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The Joe Stanley Graham Jr. collection

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Joe Graham Jr.

Joe Graham in front of the Connor Museum holding artifacts for the El Rancho display, University Reference File. - Graham, Dr. Joe S. (Psy/Soc.), A2017-070.0093, South Texas Archives, James C. Jernigan Library, Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

In an ever changing world where technology takes front and center, we run the risk of forgetting our roots, who we are. The realm of anthropology often steps in to document human culture, and help people to remember and appreciate the humanity of the world around them. Sometimes there are parts of our human story that seem ignored and in need of a champion.  

Joe Stanley Graham Jr., came to Kingsville in 1987 from Texas A&M University-College Station. His special area of interest was Mexican-American folklore, folk narratives and folk medicine. 

When describing his move to Kingsville he wrote, “After just over seven years, I came to TAMUK, which is the ideal place for me: the university is relatively small and its student body is over 60 percent Mexican-American, whose culture I have studied for over 25 years.” 

He was truly a man on a mission to learn, teach, research and write about Mexican-American folklore and culture.  

Graham was born on the Blue Mountain Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas, on Dec. 4, 1940. His father was a ranch foreman. The family moved to Redford, Texas when his father began working for the federal government. Graham was in second grade and his family was the only Anglo family in town. Spanish was the language of play, so he and his younger brother learned it quickly. This childhood sparked a love of folklore and the Mexican-American culture that lasted a lifetime.

Graham graduated from Monahans High School and attended Texas A&M University-College Station, majoring in electrical engineering. Two elective classes, Folklore and Life and Literature of the Southwest, made a course correction for his life.  He changed his major to English and required an extra year to earn his degree. His goal was to become a university teacher. 

Graham said, “I very much enjoy the personal contact with other people rather than with instruments or other objects.”  

After graduation, Graham spent two-and-a-half years in Finland as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There, he became fluent in the Finish language. Returning home, he attended Brigham Young University, where he got his M.A. degree in English Literature in 1970. His master’s thesis was titled “The Dream Mine: A Study in Mormon Folklore.” 

During his time at Brigham Young University, Graham met a young lady from Finland, Marjatta Helena Vainio. They married and had two children, Paul and Nina. Mikki (Marjatta) kept in touch with her family in Finland by making annual visits home. She considered Kingsville winters to be harsher than those in Finland. She commented in a Kingsville Record article that, “Finland winters are a dry cold. My mother and I loved to go out during snow storms.” 

He then attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his Ph.D. in Folklore. The dissertation title was “The Caso: A Study of an Emic Genre of Folk Narrative Among Mexican Americans of West Texas.”  

Sharing his research and discoveries with students and non-students was an illustration of his desire to work with people instead of machines. In October of 1990, Graham hosted a bus tour to view structures in the Zapata-San Ygnacio area that were constructed between 1790 and 1890. The air-conditioned bus took the group to stops at an old monastery in Hebbronville, a family cemetery, earthen dams, the historic district of San Ygnacio, and “sillar houses, which were made of caliche blocks with portholes for shooting at marauding bandits or Indians.”

A prolific writer, Graham’s research papers and videotapes cover topics from wax making, architecture, Mexican folk toys and ranching to folk medicines and foodways as indicators of cultural change (according to Merriam-Webster, foodways are “the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period”).  

In 1979, he conceptualized, researched, interviewed and collected artifacts for an exhibit at the Institute of Texan Cultures on the home life of early Black Texas sharecroppers. The exhibit opened in June of 1980.  

As a researcher, Graham had to seek out people to interview, places to study, artifacts created by people, and the stories about how people interact with their world. He collected about 420 narratives about the Marfa Lights.  Most Texans have heard about, maybe even searched for, the West Texas mystery lights. Our Texas Marfa Lights are similar to other mysterious lights such as the Maco Lights of Wilmington, N.C., and other places in the United States. Graham collected about 30 narratives about lights in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana and places in Texas. 

The Ranching in South Texas: A Symposium was sponsored by the John E. Conner Museum and the South Texas Ranching Heritage Association and held on July 22, 1994. It featured the opening of Graham’s exhibit, “El Rancho in South Texas: Continuity and Change from 1750.” This exhibit also traveled to various museums in South Texas. 

 Graham was the editor for the publication for the symposium and author of the article “The Spanish Mexican Roots of Ranching in South Texas,” which was chapter one of the symposium publication.  

In order to learn about ranching and the crafts of the vaqueros, Graham had to conduct interviews and observe how items used by the people were made.  He looked often to retired vaqueros to discuss and demonstrate the skills of making lariats, quirts, whips, bridle reins and other equipment from rawhide strips.  These arts are being lost due to the use of mass produced items that replace the items woven from rawhide strips and horsehair. The skills are not always passed on to the next generation.  On page 4 of Graham’s research paper titled “Vaquero Folk Arts and Crafts in South Texas,” a number of vaqueros are named in the region who were able to share their skills for Graham’s research. “Lolo” Treviño of the King Ranch was among those skilled in such work. Lolo passed away a few years back.  

In 2015, Lolo Treviño made a number of traditional quirts which he sold to visitors to the King Ranch.  He described to me the meaning of each part of the quirt and the leather lacing that it was made of, “The metal handle represents God who cares for us and is our strength. The leather petals are the great-grandchildren providing shade to the family. The leather laces (the rawhide strips) are the family made up of eight children, four boys and four girls. The colored leather strands are the grandchildren. When the leather is laced up the quirt, the children are married. The leather strands coming from the end of the quirt represent Jesus Christ. He does not allow us to fall to the ground. We are all in his care and power.” 

Another skill was making ropes and other equipment from horsehair. Vaqueros skilled with horsehair were an essential part of cattle ranching. They made reins, bridles and other ropes.  Generally the mane hair was used as, it is softer. Modern times find mass produced equipment used on horses in the local feedstore or tack shop. Those who still have the skills of making tack of horsehair make the same equipment from nylon thread and cotton or soft nylon rope. 

A still common art form is the horsehair hatband in the ranching country of South Texas. It is purely decorative, but a horsehair hatband made from the hair of your favorite horse is a sentimental treasure.

“Herbal Remedies: Do They Really Work? A Research Project in South Texas” was a four year research project funded by the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the project was “to discover to what extent Mexican Americans in South Texas rely on herbal remedies, which herbal remedies they rely on, and then attempt to answer a question which has long plagued anthropologists and folklorists who have studied folk medicine: How does one determine the efficacy of folk remedies, particularly medicinal herbs?” 

A central problem for anthropology in general and medical anthropology in particular existed. It was necessary to have procedures to scientifically verify the biomedical efficacy of the herbal medicines.   Graham’s research used a carefully defined methodology consisting of 11 steps. Step five involved careful documentation of each herbal remedy, including what herb was used, what parts of the herb were used and what its effects were believed to be.  Step six was to collect voucher samples of the herbs for classification, preservation and analysis.  

The NAPRALERT (NAtural PRoducts ALERT) database was used to identify the proven biological effects of the different herbs used. A combination of several herbs boiled and drunk as a tea or inhaled in the form of a steam was recommended by folk healers to treat pneumonia. 

Many of the herbs used were found to have anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and analgesic qualities, suggesting that they are biomedicines. Some remedies were found to be placebos.

The Texas A&M University-Kingsville anthropology degree program was developed and promoted by Graham, the program’s coordinator. The new courses offered included Ranching Culture, Folk Medicine, Mexican-American Folklore, Mexican Border Subcultures, and Language and Culture.  As reported in the Corpus Christi Caller Times in August of 1994, Texas A&M-Kingsville was the second Texas institution to offer such coursework. 

Graham did extensive research and writing on all of these topics. Many of his papers are accessible on the South Texas Archives web page in PDF format.

Graham stated in the article, “In addition to a natural interest in such topics, scholars today are increasingly acknowledging the importance and vitality of Mexican-American contributions to Texas and American culture — from literature to religion.”

While Graham was a junior at TAMU-College Station he was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  After his graduation in 1964, he chose to serve a mission. 

In 1993, he was the subject of the Religion Notebook column in the Corpus Christi Caller Times. The question posed to Graham was why religion is important to him.  

He stated, “My religion is important to me because it gives me the perspective on life and its challenges which makes it possible to cope with both the good times and the bad times with a sense of joy and peace.”  

Graham retired from Texas A&M–Kingsville in 1999 and began a battle with Alzheimer’s.  

Marjatta Graham reported in Joe Graham’s memorial in the Corpus Christi Caller Times, “It seemed like it made a big difference when he wasn’t able to lecture any more…but he retained his knowledge about his field longer than he remembered his own childhood or our married life.” 

Joe Stanley Graham Jr. passed away at the young age of 60 on February 27, 2001.  Forty-one of his writings were published, 82 of his research papers were presented to scholarly groups, and more than 20 of his projects were funded by grants totaling $650,000. 

He was instrumental in starting the Ranching Heritage Festival in Kingsville and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. He was a champion for preserving the memories of human culture and his work was cut short too soon.  

Friend and colleague Stanley Bittinger said of Graham, “As a teacher, mentor and friend to students he was truly unique.  He encouraged students to do research into their own cultural heritages and to write and publish their findings.”  

If you enjoyed reading about The Joe Stanley Graham Jr. Collection, please let Daniel Thacker of the South Texas Archives know at e-mail address, or make a call to the South Texas Archives at (361) 593-4154.  Check their web page at   

Author Pat Allison, has been sneaking about the inner sanctum of the South Texas Archives for several years and can be reached at      

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