Thursday, February 9, 2023

Family tradition keeps man growing

Ralph Morriss continues to grow a bounty of vegetables each year on Flower Mound land that has been in his family for generations. (Photo by Helen's Photography)
Ralph Morriss continues to grow a bounty of vegetables each year on Flower Mound land that has been in his family for generations. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

Ralph Morriss, 80, lives on Morriss Road.  Long before Marcus High School even existed in imagination, the four-lane highway that passes its front entrance started life as a dirt road through the Morriss family’s peanut farm.

In 1923 Ralph’s grandpa, Andrew Morriss, and his son James used timbers from the original family cabin to build the present farmhouse which stands about a quarter mile down the road from the sprawling modern school.  The tiny, white clapboard home with gray trim has an A&M doormat on the front porch.  Guess where Ralph went to college?

He laughed. “Once an Aggie, always an Aggie.”

After the Civil War his great-grandfather, also a James, and an older brother, migrated from the Bowling Green area of Kentucky to the roughly 900,000 acre Peters Colony Land Grant tract with their guardian aunt and uncle.  Scanty records indicate the boys’ parents both died early in life–during a history-making typhus epidemic.  The family’s Presbyterian Church congregation of farmers had been recruited to migrate to the Cross Timbers region.

As Americans moved into southwest the final piece of eastern woodland they encountered was a pair of long forests separated by a 50 mile wide strip of blackland prairie.  These treed bands, called the Ancient Cross Timbers, stretched from Kansas to the San Antonio area, and incoming pioneers traveled along the prairie’s edges because of accessible water, game, and wood.

American and European immigrants, however, were not the first farmers in our area.  Since at least the early 1500s the Wichita Indians, who called themselves ‘the raccoon eyed people’ on account of facial tattooing, farmed and hunted around their villages here.  By the time of Texas statehood, disease had reduced the Wichitas to about 350 souls living near present-day Oklahoma City.

The 1870s Texas frontier agreed with the Morriss orphans who grew up and married local girls then joined the ranks of southern Denton County’s Old Settlers.  The siblings owned a succession of farms of increasing fertility until James’s son Andrew, and namesake grandson James, acquired a 60 acre plot just north of present day Flower Mound’s coming-soon River Walk.

“I grew up here,” said Ralph, the 4th generation of Kentucky Morrisses to live on Cross Timbers land. “I spent most of my adult life on the northeast side of Dallas working as a Production Engineer at Texas Industries.”

Other than 4 business trips to Japan for the company, he’s hung around the Lone Star State.  “The Japanese people were very gracious in every way,” but the down home Texan said he experienced culture shock, especially in terms of food.

“My grandpa and dad farmed, but I learned to garden by helping my mother.  I still grow a lot of the same things she did: onions, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, cantaloupes, watermelons, and tomatoes.”  He does quick mental and verbal math.  “I have 10,000 square feet under cultivation.”  That means a lot of good eating from rows 200 feet long.

His favorite fresh concoction is fresh Celebrity tomato slices and American cheese on bread.  The directions are simple, “Slice, stack, eat!”

In his estimation the biggest challenge for southern Denton County gardeners is dry, hot weather or a late freeze.  “The solution is easy,” he said, “sprinklers and row covers.  Of course there are rules about when you can water, but it’s doable.”  He flirts with the idea of installing a greenhouse, but so far hasn’t acted.  “It would be fun to germinate seeds in January.”

“People who farmed out here raised cotton, wheat, peanuts, vegetables, and cattle.  What I remember is the peanuts,” he said, “and the mule or horse drawn ploughs.  My dad bought our first tractor after World War II.”  Animal powered ploughing turned into mechanical cultivating.

Locals sold their peanuts to a wholesaler in Lewisville then baled the vines for hay which they sold to dairy farmers.  “The leftovers are high protein.”  Cattle love it.

For almost a century after the first settlers arrived, the area around the odd mound that inexplicably rises from the prairie remained a sleepy farm community.  Romantics claim the Wichitas performed rituals there.  In that universal religious spirit the Summit Club conducts its sunrise community Easter service on the spot every year.

“I went to school in Grapevine then graduated from Lewisville High School in 1952,” Ralph said.  “What I remember about growing up out here is the way people trusted and helped each other.  At harvest time we’d go from one farm to another lending a hand with the crops.”

Every summer, decked out in an A&M baseball cap, Ralph still sells fresh picked produce right off his front porch.  The Morriss Road curb lays about 20 feet from the old homestead front door and the small remaining acreage parcel.  A gregarious soul, he visits with customers, and if he’s out they are bound by old fashioned honor to leave their payment in the jar.  There’s plenty for everybody.  “I’m still eating frozen beans from 2 summers back.”  The system works well.

Five years after Ralph graduated in Engineering Technology from North Texas State University (now UNT) the City of Irving annexed his childhood stomping grounds.  The 750 member agricultural community transformed themselves into the town of Flower Mound.  The big engine of change was the coming of DFW International Airport which put the place on the suburban map.  In the last 55 years the population grew by well over 6,000%.  That’s not a typo, the number has 3 zeroes.  In the 2010 census Flower Mound boasted almost 65,000 residents from all walks of life.

In 2009 Ralph’s body tossed a proverbial gauntlet at his feet in the form of a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis.  “That was a shock.  It was laying dormant in my body all these years.  I had to get more active.”  Refusing to back down to bad news, he took up walking.

If you guess he’s an around-the-block kind of oldster creaking behind a walker, try again.  He logs 5 miles a day–every day–and shows off no nonsense athletic shoes to prove it.  Sitting in a kitchenette chair, his shod foot shoots up in the air, almost to shoulder height then the limber leg drops with controlled ease.   “These guys keep my blood sugar stable.”  Good shoes and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  There isn’t an ounce of fat on the spry octogenarian’s fit frame.  “The key is learning to pace yourself,” he said.

Breast cancer has reared its head in the Morriss family on multiple occasions too close for comfort as far as Ralph is concerned.  In 2012 he completed his first Komen 3-Day challenge, a 60 mile walk to raise money for research.  Not counting blisters he enjoyed the experience so much he did it again in 2013 and 2014.  “You get tougher with practice.”

“I have 3 goals for this year’s Komen 3-day,” he said holding up fingers, “80-8-6.”  This year is his big eight-oh birthday, he plans to raise $8,000, “and I am recruiting 6 new race participants.”

Flower Mound’s most recent claim to fame is that Ralph is the second oldest person nationally to participate in and complete the Komen trek.  If you’re interested in helping with his goals, contact him at [email protected], or log on to the Komen website, click the 3-day icon, find his name, and donate or get busy or both.

Why is the family name spelled with a double s at the end?  If Mister Peabody set the Way Back Machine to sometime around the American Revolution, we’d discover the early Morrisses were not Tories.  To make sure other patriots understood their sentiments, the family, which may have originated in Wales, or maybe Ireland or Scotland, gave us the unusual spelling now memorialized as the name of the road they donated to the area.

Ralph’s words of wisdom to mankind are summed up by an outdated country song.  “I can’t remember who wrote or sang the piece, but it said live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory.”

That may be a 20-something song writer’s inexperienced view of things, but living and loving well in order to leave a beautiful memory is certainly what Ralph Morriss has been up to in the past 80 years.

Contact the writer at [email protected].

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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