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Searching for Sam Houston’s mysterious graveside birthday visitor

an illustration of Sam Houston on a horse, from his grave marker, with spooky lighting
Wells Dunbar

From Texas Standard:

March 2 is a big day for Texas history. Not only is it Texas Independence Day, it’s also the birthday of a Texas legend: Sam Houston.

Houston is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas. And every year on his birthday, there is a peculiar offering waiting at the grave when the sun comes up. It’s always the same thing: a plate with six oysters, three sugar cookies and a cup of coffee with three lumps of sugar – foods that Houston liked, according to his correspondence. No one knows who’s doing this.

“Whoever it is that is leaving things for Sam Houston does seem to know a good deal about him,” said James Haley, a writer and historian from Austin who wrote a biography of Houston.

No one is positive how long this tradition’s been happening. It’s at least been a decade, maybe two. Even as the annual offering has grown in notoriety, there aren’t many clues as to who’s behind it. It’s a genuine mystery. But it’s one that might not be too tough to solve.

“It’s always been a mystery to me, [why] didn’t anyone ever wait up to see it?” said Haley. “It shouldn’t be that difficult, you know, to sit up all night and wait for the Great Pumpkin.”

So that’s what I decided to do. On March 1, I drove down to Huntsville to stake out Sam Houston’s nighttime gift-giver. My plan was simple: wait by the grave until someone shows up with oysters and cookies, then try to talk to them.

The Stakeout

an illustration of Sam Houston on a horse, from his grave marker, with spooky lighting
Wells Dunbar

I got to the cemetery a little before 8 in the evening. Houston’s grave faces a quiet side street in north Huntsville. The monument is a large stone sculpture of Houston on his horse, flanked by two angels. At night, the whole thing is lit up, so there’s nowhere to hide. If the gift giver showed up, I was going to see them.

Mostly, I waited in my car. I sat in the driver’s seat and listened to the primary election returns come in. Then I listened to the second half of the Mavericks game. Then I listened to five episodes of an eight-episode podcast. As the wee hours of March 2 rolled around, I was getting a little delirious, and starting to lose faith.

Finally, at about 3:15, I saw some headlights in my rear-view mirror.

It was a gray sedan. It parked on the other side of the street from me. I watched it, waiting for someone to emerge.

After a couple minutes, a middle-aged man in a black hat and a black blazer got out of the car. He was holding a tan plastic Kroger bag. This was it.

I got out of the car and said “good evening.” He said “good morning.” He didn’t seem too surprised to see me.

a plate with oysters and cookies, and a coffee cup next to the plate
Michael Marks
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I watched from behind the waist-high fence that surrounds the cemetery, as he assembled the oysters, cookies and coffee. Once everything was in place, he stood there in the silence for a few moments. When he turned to leave, I approached him again and introduced myself. It was chilly but my palms were sweaty. It was time to solve the mystery.

‘The world needs more whimsy, just generally’

I asked him his name, and he told it to me.

But, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

I talked to a lot of people about this. And the consensus was that it’s better to keep the identity of the gift-giver a secret.

“I kinda don’t want to know who’s doing it, because you know, it’s just whimsical and I kinda think that the world needs more whimsy just generally speaking,” said Jac Darsnek, a photographer who runs the Traces of Texas social media accounts.

I first learned about the tradition through a tweet of Darsnek’s. The content is all things Texana – old photos and videos, factoids about state history, that kind of thing.

“You kinda like to think that maybe there’s some sort of spectral happening, you know? Some sort of ghostly happening where some spirit brings the spirit of Sam Houston cookies and coffee,” said Darsnek.

The ritual wouldn’t be the same if all of the mystery was stripped away. Plus, there are other questions to ask besides who does this. There’s also why do they do it. Which is what I asked, back at the grave.

“In part this is to remind people that this was a real human being who made tremendous sacrifices, was a very honorable person,” said the anonymous gift-giver.

He said that the tradition began among a group of friends, who just wanted to do something to honor Sam Houston. Now though, it feels like something more.

“From the time that people started to notice it, it gained a kind of weight that was unexpected to me. Once you’ve established something like this it starts to feel like a responsibility,” he said.

So the plan is to keep it going.

The gift-giver and I talked about Sam Houston for about 15 more minutes, shook hands, and went our separate ways.

The next day, after a nap, I called James Haley again, the Sam Houston biographer. I told him who the gift-giver was, since he said he was dying to know. But even though he wanted to know, Haley agreed that it was better not to broadcast this information. Life needs more mysteries, he said.

However, if you are like me, and you really want to know who’s behind this, you can ask me. I will tell you. I am easy to get in touch with through email or Twitter.

But be careful! Unraveling this mystery can do the same to its magic.

This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Jac Darsnek's last name.