Texas Gothic

A timber baron's descendants head into courts and crypts in their decades-old effort to reclaim their birthright and big bucks from an arch-nemesis: his secretive third wife

Along the main thoroughfare of the city of Orange rises the great dome of the 1908 Lutcher Memorial Presbyterian Church. Even God, it seems, got a grant from the Lutcher-Stark empire to make this place of worship one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the nation.

Just down Green Avenue looms the modern, boxlike Stark Museum of Art, housing the prized works of Audubon and Southwest artists. Across the avenue is the 1904 Victorian masterpiece the W.H. Stark House, spouting gingerbread trim and classic gables. And beyond the splashing fountain of Stark Park rests the museum's granite-skinned cousin, the six-story Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts, downtown Orange's tallest building.

Almost every block of the town's center bears witness to the immense wealth of the pioneering Lutchers and their marital merger with the Stark clan. Proportionately, Houstonians could relate to it by trying to imagine the MacGregors, Browns, Jesse Jones, Hermanns and the Worthams -- all rolled into one.

An idyllic start: Grandmother Miriam reads to the "adopted" Stark twins.
Photo courtesy of Ida Marie Stark
An idyllic start: Grandmother Miriam reads to the "adopted" Stark twins.

But on this sunlit morning two weeks ago, the entirety of the Lutcher-Stark museum works and theater could never rival what was unfolding only a few blocks away.

By 8 a.m. a small group of relatives and workers approached a small stone structure in the center of the 1840s Evergreen Cemetery. Laborers unlocked the ornate double iron-and-glass doors and began dismantling the granite front plates. In about two hours they'd removed caulking and sealant and struggled out with a pair of opulent bronze caskets. H.J. Lutcher Stark, the philanthropist who went by "Lutcher" but was known simply as Pop to two generations of locals, was interred here 36 years ago. The other to leave was his father, W.H. Stark, dead for 65 years.

Drivers whisked the remains away in a pair of black Suburbans to the Dorman Funeral Home, where a forensic pathologist carefully shaved away samples of the remains.

Descendants of the two are banking on DNA testing to sort out the longest-running mystery around these parts: whether Lutcher's sons were indeed adopted twins, or rather Lutcher's illegitimate sons with his rumored mistress and later wife. The examinations may even reveal more grisly findings about how Lutcher died.

Big bucks as well as disputed birthrights are behind this decades-old battle, one that makes the mega-struggle of the Howard Hughes will look like a simple probate in comparison. A disenfranchised family has been facing off against the $200 million Stark Foundation in continued legal fights over the family estate. The battles are wrapped around the fierce legacy of Lutcher's reclusive widow and third wife, Nelda C. Stark. Her death in late 1999 only intensified battles stretching back a half-century.

By 3 p.m. the Suburbans had returned the bodies to the family mausoleum. And lab technicians would soon be searching for clues to whatever secrets the Stark father and son had taken to the grave.

"We aren't bad people," explains Rebecca Stark Nugent, Lutcher's granddaughter. "We've always tried to treat others fairly, and to do the right thing. I just don't understand why they've kept us in the dark so long.

"This is our family. We have a right to know."

State historical markers and handed-down stories both chronicle a beautiful beginning to the Lutcher-Stark dynasty.

In 1877 Pennsylvania sawmill operator H.J. Lutcher and his partner, G. Bedell Moore, arrived aboard the new railroad into Orange, about 90 miles east of Houston. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they found a near camptown bordering on lawlessness, known for lynchings at the infamous "Hanging Tree" on the Orange waterfront. But the pair also discovered what drew them here: green gold, the lush, untapped pine forests of Southeast Texas and neighboring Louisiana. In some sectors, farmers cursed the trees as nothing more than immovable weeds. Lutcher latched on to heavily wooded acres priced as cheap as 25 cents each.

Using then-modern milling techniques, he sawed his way into an empire. By 1905 he'd bought out his partner and owned millions of acres of land and an operation spewing out 125 million board-feet of lumber annually.

Lutcher (the family pronounces it "Lecher") had no sons. Daughter Miriam married William H. Stark, who took over and expanded the holdings into mining, cattle, farming and even banking and insurance. In 1887 Miriam gave birth to H.J. Lutcher Stark, the first of the family to adapt to the Lone Star lifestyle big-time.

Stark was reported to be the first University of Texas student with a strange contraption known as the automobile. As a student, he managed the UT football team, using his cash reserves to help in ways that would give today's NCAA investigators fits. He was credited with bringing the Longhorn name to UT sports, when he bought blankets for the players and emblazoned them with steer horn logos.

His father had been a UT regent, and in 1919 Lutcher began a 24-year tenure on that board, intent on making Texas a football powerhouse. He engineered a deal in 1936 to lure away famed Nebraska coach D.X. Bible, by combining the positions of coach and athletic director to pay him a then-scandalous $15,000 a year.

Closer to home, young Stark -- who went by the name Lutcher -- created a forerunner of modern high school drill teams, the all-girl Bengal Guards. He would take them on shopping sprees and transport them on his private railcars to glamour appearances back east, even springing for police motorcycle escorts. News accounts say he and the Bengals were dining on chicken in the ritzy Stephens Hotel in Chicago when he stood up and told them to show Yankees how to eat chicken.

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