We started out this day trip heading southeastward on Highway 287 to Mansfield. This town developed when, in Fort Worth in 1857, two entrepreneurs, Ralph Man and Julian Feild, sold their primitive water-powered gristmill and sawmill and moved their operations about seventeen miles south. There they developed the first steam-powered gristmill in an area truly cloaked with a fabric of amber waves of wheat. The town of Mansfeild, as it was originally spelled, developed around the mills of these two men, one of whom operated a general store and served as postmaster for their budding new town.
Unable to resist the town of Venus, we ventured south on Farm Road 157. This town was named for a local physician's daughter, and in the 1890's it was for a short time the most prosperous town in Johnson County. According to legend, when all but the drugstore had closed, the town's residents each pitched in $5 to keep the last floundering business in Venus from closing her doors. FM 157 conveys its passengers around curves and right angles through truly vast oceans of green farm land; our car was like a wayward sailboat pressed here and there by the water when the wind is still. This deep green sea meets the sky along the horizon, seemingly endless miles away. This road is an unavowed treasure, just a few minutes from the sprawl that we call home, where there are four gas stations at every junction, the colors of neon beer signs distracting our eyes, and the insidious smell of salty fried food rises out into the air to swindle us.
We were tossed ashore onto Highway 66 in Maypearl, and terra firma was solidified by the presence of a sign in the window of the Busy Bee ("BYOB"), hailing residents to bring themselves to Tammy and John's party at the back of the Bee. There is some disagreement about how this town got its name. It began as Eyrie, a large bird's nest, in 1903. Then, the name was suddenly changed to Maypearl for either the two daughters of a railroad executive, May and Pearl, or for the wife of an official, whose maiden name was Maypearl. Whatever the case may be, there is something genteel in the sound of its name, like the memory of times long gone, and we were drawn to take a look. We turned southward onto Farm Road 308 past the Bee Creek Ranch, and while I absorbed the electric yellow of several thousand sunflowers along the road, a literal swarm of grasshoppers crashed unaware into our windshield. I was startled back to the here and now by the loudly abrupt splatter of at least twenty of these poor fat bodied victims, whose remains obstructed our view until we could stop to clean the glass. The open road is full of odd little surprises, quick reminders to wake up or check our pulse, or more importantly, the gas gauge.
In Milford, we stopped to take a picture of the Baroness Inn Bed and Breakfast, and while we were doing so, the owner came outside to say hello. The aqua colored building captured our attention. It's a two story Victorian structure with bright pink trimmed balcony and porch. One side is shaded by an enormous tree whose branches reach out as if for an embrace. We drove around the block to get a look at the back of the Inn, which is also shaded and private. In 2003, the Dallas Observer voted this spot the best place for a day trip in Texas. It stands out from any other Bed and Breakfast I've seen; it's colorful, and the proprietors are anxious to fling open their doors for potential guests.
We turned onto Highway 171 in Malone and drove through expansive fields with very little evidence of human occupation. A barn house every few miles and the fences that line the roads serve as subtle reminders of the time when the early settlers arrived, when, in emergencies or Indian attacks, it took all night to reach the nearest neighbors. We passed through Hubbard, a small town that grew around the Cotton Belt train depot that was originally located there. Today it's a placid little town, one in a series of islands that dot this region's oceans of green. On calm seas we sailed into Limestone County, the great stage upon which some of the most tumultuous scenes of Texas history are replayed.
John Parker, an elder in the Predestinarian Baptist Church, left Illinois to settle in Texas in 1834 intending to spread the word of the Baptist Church to those who had not yet heard. He brought his wife "Granny" Parker, two sons Silas and Benjamin, and 4 grandchildren. Samuel Frost and his son also accompanied the Parkers on their quest. In March of that year, for protection from the natives that controlled this area, they built a fort in Limestone County along the headwaters of the Navasota River. It had log walls that were twelve feet high and two blockhouses on opposite corners to offer a view of far off distances and warn the occupants of approaching danger. For lodging, there were six small cabins inside the fort's walls.
When John and his wife Sarah first built Fort Parker, it housed a company of Rangers from time to time as they were dispatched in the area to confront the Indians, either to retrieve stolen livestock or merely avenge the death of a fellow frontiersman. One company, under the command of Captain Robert Coleman, sought a fortress there in July of 1835 when the Tawakoni village they attacked proved to be surprisingly resilient. Colonel John Moore answered Coleman's cry for help with three companies of Rangers under his command. In August, the combined forces left Fort Parker and headed northwest, following a similar path to the one that we used for our approach to the fort. They found the village abandoned, and one ranger, Major Erath, who would soon establish the city of Waco, noted that the Indians were forced to leave behind a great store of crops, including sixty acres of corn.
Even though the Parkers and their extended family were far more prepared than most of the early settlers in Texas, their name and the misfortunes that befell them eventually became a significant part of the legend of the old Frontier. I've noticed that anyone who knows the slightest bit of this area's history can rattle off the names of Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker without their eyes first glazing over as they wander backward into the days of Mrs. So-and-So's Seventh Grade history class. Here's why.
On May 19, 1836, long after Coleman and Moore's Ranger battalion had disbanded, more than one hundred Indians from Comanche, Kiowa and Wichita tribes appeared at the gates of the fort to ask for beef and directions to a water source. They were waving a white flag. Most of the men who could defend the fort were not inside those twelve foot walls; they were working in the surrounding fields. Old John Parker and his sons were inside, so Benjamin slowly opened the heavy gates to hear their requests. He went back inside the fort to relay this conversation to the others. When he returned to the gates to talk to the warriors, planning to send them toward water and deny them a cow, they quickly drove their lances through him and charged the open gates before they could be closed.
What followed was a bloody violent storm like nothing these Baptist immigrants had ever seen. The Indians pinned their victims to the ground with their lances, mutilated and murdered the men, and raped the women, including Granny Parker. They took five captives, young Cinthia Ann and John Parker, James Plummer, and two young ladies, Elizabeth Kellogg and Rachel Plummer. Though none would welcome such a title, these were the first white captives taken by Indians in Texas. Elizabeth Kellogg was taken by the Caddoans when the raiding band split their ranks, and she was soon traded to agents in Nacogdoches for $150. Rachel Plummer and the children traveled with the Indians all the way to eastern Colorado, where she too was eventually ransomed. Little John Parker and James Plummer remained for 6 years in captivity before they were ransomed in 1842. Cynthia Ann alone assimilated to her new way of life and rose to become a squaw named Naduah. Her story becomes legend because she was adopted into a Comanche family, and as she matured, she assumed the role of wife to the mighty chief Peta Nocona. The Comanche men practiced polygamy, and it seems a great testament to their relationship that Nocona never took another wife.
Cynthia Ann embraced the Native American culture, and she prevented several of the whites' attempts to rescue her. She and Chief Nocona had three children; her firstborn son Quanah arose to become the most revered of Comanche chiefs. It is curious that one small captive child from a prominent local family could so win the hearts and respect of the Comanches that she would become the only wife of one great chief and the mother of his successor. When she was returned to the Parker family, after 24 years with the tribe, she resisted vehemently, trying a few times to escape. Cynthia Ann's tale twists the classic Cowboys and Indians story so that there can never be the clearly defined lines of hero and villain, no white horse and black horse. In this great legend that describes the beginning of the Texas frontier, the heroes are those whose indelible courage and tenacity have etched their names into the books of history, not merely those who ended up with the land in the end.
When we visited Parker's Fort, it was a sunny, breezy July day and there were a few families of children, parents, and grandparents spilling eagerly out of mini vans to pay their fee and enter history. We walked through the museum and souvenir store to the Fort's grounds on the other side. A wooden walkway lined with the vines of wild grapes conveyed us toward those famous gates, where in just a few moments' time, the fate of the Parker clan was inexorably altered. In a fitting juxtaposition of past and present, a long haired man on a riding lawn mower nodded his head upward and gave us a perfunctory smile as we walked toward the Fort's entrance.
I know it is a reproduction of the original, but the fort is designed to enable a realistic journey into the past. A large commemorative marker within a garden of unruly flowering vines and shrubs tells the story of that day in May, 1836. I was able to block out the roar of the lawnmower on the other side of the logs and the exuberant utterings of the children behind me and envision that day when Benjamin Parker, his elderly father at his side, trusted the universal meaning of a white flag, and opened those gates. I could picture him glancing at his children who, with wide curious eyes, clung to the skirts of their Granny while they strained to see what waited beyond those thick logs. I could see him nervously straightening up his courage, drawing in a slow deep breath, drying his palms on the sides of his pants, and receiving a cautious and silent nod from his father, carefully pulling back those heavy doors. Like Pandora's Box, those doors opened under the guise of the seemingly innocuous, but they unleashed the catalyst for a series of events that would forever color the relationship between the whites and the Indians. For this was a motley mix of renegades from several tribes, not one claiming prominence over any other. In December of that year, in spite of all his efforts, President Sam Houston could not get congress to pass any bills granting rights for the friendly, peaceful Cherokee tribes in the east. The bitter sentiment washed over Texas, and the damage was irreparable for all sides.
We walked back through the gates and as we crossed the wooden walkway, I noticed a fiery red wasp suspended in air beside a cluster of purple grapes. He lingered there, a flashing warning. The clerk inside the gift shop gave us the rundown of scheduled events, from storytellers to reenactments, but she had to politely excuse herself before too long because, "You know how it is when you're making jelly." On our way back up, we drove through Groesbeck's town square, snapping a picture of the courthouse while two inmates in striped jumpsuits mowed the lawn.
Highway 164 westward carried us toward Waco through Mart, whose founders, like the sparkle in the eye of parents of an infant child who see visions of a future President or military hero, named their fresh new town with the expectations of a booming commercial hub. The modern Mart, TX has less than 2,000 residents, and their original dreams of grandeur faded when the railroad packed up and moved a little further on down the road. And a little further we went as well, our next planned stop, the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco.
We crossed the Brazos, turned northward on University Parks Drive, and entered the grounds for the museum. On rich carpets of grass sits Major George B. Erath's statue, and we snapped a picture of it before we went inside. Erath participated first in the company of Colonel Moore when he joined forces with Coleman's rangers at Parker's Fort, then he served in the battle of San Jacinto when Texas won her war for Independence, and after that he continued to serve Texas as a legislator and ranger. He was born in Vienna, Austria, but his colleagues donned him "The Flying Dutchman" after an Indian battle in Moore's ranger company, during which his young horse became so incensed by the battle cries that he rushed ahead of the others. When he was 73 years of age, blind, and in poor health, Erath dictated the details of these events to his daughter who recorded and compiled his memoirs. He was an honorably outspoken man, for he believed that the Mexican Army, under the command of the stubborn and unpredictable Santa Anna, deserved much more credit for their courage than they received. In one section of his memoirs, he recalls that while the rest of his battalion guzzled the crates of champagne, stacked into a pyramid and left behind by the Mexican army after their defeat at San Jacinto, "I took my carouse in eating sugar." Erath's colorful accent was one of his best known traits, and fellow Ranger Noah Smithwick quoted him as saying, to describe his own skills as a military commander, "I knows but vone vord of command, und dot ish, 'Sharge poys, Sharge!'"
We paid the $5 fee and entered the corridors of the Hall of Fame. In standard slow and silent museum gazing cadence, I moved through the rooms, surveying glass cases displaying weapons like the Winchester repeating rifle and the Colt Revolver. This particular pistol finally began to level the playing field for the Rangers in their battles against the Comanches, who were fierce and deft horseback warriors. Prior to the Colt Revolver, the rangers had to dismount and fire their weapons from a stationary position, often using their horses as shields, while the Comanches were mobile, exact archers. Two young boys, about the size of second graders, stood with gleaming eyes in front of these cases full of guns. Their eager fingers pointed from weapon to weapon, leaving sticky smudges on the glass. One made the wet-mouthed arcade game sounds of guns firing while the other stood anxiously beside him.
I eased past their spray of invisible bullets and their brilliant admiration of this place and surveyed the cases of uniforms and documents, eventually coming to a display of badges. Legend claims that the early rangers cut their star-shaped badges out of Mexican coins while they rested by the fire at camp. While this version is more than unlikely, they did indeed forge their badges out of Mexican silver dollars, though gunsmiths and blacksmiths did the work. It's funny how these heroes of the old Frontier, these restorers of peace and righters of wrongs, have taken on immortal powers as time goes by. When the Rangers first organized into battalions to protect the whites from Indian raids, the settlers took on the burden of feeding them and occasionally providing water or shelter from the elements, and they complained about having to share a few chickens and a bushel of corn with these rough, rowdy, irregular wanderers. Somehow, as history played itself out, they became powerful enough to cut stars out of silver coins with their bare hands.
They did, however, earn their place in the ranks of historical heroes. There was the one company of volunteers, the only group of men who would respond to the pleas for help coming from Colonel Travis and his men who were tucked inside the Alamo while they heard the thunderous marching from a Mexican force of 5,000. Surely they knew their fate, but the Gonzales Ranging company answered this call, making the total number of defenders a mere 190. The Rangers also took on the "disagreeable duty" of arresting fence cutters when the farming population increased and the free ranging cattlemen found their herds cut off from water by the sharp sting of barbed wire. A marker outside the entrance to the museum describes the Rangers' call to once again civilize the frontier when this feud erupted.
The Hall of Fame contains a diverse collection of memorabilia, representing the historical, the modern, and even the televised "pop culture" renditions of the Texas Rangers. I scanned the place once more before we reemerged into the bright sunlight, noting the saddles on wooden stands, several western paintings along the wall, and even the massive, bulky torso of a buffalo.
Noticing on the map how close we were to Crawford, TX, we decided to take a short detour to see the town that houses President Bush's 1600 acre ranch, also now named the Western White House. We headed down Highway 185 via Ocee. Just east of town, there is a ford in the Middle Bosque River where Crawford's original settlement began in the 1850's. A man named Nelson Crawford graded this crossing. In 1867, this burgeoning town's inn became an early station along the Brownwood stage route. Just four years later, a post office was established, and by 1890, the town had several stores, a cotton gin, steam mills for both flour and corn, and four churches. The oldest building standing in Crawford's downtown area today was built in 1894, with S.E. Powell & Son's General Store on the first floor and a Masonic Lodge on the second. Now, the building houses a gift store, and Crawford's official website proudly recalls a recent visit from John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, in 2003. There he purchased a gift for Tony Blair's 50th birthday, a coffee mug bearing the slogan, "Friends and Allies" while four adjacent flags (Spain, Australia, United States, and Britain) appear beneath.
We drove slowly through town, each business waving a flag and often a picture of George W. Bush. The power plant just outside the downtown area happily hails passersby with a sign that reads, "Proudly supplying electricity to our President and First Lady." We passed a fuel station that doubles as a small café and burger shop, where the President stopped for coffee once on his way to the golf course. Their sign is blue and white, declaring "The Home of President George W. Bush." The town of Crawford is thrilled to be the President's Western White House, and every place I looked, they exuded a hospitable pride in their newfound economic growth and, occasionally, their nationwide media attention. What started as a little river crossing 150 years ago is now a stopping place for foreign diplomats and the network news, just 9 miles off the beaten path.
On our way back toward Highway 6, we passed two cool, inviting spots where swimmers and sunbathers took advantage of the rock lined Wasp Creek. The water rushed across jagged rocks, forming a white foamy spray that looked hard to resist on a day like this. We stole a few pictures of these folks at their leisure while kids scrambled past each other to achieve the highest point on the rocks from which to dive. When we reached Valley Mills northwestward on 6, the "Gateway to Bush Country," I noticed a panoramic view of the landscape that captured my mind. From behind thin rows of cedars I could see distant hills rising. Their shaggy tree-covered surfaces were a sharp contrast to the smoothly plowed fields in the foreground, where equidistant rolls of hay sat dormant and still after the sweaty labor of humans was complete. The only motion in this scene was the steady tilt from side to side of giant buzzards in flight, two or three flaps of those sturdy wings, then tilt and glide, cruising a deep blue sky after days of rain.
We emerged on Highway 6 into Bosque County and through Clifton, the Norwegian Capital of Texas. It was first named Cliff Town in reference to the limestone cliffs that surround the area, and a prosperous flour mill and limestone mill became the first commercial endeavors. The people of Clifton are proud of their Norwegian heritage, and they host a Christmas festival every year to display their cultural food and crafts. We drove through the center of town, noticing a busy spot, the Bunkhouse BBQ. We passed an historical marker for the Election Oak, where in 1854, seventeen of the twenty-one votes cast in Bosque County's first election were polled under this tree. This venerable oak still stands next to the Clifton Livestock Company.
A short leg on Hwy 22 will lead you onto 144 toward Meridian. This town was the childhood home of famous Texas folklorist John A. Lomax. Because of its proximity to the Chisholm Trail, Meridian offered young Lomax access to old cowboy ballads, the vast echoed yodeling to their herds, and black chants and labor songs. When he was a child, he developed an affinity for this regional music, and by the age of 20 when he left home, he had compiled written records of the songs he grew up listening to. A log kitchen is all that still stands of Lomax's boyhood home, and a roadside marker in a picnic area nearby commemorates this place.
After he left his home town, Lomax traveled around Texas collecting folksongs from a variety of sources. In order to get the authentic lyrics, he performed his research in bars and on back roads. The Handbook of Texas Online gives a good account of Lomax's endeavors, and the product of his travels was first published in 1910:
In the back room of the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth he found cowhands who knew many stanzas of "The Old Chisholm Trail." A Gypsy woman living in a truck near Fort Worth sang "Git Along, Little Dogies." At Abilene an old buffalo hunter gave him the words and tune of the "Buffalo Skinners." In San Antonio in 1908 a black saloonkeeper who had been a trail cook sang "Home on the Range." Lomax's first collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, was published in 1910. Often accompanied by his son, Alan, he visited prisons to record on phonograph disks the work songs and spirituals of black inmates. At the Angola prison farm in Louisiana, he encountered a talented black minstrel, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Upon Leadbelly's release from prison, Lomax took him on a tour in the north and recorded many of his songs.
John Lomax's passion for this music is rooted deeply in his childhood, and his collection and preservation of American folk songs became his life work. Driving through Meridian, TX, I can only wonder what this starry-eyed young boy with a soulful heart and cleverly acute ears looked like as he stooped behind a barn or a tree stump, or strained his neck out his bedroom window at night to catch every nuance of the music of the old Frontier.
Modern Meridian's calendar has a busy schedule of events, from the Bosque Valley Arts and Crafts Festival to the "Top of the Hill Country" National Championship Barbecue Cook-Off , and in October, they're dancing in the streets!
We continued on 144 through Glen Rose, where drivers pass through scenic Dinosaur Valley. Just as we crossed the county line, I noticed two giant twin hills that disappear and reappear as the road rises up out of the thicket of trees along its borders. There is a roadside marker for the dinosaur tracks found in the limestone in the bottom of the Paluxy River. There are tracks from three types of dinosaurs, and they are so large that they serve as catfish traps when the river's water runs low.
Our final stop along this quick day trip was the site of Squaw Creek, where several Indian fights took place. There was a live oak with a forked trunk, which allowed for a young boy to be positioned there as a lookout. On one occasion, when Indians raided a nearby household and stole a week's worth of laundry, Captain William Powell placed his son in the tree to watch. A group of citizens watched all night when, just before sunrise, as they were about to give up their post, the Indians came through. A bloody fight followed as the men of Hood County began to shoot the Indians' horses so they could engage them on foot. The Indians held their position in a ravine all day when finally a heavy rainstorm forced them out to face the group of whites that had grown to nearly seventy-five men. All seven warriors were killed.
In a Civil War era battle, twenty-five Indians were vanquished by the Cavalry near Squaw Creek after they killed Rigman Bryant while fox hunting. Because so many of the frontier's men and boys were occupied in the War, the women in this area disguised themselves as men so they would not appear so vulnerable to raiding warriors.
We continued on 144 to Granbury, where Highway 51 brought us home. This short drive to Fort Parker and back is a simple, u-shaped escape from the everyday grind of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. On the day we took this drive, it was a nearby opportunity for us to let our imaginations enter history while our senses took in the treasure-filled countryside. Permanently altered by her capture, Cynthia Ann Parker went on quite a road trip herself, and I'm sure each river and creek, each limestone cliff, each forked live oak had meaning in her memories. We can drive past those spots today if only to imagine.