‘Always leave ‘em laughing’
Bill Cooke

The city library’s hosting of ‘Conversations with Cliff’ was the brainchild of Leanna Applegate, and their expressions here exemplify the mood of the two sessions that drew in excess of 70 people each. 
Reporter/Bill Cooke The city library’s hosting of ‘Conversations with Cliff’ was the brainchild of Leanna Applegate, and their expressions here exemplify the mood of the two sessions that drew in excess of 70 people each. Reporter/Bill Cooke Neighbor Grover sez he just read that protons had mass and he didn’t realize they were Catholic. I f laughter is the best medicine, there was much tonic dispensed at the city library over the last two Thursday evenings.

Two sessions of “Conversations with Cliff” delivered just what Clifford Simms’ friends and admirers expected: vivid, humorous trips down Rockdale’s memory lanes, trips often taken with colorful characters.

“I just love ‘characters’,” Cliff said. “They make life fun.” I don’t know if Cliff gravitates to characters or if characters gravitate to him, but his library listeners are better off for it.

• Cliff reminisced about characters like R.B. Daniels, Bobby Wallace (the movie Rain Man could have been inspired by Bobby), the donkey-riding Jack Phillips, and more.

• Fielding many questions about “old Rockdale,” he talked of historic downtown buildings and homes and merchants and families that had occupied them, plus landmark bridges that once spanned the Gabriel and the Brushy.

• That led to favorite swimming holes including Cobb’s (Kolb’s?) Crossing, other river spots and the oldest Sandow lignite mining spoils dating back to McAlister Fuel Company’s strip-mining of coal that heated the buildings of Texas A&M University and UT-Austin.

The advent of natural gas diminished that lignite market, so McAlister president J.G. Puterbaugh went to Pittsburgh and convinced Alcoa, which was needing to add smelters for the Korean War effort, that a smelter could be fueled by lignite power. The rest is history (literally). Alcoa produced aluminum here for 56 years, finally shutting down in 2008-09.

• Cliff also recalled the “Cade Lake” alligator. Not many years ago Cliff was an avid “tube fisher,” floating along in an inner tube with flippers on his feet. Cade Lake, down south off FM 908, was a favorite hole.

But one day Cliff spotted a log floating by—but it wasn’t a log. It’s eyes were about 10 inches apart and its tail was 12 feet behind those eyes.

“I put those flippers into reverse, backed out of there, and my Cade Lake days were over,” he said.

• Decades ago, Cliff noted, a town “character” got engaged to a woman whose reputation was considerably beyond tarnished. Three of the man’s friends took him riding in a car and tried to reason with him. “At one time or another, she’s been with almost every man in this town,” they told him.

After a couple of minutes of total silence, the man said: “Aw, that’s okay. Rockdale ain’t all that big.”

• Cliff had the immense job of inventorying properties owned by the late oilman-industrialist H.H. Coffield. Cliff spent time in courthouses all over Texas and surrounding states, even in the Florida panhandle. “That was fascinating work,” he said. “The only land he owned that I never got to was in the upper reaches of North Dakota,” he said.

• Cliff’s knowledge of thoroughbred race horse bloodlines led to him being hired to attend sales and buy for some of the big Kentucky farms. He tagged one that was a 13-time winner, but the one he told about was different. “I recommended one horse that sold for $750,000,” he said. “His total winnings were $27,000. Needless to say, he was a major disappointment.”

• One of Cliff’s horses was named “Lucille’s Legs.” The namesake, he said, was a lady who frequented Cliff’s Tavern many years ago and who had “a terrible set of pins.”

• Cliff also delivered some serious history about the 1935 Scarbrough & Hicks fire downtown that claimed the lives of two volunteer firemen. The library now sits on that site, and a monument outside pays tribute to those firefighters.

• More history: the Bredt & Haley egg-breaking plant that froze and shipped eggs in 5-quart containers for the World War II effort. Those eggs became powdered eggs for C-rations.

• Other topics included the old second story Bell telephone office where the operators, from their vantage point, could see almost all of downtown and were dispensers of current events as well as plugging your call into the right number.

Thanks, Cliff.

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