Men's Breakfast Report, May 2013
The Men’s Breakfast group met Saturday, May 11 with Nat Hickey, Freeport City Property Manager and Historian. Nat has been a long time resident of Freeport. He started working for Dow right after his service in World War II. From Dow he went into business for himself. His first business was the Blue Line print company. Dow originally took care of its printing and copying in-house but wanted to get out of the business. He told Dow that he wanted to buy the business but did not have any money. Eventually Dow agreed to sell him the business and guarantee the purchase price by giving him a contract for a year of business that would provide enough money to pay the purchase price. He later became involved in several other businesses, some of which still exist. Later he served several years as bailiff at the county courthouse. He now works as Freeport property manager and historian.
He has compiled a history of Freeport from the earliest times to the present and read excerpts from it to the group. The original Anglo settlement of Texas was in the Freeport area. Moses Austin obtained a grant from the Mexican government to establish a colony in this area. After Moses’s death the project was carried on by his son Stephen F. Austin. The original settlements at the mouth of the Brazos were Quintana and Velasco. When the plantation economy of Texas was established before the Civil War, these towns became summer resorts for the planter elite. Velasco was originally located where Surfside now sits, but was moved to what is now the northern part of Freeport north of Old River after a disastrous hurricane.
In the 1890s a syndicate bought a plantation and subdivided it into five acre tracts. The syndicate sold them to residents of Chicago and other midwestern cities as farms for growing citrus. As a “closer”, the promoters threw in a lot in the Velasco town site. These 25 foot lots cannot be used so the entire area has remained unusable and is now the urban renewal district. The city of Freeport had the area made an urban renewal district in the 1960s and started acquiring lots. Most lot owners did not even know that they owned these lots since the deed was merely a sentence in the deed to the five acre tract. The lots are valued at 100 to 200 dollars each. The last of the lots was recently acquired for five thousand dollars. The high price was primarily to avoid the expense of litigation.
In 1912 the port of Freeport was established on the south bank of the Brazos by the Freeport Sulfur Company. The company was established to extract sulfur from Bryan Mound using the newly invented Frasch sulfur process. When the Bryan mound deposit was exhausted in 1928 operations were moved to Hoskins Mound east of the city. This did not take as many people so the city suffered. In 1938 Hoskins mound became exhausted so Freeport was expected to revert to a sleepy fishing village.
Freeport was originally not really suitable as a port. The port facilities were all on the Brazos River. The Brazos River is uncontrolled so the flow could interfere with port operations. Even more important, this resulted in shifting sandbars at the mouth of the river which made it hazardous or impossible for large ships to use the port. Jetties were built in the 1890s but the ultimate solution was the diversion of the Brazos River. The New River was dredged in the1930s and the old mouth of the Brazos cut off from the river to produce the present Port of Freeport. The old (now demolished) Highway 36 bridge over the Brazos was built on dry land and then the river dredged beneath it. This made it into Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
The Freeport area was saved by Dow Chemical coming into town to build magnesium and other plants, primarily for the war effort. The plants required a large increase in the work force. The lack of living facilities meant that rooms were rented by the eight-hour shift. Camp Chemical and Camp Midway were then constructed to house the workers. These were demolished long ago. Dow offered to build an extension to Velasco for permanent housing. The Velasco city council turned Dow down because the council thought that Dow would just be a wartime industry and would abandon the city after the war, leaving the city with responsibility for a ghost town. Dow then bought the Jackson plantation and built the city of Lake Jackson, which eventually sucked all the retail business out of Freeport.
In the 1960s Freeport and Velasco merged. Because Freeport was the larger city, the new city had to take the name of Freeport rather than the historic name Velasco.
As property manager Nat keeps track of city owned property and the general state of property in Freeport. The urban renewal district is now available for development. The type of development will have to be decided by the new city council. Housing in Freeport is now becoming tighter, with the new petrochemical plants being constructed. Three years ago Nat had an eleven-page list of houses for sale in Freeport. The list is now down to a half page. There are a large number of vacant lots available for building in the city, but construction has not yet taken off.
Some lots are owned by absentee owners who do not take care of them. The city then has to mow these lots and put a lien on the lot for the cost of the mowing. The lien has to be paid when the lot is sold. One lot valued for $5,000 has mowing liens of $20,000 on it. The city can force sale of a lot only for unpaid taxes, not for service liens. This means that when the lot is finally sold at a tax sale, all the other liens are wiped out so the city does not get reimbursed for its mowing costs. Nat hopes that the Texas legislature will change the law so that sale can be forced on service liens.
The men had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast. The next meeting will be Saturday June 8th.
The downtown area also has problems with absentee owners. Buildings in the downtown area are owned by people all over the world. This makes it difficult to organize downtown redevelopment since it is difficult to contact the owners, much less get them to cooperate.