The Benefits of Knowledge

The gate was closed, secured by an electric code that I didn’t know. Beyond the gate I could see mysterious woods and a road that led tantalizingly into the distance. The sign in front of me read “Biological Research Center.” How to get beyond that gate?  

One of the joys of being at a big university is that there are many areas little known by any except the professors who teach there and the students who work there. For years I have wanted to make these unknown corners of the university part of my Huntsville tours. Surely there are others who are as curious as I am. Wouldn’t others want to have a chance to explore places like the Biological Research Center and meet the people who work there?

I had hesitated to ask permission to enter those closed gates. I worried that the directors or managers might object to such interruptions in their probably hectic daily routines. It must be an inconvenience having to accommodate ten or twelve curious people poking into their departments and roaming around their facilities. I took the plunge, however, and called to set up appointments.

I should not have been surprised at the response. Without exception, the answers were Yes.  People who have spent their lives learning about their fields of expertise enjoy opening their world to others. They know their topic, love their jobs and can explain their interests to the rest of us with a depth of knowledge that leaves us pop-eyed and slack-jawed.  

If you drive north on Highway 75 from Huntsville towards Crabbs Prairie, you will see a complex of buildings that is marked by a large brick and concrete sign that reads Gibbs Ranch. This 1,600 acre spread, much of it donated originally by the Gibbs family, is part of the Agriculture Department and is supervised by Agricultural Resources Manager Dennis Stepp and his assistant Alvin Kmieck.

We arrived close to the appointed time. As if by magic, the gate swung open. Dennis Stepp was brought to us in a run-about Gator. Our tour bus door whooshed open and he stepped aboard for the tour. For 17 years he has run the ranch and supervised the cattle and goat operation. Alvin Kmieck, his assistant, is a Sam alumni. He has returned to work for his old alma mater and has found the perfect job.  

With Dennis aboard, pointing and explaining, we drove off down the winding road, over the hills, past the barns and pastures and off into the distance. It is a huge operation.  

There were cattle everywhere, divided into labeled pastures. Two immense Black Angus bulls eyed us over their shoulders. Newly weaned yearling calves gathered around their feeder for shade as much as for food. Herds of cattle grazed on the rich grasses. Several dozen cows cooled themselves contentedly neck deep in the pond. Others gathered in the shade of the oaks or under the metal shelters erected for them.  

Covered barns or working pens popped up over every hill. Large covered pens with moveable gates and fences provided places for students to work the cattle. Show barns are used for state-wide competitions. A huge enclosure was full of the recently cut round bales of hay ready to feed the cattle through the winter.

And the benefit for the Sam Houston faculty? Every year the ag department offers some of their prime beef for sale. If you ask early, you too can get an entire side of beef, cut and packaged by the students who are learning their trade. And it is delicious. Just don’t tell the cows you are eating their cousins.

Our second stop was on the other end of Walker County, where the prairies meet the Piney Woods. Behind another locked gate is the Biological Field Station. The Depression-era Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the Texas Parks Department, built an extensive fish hatchery. Concrete ponds, channels, sluice gates and dams dot the forest. Over the years, the fish they provided restocked many a Texas lake. When the Texas Parks gave up the facility, it was bought by the university.

For years the Field Station was used sporadically by the Biology Department. It was an ideal location for students and teachers to carry out studies in every possible aspect of Botany and Zoology. Migratory birds, insects, wild animals, snakes, and even fish thrived among the pines. And plant species that had become extinct in other places still survived at the Station. What a gold mine for a biologist!  

Several years ago, the university had the good sense to hire Dr. Alan Byboth to manage the facility. With little funding, he mowed, cleaned, repaired and rebuilt the ponds. He restored hundred-year-old cabins so they could be used by visiting faculty and students. He scrounged an old post office building that the university was getting rid of, towed it out to the facility and turned it into classrooms and offices. Finally, after years of doing it on his own, he has finally been included in the university’s maintenance and mowing program. At last he can focus on completing his lists of over 1,200 plants at the Field Station.  

This time I had the code to enter the gate which opened silently. We drove into the thick forest along the winding dirt road. We passed the “Body Farm” where Forensic students work with the world-famous Dr. Bytheway to discover differences in deterioration of bodies. There are differences, it seems, by race or body type or age. We were not encouraged to stop.

We found Alan in his office and he stepped aboard to tell us about the Station. We drove in and out, around the old WPA berms and past the now choked and weedy ponds. Bird houses were scattered everywhere. We found two grad students setting up camp for the night to study the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers. They asked Alan for snake buckets with lids, finding those preferable to pillow sacks for the venomous snakes.  He soon had our people so mesmerized that they were clamoring for a chance to come out on a birding tour. Even with the snakes.

We left the Field Station regretfully and made our way back into town. Our final stop was the Natural History Collection. It is housed in the 1930s Huntsville High School which has been purchased by the university. For years the immense collections of carefully preserved and labeled plants and animals dating back to prehistoric relics have been housed in the basement of the science building on campus or in the corner of an office building down the street. Only now have the collections found a home.

We entered to face a giant grizzly bear standing nearly ten feet tall. On either side of the entry way are glass cases. One houses a collection of birds’ eggs dating back to the 1880s. On the opposite side are half-a dozen prehistoric animal bones including the first manatee remains in Texas. In the rooms down the corridors to either side are hundreds of boxes and labeled cases with everything from nearly microscopic insects to giant antlered heads of moose and deer.

In one room, much to our surprise, an art department faculty member had just finished a class where students made scarves with the imprints of animal hides. Bones and turtle shells, when photographed with microscopes, create astounding swirling modernistic patterns. The walls were dotted with these amazing artistic prints.

Dr. Bill Godwin, like Byboth, is struggling with both preserving and displaying the collections with little extra funding. As he pointed out, collectors world-wide have the time to find and collect their interests. Professors have the knowledge that they have spent their lives accumulating but they don’t have the time to go collecting. And finally, the students need research projects in order to write papers to add to their resumes. The materials that Dr. Godwin keeps collecting from around the world provide the basis for articles and books that will bring students, professors and collectors together. A win-win situation, and a benefit for the university.  

Part of the building is still in use by local artist David Adickes for his paintings. One of his giant heads sits in front of the building, a reminder that he is best known for having built the giant Sam Houston statue outside of Huntsville. If you happen to have an extra $13,000 available, you, too, can purchase a base for one of the dozen or so Presidential heads that he is moving up from Houston. With your help, they will sit along the interstate on the property of the Prison Museum at the opposite end of town from the Big Sam.

We returned to the University Hotel, satisfied, satiated and impressed. The opportunity to see and hear from the people who run these out-lying university facilities was well worth the time and effort. It has proved to be fascinating. Next time, I will not hesitate to call and set up an appointment to bring more of our tours out to these wonderful gold mines of knowledge.

Our very special thanks Dennis Stepp, Alvin Kmieck, Alan Byboth and Bill Godwin for sharing their time with us. We’ll be back.

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