Inmates as well as employees at the Ramsey State Prison Farm in Brazoria from 1912 or so through the 1930s remembered the Big Barn with considerable pride.
It was a huge structure, designed by an inmate who oversaw the construction of a structure that stood some 200 by 80 feet in size, with a height estimated to have been comparable to that of a four-story building.
The hallway, which was about 15 feet wide, had a ramp at each end to allow wagons filled with corn to be pulled inside for unloading, which was accomplished with the use of an elevator system.
Martin D. Seay, who lived on the farm during his boyhood explained that a cable drum was placed on the ground on the north side of the barn. It was powered by a pair of mules pulling an arm attached to a shaft and gears that turned the drum as the team was driven in a circle around it.
This apparatus “took up cable by lifting the corn-filled wagon bed to the top of the barn,” Seay explained in an interview for the Brazoria County Historical Museum.
The wagon bed was lifted by a chain sling attached to a frame, which in turn was attached to a cable running through a set of pulleys and out to the drum.
Seay explained that when the wagon bed was lifted to the top level through an opening in the floor, a car mounted on rails running the length of the building was pushed under the wagon bed.
“The rear-end gate in the wagon bed was removed, letting the corn spill out into the car, which was then pushed to the proper bin and dumped,” Seay said.
The wagon bed would then be lowered to the hallway and put back on the wheels, with this part of the operation handled by a crew of about 20 men. Trap doors in the bin floors were used as needed. These doors were opened and closed by a steel crank fitted with a chain and were operated by a prisoner.
All of the corn produced on the entire Ramsey prison farm was stored in this barn, except for a small amount stored in small barns at the outlying camps, Seay said.
A stairway leading to a cupola on the roof of the big barn provided a spot from which most of the farm property was visible.
The big barn, which had been the pride of the Ramsey unit, was destroyed by fire about 1930.
“One of the guards discovered the fire one night about 9 o’clock,” Seay said. “All of the trusties and plow squads were turned out of the (dormitory) building and issued buckets that were used to carry water from the mule lot drinking tank.”
Despite their efforts, they were never able to get the fire under control, and the live oak barn, as well as the several thousand bushels of corn stored inside, soon burned to the ground.
Seay remembered the glow of that fire lit up the sky and could be seen for miles.
“Some members of the Angleton Fire Department saw the glow and came out, but they had no firefighting equipment with them, and even if they had brought their fire engine, it would have been too late,” he said.
Most of the “horsepower” available at Ramsey between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s was provided by about 30 head of oxen, which could do many things that neither mules nor horses could.
They were slow but sure, Seay said, adding their main use was to pull the cordwood and log wagons.
“It took a lot of wood to heat, cook and feed the boilers at the prison unit’s laundry, cotton gin, sawmill and syrup mill,” he said.
Oxen were also used to pull the wagons that brought logs from the woods to the sawmill, and during the harvest of sugar cane, these animals were used to move carloads of cane, pulling them up the railroad track so empty rail cars could be put in place by the loading crane.
These oxen were Texas Longhorns of the colors typical of the breed, Seay said, adding they had long, beautiful horns. He estimated the average weight of one of the animals to have been about 1,500 pounds.
“A wagon hitch was made up of four yokes,” he said, adding that when roads were muddy, the oxen could still pull the wood wagon, making two trips daily to the woods and back.
Remembering how skilled the ox drivers were, he noted they controlled the animals by voice commands alone, with no lines necessary.
The leaders, the front yoke, controlled the direction, he said, while the wheelers served as the brakes, and the two middle yokes were pullers.
The men who drove them used a long whip they made from rawhide strips plaited together in an eight-plait, Seay explained, adding the whip was about 14 feet long and was fixed to a wooden handle about 6 feet long.
The purpose of this whip was not to abuse the animals, but to be popped over their heads to emphasize the driver’s commands. He recalled that the driver used both hands on the whip stock in order to crack it so loudly that it sounded like a gun blast.
To direct his team to turn left, the driver would call the name of the front steer, telling him to “come here,” Seay said. That steer would then push his yoke to the left, causing the entire string to move in that direction.
To direct the team to the right, the driver would speak the name of the left lead steer, telling him to “go back.” If he wanted to stop or slow the team, the driver would direct the wheelers to “whoa back,” and the animals would brace their front legs and sit back on the yoke.
Seay remembered it was a surprisingly “efficient” braking system.
Next week: Simmons’ tenure brought livestock upgrade to TDC.