There are a couple of things that bring that song to mind for me. One is the trains you can hear running on the Southern Pacific tracks along Highway 90. The other is that old brick building on University Boulevard that now houses a museum branch. That building was the Main Unit of the Central State Prison Farm System and is located where the Telfair housing development has risen. The building now houses the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land.
The Midnight Special is a traditional folk song with many verses that change with the performer, and has been recorded by many musicians over the years. Some of the verses are credited to a man named Huddie Ledbetter, also known as “Lead Belly”, who spent a little time at the Texas Prison Farm in Sugar Land. Ledbetter was pardoned in 1925, so he never spent time in the brick building that stands today.
The train from Houston to San Antonio that runs along those tracks would arrive in Sugar Land at about midnight, sometimes with prisoners, with its light shining brightly. Lead Belly’s words in Midnight Special were likely inspired by his experience at the Prison Farm in Sugar Land.
If you’re ever down in Houston
Boy, you better walk right
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight
Bason and Brock will arrest you
Payton and Boone will take you down
You can bet your bottom dollar
That you’re Sugar Land bound
Let the Midnight Special
Shine the light on me
Let the Midnight Special
Shine the ever-lovin’ light on me
The system of Prison Farms for the State of Texas grew out of financial needs from the State of Texas and businessmen with labor intensive enterprises. The State did not have enough money or resources to house all of the convicts in the early years, so a convict leasing practice began in about 1867. Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis, who were operating large plantations in what is now the Sugar Land area, entered into an agreement in 1877 with the State of Texas to lease convicts for labor. The practice continued for a number of years and by 1908, all of the remaining prison convicts working on the local plantations were moved into new housing facilities for the inmates on the Ellis Plantation. In 1914, the entire 5300 acre Ellis property was sold to the State of Texas, except for the Imperial Sugar Mill. The property was operated as a prison farm by the State until recent years. As the State sold off this farm property, some of it was developed into the New Territory housing neighborhood, and some has become the Telfair development.
Thankfully a piece of this history has survived in the Central State Farm Main Unit building with life now as one of our local museums. Existing wood structures for the Imperial Prison Farm, as it was known when Ledbetter spent his time, were replaced by this building in 1939 built with bricks fired by convicts at the nearby Jester Unit prison. Now this historical Sugar Land building houses displays presented by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Not only is this a museum to visit, you can book the facility for birthday parties, or rent the Museum for Weddings and special events. Take the family and stand in the space, and just breathe in the sense of history that surrounds you.