By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Sandy Wilson
Along the pastoral banks of Texas’s rivers, early explorers found many kinds of treasure. Some found silver while others stumbled upon bountiful groves of nut-laden riches that blanketed those fertile bottomlands.
The earliest reports of exploration in the Central Texas region came from Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca—a Spanish explorer who, in 1542, reported his adventures in the New World to the king of Spain, including his being held captive by Indians.
Cabeza de Vaca noted that he was able to escape when his captors gathered for a period of two months at the “River of Nuts”—thought to have been the Guadalupe River, somewhere between present-day Seguin and Gonzales—to harvest and eat pecans from the huge native trees that grew along the riverbank.
Coronado and many other explorers who followed also came upon the pecans as they searched for the reputed silver mines that the lieutenant general of the province of Texas, Bernardo de Miranda y Flores, reported to the capital at Mexico City in 1756. With his report, Miranda included a sample of silver ore the size of an iguana from the region of present-day San Saba. The mines were never found again, but the pecan trees still remain, hundreds of years later.
Anglo-Americans began settling the region in 1839, and the town of San Saba was established in the upper reaches of the Hill Country, at a location bordered on the north and east by the Colorado River and bisected by the San Saba River. The early settlers also discovered the pecan trees, but never considered them as a possible source of revenue or sustenance, as did the Native Americans who counted the pecan as one of the most important food items naturally available. To the contrary, the trees were often considered a hindrance to farming the rich land or grazing cattle, and subsequently untold thousands were cut down.
Even when settlers began to appreciate the rich taste of the nut and its many uses in cooking, they would simply lop off whole branches to facilitate harvesting. They discovered that the wood was good for making furniture and as flooring material, and even more trees were felled. But cattle drives, cattle ranching, mohair production and cotton cultivation continued to be the chief sources of revenue for San Saba County well after the Civil War.
The fate of the pecan changed dramatically in 1875 with the arrival of Englishman Edmond E. Risien, who had come to America in search of the perfect pecan. He was actually on his way to California, but was so impressed by the numbers of huge native pecan trees along the streams and rivers in San Saba County that he decided to stay. A cabinet maker by trade, Risien became an ambassador for the pecan. In 1876, just two years after arriving in San Saba, he travelled to the Philadelphia Centennial Celebration, taking a small exhibit of Texas pecans with him. He was eager to experiment with the nut and sought perfect pecans for his passion. He offered a prize of five dollars for the most perfect pecan brought to his cabinet shop. Many samples were brought, but one in particular stood out from all other contenders. Although only medium in size, it had a very thin shell and the quality of the kernel was excellent. When Risien asked the man who brought this pecan to show him the tree from which it was harvested, he was taken to the man’s property at the confluence of the Colorado and San Saba rivers. There, outlined against the sky, stood a once-magnificent tree with but one branch remaining. The man told Risien that he had to cut off the other branches to get the nuts, and that the branch left was the one he stood on to cut the others off.
Risien subsequently bought the piece of property, a parcel of some 320 acres, for $1,000. He named the variety of pecan from this tree the San Saba. In the annals of Texas pecan history, the one-branched tree, still standing on land owned now by his great-great grandchildren who founded the Millican Pecan Company, is known as the Mother Pecan. From nuts gathered from this one tree, Risien planted over 400 more, and then further experimented with nuts from those trees—developing even better varieties. One variety in particular that Risien developed, the Western Schley, has become the most planted variety of pecan worldwide today. In 1888 Risien established the West Texas Pecan Nursery in San Saba—the first in Texas to specialize in pecan stock. He worked tirelessly to encourage landowners to recognize the value of pecans as a marketable crop, and is credited with establishing a worldwide appetite for pecans. By the time he was 87 years old, Risien had thousands of his pecan trees growing all over the world, in England, France, Madagascar, Palestine, Australia, South America, Mexico and in all of the states in America where western varieties of pecans thrive. Because of his efforts, San Saba became known as the “Pecan Capital of the World.”
In 1919, the 36th Texas legislature officially declared the pecan the state tree, and in 1921, the major families in the pecan business established the Texas Pecan Growers Association—the state’s oldest agricultural organization—in San Saba. Those early San Saba growers are given credit for taking the initiative in the organization of this great cooperative association, which continues to market Texas pecan crops to the best advantage of growers from across the state.
The ’60s and ’70s saw the increased cultivation of improved pecan varieties, the use of irrigation and the development of mechanical harvesting equipment. The pecan industry began to flourish. There are more than a dozen large commercial pecan growers in San Saba County; many are still family owned, with orchards and retail operations scattered around the central part of the state. Some have developed into multistate operations. The San Saba Pecan Company has branches in New Mexico and Georgia through which they purchase pecans from other regions of the country. Their San Saba shelling facility has the capability to shell more than 50 million pounds of pecans per year. In addition to the large growers, there are many small growers, often as small as one pecan tree growing in the yard. Pecans are an alternate-bearing crop, which means that every other year produces a bumper crop. In a bumper-crop year, a single tree can produce 1,000 pounds of pecans.
R. D. “Buddy” Adams of San Saba Pecan estimates that the average San Saba County pecan production is somewhere in the range of 6 to 8 million pounds. “But it’s hard to say, really,” he notes, “because there are so many small growers and home growers who only sell what they don’t use themselves or share with family and friends. I think the figure could be as high as twelve million pounds, especially if we still harvested the pecans that fall in the sloughs and on the riverbanks like we used to. I remember back in the ’70s and ’80s, we used to put tarps and even parachute canopies on the ground to catch the pecans from the native trees in those areas. But nobody messes with those pecans anymore.” Today the large growers use mechanical shakers to shake the nuts off the trees. Mechanical sweepers follow, sweeping up the pecans.
Dotted around San Saba are dozens of retail pecan stores, where you can find everything from shelled and unshelled pecans, pecan coffee, mouth-watering pecan candies and just about any sort of paraphernalia related to pecans. In October, area growers and county leaders established the well-attended San Saba River Pecan Jam, a multifaceted festival celebrating the pecan.
Of course, like other agricultural endeavors, growing pecans is a risky business. There are constant threats of insects, crows, wild creatures—mainly raccoons—hailstorms, lightning and drought. This year began with torrential hailstorms that were followed by record-breaking drought. Pecan trees are tough, though. They put down taproots to remarkable depths to find water. In river-bottom orchards, the trees the greatest distance from the river have been known to send roots horizontally to the bottom of the riverbeds. But the 2011 drought took a heavy toll. Irrigation wells are drying up, and water tables are dropping below the level of the trees’ roots. “We gave up on a crop early this year,” cites Martha Newkirk, co-owner with her husband, Larry, of The Great San Saba River Pecan Company. “Now we’re just trying to keep our trees alive. We can stand a year with no harvest, but not a year with no trees.”
SAN SABA TEXAS PECAN PIE
\No doubt about it, pecan pie is a Texas institution. Try this recipe for your holiday menus.
Makes 1 9-inch pie
For the crust:
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-in. cubes
1 c. all-purpose flour
½ t. sugar
¼ t. salt
3–4 T. ice water
For the filling:
3 eggs, well beaten
½ c. sugar
½ c. firmly packed light brown sugar
1 c. agave nectar
2 T. Patrón XO Cafe (tequila-coffee liqueur)
¼ c. melted unsalted butter
1 T. vanilla extract
1¹/³ c. chopped San Saba pecans
Preheat the oven to 350°. Make the pastry first by combining the butter, flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 3 to 4 times to break up the butter into pea-size bits. With the processor running, add the water until a cohesive dough forms. Do not let the dough form a ball. Turn out onto a work surface and gather the loose dough together. Knead by hand a couple of times—just long enough to make a smooth dough (it will still have lumps of unblended butter). Pat the dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.
Spray a 9-inch glass pie dish with an oil mister and set aside. Roll the dough out to a ?- to ¼-inch thick round and transfer it to the prepared pie dish. Flute the edges of the pastry as desired and place in the freezer while you make the filling.
Make the filling by combining all the ingredients except the pecans. Whisk to blend well, then for about 3 minutes longer, until mixture is very smooth and frothy with no lumps. Scatter the pecans in the bottom of the prepared pastry. Pour the filling over the pecans and bake in the preheated oven for about 65 minutes to 75 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is almost set. The filling should jiggle in the center ever so slightly and there will be slight cracking on the top of the pie when it’s perfectly done. Do not bake until the filling is completely firm. Cool on a wire rack and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate pecan pie as it will spoil the smooth, gooey texture.