The Port Arthur News
OLD SABINE —
There’s not much left of Old Sabine — just a dozen or so colorful beach houses dotting a six-or-seven block area that lies beyond the crossroads in the shadow of Sabine Pass.
Where a thriving 36-block area once stood, complete with a hotel, school, and even a post office, now only a handful of houses and a bar remain, defiantly juxtaposed against a backdrop of new mostly oil-related industry.
It takes just a few seconds to count the houses — 12 in all, including a small apartment building that is mostly vacant now that the Motiva construction project is complete.
But, for the few remaining residents who fondly describe the coastal community as “a little slice of heaven at the end of the earth,” this rugged countryside is like none other.
“I can’t think of no place I’d rather be than right here,” Dana Lester, 77, said.
On any given day, Lester can be found outside, relaxing downstairs on a tattered old recliner while enjoying a ‘cold one” and watching Purple Martins soar in and out of the two birdhouse on his front lawn.
There’s no need to get in a hurry out here, he said.
Like most of the residents, Lester has spent years living among the marshlands, where the fishing is as good as the mosquitoes are plentiful.
He came to Old Sabine in 1971, and started buying property immediately afterward. Now, his real estate portfolio boasts 33 lots.
“I have more property and less money than anybody down here,” he said.
His weathered face is a reminder of the many years he spent as a boat captain. Though he’s fished all his life, his work now tends more toward keeping the grass down.
Motioning toward the newly-repaired bush hog, Lester said this next week his work would be cut out of him.
“I mow my own grass and some others’ to make a few dollars now and then,” he said.
Most days, he said, when the clock inches toward four, five, or six, he’ll have company.
“I have somebody come in here everyday. In the evening my buddies come around, and if I’ve got a 30-pack, they especially come around,” he said.
During his 42 years living in Old Sabine, Lester has witnessed changes, and most, he says, aren’t for the better.
“There’s a lot of people wiped out here from the hurricane,” he said.
Before Hurricane Rita nearly destroyed the Sabine Pass area nearly eight years ago, Lester lived in the old school house that he’d moved to his property and made home.
Rita took the school house down, so he built another home, this one a three-bedroom that was lost to Hurricane Ike three years later.
His newest house, built on stilts to comply with government regulations, is much like others around him —littered with any number of small appliances, tools, boats, fishing gear, etc. — some working, some not.
Like most of the old-timers, Lester still calls Old Sabine home, though the community has long since become a part of Sabine Pass, and on a larger scale incorporated by the city of Port Arthur.
Most people don’t remember Old Sabine in its heyday, Viola Fairchild, the community’s self-proclaimed oldest resident, said.
At 83, she’s lived 60 years of her already long life in Old Sabine.
“We used to have a post office here. It closed over 50 years ago, and after that we merged with Sabine Pass,” she said.
Old Sabine at one time had a railroad coming through, and a depot. The lot in front of her home used to have a big hotel, called the Windsor Hotel, she recalled.
In 1948, Fairchild moved to Old Sabine as a bride. Her new husband, Leo Fairchild, or Captain Champ as everybody called him, wouldn’t hear of living anywhere else.
“Nobody could find them snapper banks like Champ could. He used to go out there with a bar of soap on a string, throw it into the water, pull it up and look, then say, ‘Wet your hooks, they’re biting.’”
While Fairchild was considered a newcomer when she first married, Her husband had lived in Old Sabine all his life, and wanted it to stay that way.
“I used to say he had saltwater in his veins. I tried to get him to leave, but he would not,” she said.
Before Champ’s death in 2007, the couple weathered many hurricanes.
“We came through Audrey, Carla and a bunch of little ones, then Ike and Rita. Those four wiped me out four times,” she said.
Her latest home was rebuilt with FEMA money, and features a big porch where she often spends time sitting in a worn black-leather recliner, while watching the ships go by and thinking of those that have already sailed.
She knows the place is changing, and that people aren’t moving to Old Sabine, and the young ones aren’t staying.
“All my friends or my-aged people have moved on, or passed on. I feel like the Lone Ranger,” she said. “It’s terrible and everytime I turn around, somebody else is passed away. My turn is coming.”
While Fairchild holds the distinction of living in the area the longest, folks in Old Sabine are quick to tell how Calvin Henderson is faring these days, after taking a nasty fall off his porch.
He broke his neck, he said, but is on the mend, and has recently gone back to work trapping mud minnows, selling them to bait shops, while putting some back for his own fishing needs.
About any morning, the 69-year-old retired roofer can be found puttering around the marshes in his flat-bottom boat, hoping the day’s minnow haul will net some extra cash.
“I get 20 cents a minnow. If I catch 1,000, that’s $200,” he said.
Henderson and his wife, Fannie, 66, moved to Old Sabine from Arkansas — a state known for its beauty — back in the 1980s when damage from a hail storm offered roofing work.
“Arkansas is so beautiful, but this is too. It’s nice and peaceful and quiet, with very little crime,” Henderson said.
They stayed, he said, mainly because of the fishing.
The couple lives in a new bright yellow home built with hurricane recovery funding, and uses their old blue home as storage.
Their family — a brother, daughter and son — makes up about half of the community’s population, and are among the few multi-generational families still residing in Old Sabine.
There’s something about the place —perhaps a wild kind of beauty — that brought them here, and keeps them staying.
“When I was a roofing contractor, we worked in almost every state from Florida to Montana,” Henderson said. “This is where we picked to live. There’s not much of Old Sabine now, but we like it like that.”