Spicewood storyteller Donna Ingham shares her secrets

Spicewood storyteller Donna Ingham

You can hear Highland Lakes storyteller Donna Ingham on her website, donnaingham.com. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Spicewood resident Donna Ingham is a liar, and she can prove it. She has won, multiple times, the Texas State Liars Contest along with many other awards for spinning tall tales. A professional storyteller, Ingham also tells the truth, though it might not at first appear that way.

“I grew up an only child,” she says in an anecdote about how she ended up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. “Actually, my sister did, too, but that’s another story.” 

This story, the one you’re reading now, is about you and how you, too, are a storyteller, even if you don’t know it.

“We all have that ability to share and tell our stories,” said Ingham, who has been entertaining audiences large and small for 25 years. “Storytelling is really the art of conversation. It’s something that we seem to think we’re losing right now.”

Ingham works with RoadScholar.org, a nonprofit travel and education community that helps adults learn to tell stories. She is an author of five books on Texas history, myths, and legends and speaks at dinners, lunches, libraries, and schools. She’s a regular participant in the National Storytelling Festival and the Texas Storytelling Festival and was a Teller in Residence at the International Storytelling Center. She can tell you all about it.

What she’s learned — and wants you to know — is that really good storytelling is more than putting together an interesting set of facts with a few good laugh lines. A good storyteller needs to be a good listener, too.

“My husband (Jerry) and I have been married for 53 years, so we’ve heard each other’s stories forever,” Ingham said. “But I still hear stories from my husband that I haven’t before, so it’s important that I listen, so I know him better.”

Bet you could tell a similar story about your life. 

Here’s another one to which we can all relate. Two people from conflicting cultures tell each other their stories. Ingham tells of a fellow storyteller, Israeli Noa Baum, who met a young Palestinian mother one day. These two cultures share a common land but a very different view of who should control that land.

“They began to talk about the issues, even the hard ones,” Ingham said. “They made a bridge. That kind of one-on-one storytelling is what we’re missing now.” 

Ingham began her adult working life as an English professor. After she retired, a friend invited her to a Texas Library Association Conference that featured a storytelling program. At the time, Ingham had no inkling that someone could be a professional storyteller. She just enjoyed listening and thought it was something she might like to do. 

At first, Ingham researched and gathered stories that already existed, which is how many storytellers start. She collected the ones she liked, adding her own perspective, personality, and style to each. 

After she had about an hour’s worth of material, she put up flyers at RV parks in the Rio Grande Valley, where she and her husband lived at the time. Every winter, the parks there fill up with Winter Texans looking for warmer weather and family entertainment. One park responded.

“Sunshine RV Park in Harlingen invited me to be the entertainer for what they called their ice cream social,” Ingham recalled. 

An ice cream social sounded nice, she thought. Maybe she’d find 30 to 40 people enjoying some ice cream and chatting while she shared her stories. What she didn’t realize was that Sunshine RV Park was the second-largest RV park in the world. Instead of 30 to 40 people, she discovered her first show as a professional storyteller would be before an audience of 300 to 400 people.

“I was stunned by the number of people,” she said. “We just started having fun, and they were so wonderful. I think I just got caught up in the moment, you know. I don’t recall being nervous or anything like that.”

Ingham was hooked. She landed more gigs, eventually becoming a regular on the lunch and dinner circuit in and around South Texas and San Antonio. She soon began pulling from her own life experiences, first from her childhood and only recently from her adult life. That led her to becoming an advocate for others to collect their stories.

“At my age, I talk to a lot of older people about collecting their family stories and sharing them,” Ingham said. 

She recalled a saying she once heard: “When an older person dies, it’s like a whole library burns down.” 

Young or old, she’s talking to you — yes, you — the one reading this magazine. You have stories to tell, too.

Whether one on one or in larger groups, storytelling deepens our connections with people. It helps us get to know, understand, and respect each other. The two perspectives create a connection.

“I think sharing stories isn’t necessarily solving things but working toward that,” Ingham said. “Hearing (someone’s) stories helps us to get to know them better and more personally. We could use more of that right now, I think.”

And that’s no lie.

Visit Donna Ingham’s website for more on the storyteller.

daniel@thepicayune.com

Storytelling Tips

  1. Start with a folktale, legend, or historical story that you like. It has to be something that appeals to you, Ingham said. 
  2. Internalize it, but don’t memorize it. Absorb it so well that you can “feel” it. Then, visualize it and see it in your mind. Don’t be afraid to put your perspective and personality into it by adding details.
  3. Practice it several times, and, if possible, get some feedback. Each listener will have a slightly different take on what they hear, especially if it’s a family tale.

Now, you’re ready to spin your story, improving it with each telling. 

“Gather around and you shall hear …”

‘Ghost Defenders of the Alamo’

As told by Donna Ingham of Spicewood

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story of the Alamo’s ghostly defenders is well known in San Antonio. This is Ingham’s oral adaptation. 

Restless spirits still roam from time to time around the Alamo in San Antonio, or so folks say. Mostly, there are reports of “cold spots” and “strange noises” — footsteps and moans, for example. If you believe in the supernatural, you’d not be surprised that those things might still happen around the Alamo and the long barracks museum, where the fiercest of the fighting is said to have taken place way back on March 6, 1836.

Men died at the Alamo in sudden and violent action that day, and the Texans, at least, were denied the dignity of a Christian burial. Their bodies were simply stacked up like so much cord wood in at least two huge funeral pyres and set on fire and burned. The smoke and the stench stayed in the air for days, and the dead did not rest in peace.

At least some of them, perhaps, rose up in spirit form almost immediately to continue their defense of the Alamo.

You know, of course, that the Mexican general Santa Anna and his forces were defeated at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, and Santa Anna surrendered to the Texans. But that’s when orders were sent to the small Mexican force still in San Antonio to destroy the Alamo before they evacuated and retreated south.

A General Andrade was in command of the Mexican troops in San Antonio. He ordered his subordinate, Colonel Sanchez, to send a party of men to blow up the chapel, which is, of course, that part of the Alamo we’re most familiar with today.

Colonel Sanchez sent several men to carry out the order, but they soon returned with stark terror showing on their faces and said they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t blow up the chapel. “Why not?” the colonel demanded. “Go take care of the job you were ordered to do.” But no amount of persuasion could force them to go back to that building. Finally, the story came out:

They said when they advanced on the Alamo, they saw strange figures — “diablos,” or devils, they called them. They counted six ghostly forms standing in a semicircle holding swords, not made of steel but of fire. And these ghost sentries were blocking their entry into the Alamo. Terrified, the Mexican soldiers feared what might happen if they carried out their orders to destroy the building. So, they beat a hasty retreat and reported back to their commander. Then, their commander had to report back to General Andrade.

“I will go myself,” the general said. And he did. He, too, was confronted by the same six ghostly figures holding their flaming swords. And he, too, left without destroying the chapel. It remained intact as the Mexican army marched south out of San Antonio.

Then, thirty-five years later, in 1871, spectral forms marched again — perhaps protesting another dismantling of part of the Alamo complex. This time, it was the city of San Antonio that ordered the destruction of two rooms on either side of the main gate of the south wall, thus leaving only the chapel and the long barracks we see today.

Late one evening, before the dismantling, guests at the nearby Menger Hotel watched in shocked amazement as ghost-like figures marched along the walls of the condemned rooms. This time, their protest didn’t work, however, and the rooms were destroyed.

That march was the last sighting of any visual evidence of anything supernatural at the Alamo, but the cold spots and the strange noises are still around.

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