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Morale soared with 'Captain Sam'

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By Linda Hanabarger

Capt. Sam Houston was an honored member of Co. I, Fourth Infantry, of the Illinois National Guard, joining the unit in 1898 at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war.
Lest I confuse someone, I’m talking about a golden eagle who served as the mascot for Fayette County’s local National Guard company.
According to Major E.P. Clayton, one of the commanders of Co. I, “Captain Sam” was captured four miles south of Vandalia by Frank Williams in April 1898 and sold to Martin F. Houston.
When the Spanish-American War broke out that same year and the local militia was called to service, Houston presented the bird to Co. I, whose commander, Samuel S. Houston, was Martin’s son.
The men named the bird for their commander, and the eagle went with them to each of the places they were stationed, whether by train or ship.
In the beginning, it was necessary to keep “Captain Sam” in a cage, but he soon became very tame and a favorite of the men. For about one month, they kept the bird tethered, and when released, he never strayed far.
The men made him a perch and although he would exercise, “Captain Sam” always returned to that perch. Many photographs were taken of the eagle, posing between the stars and stripes and the regimental flag.  “Captain Sam” would frequently, on his own, perch between the flags for hours at a time.
He was a great source of amusement for the men of Co. I, and a morale booster. One time, at a camp in Savannah, Ga., a dog came along and began to gnaw on some bones that “Captain Sam” had dropped from his perch.
The bird watched the dog for some time and when the dog was directly under him, the eagle flew down and landed on the dog’s back.
The dog made a beeline for home with “Captain Sam” mounted on his back. After riding about a block, the bird dismounted and leisurely strolled back to camp, bearing a proud look of victory.
“Captain Sam” served with Co. I for 13 months, and was never on the sick report.  He died three months after the company was mustered out.
Capt. Samuel S. Houston, the man, was born in 1868, in Fayette County, son of Martin F. and Lydia Snyder Houston. His grandfather, Augustus Snyder, was 14 years old when he came with his family to Vandalia in 1819, a member of the Ernst Colony from Hanover, Germany.
On his father’s side, Samuel S. Houston was descended from a long line of soldiers.  His grandfather, for whom he was named, served in the War of 1812 and settled in Greenville, in Bond County, in 1818.
He was the sheriff of Bond County from 1820-1822, and the village now known as Mulberry Grove was first called “Houston” in his honor. It was also known as “Shake-Rag,” but that is another story.
When the Black Hawk War started in northern Illinois in 1832, Samuel Houston joined up. Several years after he returned home in Bond County, he was elected to a seat in the Illinois Senate.
In 1848, he was asked by his second cousin, also named Sam Houston, to join him and ride to Texas, where there was a rebellion flaring up. Sen. Sam said, "No thanks," having fought in two wars already.
All of the Sam Houstons have an interesting story – men and bird alike.
•     •     •
Last week I wrote about the Frank Meier Greenhouses in Vandalia, and of his pet alligator, Ambrose. I received a most welcomed telephone call from Hazel Stevenson, Frank’s granddaughter, to say that the alligator was about 12 inches long when he was found in with ferns that her grandfather had ordered from a supplier.
There were many springs in the area where the greenhouse stood, and Frank diverted water to a pool that he built for the "gator" in the north greenhouse so he would have fresh water. Several of the men would fish, and after they had cleaned the fish would feed the scraps to Ambrose.
As mentioned last week, Ambrose grew to be 7 feet long.