914 to 1929. They grew up during the Depression, and they fought in World War II. When they came home, they built this country into the economic powerhouse that it is today. They knew the meaning of sacrifice, and never bragged about what they had done or what they had undergone. They were patriotic, level-headed, and loyal. But what about those who had come before them? What about those brave men and women of World War I? And thus brings us to the story of one Louis Enoch Rawalt.
Born in 1899 in Kingsville, Texas, Louis Rawalt joined the United States Army as little more than a teen to go and fight in World War I. He fought in four major battles and after the last one was listed as missing in action. After the Armistice, he was found wounded, the victim of a gas attack. He was taken to medical and slowly recovered. During the Army of Occupation, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris. After the War was over and once back home again in Kingsville, he re-enlisted in the Army and eventually attended the University of Texas. But growing restless, he left the Army and soon enlisted in the Navy. In the summer of 1927, he was discharged from the Navy with a kidney infection resulting from old war wounds, many of which continued to plague him. In the words of the chief surgeon in Chelsea, Massachusetts; (Boston, MA), "If you have any business that needs attention, you had better return to your home in Texas and take care of it. Prognosis, six months. A lot of them didn't have any time left, you know." Rawalt started for the door, and said, "It'll do. It'll have to." He had wooed and recently married Viola Mae Bell, a nurse whose brother was a patient in the same hospital, and that night broke the news to her, along with his plan. Having expected the doctor's verdict, he had it in his mind what he wanted to do with his remaining time, and he wanted Viola to accompany him. He began to spin a story of the island of his youth, the long white island of the Karankawa Indians, an isolated narrow strip of sand off the coast of Texas that his father would take him to on fishing trips as a boy. Viola's response to the plan? "Padre, here we come!" So off to Texas they went, with Louis having relinquished a kidney in one hospital, and part of a lung in another, and having lost more than fifty of the pounds he carried on his 6 foot frame, and with the black cloud of his impending death hanging over them both.
Arriving in Kingsville in September of 1925, they spent a few days assembling their gear, visiting Louis' family, and packing foodstuffs for their trip to Padre Island.. And then they were off. With a used Model T, two army cots, a gasoline camp stove, and a lantern, they were as ready as they would ever be. Their luxury items included some blankets, tin plates and cups, a month's supply of canned goods and staples, and a saw, hammer, and nails. Behind him Louis left the stark memories of the First World War, the hospitals, the operating rooms, and the doctors. Ahead of him lay a limited amount of time left to live, in which nothing was guaranteed. Not wanting time to be measured out to him in minutes and hours, they took no clock with them. Crossing the Don Patricio Causeway, they took a long winding sand path towards the beachfront across the Island. They turned left, drove a few miles, and set up camp on Corpus Christi Pass, which was open and flowing at the time and totally separating Padre from Mustang Island. That night, they lay their tired bodies down and quickly fell asleep to the sound of coyotes howling behind them from the dunes, and to the sound of the surf, and for the first time, slept soundly through the night.
The next morning, Louis awoke feeling refreshed and eager to start the day. As the sun cast it's splendor across the grey morning waters of the deep, the birds called, and the surf crashed all around, he knew he had everything he could ever want. But maybe, only for a time.
Days passed however, and then the days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Louis and Viola spent hours fishing down by the water, or beachcombing. And then the funniest thing happened. One day, they realized that 3 months had passed. And not only had Louis become increasingly healthier, but he was now heavier, tanned, and boasted an enormous appetite. The pains of his ravaged body lessened, and he found that one night in October he was able to catch 500 pounds of redfish on his trot lines. The next morning they took them back to town and returned with 25 dollars of supplies and of course, more fish hooks and line. After that, Louis fished commercially.
The next year, Louis and Viola moved 35 miles down the beach, to the edge of Big Shell, to a beach shack owned by Major Swan, one of the old timers of the Island. One morning, while hauling in a surf net, a force pulled back against the net that they had never felt the likes of before. Pulling the net in with the help of his new but used Model A, Louis discovered an 18 ft sawfish. Later that day, a group of fisherman came driving up the island, and passing by, saw only Louis by himself down by the water with a cane pole. Assuming he had caught the sawfish on the cane pole alone, they spread the amazing story about town, and years later it was still passed on as a local legend.
One night, Viola nudged Louis awake. "There's something in the kitchen, in here with us." Moonlight streaming through the open door, Louis saw the gaunt form of a coyote, licking the remains of dinner from the tin plates they had left on the table. Falling off the table, it catapaulted into the center of the room, where Louis gave it a swift kick sending it rolling down the front steps. It spent the rest of the night howling with derision from the top of a nearby dune surrounded by its puppies. Not the only encounter with coyotes, another time Louis caught ninety redfish during a huge run of them one night, and without ice, had nowhere to keep them. He quickly loaded them up into the back of the truck and transported them to a pond near his cabin until morning. The next morning, ready to transport them into town to market, he was amazed at what he saw. The headless carcasses of every last fish lay all around the pond, and coyote tracks led in every direction.
Yet another time, Louis saw in amazement as coyotes pulled in his trot lines from the surf while other coyotes worked to strip the fish away from the lines and take off with them. They would also catch and eat mullet and other baitfish from the surf, causing no end to the amazement of Louis and Viola at their craftiness. As for Viola, Island life agreed with her as well, and she grew strong and lost her pale northeastern complexion to the warm Texas sun. But life on the Island in the 1930's was no picnic. Storms ravaged the island, and came without warning. Soon after moving to Big Shell Beach, Louis and Viola would find this out the hard way. Their cabin in the "El Codo del Diablo,"or "Devil's Elbow," was named in no short part due to the wreckage that lined it's shores. Centered at Latitude 27 degrees 30 minutes north, the currents of the Gulf of Mexico work to converge in this area, and in kind deposit all wreckage, flotsam, or jetsam to this dangerous stretch of shoreline. From shrimp boats to Spanish galleons, the debris of the storms of the years have left their mark. Louis himself had found coins and old jewelry at some of the wrecks, and even a copper bottom ship behind the dunes in one particular area.
Before Louis and Viola knew it, the years passed by and it was 1933. This would be the year that the Gulf would show just how brutual Mother Nature could be, a year heavily laden with tragedy and loss. There had been several storm scares already, and by September of that year Viola had all of their belongings packed in boxes for the time that might come that they would have to evacuate Padre Island, and do so quickly. And then early one Saturday morning found Louis down by the water fishing, the day as beautiful as Padre could ever be, with crisp blue clear skies and flat clear water. The winds were light, and the day seemed promising. But the light surf began to be overrun by giant swells, spaced out a lot longer than the usual. Out of nowhere, and from far out over the water, clouds appeared that shouldn't have been there, and in an instant's time a furious squall rolled ashore, with heavy sheets of rain. Waking up Viola, he told her, "We need to go, there's a storm on the way, and it's going to be a big one." Looking back out over the water from the front porch, the tide had already risen a foot, and the beach was quickly becoming impassable. They took off immediately, grabbing Louis' fishing partner Shorty on the way out, and barely made it to town by late that afternoon in their Model A. The weather forecast from town showed a storm all right, and forecasted to hit the Texas coastline on Monday. After getting Viola settled in, Louis and Shorty decided to try to risk running down the beach that night on low tide to get some of their belongings and equipment from the cabin before the storm hit. After making it several miles down the Island in the dark, they realized it was pointless to try to make it down that night to the shack. Spending the night hunkered down against the dunes as far as the truck could go, the waves came higher and higher. The next morning, it was quickly apparent that the beach was impassable. Taking shovels, they dug their way through the dune line and took to the center of the Island on what was left of the grass flats as the water rose and the rains flooded the Island. Taking all day to reach the shack, they left the truck and walked to it, with water running underneath it up to their knees. There was no way out. The shack would never survive the storm, which hadn't even made landfall yet. Louis grabbed several old coins he had found around the wreckage of an old ship, a rust encrusted lavallier from the Balli mission-ranch of Santa Cruz from way down on the south end of the island, some stem-wind gold watches from a box washed in on the beach, and his collection of arrowheads and spear points. Pondering what else to take, he was knocked to the floor when a wave hit the shack with such intensity that the water rose to his waist. Hopping out the back door with only a pillow case and his life, the sky grew dark and the wind howled as the seawater destroyed what was left of his home right in front of his eyes. Grabbing at a gas can that floated by, he called out to Shorty who was already waiting for him in the truck. Following their tracks back up Island, they made it to the Don Patricio Causeway right at dark. They would be the very last travelers to ever cross it. With the water in the bay lapping at the top of the tracks, they just made it to the mainland when they discovered that the swing bridge had been lifted up and torn loose from it's base. It was two feet higher than the causeway tracks. A barge anchored nearby with several men aboard came to their rescue. They lifted the Model A up by hand and set it on the swing bridge and to the mainland. They had made it.
The hurricane of 1933 left devastation everywhere it touched. An hour after Rawalt's causeway crossing, the entire causeway was reduced to splinters and bare broken pilings. It's planks were found 20 miles away on the King Ranch, and Rawalt and Shorty were the last to ever cross it. Corpus Christi itself was destroyed, and Padre Island was altered drastically. Thirty channels were cut right through the middle of the Island, and it took a week for the floodwaters in the Laguna Madre to drain off back through the Island and back into the Gulf.
Not one to give up, only a week later Rawalt was back on the Island to rebuild. Using an improvised raft, Shorty and Viola helped pole the Model A back across the Laguna. At the site of their cabin they found nothing! Not even a trace of all that they owned in the entire world remained. But at Shorty's cabin nearby, not a single item was lost but a 35 cent stew kettle!
Rawalt and Viola rebuilt, and as the years passed, Rawalt found himself stronger and stronger, and no longer worried about the future. He and Viola started paying on a house in town, and raised a boy and a girl. In addition to fishing, Rawalt spent countless hours exploring the lower end of the Island. When he was in town, he lost himself in the history of the Island in the libraries researching the rich history of the Island, including the Indians, the Spanish, the pirates, and the early settlers. A man ahead of his time, he was a true explorer, historian, and protector of the Island. He commercially fished successfully in the early years, yet he appreciated every last blade of grass and every creature on Padre, and never lost his curiosity of things unknown. He lived on the Island for years, but always retained his fascination with it. He spent decades treasure and artifact hunting, yet kept every last piece of his collection dated, classified, and catalogued so that one day it could be donated to a museum. He demanded such a museum be located on Padre itself, for everyone to see. "That's where they came from, and that's where they're going to go," he said. And his collection was vast, boasting thousands of pieces.
From the La Venta culture of the Mayans, which pre-Columbian culture, there was a serpentine figure dated to about 4,500 B.C. Flint-tipped arrowheads and spearheads from the Karankawas were aplenty, and even a small pipe left by an Irishman during the settlement of the Impresario lay in his collection. A whole box of hand-made bronze nails from Spanish ships and an eight reale cob minted during the reign of Philip he found and catalogued as well. His oldest artifact was a tiny flint "folsom" projectile point, from about 18,000 B.C. He even found an Asiatic gong, that no archeological society was ever able to decipher the hieroglyphics that it featured. He found a Tonkawa campsite from the 15th century and a Toya site from 500 years earlier than that. There was a typeset from England, a 1/4 Centavus coin, a fossil Mastodon tooth, a Brontosaurus fossil tooth, 1 sword, a skull, pottery sherds from the Toya focus, ballast stones, Karankawa pottery, pieces of grape shot, buttons reading "Rough and Ready," from General Zachary Taylor's U.S. Army outpost on Padre, Spanish spurs and surveying tools from the 1600's, even entire Indian camps from centuries past. Civil War rifle balls and a carved statue of the Mayan culture were among the 40,000 artifacts Rawalt amassed. When asked how he found so many things, he simply replied, "With my rear end up and my head down. I just go into the dunes and start looking."
And look he did. For the 53 years Rawalt had on Padre until his death in 1980, even after buying a house in town, Rawalt would continue to spend his time on Padre, coming in to town a few times a week. The family would spend every summer on Padre living together in one of the several cabins he maintained there. He became the Audubon warden of Bird Island and held that position for nearly 43 years. Six days a week from mid-March to late August he would drift past the island to observe. He also became fast friends with Pat Dunn, Padre rancher and landowner, and later, his son Burton Dunn, who hired him to take him across the Laguna to check on things at his ranch, which by the 1940's was most of Padre Island. He camped with the Dunn ranch cowboys, and took part in their cattle operations. There was nowhere he wasn't welcome.
During World War II, the Island was closed to visitors and Rawalt was the only one the Navy allowed to stay. There were Coast Guard stations every six miles and the Island was patrolled at night by soldiers with dogs. The German U-boat threat was real, and artillery emplacements were built in Port Aransas as part of the Coast Artillery. The threat of spies landing ashore was a very real fear and according to Rawalt, "Folks could come over during the day to visit the Island, but they didn't want to be caught there at night. These soldiers would carry these .45 automatic rifles, and they were scared of their own shadow. They shot stumps and everything else. You didn't want to be out on the beach." Rawalt would take the soldiers into town when they had liberty, as they knew every Thursday when he would head into town, and would wait for him to pass by on the beach.
When the war was over, time continued to pass, and soon, the causeway was built. On June 17, 1950 it opened for the first vehicles to pass over the Laguna onto Padre. Within weeks, the effects of the new tourists were felt. Rawalt's cabins and the Dunn Ranch buildings were vandalized and the contents rummaged through and taken, or destroyed. No matter what Rawalt tried, he couldn't stop the onslaught of maliciousness. He would return to a cabin of his down Island, and find his pillows cut up, mattresses burnt, and windows knocked out. Unfortunately, the new era on Padre of tourism and sportfishing had begun, and the masses could now access Padre easily, an issue that continues today.
During the 50's, Rawalt worked for Humble Oil taking part in exploration and mineral work on Padre. And with the authorization of the Padre Island National Seashore in 1962, and with ranching ending for good in 1970, Rawalt spent his later years tending a bait shop he began at the head of the Island just off the causeway, and continuing to explore Padre in his free time. He also assisted the new Chief Naturalist of the Seashore, Robert Whistler, in learning the park's history by sharing his collection of artifacts and participating in oral history interviews with Whistler.
Louis Rawalt was a man quite ahead of his time. Until he passed in the year 1980 at the ripe old age of 81, he saw things that others just did not in the island called Padre, and also, in nature and in creation. He looked at the Island from a historical aspect, not just from what he could exploit from its untapped resources. He saw the value in the events of the past, and of each and every living creature. His gradual and accumulative knowledge of the Island led him into the studies of geology, archaeology, and ornithology. If he didn't know something, he would find out. He was no stranger to libraries or to college professors and universities for assistance. And he was wise enough to keep his findings on the Island a secret. He knew quite well the damage that vandals and reckless treasure hunters could do to important terrestrial areas of cultural or archaeological significance.
And so it went. Fifty-five years after the doctors predicted that he had six months left to live, Rawalt passed away. Where he left off, the National Park Service took over, teaching others the importance and significance of conservation, of sensitive artifacts and sites, and of the enormous task of preserving the remaining wildlands left in America for the generations to come. May we never forget these values. Thanks to heroes like Louis Rawalt, hopefully we never will.
--Captain Colin R. Davis, October 2015