Astronauts Over Pulaski, Texas

by Edward Pinkowski

This article first appeared in the POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL, MARCH 2003 issue, page 9

The people who left their log cabins and courthouse in the nineteenth century in Pulaski, lying nine miles east of Carthage in eastern Texas, never dreamed that men would come back to the fields and woods around it to look for the remains of seven astronauts and debris of their space shuttle that broke up on January 31 over Texas. No matter where pieces were found, Pulaski, once the seat of two Texas counties on the eastern bank of the Sabine River, was not mentioned, for it died shortly after the Civil War.

When I first heard of the Columbia disaster, I was in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I received the Distinguished Service Award of Wally West's Polish cultural organization for enhancing the image of Pulaski, Kosciuszko, and other Poles, and watched the story of the lost shuttle unfold. The search for the debris in Texas reminded me of a time thirty three years ago when I was in some of the same woods looking for a stone marker that was all that was left of Pulaski.

Few people now know such a place existed in the Republic of Texas. Before the geometrical point was marked with a Polish name, it was part of a Spanish province and a refuge for robbers, murderers, and other criminals who fled from the United States. Stolen horses and slaves were temporarily hidden in the thickets along the Sabine River.

ORIGIN OF NAME. On January 30, 1841, four years after the United States recognized the independence of Texas, the congress of the new republic created Harrison County and appointed five men to select a site for the seat of justice which "shall be styled Pulaski." It was said that John Allison, a slave owner from Panola County, Mississippi, who settled on the east bank of the Sabine River after the panic of 1837, suggested the name to a Texas congressman, Isaac Van Zandt, author of the act.

Until then, practically the only inhabitants were George Gillespie, who got his land by fighting for Texas independence; Martha Dillard, to whom he sold 640 acres of his grant; and James P. Kelley, who ran a ferry across the Sabine River. Had Allison not spoken up, the place would probably have been called Kelley' s Ferry.

After the five commissioners selected the site of Pulaski, log houses and a courthouse were built and cotton fields were cultivated in the surrounding region. The courthouse was crowded in the winter of 1840-41 when Charles Jackson, a notorious steamboat captain, was tried in Pulaski for crimes he committed in the United States. When Panola County was created several years later, Pulaski also became the seat of the new county. Allison, who was elected the first judge of Panola County, held the last judicial hearing at Pulaski on July 10, 1848. Carthage, still the county seat, succeeded Pulaski, which became a ghost town.

In 1936, the Lone Star State erected a granite monument on the site to perpetuate it in the minds of the people.

GHOST TOWN. Looking for it was different from scouring the counties in the path of the lost astronauts. The only directions I had to go by on January 3, 1970, was the reference to it in the Guide to Official Texas Historical Markers.

At some point, I stopped at a small, ramshackle store on the roadside and walked in. There were a few black persons in front of a counter and two white men behind it. "Where's Pulaski?" I asked.

None of the customers, one of its whom had a Social Security check in his hands, bothered to answer. The younger of the two men behind the counter turned his head in the direction of the older man, whose name was Don Rinkle, and said, "Ask him." Actually, I was in Elysian Fields, a small settlement of poorly built houses, occupied predominately by African Americans, a gas station where I stopped to fill my tank at 27.9 cents a gallon, and the Rinkle general store. The man who sold the gasoline told me the black families were left over from the time when the land had been nothing but cotton fields. The fields were used then for grazing.

The storekeeper replied, "You're far from it."
"How far?"
"Fifteen, twenty miles."
Rinkle was unable to tell me how to get to Pulaski without a road map. He pointed out the spot on a map, which I had with me, in the middle of a maze of roads, and suggested that I stop at Wilkerson's Store at the second turn on Route 31. It was seven miles from Deadwood. The woman who ran the store had seen the Pulaski monument but didn't know how to get there.

A man walked out of the store and directed me to another one, which had a sign "Godwin Gro," about two and a half miles away, but it was closed for business. Farther down the road I stopped at a broken-down pickup truck and asked the black man who was trying to repair it if I was on the right road to Pulaski.

"Follow this road to the end," he said. "Don't turn."

FOLKLORE. The road, now a single-lane blacktop, ran through pasture lands and woods. Then I hit a barbed wire enclosure. It was posted with three signs, two of which read: "Deadwood Hunting Club" and "Do Not Enter." Luckily, when I turned back, I found William J. Rosenblum, then 37 years old, who had built a house two miles from the ghost town after returning from Korea, and knew a lot of stories about Pulaski.

When he was 17 years old, he came from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was born and raised, to hunt and fish in the Sabine bottoms and first bumped into the Pulaski monument. He continued. On one of his trips he met John Bounds, a surveyor and farmer in Deadwood, and volunteered to help him just to hear stories about the ghost town. Bounds told him about the feuds between the Bounds and Koots families and the criminals who appeared in front of Judge Allison. Pulaski even had a hangman's tree.>P> Rosenblum, who became a fireman in Shreveport in 1956, told me when he got into my car, that we were on a county road and that the Deadwood Hunting Club had no right to close the road. About three miles from Route 31, on the right side of a dirt road, stood a mighty oak tree. It probably witnessed the comings and goings of the people who founded Pulaski.

If I were alone, I would never have found the ghost town. We got out of the car and I followed Rosenblum into the woods until, about 150 feet from the Sabine River, we came to a granite stone, four and a half feet tall, with the Lone Star emblem of Texas on it. The stone was all that was left of Pulaski. The inscription read:

"Site of the town of Pulaski
First County Seat
of Panola County,
September 1, 1846-Sept. 12, 1848.
Named in honor of
Pulaski, Mississippi,
early home of John Allison,
First Chief Justice of Panola
County. After the County Seat
was moved to Carthage,
Pulaski declined."

Hopefully, in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the people scouring the woods of Panola County for the last of the seven astronauts had an easier time than an adventurer in 1970.

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