How Texas history became one woman’s life passion

Author and speaker hated history in school but now writes it


Highlights

You have probably read Myra McIlvain’s word, even if you didn’t know it.

Author: “I was a freshman in college before a professor made the Puritans real live people.”

If you stop by the side of the road in Texas to check out historical markers regularly, you likely read her words. If you attend lifetime learning clubs in the Austin area, you likely hear her speak.

And if you browse the Texana section of any decent-size bookstore, at some point you’ll run across the name “Myra McIlvain” on the spines of histories, historical novels and nonfiction guides.

At age 80, author and speaker McIlvain, a Texan who hated the subject of history in high school, is a much-sought-after expert in Texas history, although she is opting out of more lectures and guided tours these days to concentrate on writing.

“Just in December, I retired from speaking once a month at three retirement homes,” she said. “You’re working seven days and nights a week. I just decided I had to cut out some of that.”

After a slow start in her youth, she methodically expanded the range of her historical interests. One of McIlvain’s most lauded novels, “Stein House,” grew out of interviews she conducted in the 1970s. It deals with a single mother, Helga, who immigrates from Germany to Indianola — the once-active Texas seaport wiped out by a series of hurricanes — and who thrives through tough times as a manager of a boardinghouse. It won first place for general fiction from the Texas Association of Authors in 2014.

“Historical fiction is anything but boring in McIlvain’s latest work,” reads the starred Kirkus review of “Stein House.” “Although the novel occasionally veers off into a bit of a history lesson, this is no dry textbook — Helga and her family’s successes, hardships and heartbreak show history from a personal perspective. … A wonderful slice of history that animates mid-19th-century Texas.”

History finds her

Myra Hargrave McIlvain’s mother, Forrie Ruth Minter Hargrave, taught elementary school in the Houston Westbury neighborhood. Her father, Jack Ernest Hargrave, an oil field worker and bus driver, died when she was 13.

McIlvain’s family came with plenty of ready Texas history. Her father’s family arrived during the early 1840s from Indiana with slaves; her mother’s came in the late 1840s from Georgia, also with slaves. She was born in an old log house out in the country that the Hargraves built in Hopkins County.

At Houston’s San Jacinto High School, however, she loathed history.

“They made us learn dates and battles,” she says with a groan. “I can’t memorize cold facts to this day. I was a freshman in college before a professor made the Puritans real live people.”

McIlvain attended several colleges, but life intervened repeatedly, and she didn’t graduate with a degree in history from the University of Texas until she was 49. By then she already had published five books.

“My present husband nagged me to go back to school,” she says with a smile, referring to Stroud McIlvain. She raised two children from her first marriage with Ben Comiskey. In fact, her first paid writing took the form of a family humor column that ran for more than six years in the Victoria Advocate newspaper, a series she sold after moving to nearby Port Lavaca.

Finding her subjects

In the early 1970s, she volunteered to research the history of a nearby Methodist church founded in 1841. In 1974, while researching that church, McIlvain interviewed a 94-year-old woman who told wonderful stories.

“Her family came in through Indianola,” she remembers. “Her ancestors remembered cattle stampedes on the Chisholm Trail, camping out at night along the trail. Earlier in life, she regularly sailed her sloop across the bay to teach school, then back to her parents’ in Port Lavaca on the weekends.”

McIlvain incorporated that woman’s memories into her first historical fiction, “Legacy,” and used another of her tales as a model for the German heroine of “Stein House,” written many years later.

She moved to Austin and heard that the Texas Historical Commission needed people to write the texts for the state’s thousands of historical markers.

“The next morning, I went in with writing samples,” she says. “They didn’t look at a thing. They hired me. I went home that day with the history of the Battle of Plum Creek, my first marker, to go in Lions Park in Lockhart. During those years, I wrote many, many graveyard markers. I enjoyed that, too. It was like working a puzzle.”

How did she make sure the history was right before struck permanently in metal?

“The facts come from a county historical commission,” she says of the process. “They are sent to the Texas Historical Commission, where they are approved by five people. The director of research checks it for accuracy, then it is given to a person like me to write. It goes back through that same process for a final check. You want it to be accurate. The maddening thing is when the local people don’t like it.”

Once she wrote about a rabbi who visited with many of the immigrants who came into Texas through Galveston.

“They didn’t like it,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write a book, and nobody can tell me what’s in it.’”

The longest historical markers are merely 24 lines. After she wrote scores of them, the director of the Texas Tourist Development Agency asked her to expand their stories in magazine articles. By then, she knew how to place her words into print.

“I asked his staff to let me know when he was in a good mood,” she says and laughs. “I brought in 20. He said yes to all of them. So for the next six years, they published two articles a month about the historical markers.”

That led to her 1984 book, “Shadows on the Land: An Anthology of Texas Historical Marker Stories.” The Texas Historical Commission imprint did not, however, cut into the sales of “Why Stop? A Guide to Texas Historical Roadside Markers,” the popular series from the Dooley family that has gone through several editions.

Always interested in stories about small Texas towns, she initiated a series of explanatory guides in 1980 with “6 Central Texas Auto Trails,” published by Austin’s much-missed Eakin Press.

“I found that, of the people I asked in Bastrop, nobody knew were the Confederate arms factory was,” she says. “Or the Camino Real crossing. I put directions in with the stories, so they became guidebooks.”

The first sold so well, University of Texas Press picked up the next three, set in Southeast Texas, Northeast Texas, and the South and Rio Grande Valley.

“I wanted to go out west, but the Press said there were not enough bookstores out there,” McIlvain says. “There might not be bookstores, but there are readers.

“This was a period when I needed money. I didn’t get rich on those books. So I started taking members of my lifetime learning classes on historical tours.”

For years, the big classes of mostly retired folks bought her books in bulk.

“Then they said, ‘Why don’t you take us, rather than just talking about it?’” she says. “We rented a van for the first history tour. They became so popular, we chartered buses, then we went by airplane.”

Eventually, McIlvain led history-minded tours to Russia, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico, as well as spots around the U.S.

“I led a trip if I knew the history; somebody else led if I didn’t,” she says. “New York was one of our most popular trips.”

But now she is no longer doing tours and is cutting back on the lectures. Instead, she is focusing on historically informed books such as “Stein House,” “The Doctor’s Wife” and “Texas Tales.” A 10th book is on the way.

“I want to write more,” she says. “My aunt traveled the world and dreamed of writing herself. She was my mentor. She came to my lecture at Texas A&M University and said: ‘You’re going to have to decide. It would be very easy to be a speaker from here on out. You get instant gratification that you don’t get as a writer. But is that what you really want?’”

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