Monday, April 28, 2014
Brutal Winsett Springs Murder
Chills History of Tranquil Place
By Jeff Clark
Travis Winsett has gone missing.
The backroads of
look like fields
of fireflies tonight. Folks drive up and down, spotlights shining inside bar
ditches. Flashlights sweep across empty pastures, peer inside silent barns looking
for 52-year-old Travis Winsett. Eastland
It isn’t like him to take off like this.
Winsett Springs is located just east of Ranger on Hwy 571. Horse drawn wagons stopped here, the spring’s pipe ending so close to the trail one could almost catch water in cups, never leaving their buckboard seat.
Winsett water was cold and pure. Fill your containers. Let your horses drink. John “Milton” Winsett came to Ranger in 1900, planning to continue to
Arizona. He ran into Sam
Philipps in Ranger, who offered him a job and a room at his Colony Creek spread.
married Philipps’ daughter Lucy, having two kids Veda and Travis during the
Winsett Springs helped save Ranger during the 1912 typhoid epidemic and the 1917 oil boom. Stagnant cisterns invited typhoid – treated by lots of water and not eating. Men made livings hauling water from Winsett Springs in wood barrels by mule-drawn wagons during the oil boom. It sold for $1 a barrel.
Some thought Texas Rangers might have used the springs as a camp. Caddo and Comanche may have called this place home.
kids hiked here, spending the day roasting wieners and marshmallows on a camp
fire. Cooper School Alameda
schoolmates visited during their 1940 senior trip.
Activity at Winsett Springs had tapered off by 1970, however.
Travis Winsett has always been an enigma to locals. He’s described differently, depending on who you ask. Published accounts say he was well-respected. Anecdotal words paint the picture of a loner, a nice man who tipped his hat to school kids driving his mom to town.
Travis was arrested by the FBI for draft evasion during WWII. Some said he traveled with pacifists, giving speeches downtown on a portable loud speaker. Strange, as Travis might’ve been exempt from the draft being a farmer. His best friend was a WWII airplane gunner.
“His distance came about because he kept to himself,” niece Lucie Olson told me. “He didn’t want to cause any trouble or bother anybody. He was a very quiet, introspective artist/engineer type. Not anti-social at all, but he didn’t go out looking for things to do either. He had plenty with the gardening, farming and animal tending he did on a daily basis.”
By 1970, his parents had passed away. Townspeople noted the bachelor rarely spent money. Perhaps, some thought, it was hoarded up in that old Winsett house somewhere.
“To me he was a kind, gentle person,” Lucie remembered. “He took flies outside, without killing them. The only thing I ever saw him kill was rattlesnakes. It would have been much easier for him to go along with the draft, but killing violated everything he was about.”
Travis had a mechanical mind, once building a device to scare deer away tailored from a windmill and disk hammer. “Eccentric, but smart,” neighbors said. A nice man.
“Travis meant no harm to anyone. He was not un-American. He was a pacifist and if he had been a Quaker or Seventh Day Adventist, he would have been left alone,” Lucie said. “My grandmother had a stroke in 1968, and Travis and my mother cared for her at home until the very last. His patience and care was amazing to me.”
Lucie’s mom Veda, Mrs. Hubert Capps always thought of Travis as “her other child”, a touchstone connection that continued into adulthood. She was 11 years his elder. She had written him two letters that June, receiving no answer back. That wasn’t like Travis.
Mrs. Capps arrived at the frame Winsett Springs farm house
Saturday, to see what was up
with her brother. June 27, 1970
The front door was unlocked. His car was in the garage but he was nowhere around. She found the letter she’d written him the previous Sunday, still inside his mailbox.
The locals hadn’t missed him, until his sister raised the alarm.
The police were called. Sheriff Lefty Sublett, Ranger Police Chief J.W. Vinson, Deputy Sheriff Loy Williams, Ranger Constable Ralph Veal, Eastland Constable Bill Hunter, Game Warden Kenneth Payne, Ranger Justice of the Peace M.D. Underwood, Eastland Justice of the Peace L.W. Dalton and later District Attorney Emory Walton converged on the house.
Walking inside, they sensed something wasn’t right. Moving Travis’ recliner chair near the front wall aside, they found dried blood on the hardwood floor. A small round hole was found in the front screen door. A rifle cartridge was located on the ground outside the front fence, below the left gate post some 50 feet away.
Mrs. Capps noticed a “Long Tom” shotgun absent from Travis’ bedroom. His arrowhead collection, valuable coins, and other items were also gone.
What the group didn’t find was Travis Winsett.
Dozens of officers and volunteers spread out across the Winsett Farm. More hopped in their cars and pickups, searching high and low around the area. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen Travis since the previous Monday evening, right before supper time.
Buzzy Rutledge was a high school senior in 1970. That previous Monday, he and his girlfriend noticed a house burning south of town at the Hathcock Farm. He drove to Ranger, hopped in a volunteer fire department truck and rushed to put out the blaze. There was no gas or electricity connected at the homeplace, making the fire’s cause a mystery. The house was totaled, its debris fallen all the way to its foundation.
After the Winsett manhunt got under way, that Monday’s mystery fire hit radar screens quickly. When searchers returned to the Hathcock Farm, they were greeted by a horrible smell. An old cistern under the back porch was covered by fallen debris. Flashlights shined down the dark cistern. Floating face up in the black water 22 feet below was the bloated corpse of Travis Winsett.
The search for Milton and Lucy’s only son was called off.
A killer was on the loose.
The fire department arrived, the body hoisted to the surface. One shot to the temple was visible. Justice of the Peace Underwood pronounced Travis dead, his body taken to Ranger’s funeral home. The cistern was searched with a magnet for a weapon and later drained. No clues were found.
Constable Veal said, “I can think of a half dozen fellows around here we should talk with to find out where they were last Monday night.” One of the people interviewed remembered seeing someone in town with a new box of old arrowheads.
James Henry Bishop was a collector of old artifacts and antiques. Prior to Travis’ body being found, 32-year-old Bishop was investigated for burglary by Palo Pinto County Deputy Bill Harris. The deputy interviewed Bishop about a home burglary in the town of
Palo Pinto. He remembered
seeing a rifle in Bishop’s home, but it wasn’t connected with the crime he had
Bishop was still in the Palo Pinto County Jail concerning that burglary.
lawmen were in luck. Meanwhile Travis’ body was sent to Eastland County Abilene’s
for autopsy. Hendricks Hospital
The suspect appeared before a Palo Pinto County Justice of the Pace and was advised of his rights. Sheriff Sublett and District Attorney Walton then started asking questions.
The rifle Harris had seen was bought at Weatherford’s First Monday Trade Days, Bishop told them. He couldn’t remember the seller’s name. Travis Winsett’s murder was news to him, Bishop maintained. The Long Tom, a .22 rifle, arrowheads, several silver half dollars, and other items of interest were found in Bishop’s home. A spent .22 cartridge similar to that found outside Winsett’s gate was found in Bishop’s vehicle.
Sublett and Walton questioned Bishop a second time. His story didn’t waiver, other than admitting being near the Winsett place, finding one of the stolen items in a ditch. He acted like he wanted to help, lawmen said.
The Hendricks autopsy found that a single shot had entered Travis WInsett’s right temple and remained in his skull. The slug was virtually destroyed. Local ballistics tests wouldn’t be able to tell if the bullet had been shot from the rifle taken from Bishop. Travis’ sister identified some of the items taken from Bishop as being her brother’s.
Texas Ranger H.R. Block took possession of the spent slug. It joined the seized .22 rifle, two cartridges and dust samples from the Winsett and Bishop homes at the Dept. of Public Safety lab in
Two days later on July 8, James Henry Bishop was charged with Travis Winsett’s murder. Bail was denied. Bishop was moved to the Eastland County Jail.
Austin lab later
concluded that the two cartridges were fired from the gun taken from Bishop’s
house. An grand jury
indicted Bishop Eastland
20, 1970. Bail was set at $10,000 by District Judge Earl Conner,
though Bishop remained incarcerated. Trial began in 91st District
Court, with 12 witnesses called.
The defendant admitted he’d shot Winsett, but that it was an accident. A “little voice told him to do it,” reports said he testified. He said he was hunting near the Winsett home that evening. He had pursued a rabbit near the Winsett barn, but didn’t want to shoot that close to the house. Bishop is said to have testified that he didn’t see Travis in the house, but aimed at a window and pulled the trigger in a “childish gesture”.
Bishop took off, he said, thinking Travis might come after him. When no one did, he returned to the Winsett place, he said. He found Travis in his chair, like he’d fallen asleep. It became clear to Bishop what had happened, he said. Travis Winsett was dead.
Bishop panicked, he said, placing the body inside a blanket, hiding it in a closet. He stole several things to make it look like a burglary, he said. Bishop testified that he came back later, taking the body to the abandoned Hathcock farmhouse. Travis being placed in the cistern was an accident, he said, but he admitted setting the fire.
The jury found Bishop guilty, assessing a 55 year prison term.
Prosecutors had not asked for the death penalty.
Travis Winsett is buried on a quiet slope beside his parents and grandparents at the
outside town. The man convicted
in his killing is alive, and out. Merriman Cemetery
Many actors in this tragedy have passed away. I still don’t feel like I know Travis Winsett. I didn’t catch a sense of the man, walking around his family’s old farmhouse. Maybe I felt a little of his sadness near the cistern out south of town. I’m not sure what his legacy is, beyond that of victim. Beyond that of a life not fully realized. But that too, doesn’t feel quite correct.
Tranquil Winsett Springs continues to run, cold and pure.
Special thanks to Will Barrett, Kenneth & Salata Brown, Dorothy Elrod,
Lucie Capps Olson, A. J. Ratliff, Buddy Rogers, Buzzy Rutledge, Buddy Vinson, Roy
Weekes (deceased) and the “Case of the Human Target,” by Bill McNeill,
Startling Detective magazine, circa Ken Falls October 1, 1970.
Friday, April 18, 2014
Will Jacobs’ Fiery Piano Life
Stokes Danger into a Musical Inferno
By Jeff Clark
Something’s gone horribly wrong.
Piano player Will Jacobs fought a pitched 40-year battle with his demons inside ragged honky tonks stretching from
Austin to Oklahoma City. Today he
plays rest homes, when they’ll let him.
Will’s just been approached by a national agent wanting to set up a tour, he says. He won’t open for another artist, he tells me. We sit inside his two room rented house.
Will can play nine hours and never repeat a song. But nobody’s calling. “That’s got to get inside you a little bit,” he tells me. “Someone sees you with a beer bottle or you cuss out an audience and it haunts you the rest of your life.” Today he wanders the streets of Weatherford, when he’s not laying brick or stone.
I visited Will’s place a week ago. We talk a while, then he picks up his dead brother’s blue guitar to play. The musician’s 59-year-old stare is captivating.
He doesn’t look away.
When Will strums the acoustic guitar, he digs deeply into lyrics from his life’s front row anguish. Will considers himself a Throw Away. His words. He tends to bond with other Throw Aways of society, he confides. “We can be happy, you know.”
This man’s been married three times, but confesses another lover always came first. “When I saw that big black man unload that piano when I was a kid, when I saw those black and white piano keys rolling down the ramp into my house, I knew the piano would be the love of my life.”
Will’s lifelong musical tryst has brought him insanity, he volunteers. “I’ve lost my mind over music, then music’s brought me back. Music has been more a part of my life than the women were.” The Rules Don’t Apply Here nightclub life seemed ready made for this man to exercise some demons.
You can see Will Jacobs walking two or three miles a day around Weatherford, if you know where to look. He’s survived 10 years without a car. “The only thing I like as much as playing the piano is walking. Sometimes it’s meeting someone. It gets tough about the time the bills come due, but I’m living life the way I want to.”
He’s not about Things, he wants me to know.
The man leans his body into and out of our conversation, much as he does at the keyboard. He’s good in his own skin, the heck with what anybody else thinks.
Jacobs has seen everything while looking across the top of nightclub pianos – old couples dancing, still in love, wicked bar room fights, anguished tears, rowdy laughter hiding sticky stinging beer-stroked pain.
Playing to a honky-tonk crowd can be like snake charming. The greats did this, he tells me – Hank Williams, Sr., as one example. “He’d look into the eyes of his audience – his music could make that audience do whatever he wanted.”
“When I was a kid, people thought the honky tonk music I played was of the devil.” Jacobs disagrees. “God isn’t so strict he has to only hear Jesus songs. When you hear Hank Williams sing “I’m so lonesome I could cry” that’s a human experience –that’s holy.”
Jacobs wakes up each morning and asks, “Okay Lord, what are we going to do today?” His walks are spiritual releases of stress, a way to exercise. “I meet 100 people a year walking. What if one of them becomes a friend?”
Personal struggles drive his art. “I’m on the other side of hurt now. I’ve struggled with alcohol all my life. But, now I’m trying to keep my mistakes down to a minimum. We have to be real with ourselves. Who we are.”
Bill Jacobs taught his son Will the Missouri Waltz and the Boogie Woogie when he was six, growing up in Weatherford. Bill played the accordion, the guitar, the piano and was song leader at York Avenue Baptist for a time.
Three other men impacted Jacobs’ musical education. “Floyd Cramer taught me technique and simplicity. Ray Charles, that I can arrange my own songs. And Jerry Lee Lewis showed me when I was 11 – you can play the same song 100 different ways.”
You can play the same song 100 different ways.
Jacobs has played
Toulouse in Austin, the Diamond Horseshoe in Puerto Rico, The Stumble Inn in Oakhill, the Cedar Chopper’s
Lounge in ’s Country Store in Rockne,
Weatherford’s Peach Festival and Christmas on the Square, Cedar Park, Leon
in Poteet and Kickers Palace Austin’s
fabled Broken Spoke. He’s performed with David Wills (“I Need a Drink, Here’s
$20”), Johnny Lyons at the Flores Country Store outside San Antonio and Kenny Dale, among others.
“I played about 70 nightclubs. Some of them I played once and a lot of them I played many times.”
Will hasn’t had a paying gig since August 2010.
Truly creative people can be misunderstood, he tells me. We talk of John Lennon and Edgar Allen Poe. “People that run the world are clever, but not wise. They’ve got their own little boxes they never get out of.” I can tell looking around Jacobs’ living room he can’t even see his box in the rearview mirror anymore. Will’s house is a working museum filled with achingly honest vinyl records and Polaroids from his attempts up music’s high summit.
A compliment, I assure you.
“A lot of times when you’re not born rich, you have low self-esteem, a chip on your shoulder. You normally don’t ever get over it. There’s such thing as having self respect, however. It’s not ego. You look people in the eye. How are you going to correct them, if you don’t assert yourself? The problem in America is that everyone’s hiding behind this politically-correct stuff. It’s like fake wrestling. The more I keep my ego in check, the better I do.”
His eyes never leave mine, main lining his uncensored thoughts into words the rest of us are then able to hear.
Musicians are struggling these days, he confesses. “There’s a quarter of the world who want to hear blues, gospel and what I do. But they’re not going out anymore. They’re jaded. The rest of the world likes garbage.”
Jacobs has starred in bar fights, been spit on, thrown out, and had a front row seat to 357 Magnum gunfire. The stink of spilled Lone Star and the sour perfume of too-many-dance partners slink along the underbelly of his venues.
Will sometimes lays brick or stone to pay the bills. “My daddy made about $125 a week, so I guess we were poor. He was a genius in electronics.”
The day I visited, we ran up the street to Weatherford’s Keeneland Rest Home. They have a piano. They have an audience. Jacobs might’ve said hello as we burst through the front door, but if he did, I missed it. I do remember that he stepped around wheelchairs and gossip and strode to the piano standing against the wall like he was cornering a long lost lover. He began playing its keys fast and hard, throwing each song to the ground.
“The reason I play at rest homes is important,” he tells me. “They’re dying in there. They deserve better.”
Women in wheelchairs rolled up as Jacobs pushed through the first 1950s blue-suede hit. A former stuntman from Gunsmoke walked up, introduced himself. One of Jacobs’ walking-around-Weatherford discoveries.
People start swaying, patting their hands in time, his loud playing fingers dancing up and down the keyboard. Will plays songs his audience remembers, doesn’t start out with gospel music, not caring if they think he knows God or not.
Jacobs makes intense eye contact with his audience – a hint of danger or purity, I can’t decide which.
Is too much purity the root of danger itself?
His finger-fueled riffs make it hard to look away. I was impressed with his talent, as his textured voice hot-boxed lyrics out into the audience. The Artist Will Jacobs came alive to the touch of his lifelong love, the piano, singing for him beneath his electrified fingertips.
His lover likes it rough.
“One night I sang this song I wrote. I was sitting at the Cameron Road Inn in
Doing songs, having a good time. There’s this guy trying to pick a fight with me
because his wife’s over there swinging her hips for my benefit, so I play this
song. I was drinking beer and Weller’s Whiskey. I was cocky. The audience froze
because the song was so honest:
I looked for an answer, my whole life through,
just thinking that someone would appear in the room,
after 89 questions and 3,000 lies,
I woke up one morning and I opened my eyes.
They’re too scared to live, and they’re too scared to die.
And they shake their fists up, and they cuss at the sky.
They’ll drive to their churches, and they’ll drive to their bars,
because they’re running from the truth, in prestigious cars.
Don’t trust books, because they’re usually lies.
Just learn what you see, with your storybook eyes…
I want to like Will Jacobs. I respect his danger, admire his courage. But no one’s calling him for gigs. Spring turns into summer. His musical life could still go either way.
He knows it.
Will seems at peace with that uncertainty, for reasons I can’t quite understand. “I know there’s a God. If you help people out, that keeps it under control.”
Will’s house sits on the road I take to visit my parents. It’s Saturday night. His lights are on. I have to believe he’s home. I have to believe, for a long list of logical reasons, tonight’s honky-tonks are missing out. Or maybe just taking a break, awaiting Will’s second act.
“I need to connect to an audience pretty soon,” he tells me.
Is too much purity the root of danger itself?
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
It turned out that Nelda Sullivan was a writer. I learned that at her funeral, a collection of friends and family who got up and told stories I'd never heard before. I love that.
What a life.
Old Weatherford was there, "Holland's Lake" dinners on the ground, instead of the new not-from-there and wrong "Holland Lake". People who remember Weatherford, before. Who remembered Weatherford College. Who built lustrous lives in that town. You had to be there.
Thank God I was.
Nelda and Charlie touched a lot of lives.
Nelda was asked once, in this book she wrote about her life inside, "If you could leave behind one gift to the world, what would it be?"
Her answer, "My pecan pie recipe."
The above recipe card is in her handwriting, her engagement photo from 1943 to the infamous Charlie Sullivan below it. It reads:
"Pecan Pie: 1 deep 9" crust. 1 cup white syrup - 1 cup sugar. 3 eggs - 1/4 C. butter (soft). 1 C pecans. 1 tsp vanilla. Beat ingredients well and pour into uncooked crust. Bake 10 min. at 425 degrees;Turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake until the center is firm, about 30 - 40 min. Enjoy! Granddaddy's favorite."
Nelda Myrle Sullivan
August 7, 1925 - April 4, 2014.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
A Gypsy Woman’s 1932 Cure
Offers Hope in Downtown Gorman
By Jeff Clark
It’s two in the morning,
November 12, 1932 ’s had one of its toughest years
ever – jobs scarce, crops uncertain, oil wells going dry. You and your spouse
would like to sleep, but can’t. Down the hall, your two-year-old daughter coughs,
the dry hacking sound stabs fear into your tense, silent farm’s box house. The
little girl struggles to breathe. Tomorrow, she’ll look up at you with her deep
brown eyes and be unable to speak, having lost her sweet voice completely. Her
sickness started as bronchitis two weeks ago, so the doctor said. God only
knows where it will end. Eastland County
Gypsies traveled from town to town in this part of the state back then. Saturdays seemed to be when they hit Gorman. Mule-drawn gypsy wagons circled up to camp around
southwest of Gorman, its waters much larger then than now. Friday night campfires
heard gypsy tambourines and guitars lift Old Country dialects high into the
silent air in celebration. With the morning sun, these families would move into
Gorman for a fruitful day of enterprise. Bass Lake
Wanda Hull’s parents, Bruno and Anna Duske greeted that same sunrise with desperation. Father and mother bundled two-year-old Wanda Jean up and drove hurriedly into town. They were looking for an old gypsy woman, who we’ll call Zora.
The old gypsy woman looked into Anna’s eyes. “Do you believe in Fogeyism” the wrinkled stranger asked Mrs. Duske. “I believe in anything that will make my daughter better,” the mother replied without hesitation. The gypsy woman instructed, “Take your daughter out to a tall, mature oak tree on your place.” Zora’s weathered fingers stroked Wanda’s long blond hair with obvious concern. “Have her stand with her back against its trunk and mark her height with a straight nail.”
Mom and Dad listened in rapt attention. The gypsy continued, “Drill a hole where the nail mark is, as deep into the trunk as the drill bit will go.” Bruno Duske used a braced bit drill, turning and forcing the sharpened steel bit deep into the solid oak’s trunk.
“Cut a small piece of hair from little Wanda Jean’s hair and place it inside the hole in the tree. Then, plug it up tight as you can. When Miss Wanda grows past that plug in height, she will be cured.”
The Duskes rushed back to their place at Golly Horn Farm, west of
They found a suitable tree and got to work. The cure or spell or whatever
transpired on their farm that day apparently worked. Wanda Hull and the
tall-standing oak tree are both doing great (80 years later), both still
thriving in Bass Lake . Gorman’s Dr.
Stubblefield was told of the miraculous cure not long after that. “Well, if
that’s what you think cured her, I’m glad it appeared to work,” he’s said to
have replied. Eastland
Wanda’s life merits eighty more stories, all colorful and mostly true. The day we visited, I could tell she wasn’t finished. She asked if I’d ever heard of asfidity. Never heard of it, I replied, getting my pen back out. Little black clumps of asfidity were placed inside small drawstring bags, these then tied to the neck strings of kids’ feed-sacks-made-into-school-clothes. This was around Gorman and the Grandview Community. Asfidity was thought to ward off disease.
Researching this claim, I learned that asfidity smells, is bitter, nasty, not pleasant to the nose. Asfidity appears to have started in the
Georgia or Arkansas backcountry as a folk medicinal used
to ward off colds and flu. “Asfidity” derives from the Latin “odiferous
asafetida”, meaning “stinks” (I’m not making this up). One theory suggests moms
knew that smelly kids wouldn’t mingle, preventing grimy little hands from
spreading runny nose infections child to child
I haven’t found anySpecial thanks to Wanda Hull. If anyone has photos of the
gypsies (I haven’t
looked too hard, truth be told). It might be interesting to listen to their
medicinal ideas. Listening, disagreeing perhaps, one might leave hoping that
the unexplained (by whatever label one describes it) is still powerfully at
work healing children. Upon that faith, I hope we can all agree. Eastland
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Friday, April 4, 2014
Bankhead Highway’s Thurber Hill
Begins and Ends Many Lives
By Jeff Clark
Roads have memories, just like people.
Last week I retraced the abandoned
Bankhead Highway as
it climbed steep Thurber Hill, just west of Highway 16 in .
I used to call this uprising “Ranger Hill”, but that occurs farther west, where
Eastland County Loop 254 leaves Interstate 20. I’m parallel
and north of Interstate 20, its big hill still hassling heavily-laden trucks as
they head toward West Texas. Migrating west,
1930’s travelers received their first heaping spoonful of the bitter medicine up
Thurber Hill rises 200 feet in a little over a mile. Model T’s attempted this incline backwards, sucking every available ounce of horsepower from their feeble engines. Folks were often driving rattle trap old vehicles that were one strand of bailing wire away from disaster. Gas tanks were rarely full. You didn’t stop until (not unless) you ran out of gas, broke down, or Nature called.
Thurber Hill remains miserly with her secrets. Elders remember the roar of the Thurber-bricked roadway beneath thin tires, before Highway 80 asphalt replaced it. Like so much that’s happened here, this high-pitched ascent seems so unnecessary. I wonder what possessed planners to carve their road here and not along the more gently ascending Gone-to-California wagon road a mile to our south.
During Ranger’s too-brief oil boom, twenty horsepower Tin Lizzies had two speeds – low and high. Gravity-fed gas tanks lurked beneath their driver’s seat in early models. Facing an uphill climb with a half-empty tank, fuel couldn’t reach the engine. That sputtering noise under your hood told riders that life was about to get exciting. The early Fords had three pedals (low, reverse and brake). When the high speed clutch band became worn, the reverse pedal was used to back up the hill.
Today, the road narrows quickly from the bottom, the ground falling away to a deep gorge on the right. Tall hillside, then boulders soar above one’s sightline to the left. High grass and trees reach out to reclaim this black and white striped road. You can go forward. You can roll backward. There ain’t no turning back.
Given the tightness of this road, 12 feet wide in places, and the dramatic stay-away-from-the-edge curves, surely Pacific-bound Tin Lizzies loaded with their family’s worldly belongings were followed on foot by their kin. Today, mesquites and cedar line the ledge once punctuated by guard rails (more for show, if hit very hard). Trucks that couldn’t make the climb backed down. If you blew a hydraulic brake line coming down, you’d need to go home and replace your shorts.
This first climb is the steepest. When a heavy truck had to stop under strain of its load or a wobbly car broke down, there were no shoulders. No place to turn around. There’s no changing direction – unless you can fly. Coming down you’d have to stand on friction brakes, your Model T a little too anxious to achieve supersonic speed. This 1920s path struggles to peel itself away from the edge.
The road whispers sadly, “it happened here, back in 1941.”
A stopped-in-the-road truck loaded down with lumber blocked its lane, its broken axle not an easy fix. A nice car stopped to help, pulling up beside. This is a blind corner, until the next car coming along is almost upon you. Up at the top of Thurber Hill we see a second truck begin its descent, full to the sideboards with happy workers heading to
East Texas cotton fields.
When the lumber truck and the Good Samaritan car come shockingly into sight, the farm workers’ truck driver knows he has to stop. Pushing steel pedal hard to the floorboard, the doomed truck’s brakes fail, its speed faster and faster falling down the runaway road toward the star-crossed car and lumber truck. The careening truck’s driver aims heroically for the space between the two vehicles, to avoid taking his passengers through the rails and into mid-air.
Whatever horror this poor truck driver imagines pales beside what happens next.
The big truck crashes full speed into both lumber truck and car. Many were injured. Many needed help.
The Ervins stop to help, to take the injured to Ranger’s hospital. The lumber truck driver lights flares to warn off further catastrophe. People busy themselves helping the wounded. The call goes in to Ranger – send help. Send everything you’ve got…
The Ranger Fire Department had a siren mounted on top of their building that could be heard all over town. Its wail announced fires, tornado warnings, world war black outs and other emergencies. “Most of the young people who had access to cars would follow the fire trucks to the scene,” Dorothy Elrod told me. Fire trucks, ambulances, and “all of Ranger” left the little town, racing toward destiny.
They say the fire probably started in the lumber, maybe a spark from the flares beneath its wheels. It might have smoldered unnoticed in all the chaos. Two loaded Greyhound buses stopped behind the accident. Their passengers piled off to get a better look. Cars from the surrounding countryside pulled to a stop, blocking more of the road. Some say four hundred souls watched as that lumber truck burst into flames.
The fire quickly spread, igniting a saddle gas tank under the truck. A monstrous explosion erupted across the panicked hillside, spewing burning gasoline across hundreds of onlookers like high tide slamming into a seawall. James L. Ervin was blown off the cliff by the blast. Faceless shapes ran in every direction across the hellish scene ablaze. The few who’d remained in their cars were uninjured, reports later confirmed.
Whatever happened next, panic has erased from the record. There wouldn’t have been enough firemen to go around. There’s no water at the site. Time must have stopped, as shocked minds struggled to take in the end-of-the-world tableau. The injured, the dead and dying were taken to Ranger’s West Texas Hospital, whose rooms filled, whose hallway floors were quickly littered with occupied mattresses. Others were taken to the
in town, and a few to Eastland.
Then as now, burn injuries are grotesque, among the most agonizing to ever be
inflicted upon a suffering victim. City-County Hospital
Seven died that night. Thirty to forty more are said to have perished later from burns or other injuries. Several more were maimed for life. No one left unchanged.
“It was a very sad time since some of our classmates were injured in the blast,” remembers Dorothy Elrod. Today the road is eerily silent. “Nothing to see here,” this stretch seems to have learned the hard way. A quick prayer, then back in the truck. I need to escape this place.
Ironically, the paved road widens to seventy feet not too much farther up the path, a place designed for ascending cars and trucks to pull off and add water to overheating radiators, to let descending car brakes cool. To marshal one’s courage for another attempt at the summit.
Just up the hill on the north side of the road, a long northern curve to the right is lined with two WPA-looking brown stone gateways, marking the entrances to Scenic Point, a roadside park. People could’ve walked here from the wide place in the road. There are at least three barbeque pits built out of the same stone hiding in the brush. A rusted set of bedsprings pulled up to one fire for warmth.
Once you enter the gateways, the pavement stops. Vintage photos show this to be a scenic hillside for picnics. There’s still a beautiful thigh-high rock wall lining the curving Bankhead out front.
Easter sunrise services were held here. “I remember we were on high ground,” Dorothy told me. “The scene looking east was breathtaking, especially when the sun started rising. We had a sermon and sang gospel songs.”
Back in the truck, the road finally reaches the crest of Thurber Hill. What takes a few minutes on Interstate 20, takes much longer here. But this road’s not through talking. As the pavement flattens, you notice concrete and brick ruins to the south. This was the original hilltop gas station, before the complex moved west to Ranger Hill when Highway 80 blew through. There’s a flat concrete slab observation deck hanging off the hillside, from which you can see Thurber’s Italian Hill many miles to the east.
Rejoining the interstate’s service road up ahead, a cinder block building marks the location of Offield’s Truck Stop and Café. Not too much farther and the real Ranger Hill awaits. Like so much along this old highway, “what used to be” holds center stage.
Today I don’t much care what came next – Highway 80 then I-20. Too much has been uncovered, too many wounds unsealed. The gray asphalt reaches west finally toward Ranger, cutting a slightly wider path through the cedar. Tens of thousands passed by this spot heading toward, or away from something as our young nation reached adolescence. A few souls never made it.
Interstate 20 caused the death of many
Highway towns, I’m often told. But after today, I
think that’s a symptom, not a life sentence. I invite those folks to travel
Route 66, much less historically-important than the Bankhead brick and asphalt remnants
still snaking through their towns. Route 66 is raking in the cash.
Shorty Fox tells about when he and Mutt Lee were traveling to Ranger in 1939. They’d been to
Fort Worth to pick up lumber for a National
Youth Camp cabin or three, across from where the Ranger Library now sits. They
were driving a packed-full Chevy truck. It popped a spark plug, hitting the
inside of the hood like a snub nose bullet. The two men stopped, climbed out, scotched
the wheels with rocks, and made their repair (most of Shorty’s stories involve
duct tape or chewing gum, seems like). They got the truck running and started
up the hill.
I asked him about what he saw, as they rode that old truck up the too-steep road. “Listen,” he told me, as serious as he ever gets. “We’d just repaired a truck, we were loaded down with lumber, and we were struggling straight up this big hill in first gear – a huge drop off to the right. We were just happy to get to the top.”
I’ve always heard about the “big hill” east of Ranger. Now I’ve driven it. I’ve listened to it speak. Thousands of long-ago echoes can be heard, if this hillside road’s memory is to be believed. I look back along the narrow road, its words softly speaking one last time. “I was just happy to get to the top.”
Some of this story occurs on private property, entered with permission. A full recounting of the 1941 tragedy and its heroic aftermath may be read at www.angelfire.com/tx/rangerexes/1939a.htm (used with permission). Special thanks to Barry Franklin,
Shanon Hunt, Tommy Parks, Dorothy Elrod, Leo Bielinski, Rae Wooten, Shorty Fox,
Mac Jacoby, Jack Blackwell, Mike Herrington, and Harlon Perrin. Ken Falls
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
When folks say “Indian” in
, they typically
mean “Comanche”. Eastland
became a territory of the Comanche Nation at , (I made the date and time up, but the year is
thought to be close). November
The recorded history of the Comanche epoch in
Texas, written from an Anglo point of view,
is surprisingly robust. This account limits itself to events that occurred near
or directly impacted the Alameda
– Cheaney Box.
Modern coffee shop opinion supports the Comanches’ right to live along the
(I agree). They acknowledge that
Anglo settlers invaded these Indians’ buffalo hunting grounds, destroying their
mode of survival (I agree). They believe that Spaniards and later Anglos
brought fatal diseases that wiped out Comanche Nation populations, much like
germ warfare (I agree, though this part was accidental). The Comanches’
forcible exile to desolate “throw away” land reservations on the Clear Fork of
the Leon River Valley Brazos, then later to Oklahoma killed their chance to continue on
a proud path of triumph stretching back thousands of years. This is all
incontrovertible, based upon the evidence.
The comprehensive truth of what happened around
from 1740 – 1874 confirms all of this. Taking both sides into consideration,
the full truth is more
complicated, however Settlers eventually took the valley away from the Comanches “the people”, using the strategies both (intentional and accidental) outlined above.
Ironically, the Comanche’s spirit theology of The Land reflects more accurately what actually happened. The People belonged to the land, not the land to the People. Anglo settlers saw that world in reverse – this land is mine..NOT yours.
The Comanche exercised military/political control over the
during from around 1740 until
1874. They took control of this territory away from Wacos and/or Caddos (who
also probably invaded the land of whatever civilization predated them). Even Leon River Valley Alameda’s Clovis Man was
an immigrant, coming across the Bering Strait,
walking from northwestern North America to
this place. No people were truly “from here”. No people were truly native. Only
The Land endures.
There were (and are) thousands of well-meaning Comanches – men, women and children. Good people – people you’d enjoy talking to, learning more about, being friends with. There also were (and are) thousands of well-meaning folks of European ancestry. Most of these people, you’d enjoy spending time with.
Both peoples expanded into the
trying to make their lives better. They were only viewed as an invasion force
by whoever was there first. Displacement of whoever came before is a central
theme to both civilizations’ arrival on the shores of Leon
River Valley ,
at the epicenter of this valley. Mansker Lake
Both group’s motivations are colored by racial and ethno-historical prejudices written into each account. I found many stories specific to the
area, Mansker Lake
written from Anglo settler points of view. Sadly, I found no Comanche accounts, specific to the same area, though their stories from other locales exist.
There are instances of Comanches and German settlers getting along near Fredricksberg to the south, and sporadically in other settings. The western-moving American Frontier and the-southern-moving, borderless nomadic culture of the Comanche Nation, made eventual conflict inevitable. Unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides. Treaties were made and broken (usually by Texians and Americans). Leaders from both sides could not always keep their brothers in line.
Peace had a chance while Old Owl and Sam Houston were alive. That flicker of opportunity came briefly back to life when Robert Simpson Neighbors was Indian agent. Two of these three men fell in the line of duty, one assassinated by enemy disease, the other by a bullet in the back.
Old Owl is the key to understanding the Comanche in
– Cheaney prior to the 1859 arrival of its first white settlers. Old Owl was the Penatuhkah’s civil peace chief, a co-chief
to the Comanches’ powerful War Chieftain Santa Anna. Old Owl’s camp was the
Comanche headquarters on the until at least
Rip Ford describes Old Owl:
The Comanches arrived under their principal chief, Mopochocupee – the Owl. Prince Owl was quite a respectable looking savage. He had none of the swagger so ostentatiously displayed by bastard Rangers, and self-styled frontier celebrities, who throw crowds into spasms of
astonishment and admiration by reciting the daring deeds they never performed. His Highness was ready to accept anything in the shape of a present from an old tooth-brush to a cloth coat.
When I visited the Comanche Nation in
Lawton, I was told that the “real decision
maker” was often hidden behind the scenes, protected in case of treachery from
assassination or capture. The “chiefs” that were in contact with military
authorities, were sometimes only the mouthpiece of these “shadow” leaders. It’s
impossible to know if Old Owl was the true Comanche decision maker, but his
recorded actions and words indicate wisdom and a true leader’s heart for his
people. He was respected by Rip Ford, Sam Houston and Robert Simpson Neighbors.
Old Owl visited
with Santa Anna and Neighbors in 1847 on horseback. The Owl was received by Sam
Houston in the marble halls of the Senate. He saw American government
buildings, thousands of American citizens in towns and cities along the way. He
saw American armies, cannons, the vast nation that was hungry to move west in
his direction. Old Owl recognized the future. He had to know that his practice
role as peace chief was the Comanche’s best hope for survival. Washington D.C.
Old Owl’s realization had to be hard on him. The Comanches had single-handedly forced the mighty Spaniards from
They had ousted or enslaved every other Indian tribe they encountered. If the
Comanche was ever defeated in a war prior to the Texian/American era, this
defeat is not recorded.
From 1859 until 1872, the Comanche guerillas won most of the battles along the
. Leon River
settlers retreated to Blair’s Fort for a time. Besieged settlers at Blair’s
Fort retreated to Mansker Lake or Stephenville
as well. Wagon loads of anxious Anglo pioneers fled to the towns of
Stephenville, Weatherford and Fort
Worth fearing for their lives. Many went back east,
never to return.
Most of the thirteen slain chiefs were Penatuhkah. Buffalo Hump assumed Penatuhkah leadership, mounting several retaliatory strikes, but his forces were defeated at Plum Creek. Santa Anna rose to fill the role of Warrior Chief. The rise of Peace Chief Old Owl may have been contemporaneous to this time period. The Penatuhkahs became bitter enemies of Texians.
Arrowheads thought to be Comanche are scattered all over the
. The only known concentration of
Comanche artifacts seems to be at the epoch-crossing Fulcrum Camp. This valley
camp is watched over by an east facing cliff. It is Leon River Valley
timbered along its winding waters, though a wide, grassy area for teepees, grazing and community was available. A nearby peak could connect its smoke signals to Caddo Peak and the Santa Anna Peaks to the southwest; to Ranger Station Peak to the north (then north to Gunsight Mountain or east to South Gordon Peak); and also to Desdemona’s Jameson Peak, then south to Comyn Peak and then Round Mountain in Brown County.
Smoke signals from this Fulcrum Camp site would have gotten reception from all four directions of the compass, and yet the campsite sits low topographically, protected from the weather, and enemy surprise.
I feel a certain kinship with some of the narrators of this story – I call them storytellers. Some are alive, most are not – at least in the conventional sense. And yet, along the trail, they were with me, speaking stories through their actions, or in some cases only leaving clues. I can offer no other explanation.
I have from time to time felt led by Old Owl, his Indian name Mopochocupee. In 1849, RIP Ford documents his camp “on the headwaters of the
Leon.” A much
later book by Kenneth Neighbours suggests that this ‘headwaters’ location might
have been where Armstrong Creek hits the .
I have reviewed Rip Ford’s original memoirs from that visit. There are no better
clues hidden in its pages. Hopefully someday, a comprehensive history of the
Comanche reign in the Leon River Alameda
– Cheaney Box will be written. As of this writing, the clues still hold their
breathy, waiting patiently in the woods.
The first Anglo traveler through our parts that I can positively identify was Big Foot Wallace. He passed slightly to our east, then may have turned west, coming up
east of Ranger. He writes on Bear Canyon : October 20, 1837
We took our course again, which was about due north and, crossing a range of mountains at a place called “Walkers Pass”, we traveled over a rough broken country to the South Leon Creek, a distance, I suppose of 15 or 16 miles, where we “nooned.” We saw some fresh buffalo signs on the way and our old hunters began to whet their bills for fat steaks, marrow-bones, and “humps,” but as yet we have seen none of the animals.
We found the grass very fine on the bottoms of this creek, and have concluded to lay over until tomorrow, and give our horses a chance to recover, as they have had but poor grazing for the last 48 hours.
We had been in camp but a little while, when one of the boys found a “bee tree” which we cut down, and took from it at least five gallons of honey. In the evening I went out hunting, but saw no game to shoot at. On my way back to camp I stopped to rest for a few minutes in a little canon that lay between two rocky hills covered with thick chaparral. After a while, my attention was attracted by a noise in the bushes and looking around I saw a large bear coming directly towards me. I sat perfectly still, and he did not notice me, but came slowly along, now and then stopping to turn over a stick or rock, in search, I suppose, of insects.
When within twenty feet of me I took sight of his fore-shoulders and fired, and he fell dead in his tracks. This was my first bear. He was very fat and would have weighed, I suppose, three hundred pounds. I went back to camp, which was not more than half a mile off, and returning with two of the men to assist me, we butchered him and packing the meat on a horse, we soon had some of it roasting before our fires. What a feast we had that night on “bear-meat and Honey!” If the mess of pottage that Esau sold his birthright for was as good as bear meat and honey, and he had a good appetite, I believe the poor fellow was excusable.
In the night we saw a long line of light to the westward of us, and supposed the Indians had fired the prairie. The night was pleasant and warm.
following on our trail, but he was a “scary” sort of fellow and we thought his story doubtful.
We passed a singular chain of high bald hills today. Looking at them from a distance we almost fancied we were approaching a considerable city, so much did they resemble houses, steeples, etc. They were entirely destitute of timber.
where we struck it is a small
rapid stream [this was October], shut in on both sides by high rocky hills. We
crossed over to the northern side and “nooned” in a grove of pecans. These
trees are full of the finest nuts we had ever seen – very large and their hulls
so thin we could easily crack them with our fingers. Before we left, we
gathered a pallet-full of them and strapped it on one of our pack mules. Leon River
In the evening we continued our route up Armstrong’s Creek, and struck camp a little after sundown near one of its headsprings. The valley along the creek is very beautiful and the soil rich. Our hunter today killed a fat buffalo cow on the way, and we butchered her and packed the meat into the camp. That was the first buffalo meat I ever tasted, and I thought it better even than bear meat. The flesh of an old bull however, I have found out since is coarse, tough, and stringy, but the hump is always good, and so are the “marrow-bones” and tongue.
Just after we had camped, one of our men named Thompson, while staking out his horse was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake. It was a small one,
however, and he suffered but little from the effects of the bite. We scarified the wound with a penknife and applied some sod to it and next morning he was well enough to travel. I do not think the bite of the rattlesnake is as often fatal as people generally suppose...
Night clear and cool – cool enough to make it very pleasant to sleep by our fires. Toward we had an alarm that aroused all hands very suddenly. The sentry on post fired his gun off accidentally, and we supposed, of course that the Indians were upon us. We were all up and ready with our guns by the time the sentinel came in and told us it was a false alarm. I was so completely roused up by the excitement and bustle that I did not get to sleep for more than an hour afterward. The little breeze that rustled among the leaves and dead grass the early part of the night had died away, and a dead silence had settled over all. Not a sound could be heard, except the howling of a solitary “cayote” far off among the hills, and the nipping of our animals as they cropped the rank grass that grew around us. The silence was oppressive, and when one of the men muttered in his sleep or one of the animals coughed or snorted, it was an actual relief....
It is not known if this
camp later moved to the headwaters the next
year, or if this camp was a large, second camp existing at the same time as the
one recorded by Ford on the Leon
In any case, in 1849 Robert Simpson Neighbors wanted to lay out a trail to the
upper Rio Grande
through El Paso.
Neighbors left San Antonio,
and passed through Austin.
Dr. John S. Ford (“Rip” Ford) joined his expedition. They went to a Torrey
Trading House near Waco
and spent several days getting ready. Neighbors hired Penatuhkah
Buffalo Hump as his guide. They left the North Bosque Settlement, : March 23, 1849
Preliminaries were arranged without trouble. The expedition set out before the middle of March. It was a motley crowd. The Americans were Major Neighbors, Doc Sullivan, A. D. Neal, and the writer [Rip Ford]. Captain Jim Shaw, a
Deleware, was interpreter. The other Indians were: Joe Ellis and Tom Coshattee,
Shawnees; Patrick Goin, a
Choctow, and John Harry, a Delaware.
A band of Comanches traveled with us too.
One morning Buffalo Hump awoke the camp with a medicine song. Ford said, “It stirred up recollections of boyhood – the calling of higs – the plaintive notes of a solitary bull frog – the bellowing of a small bull, and all that sort of noises. Anon the awful melody of the sonorous gong was reproduced; the next moment the mournful howl of the hungry wolf saluted the ear, which gradually softened into something like the gobble of a turkey. It might have been a choice asortment [sic] of Comanche airs gotten up to amuse and do honor to the Supervising Agent, but it failed to solace his white companions. The performance commenced about an hour before daylight and did little to soothe the slumbers of the morning”.
Old Owl led the expedition into his camp “on the headwaters of the
Leon” on the
About forty or fifty children who were in the creek bathing ran for the wigwams crying “pav-o-ti-vo, pav-o-ti-vo”, white man, white man, as loud as they could…We encamped near the Indians; numerous delegations of children came to look at us and our trappings. The squaws also evinced curiosity; many of them had never seen an American. We had time to examine the wigwams and to learn something of every day life among the Comanches…A deaf and dumb
woman attracted our attention. She was the only person we saw laboring under these defects among several thousands [author italics] of Indians. A very old woman was frequently in our camp. The Comanches said she had seen more than a hundred summers. She appeared to have things her own way: found fault, lectured, and scolded like other old feminines. She had the appearance of a skeleton moving around with skin on it…It was decided that Buffalo Hump should be our guide. He managed to get most of his pay in advance. Mopochocupee separated from us. Buffalo Hump’s band was traveling south of west and rather down the country old Owl stayed behind.
I’m not convinced that the “Upper Leon Headwaters near an intersecting creek” site that Rip Ford speaks of is in fact where Armstrong Creek hits the
Leon. I’ve been
to this site. The intersection looks little different than most of the Leon in
Eastland County, farther north there were archeological findings of a large
camp on the west side of the Armstrong Creek site found, but little on the east
side, as Ford reports.
A campsite farther north, inside the
– Cheaney Box makes more sense. Based upon the cited “several thousands”
population of Old Owl’s Leon River camp, our topography better fits the
descriptions and repeated archeological findings at this location make the
Alameda – Cheaney site a much stronger suspect.
If the expedition’s turn “south of west” back toward the Colorado River had been from this alternate Alameda – Cheaney site, the expedition could’ve followed the
anecdotal Spanish Trail, said to lead away from within four miles of this site (if this Spanish Trail truly existed, it was probably originally an Indian trail).
Tragedy engulfed this Comanche “township” after the Neighbors expedition departed the Leon River Camp, from which the camp never probably recovered:
Shortly after Major Neighbors left them in 1849 a scourge of cholera carried away three hundred souls within a few weeks’ time. The faithful Old Owl and the intelligent Santa Anna were numbered with the dead. These losses demoralized the southern branch of the tribe, and henceforth disintegration worked rapidly…As soon as they recovered from the cholera scourge, the Penatekas held a general council and tried to select a head-chief to succeed Old Owl. One account says a chief named Sanaco was chosen, but Buffalo Hump and Katumse, another chief, visited
to report that the honor had gone to Buffalo Hump. The title was an empty one,
from this time on the Penetekas themselves agreed that they had no common
leader. There was no one among them who could take the place of Santa Anna and
I guess now would be the time to relate the story of
Comanche County , just southwest of Gorman. This
site is about 15 miles from Indian Mountain Alameda.
The story goes that one day in the 1920’s a farmer was plowing his field, below
. Out of the corner of his eye,
he saw an Indian, in full feathered regalia, standing outside the fence. The
farmer walked over. The Comanche had come to pay his last respects to fallen
comrades (the last battle at this site was said to be in the 1870s). Later
visits by Comanche warriors to this site reoccured several times through the
years, it’s said. Indian Mountain
Though anecdotal, given the high honor and clear-eyed theology behind Comanche beliefs about death, I have to believe Comanche oral tradition kept up with the locations of many of their warriors’ final resting places. That geographic information, if it truly exists, is still hidden far across a ripped apart cultural divide, not yet fully healed. One hopes that in the future Old Owl’s final resting place may be located, safeguarded and honored as an early leader and patron of Alameda and Cheaney’s history, in addition to being one of the Penatuhkah’s wisest leaders.
The Owl uniquely understood what was happening to his world, and tried to ease his people peacefully from one epoch to the next. One wonders what might have happened if The Owl and Santa Anna had survived until 1859, when Alameda’s settlers began to arrive.
The exact location of Old Owl’s camp is unknown. It is clear that at most it was
a short ride away from the
Alameda – Cheaney Box. Neighbors’ description
location inside this box. Even if the site is at the Armstrong Creek location, supporting a
population of at least 3,000 Comanche citizens would have made the rich Mansker
camped here, or merely hunted here, this wise, unassuming sage walked this place. Old
Owl’s peaceful spirit sleeps inside the
. Leon River Valley