Printed August 13, 2019

When a River’s End honky-tonk partied with Willie Nelson

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

The San Bernard River has long been the stuff of legend – pirate’s gold, fiddling ghosts, international intrigue and fish tales.

The river’s promise of speckled trout, tarpon, shrimp, golden croaker and tailing redfish lured a hearty group of adventurers to the end of the river and gave rise to her fish camps.

The history of this area is only passed down from those who lived the salt life. Come take a walk back in time with me across a hand-operated swing bridge down a long, winding dirt road shaped by cattle hoof prints to the end of the river.

That magical place created by angler and fish, where fish camps of the 40s and 50s gave way to commercial fishing and honky-tonks of the 70s.

Hurricane Carla (Sept. 1, 1961) changed the landscape of the fish camps. Bait camps gave way to individually owned weekender cabins. The fish and shrimp processing houses came in the 70s.

Laird’s Camp and Upton’s Camp closed when selling beer became more profitable than selling bait - the era of beer joints had arrived. Barbara Shindler remembers. “River’s End was the best-kept secret in the state of Texas until the beer joints came – no one wanted to tell where their fishing hole was,” she recalled.

During the 1970s, when the economy of the unincorporated community at the end of FM 2918, River’s End, Texas, was booming due to the success of the local shrimping industry. There were several popular “watering holes” that sprang up to accommodate the local populace.

Donise Howard (affectionately known as “Granny”) managed or worked in many of these places. She was a popular fixture back then and loved parties.

She especially enjoyed celebrating her own birthdays, which gained her local notoriety.

In 1971, Granny was managing the Red Barn at River’s End when her birthday rolled around. That year, she received a “surprise” party, complete with a talented, young “up-and-coming” singer, who was brought down as the party’s entertainment.

Years later, the entire world would recognize that singer, and the state of Texas would acclaim him as a “living legend.”
Another old-timer, Thomas Laird, recalled one night in the 1970s when he and his wife and two other couples went to the Red Barn to hear a singer of the popular song, “On the Road Again.” Mr. Laird wrote a check for the cover charge for all 3 couples to … Willie Nelson. Laird still has the countersigned canceled check today – it’s in his will.

In the stories of our lives, fate takes many twists and turns. Since “Granny’s” 1971 birthday party, the destiny of River’s End faded due to the river mouth’s silting in and the shrimp fleet’s dissemination to better ports, while Willie’s shooting star brought him world fame and fortune.

But did you know that one of the first rungs on Willie’s ladder of success was entertaining one summer at River’s End honky-tonks in southwestern Brazoria County?


• Willie Nelson wrote his first song at age seven. While other kids were still struggling to keep inside the lines of their coloring books, Nelson was composing music.

• Before he became a full-time musician in the mid-1950s, Nelson worked as a cotton picker (a gig he began as a child, working alongside his grandmother), disc jockey, and a Bible salesman.

• In 1972, Nelson paid $14,000 to buy out his contract so that he could retire to Austin. He then changed his mind.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)