SUBSCRIBE NOW

Enjoy all your local news and sports for less than 6¢ per day.

Subscribe Now

REMEMBER WHEN: Will Fish, a memory in black and white

Will Fish (left) and Lewis Ed Alexander, 1960, Marble Falls, Texas

Will Fish (left) and Lewis Ed Alexander sit on a bed in the yard at the home of Fish’s sister, Elmira Fish, on Avenue N in Marble Falls. The photo was taken by Jane Knapik’s husband, Robert, sometime in early 1960. Alexander was Knapik’s father, who thought of Fish as a mentor. Fish died that same year of consumption and is buried in the Marble Falls Cemetery. Knapik had a marker placed on his grave in 2000. Courtesy photo

Burnet County ranch hand Will Fish was the first generation of his family born free. According to historian Jane Knapik of Marble Falls, he was born in 1873, but she has no idea where despite her years of research. Much of what she’s learned about him is from stories handed down by family members with fond memories of the man who helped Knapik’s father, Lewis E. Alexander, a Lake Victor rancher, learn the skills he needed to make a living.

“He was so important to my dad,” Knapik said. “My dad grew up as a scrawny kid with an older father. Will Fish taught my father to be a rancher.” 

Because of ill health, Alexander often couldn’t ride with his sister, Bernice, on the family horse to school in Lake Victor. On the mornings that Alexander didn’t go, Fish escorted her. Someone in the community complained to the siblings and their father about a Black man accompanying a young white girl alone. 

“Aunt Bern told that man, ‘I feel safer with Fish than I do with you,’” said Knapik, recalling the old family story. 

“Fish” is what everyone called Will. He hired himself out to cook barbecue and beans for large crowds as well as doing ranch work. Lake Victor rancher Jim Shelby was especially fond of Fish, according to a story told by Maurice C. Shelby in a book he wrote titled “The Lake Victor Story.” 

Shelby recounted that “my Uncle Jim promised him (Fish) before he died that he would see to it that a good marker was placed on his grave.” 

That never happened, according to Knapik, who took on the responsibility in 2000, exactly 40 years after Fish was buried in a plot owned by his sister Elmira Fish in the Marble Falls Cemetery. He died on Aug. 20, 1960, at the age of 88. 

Fish spent his final years at his sister’s home somewhere along Avenue N between St. Frederick Baptist Church and the Marble Falls Cemetery. 

“His grave wasn’t marked,” Knapik said. “I thought it was my responsibility to get his grave marked, so I volunteered to be on the cemetery committee and I got it marked.”

Before that, one of the employees of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department kept a bouquet of artificial flowers on the gravesite. 

Knapik has another story about Will Fish that she transformed into a memento. When Fish was working at her father’s place, everyone would gather for a meal. Fish cleaned his hands in a washstand on the Alexanders’ back porch before he ate. Knapik had the washstand refinished, and it now serves as a bedside table. 

Knapik doesn’t remember Fish from her childhood. Her family lost the Lake Victor ranch during the Depression, and they moved to her mother’s family ranch in Uvalde when Knapik was 3 years old. She didn’t see Fish until just before his death, when she visited him in Marble Falls with her father. Fish was dying of consumption.

Knapik began to research the man’s history as she dove into her own family’s genealogy. The Knapik family’s roots run deep in Texas and American soil. Her father’s family, the Alexanders, moved from Arkansas to Georgetown before settling in Burnet County. 

“That line goes all the way back to Jamestown in Virginia,” said Knapik, referring to the first permanent English settlement in America. 

Jane Knapik
Dr. Jane Knapik of Marble Falls in the archive room at The Falls on the Colorado Museum. Knapik is a historian, author, and member of the Marble Falls museum’s board. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

On her mother’s side, ancestor George Washington Smith served at San Jacinto in the fight for Texas’ independence from Mexico, which is how Knapik became a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. 

She has a doctorate from Texas A&M University in education and is often referred to by friends as Dr. Jane. She worked as an educator for most of her life. 

In retirement, the 92-year-old thrives on historic research, especially when it comes to Burnet County. Knapik has written several books, one of which, “Images of America: Marble Falls,” is available at The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls, where she serves as a docent and board member. She is currently working on a book about the history of St. Frederick Baptist Church in Marble Falls.

Knapik has no plans to write a book about Will Fish, however, mainly because of a lack of information. The anecdotal stories found in two local history books are more about how Black people were treated in the early 1900s in Burnet, not about Fish as a person. 

“But I was told that the community and the people who knew him took up for him against anything,” Knapik said. “People who knew him adored him.”

Most of the anecdotal information came from her late father, who often talked about Fish as a mentor he had to leave behind when the family moved. In Uvalde, Alexander embraced his life’s true passion and became a carpenter, but he never forgot Fish’s lessons. 

“My dad learned a lot from Will Fish, who was a very kind teacher,” Knapik said. 

Learning about Fish and where he came from and how he got into ranching has proven more difficult.

“His mother would have been born a slave,” Knapik said. “But I don’t know anything about his family, whether they were born in Burnet County or came here from somewhere else.” 

She will continue her historic research, a passion she inherited from her book-loving mother, Gladys Dotson Alexander. Storytelling is another favorite pastime she shares with her mother, something she calls her escape and the reason she loves small towns.

“I love listening to stories,” she said. 

She’s good at telling them, too.

suzanne@thepicayune.com