Sixty-nine people crowd into the tiny chapel in Woodville, Texas, for sacrament services. The little building seems to bulge as a result of recent fellowshipping and missionary efforts.
Nearly half of the members present—thirty-two of them, including the eighty-six-year-old branch custodian and his one-year-old great-granddaughter—carry Odom blood or have married into the family. Most of those thirty-two are residents of Odomville, their own settlement tucked away in the peaceful East Texas piney woods, fifteen or twenty minutes’ drive from Woodville (WOOD-vuhl to the natives).
Odomville has no official boundaries; it is defined more by a feeling of family solidarity. But if you wanted to look for it on a map, you could scrutinize the rough rectangle bounded by Woodville, B.A. Steinhagen Dam, Spurger, and Hillister. Chances are you would still need directions to find it.
Turn off of Texas Farm Road 2992 on the winding country lane at the edge of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Soon you will make a sharp right, just past Noah Lee Crosby’s mobile home. (He is the eighty-six-year-old Woodville chapel custodian.) Make a sharp left turn a ways beyond Noah Lee’s, then drop down through the long dip that floods when there’s a gullywasher, cross the wooden plank bridge over the creek, and top a slight incline. White dogwood blooms among the pines, and you can hear mockingbirds and jays in the trees. You’re in Odomville.
Most of the land around you belongs to descendants of Pleasant Odom, one of the stalwart converts of the old Southern States Mission. The area was a final destination for Pleasant, who was born in Jones County, Georgia, 5 August 1822. When the Civil War began, Pleasant Odom, nearly forty, enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. Three days before the war ended, he was captured. A few days before that, according to family tradition, he had been court-martialed because, while serving on sentry duty, he allowed a relative to desert to the Union Army. “Uncle Plez,” the deserter had begged, “don’t shoot. I’m hungry and want to surrender to get something to eat.”
At his court-martial, Pleasant was sentenced to death. But because it was his relative who deserted, and because the war was about over anyway, he was given the opportunity to try to save his life at the execution. So he placed his frying pan, packed with blankets, over his heart; the firing squad’s bullets penetrated the blankets and made a bulge in the pan, leaving a corresponding life-long indentation in his chest.
In the mid-1870s, Pleasant Odom moved his family to Alabama. There his first wife, Mary Elizabeth McKinzie, died, and he married Amy Elizabeth Tucker, the widowed sister of his friend Thomas Tucker. The Odom, Crosby, Tucker, and Dulaney families, friends and neighbors, were becoming intertwined through intermarriage.
Elder John S. Bramwell, an English convert serving a mission in the Southern States, met the Odoms in 1886. He made frequent mention in his diary of “Father Odum” and other members of the family who were receptive to the gospel. On 14 October 1886, Pleasant Odom was baptized. Other family members followed, as did some of the Crosbys, Tuckers, and Dulaneys. They also followed him to Colorado for a couple of years, and then most of the group headed back south, to Tyler County, Texas.
Pleasant Odom was serious about his religion. Once a mob came to his home in the middle of the night, demanding to know if the Mormon elders were there. Pleasant, then an older man, told them he would check. Stepping inside, he picked up the shotgun behind the door. Yes, the elders were there, he told the mob, and they could take them—over his body. He said he would drop the first man that came inside the fence around his yard. The mobbers knew he meant it. They left.
But the days of mobs were short-lived in Tyler County, for Pleasant Odom and his descendants were firm and forthright in living the gospel, and their examples soon won a good name for Latter-day Saints.
The Odoms who live in Odomville now are descendants of Heber, a grandson of Pleasant. The nice white frame house with the attractive porch swing belongs to Kenneth and Alice Odom. They built it themselves in the 1940s. An oil field pumper, Kenneth is president of the family organization, and, since his older brother Wallace Ray died, head of the family by seniority. Alice is a great-great-granddaughter of Pleasant Odom, through the Crosby line.
Across the road, in the home that was Heber’s, lives one of Kenneth’s younger brothers, Marion Dale Odom, a school principal. Down the lane, around a sharp bend, live Adnell and Sylvia Odom. Adnell, just younger than Kenneth, was a deputy sheriff and county commissioner for nearly twenty-four years. Almost no one in Tyler County is a stranger to him. When their home burned in 1981, family members and neighbors—Latter-day Saints, Baptists, and members of other faiths—surprised them with an old-fashioned house-warming. They simply showed up to work, and made cash contributions as well.
Odomville includes four generations of Odom descendants, beginning with Noah Lee Crosby, Alice’s father. Kenneth and Alice’s sons Earl Wayne and Milton live there with their families. So does their daughter Marilyn, with her husband Gordon McCabe, president of the Woodville Branch, and their children. Adnell and Sylvia’s son Lee and his family live across the lane from his parents.
The whole of Odomville probably fits within a one-mile radius of Heber Odom’s old home. The land is like a living thing, like a part of the family to the Odoms. But far more important to the Odoms than the land is the sense of Christian charity and integrity bred into them. Pleasant Odom was known not only as a strong defender of his faith, but also as a friend to his fellowman. He came of a time when one did not turn away the weary traveler; the missionaries always knew they had a bed at his home.
So, too, was Heber Odom a man of great integrity and Christian love who taught his children to live by the same principles that guided his own life. “The last thing Daddy told us,” Kenneth reflects, “was, ‘you boys love one another, and help one another. Pay your honest debts, and if there’s anything that keeps you awake at night, be sure it’s something you ate, and not something you’ve done.’”
The Odoms support the Woodville Branch in proportion to their numbers, but they don’t dominate it. Other faithful members also play important roles, President McCabe comments. Tim Derr is elders quorum president. Dorothy Ragsdale, a resident of the nearby Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, was a regular for stake trips to the Arizona Temple, before dedication of the Dallas Temple. Ernie Drappeaux served as seminary teacher last year. Sister Donnie Boursaw serves in callings on both the stake and branch level. Arlie and Katherine Patton, who held key leadership positions in the branch before they moved away some years ago, are back, contributing their strength again in Woodville.
“It’s a challenge to be a Latter-day Saint in an area like this,” President McCabe comments. “But you can turn around and look at it as a real blessing, because you put everything you have into it. You have to.” Branch activities may be small, but the sense of camaraderie is strong. Visitors and nonmembers are made to feel as though they were lifelong branch members.
The branch president notes that renewed efforts at fellowshipping and missionary work, in preparation for the building of a new chapel, have been rewarded far beyond expectations. Branch members took literally the stake president’s promise that the Lord would help if they petitioned him and went to work. The response was exciting. Average attendance doubled, surpassing their goal, and continued to climb. The most gratifying aspect of that growth was its effect on members’ lives.
Early in 1984, for example, the Beaumont Stake sponsored a trip to the Arizona temple, some eleven hundred miles and twenty-six hours away by bus. The fifteen Woodville members who made the trip—approximately fifteen percent of the branch membership—constituted about half of the stake group.
Temple blessings have always been important to the descendants of Pleasant Odom. Brother Crosby recalls planning his first temple trip in the 1920s, when he and his first wife, Agnes Thompson, were sharecropping on a farm in Liberty County, Texas. (He has been left a widower twice, and is now married to Reda Hight Crosby.) A missionary urged them to travel to Utah to receive their endowments and be sealed. It seemed impossible, but when they prayed about it, something inside said, “Go, go.” So they sold their crops and bought an old Overland automobile for the three-thousand-mile round trip.
When they left home, Brother Crosby had twenty-eight dollars in his pocket. Whenever their money ran out, they would stop, he recalls, “and there never was a man that turned me down, all the way out there, when I asked about a few days’ work.” He was able to obtain work at a smelter in Utah while others were being laid off. Then, after going through the temple, he and his wife worked their way home in the same fashion. “And that old car never cost me anything but gas and oil and two more old tires.” When he parked the car at the end of the journey, it never ran again. The engine was too far gone to salvage. “Now you know the Lord had to be with me on that trip.”
When Kenneth Odom was sustained as branch president, he promised the Lord that he and his wife would take another family to the temple at least once a year while he had the calling. One year, that meant he needed to borrow money, which he knew he would be able to repay shortly after returning. It was a weekend and the bank was closed, but Brother Odom contacted the bank manager. The banker knew the Odoms well. He told Brother Odom simply to write a check for what he needed, and when it came to the bank on Monday morning, the banker would see that it was honored. Then, when the Odoms returned from the temple trip, the paperwork on the transaction could be completed.
Adnell Odom, listening to his brother reminisce, adds that a local banker once commented he would rather have the handshake of a “good Mormon” than all the collateral he could collect from anyone else.
The Odom reputation for integrity has also been built through community service, a family tradition for generations now. Adnell speaks with quiet pride, for example, of the reforms in juvenile justice and rehabilitation he was able to help initiate during his five years on the county commission.
He resigned as a commissioner in 1983, after two episodes with serious heart problems. “I might have died that first time,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “but I still had some fishing to do. I’m going to live to be 106.” Why 106? “Because we figure all the fish will have been caught by then,” deadpans his brother Kenneth.
Fishing and hunting are part of the Odomville life-style’s distinctly “country” flavor, which is best savored at mealtime. Frequently the Odoms will gather for a down-home fish fry. Home-cured ham is a common breakfast item. Most of the table fare in Odomville is traditional Southern. Much of it they grow. Among the bottled fruits and vegetables in Sylvia Odom’s pantry are beans, peas, an assortment of wild berries, collard greens, turnips, pears, peaches, figs, and plums.
The Odoms believe in being self-sufficient, Adnell comments. But he reflects that self-sufficiency can be carried too far. The rebuilding of his home by others after the 1981 fire was an act of charity that Adnell might not have been able to accept several years earlier. He recalls that he took pride in being able to provide all his family required, in needing no one else—not even God. “I wasn’t humble enough to be active in the Church.” It took the death of his beloved teenage daughter, from a sudden illness, to teach him “how helpless a mortal being can be.” He sought the Lord in prayer, returned to Church activity, and was soon serving in leadership positions.
The love of life and of association with loved ones seems deeply ingrained in the Odoms. Family gatherings, and all that goes with them, are important. Music, again with a country flavor, has become a traditional part of these affairs. Adnell and Kenneth learned to play the guitar and fiddle (not the “violin”) by ear when they were boys, and both later played in a band. In recent years, they have begun playing together again, sometimes joined by Earl Wayne’s teenage daughter Mandy.
If the Odoms are not fishing, eating, or fiddling, they’re talking, Kenneth says, smiling. “When you find an Odom that’s not talking, you can close the lid on him. He’s dead.” But if you’re not sure about that, “just fry up a steak,” Adnell advises, and pass it by his nose to see if there’s a reaction.
Of course, more serious matters are a part of the Odom gatherings, too. Genealogical research on several different lines is one of them. The family includes those who feel the Odom kinship, wherever they make their home; two of its most active researchers are Elbert Tucker’s brother Cecil and Alice Odom’s sister, Juanita Crosby Bobo. Both live in Utah, and make good use of the Church’s genealogical facilities.
The Odoms see to it that family members’ temporal needs are met, too. “If somebody needs something, they don’t have to ask for it,” Adnell affirms. “If one goes hungry, we all go hungry.” He says that among themselves family members come as close to having all things in common, like ancient Christians, as any group he knows.
“We were just raised that way,” Kenneth reflects. He remembers seeing his father, Heber, cut down the last piece of bacon hanging in the family smokehouse and send it to a needy widow and her family.
Life among the Odoms can be an interesting and intense experience for those who were not born to it. Lee’s wife, Pam, recalls that she was “terrified” on her first night in Odomville, by what sounded like someone screaming outside. She learned later that it was a tiny screech owl. She has since grown used to country life and has come to love Odomville.
The culture shock of moving there was probably even more severe for Milton’s wife, Betty, born and reared in New York. But during her two years in East Texas, she has picked up what sounds like a native Southern accent. At first, she says, it seemed “overwhelming” to live among such a tightly knit family group. But she, too, has come to appreciate both the people and the place.
Perhaps these adopted Odoms are so comfortable in their small community because of the love they feel from other members of the family. “I count them as my kids,” Alice Odom says. “Gordon is just as important as Marilyn to me, and Betty as Milton. And Linda (Earl Wayne’s wife)—I could ask for none better.”
Odomville seems to reach its roots deep into the soul of each generation, calling back many who leave for a time. For example, Elbert Tucker, a great-grandson of Pleasant Odom, moved to Utah several years ago. There he and his wife held a variety of Church positions and were ordinance workers in the Provo Temple. They also served a mission together. But then Odomville drew them back home to spend their remaining years. Now, he is first counselor in the Woodville Branch presidency, as well as a patriarch in the Beaumont Stake.
This love for “home” runs in the family. Adnell recalls the day he and his wife returned from taking his father and mother to the temple to be sealed. As they drove into Odomville, a few yards from the house, Heber Odom suddenly cried, “Stop!” Adnell braked, and his father got out of the car, ceremoniously scooped up a handful of soil, and kissed it. He was home, in the place and among the people he loved.
That reaction is typical for the Saints of Odomville, wherever they may have wandered, President McCabe says. “They have to come back. That’s how they were raised in this family—stick together and help each other. They’ve got to come back.”