Mr. Texas Bluebonnet – The Carroll Abbott Story

Man in a hat sitting behind a cluster of bluebonnets

By Ernest Tremayne, Kerrville Chapter

The Native Plant Society of Texas was founded April 25, 1981, at Texas Woman’s University. “Texas Wildflower Day” was to be celebrated annually on the fourth Saturday of April by act of the Texas Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Clements on April 27, 1981. Carroll Abbott was responsible for both. In 1983 he was honored by a joint session of the legislature, and in an unprecedented move for a former First Lady, his fellow wildflower enthusiast, Lady Bird Johnson, had requested the honor of being present and reading the resolution.

It is a fascinating story. What shaped such a man?

Let’s start at the beginning. Carroll Abbott was born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1926. His family moved to Houston while he was still an infant. That was to be home base for the next 29 years. The deep impressions of his earliest years shaped his life. His father supported the family as a handy man and Baptist preacher.

As a toddler, Carroll picked flowers in the yard and brought them to his room. His mother said that he always had a container of wildflowers in his room. She did not remember a time when they were not present.

Abbott commented in one of his many talks, “My earliest memory is of a blood red phlox with melting snow on it from a freak storm in Houston. It looked like diamonds sparkling on the leaves. I was about 5 years old.”

During his teens, he dug lily bulbs and sold them to Dr. Hatashell, an associate of Luther Burbank in California. Some weeks during the Depression, Abbott made more than his father to help support the family. He circulated a list of plants and bulbs he could supply and distributed them to nurseries. (He dug the plants along railroad tracks and highways). Such an early successful sales experience built an ability to relate to people and persuade them to act on his suggestions.

Benny Simpson, who wrote a tribute to Carroll Abbott on the 10th anniversary of his death, described, “his twinkle, his zest for living, his good humor, the sheer friendliness of the man and how delightfully good he could make you feel. …” He had charisma.

At 16, while still in high school, he worked for the Houston Post. Wildflowers were to be the passion of his life, but the printed word and the spoken word would be the vehicles he would use so effectively. He was equally persuasive with both.

When he graduated from high school at 18, he considered himself a sage since no one else in his family had attained that much education. He moved to Los Angeles and worked for the Express. A friend (he made them easily) invited him to a hayride at the University of Southern California (USC). All the beautiful co-eds and quantity of beer made him decide he needed a piece of that action,so he earned a scholarship and enrolled at USC.

For the first two years, he progressed well in his studies and held various elected offices at the university, but in his third year a serious ear problem led to a mastoidectomy. He was sent home to recuperate.
While in Houston, feeling much better, he went for a night out to the Red Eagle Dance Hall where he met Pat Black. She remembers, ”He was a sight, over 6 feet tall in a brown suit and red socks.” Despite her first impressions, their friendship blossomed and they married on Valentine’s Day in 1947. They moved into a trailer on Airline Boulevard north of Houston.

Abbott was again working for the Houston Post. This time he met Bill Hobby, the future lieutenant governor. It was his family’s paper. “My mother wanted me to become a reporter,” says Hobby, ”and Carroll starting teaching me how. He also taught me how to play softball so I could get on the company team.”

Abbott’s parents moved to Kerrville in 1948 and purchased the four acres diagonally across the river from the present Riverside Nature Center on Lemos Street and Thompson Boulevard. The Ultrafit Center now on Thompson is where the home was, and a bronze plaque affixed to a boulder near the river and Lemos Street commemorates his accomplishments.

Back in Houston, Abbott returned from work one night to tell Pat he had been fired because he was too outspoken. Pat said she knew then “this was going to be one helluva marriage. We elevated poverty into an art form.”

But Abbott persevered in the news business. He worked for Glenn McCarthy’s weekly papers, KPRC-TV, and the Pasadena Mirror. While at the Mirror, to make extra money, he would drive to the Rio Grande Valley on weekends to buy plants to sell in Houston. He eventually became a landscaper, but an untimely freeze put him out of business almost before he started.

I asked Mrs. Abbott if Carroll was always growing plants. She told me of an incident that occurred soon after they were married. She and his mother decided to clean up the cans in the back yard while he was at work, only to find that what they thought was clutter, he thought was organized. He knew which plants were dormant and where everything was located. She chose to live with clutter thereafter.

Another time he purchased some special caladium bulbs from Florida and planted them in the yard. One spring night, the family enjoyed a shrimp dinner including the smallest children. The next day one of her toddlers came into the house carrying a small bucket and with great excitement said, “Momma, I gots shrimp!”

Wildflowers and plants were his passion to which the whole family adjusted.

With a growing family, he had to find another job quickly after leaving one, which led him to Kerrville in 1955 to work at the Times. It was then a weekly publication.

He was soon editor and won the Texas Press Association first place award for a weekly newspaper, three years running. His family was growing. Eventually, he had three boys and a girl. His first was Carroll Texas Abbott. Pat worried that so many Carrolls might get mixed up, but he said he’d take care of that. So he named them all Carroll Abbott with different middle name: Texas, Mark, Pat and Patricia. They all live in or near Kerrville today. Three grandchildren have arrived since his death, and all have been named Carroll Abbott. The tradition goes on.

The Abbotts tell stories about what happened when the census taker hit town. And another story made the rounds about a bank that couldn’t adjust their bookkeeping system to accommodate so many Carrol Abbott accounts in one bank.

While still the editor of the Times, he was asked to run a political campaign for the owner of an airline, a Mr. Blakely. He also ran for office himself but lost. During this period, he wrote a pamphlet that became a classic of the time, “The Care and Feeding of Political Volunteers.” On the basis of Abbott’s newly acquired political knowledge, Ray Roberts hired him to run his campaign to fill the seat vacated by Sam Rayburn.

He was elected, so Abbott ran Roberts’ next two campaigns as well.

By 1961 he was working for the State Democratic Executive Committee, running the campaigns for several politicians including John Connally’s “whistle-stop” train trip from Texarkana to El Paso, which was credited with Connally’s success that year. During one of Connally’s campaigns, Abbott sent out 10,000 packages of seeds as a promotion.

During all this travel around the state, on behalf of various candidates, he kept logs on the wildflowers, when and where they were blooming, their condition, etc. It was during these extensive travels that he observed that the flowers were in decline due to man’s indifference to them. New building projects, mowing along roads or in fields and careless picking of flowers before they could set seeds was taking a toll on wildflowers. Even during the thick of political battles, he never lost track of his interest in the beautiful vegetation around him.

The First Lady, Mrs. Johnson, was leading a national movement to beautify our highways while Abbott was still doing public relations work for the Democratic Party. The beauty of Texas wildflowers was always prominent in her promotions. This culminated in the National Highway Beautification Act.

Ben Barnes, one of the candidates he worked for, said of him, “He was the smoothest operator I have ever seen. A tireless worker with a keen mind and great sense of humor.” Sen Roberts called him “a political genius.”

At one point in his public relations career, Carroll took a floor at the Driskill Hotel in Austin during a convention to share his good fortune with his family. In addition to his family, each of the children brought along a friend. He missed his family when away so often during these political campaigns and the many miles of travel to every corner of the state.

One night in 1970, at the height of his public relations success, he returned to Kerrville to announce to Pat that he had resigned. She was in shock.

He would devote the remaining 14 years of his life to his first passion – wildflowers.

He had been preaching the planting of natives all along, but few seeds were available. So he started Green Horizon, his seed company, after he left the political battles. He once said, ”You’ve got to be certified insane to think you can pull heads off flowers, then put them in an envelope with a typed label and sell them, but that is exactly what I did.”

“We had no doubt that our wildflower business would go under, but when?”

Abbott survived the early years of his company by selling plants for small landscape jobs. “I had to sell people that whole idea of using native plants, then find the plants and dig them up, transplant them, and hope they would live ‘till the check cleared’.”

Bluebonnet seed were also a life saver during the early days of his company. He could sell you “50 seeds, one ounce, one pound, one ton, one truckload, or one carload of Lupinus texensis and still have seed left over,” said Benny Simpson.

Meantime a Kerrville friend, Ace Reid, the cartoonist, was doing good business with a cartoon calendar so Abbott had one printed with wildflowers all around it. He had 10,000 printed and sold 500 right away. It took him two years to sell the rest. “I remember weekends when I sat by the side of the road selling plants, seeds, and calendars and made $52.”

But help came when things got desperate. One day when he was selling seed, a man drove up, handed him a check for $1,000 and said, ‘‘I like what you’re doing.” Abbott stood there and cried and then went home and he and Pat cried together. It wasn’t until 1981 that the business started to turn a profit.
In 1978, after gaining enough knowledge, he decided to publish a book titled How to Know and Grow Texas Wildflowers. He waited until he had 300 orders this time before he wrote the book. It was finished in the summer. But before it was printed, 22 inches of rain fell in two days and the Guadalupe River flooded his home. He had to start over, finishing it by Christmas. Again, he was ahead of his time. He didn’t sell out his books until 1981 and then only because he called on his writing skill to promote it in small town newspapers.

In 1976 he also started a quarterly newsletter to pull together all of those people interested in native plants, teach them how to care for them and promote his business. This would also be the vehicle he would use to start the Native Plant Society. It was written so skillfully that it won the Men’s Garden Club of America Golden Quill Award.

In Carroll Abbott’s newsletter the first mention of the Native Plant Society of Texas was the Volume I, Summer 1977 edition. He traveled widely that spring and the idea was expressed that such a need existed. Over a dozen other states had such organizations at that time.

Dr. Mary Evelyn Blagg Huey, president of Texas Woman’s University, called in 1978, requesting help with their 1930 wildflower garden which had lost its glory. He did that and more. Together, they sought a historical marker for the garden from the State Historical Commission. With the Abbott touch added to Dr. Huey’s efforts, they were successful. She made him a guest lecturer at TWU and plans were made for a Wildflower Day at Texas Woman’s University at Denton.

The first Wildflower Day was held in the spring of 1980. It was the idea of Gertrude Gibson, Office of Development at TWU. Carroll was a speaker and “during a drive across campus, Dr. Beale and Carroll Abbott decided that the Native Plant Society of Texas should be organized,” according to Benny Simpson. Carroll would be the front runner and TWU the place. At that time or shortly thereafter, an interim board was established and a plan formulated to create the Society, which would take place April 1981, during the Wildflower Day Celebration at TWU. The interim officers until then were Mary Evelyn Blagg Huey, president of TWU; Robert Collier, Kenneth Fry, William Beale, Gertrude Gibson, Audrey Tuttle, Kay Warmerdam, Leite Davis, Benny J. Simpson and Carroll Abbott.

Abbott’s newsletter was to be the official newsletter, and for an additional $2.50 dues, a person could become a charter member of the new organization. For non-subscribers, the dues were $7.50 which included he newsletter. This was all announced in the Fall 1980, edition of the Texas Wildflower Newsletter; 354 charter members resulted from this effort.

Carroll Abbott made many speeches. Benny Simpson said he was 6 feet 4 inches tall, always wore a straw cowboy hat while speaking and usually started his talk by introducing himself as Carroll Abbott spelled with 2 r’s, 2 l’s, 2 b’s and 2 t’s — to make it easier to spell. He obviously enjoyed his name. Then he’d pull out a beer case cut to 4 inches with the top fitting over the bottom. He would show how the audience could pack newly dug plants in wet newspaper and, if kept out of the sun, the plants would last a week. With tongue in cheek, he would say that if people were Baptist, they wouldn’t have a beer case on hand but he had discovered that Dr. Pepper cases worked just as well. Next came the “rock in a sack” story. He would take out a #10 paper bag and tell people to use this to gather seed. Everyone would have a blank stare when he mentioned the need for a rock until you suddenly remembered what a windy day would do to the seed without a rock in the sack.

“For years,” Abbott once noted,”it seemed that only God and Lady Bird Johnson, not necessarily in that order, were concerned with wildflower survival. Somebody had to ‘step up to the bar’ and get the job done. I decided to be that person.” In 1973 he had registered and paid the fee to be an unpaid Texas lobbyist to the Texas Legislature for wildflowers. He listed his “slush fund” as totaling $6.

The first meeting of the Native Plant Society was held at 3 p.m. on April 25, 1981, at TWU following an awards luncheon at the university, which he had also arranged. The first president was Kay Warmerdam. Regional vice presidents were also elected for five regions, but this structure was not effective in the long run and was dropped during reorganization in 1993-1994.

Monday, April 6,1981, HCR 110 was passed on a motion by Rep. Earnestine Glossbrenner, House District 58 (1977-1993), to set aside the fourth Saturday in April as Texas Wildflower Day. Abbott had secured 3,000 individual signatures plus an impressive list of garden clubs to support the bill. He had lobbied every legislator possible. With the help of Dr. Huey and the students at TWU who made ceramic lace cactus as gifts, he hosted a banquet for 250 legislators. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Clements on April 27, 1981.

Lady Bird Johnson started the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 by planting seeds, possibly from Abbott’s company. On her 70th birthday, December 22, 1983, with what she said was a gift to herself of $125,000, she dedicated the Center.

Carroll Abbott’s cancer was diagnosed in October 1981. Most of his major accomplishments were already made. Even his business was now profitable. His many friends kept up with his medical problems by reading the ”Last Word” column in his newsletter.

He was given the Presidents Award by the Society in 1983. The next year Lady Bird Johnson received the Award at the Wildflower Day Celebration but Abbott was too ill to attend.

When the Texas Legislature honored him in that joint session at which Lady Bird Johnson read the special resolution, Dr. Huey, President of TWU, said, “She shared his interest and dedication to wildflowers.” Letters had come to the Abbott home from the LBJ Ranch for years. She was his patron, and they worked together on many projects. He continued to produce his newsletter and make many speaking engagements up to the end.

He died July 6, 1984.

This article first appeared in the Native Plant Society of Texas news magazine. Mr. Tremayne, who passed away in 2007, served as president of the Mens’ Garden Club, the Native Plant Society, and Friends of Kerrville-Schreiner State Park.