THE BEAUTY OF A STRAIGHT ROAD.
The Empty Nesters were glad to meet Bob Wills’ fans from across the country. Unfortunately, meeting Bob Wills’ fans from across the country in Turkey, Texas, population 421, meant we would spend the night elsewhere. After the dance, we dropped the top on Stella the Mustang, embarking for Tulia and our AirB’n’B. Highway 86 runs a straight, 45-minute line between Turkey and Tulia. After a day in the Texas sun, an easy drive in the cooling air under a planetarium sky was perfect. As we raced down the road, we noticed the entrance to Caprock Canyon State Park. Channeling unfounded optimism about our physical condition, we decided a morning hike was in order.
One note about quickly cooling night skies in April. That means cool air colliding with warm air. Within thirty minutes, the planetarium sky vanished, replaced by something resembling The Wizard of Oz. We raised the top only after encountering a big, steady rain that the sleeping ranchers welcomed. The second beauty of a straight road is easy navigation in a blinding rainstorm.
A little chagrined and with the help of our GPS, we found the rental and dried off. Nothing induces a better sleep than a big, steady rain tapping the roof, so we ended our Bob Wills’ day content and ready for Caprock.
A LONG WAY FROM CHARLES GOODNIGHT.
That weekend I knew next to nothing about another local legend, Charles Goodnight, who we met earlier in Quanah. Caprock Canyon State Park reveals another chapter of Goodnight’s remarkable story, the full telling of which can be found in J.Evetts Haley’s classic biography of the man.
Haley grew up in Goodnight’s neighborhood, which means within a county or two. The book reflects Haley’s own frontier mastery through its explanation of how Goodnight personally built an empire roughly the size of Delaware. The stories Haley relates about Goodnight’s abilities as a scout, tracker, businessman and cowman describe a skillset inconceivable today. Goodnight’s ghost likely laughed at two city kids surprised by the rain and needing a GPS to get anywhere; he had the Panhandle mapped in his head.
We did better the next day with the help of a beautifully sunlit Texas spring morning. Those of us living south of the Panhandle tend to downplay the region based on the ideas that it has bland geography and a harsh climate. There are spots and times where those ideas ring true; Tulia holds the state record for reaching 23 below. Spending some time in the area, however, explains why Goodnight’s spiritual descendants hold a deep affinity for the region.
THE FAR CORNER OF AN EMPIRE.
Before Caprock, we explored Tulia, the seat of Swisher County. As with much of the area, Tulia traces itself to Goodnight. The aspiring empire builder reached Denver, Colorado with a longhorn herd in 1875; in Colorado, he met Irishman John Adair. The two formed the unlikeliest of partnerships. Adair loved the West, but was not adept at living in it. The year before meeting Goodnight, Adair accidentally shot his horse while riding it and almost killed himself. On one of the only three trips Adair ever made to his Texas properties he brought a butler. Goodnight asked the butler his duties. The man responded by telling Goodnight he existed so that Adair could yell at him whenever Adair stubbed his toe.
If Adair was not a natural cowboy, he could spot one. Within weeks, Adair bankrolled a new operation with Goodnight in charge. Eventually, the men agreed on a 2/3-1/3 split that rewarded Adair’s capital twice as much as Goodnight’s skill and effort, but the deal made Goodnight rich and Adair richer. Goodnight returned to Texas to start spending Adair’s money on ranch land, building the JA Ranch over the course of ten years. At its height, the JA swept from Palo Duro to Caprock, covering 1,335,000 acres on which Goodnight raised and sold 300,000 head of cattle in ten years.
Goodnight’s purchases included a huge swath of land near Tule creek. The Tule post office became a town center; a clerk incorporating the town mistook the ending “e” for an “ia” and Tulia had its start, holding down the southwest corner of Goodnight’s kingdom.
The Tulia town square was well-kept with broad streets. A steakhouse, a vintage re-sale shop and drug store that might have a soda fountain looked promising, but it was Sunday morning when all good Texans other than the Empty Nesters are at church. So, we could only look at, instead of live, the Tulia experience. All in all, Tulia appeared slightly ahead in the battle between a vibrant downtown and an empty storefronts.
What sold me, however, was not commerce. The town square had a great trail marker indicating the distance to other towns. The white obelisk indicated Tulia’s membership in the “Ozark Highway System,” which stretched over seven states before Eisenhower built our interstate highways. The striking thing about the enterprise was its volunteer nature; communities funded road upkeep through contributions rather than taxes.
I know all about public-private partnerships, special municipal utility districts, and tax increment financing districts. Citizens throwing in together with money and labor to accomplish a necessary task seems nobler than the schemes we rely on these days. I think I would like Tulia and its people; we plan to be back through to try the steakhouse and see if there is a Goodnight artifact in the vintage shop.
SILVERTON AND THE DETOUR OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES.
Satisfied with Tulia, we headed towards the park. Next up was Silverton, seat of Briscoe County. Silverton did not have much in quantity on its square, but we were sad that the Ghost Horse Gallery closes Sunday. First, the name Ghost Horse Gallery stems from the Red River War that Col. Ranald MacKenzie ended by killing 1,100 of the Comanches’ horses. Legend holds that you can hear the ghosts of the horses in nearby Caprock Canyon State Park. So, really cool name.
Second, the gallery offers the Night-Owl Coffee Bar to hang out in, play dominos and admire the art. But mostly you go to the Night-Owl Coffee Bar to converse with “Oakley.” Oakley is the great-horned owl who gives more authenticity to a name than one has a right to expect.
Third, the gallery features renowned sculptures by owner Tammy Lynne Penn, turquoise jewelry from her husband Hunter Penn, and iron work by Canyon, Texas horse-shoer Ray Bach. On the highway, “Something Different by Kay” looked like a promising small-town café. Reasons to return to Silverton abound; next time we are at Bob Wills’ Day, we will make the short trip over during business hours.
We hurried through the little town of Quitaque to get to the park and return to Goodnight’s story. Goodnight had purchased a big slice of Briscoe county with Adair’s money and then added a second large ranch (the Quitaque Ranch) that took up most of the remainder of the county, holding that land in Mrs. Adair’s name.
By the mid-1880’s, Goodnight had made a fortune through his 1/3 interest in the JA empire, but cattle prices were falling and big, steady rain was not. To complicate things, the mood of the country and the state was hostile to huge operations. There were constant skirmishes between those who believed in fencing and those who did not. Against that backdrop, Adair died and Goodnight decided to reduce his exposure. Goodnight and Mrs. Adair partitioned the properties. From the partition, Goodnight came to own the Quitaque Ranch.
Goodnight later sold out to pursue other adventures and the State of Texas acquired the park land from the JA Ranch heirs. After the park opening, the state received its last gift from Goodnight. Goodnight’s wife, Molly Goodnight, became concerned for the few remaining Bison on the Plains. Where millions of these proud animals roamed, the Buffalo hunters pushed them to near extinction. Molly fought back by rescuing abandoned baby Bison that she turned over to her husband. Having a concerned conservationist married to the foremost rancher in the world turned out to be a good thing for the Bison as the Goodnight project produced a herd of 200 animals.
After the Caprock Canyon State Park opened, genetic testing proved that Bison on remaining JA Ranch land descended from the Goodnight herd. One final time, the Adair money and the Goodnight skill paired up; the JA Ranch heirs donated the Goodnight Bison to the state. Caprock Canyon State Park now houses the “Official Bison Herd of the State of Texas.”
The Bison greeted us on the way in; they truly are mammoth. There was something awe-inspiring about seeing the animal who had meant so much to the Comanches and who had commanded ridiculous prices for its hide. It is not hyperbole to say that the natives and the settlers fought a war because of these animals. Superior technology won the war, yet with the Goodnights’ help the Bison remain, giving visitors like us a history lesson millions of years in the making.
The geological term “caprock” refers to two layers of rock, with the harder layer laying on top. Over time, the softer underbelly may give way, causing sections to sheer off. The result of mother’s nature fallen soufflé can be spectacular. Caprock Canyon earns that adjective. We visited in late April, barely missing prime wildflower season. Still, abundant vegetation beautifully contrasted with the deep red of the caprock layer.
The sky was photoshop blue and the temperature was in the low 70’s. As we hiked the canyon, each corner presented an even more spectacular view. If you have 10 days a year like this, you can count yourself a lucky person.
I am a “book person,” an avid reader who stores nuggets of history like a trivia squirrel. Walking the Caprock Canyon deepened my appreciation in a profound way for what I have read. Many books cover the conflict over hunting grounds for natives and ranching lands for settlers. Being on that ground on a picture perfect morning, seeing the animals and the beautiful country, drives home in a way words never can why the fighting was so fierce and prolonged.
Whether it was the Comanche warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries, Charles and Molly Goodnight taming and preserving the land, or a young Bob Wills absorbing a culture he later translated to musical notes, they all knew God’s country when they saw it. I knew it now too.
We needed to return to our world, so we left in the early afternoon. On the way out of Quitaque we noticed several charming stores and promised ourselves we would explore here as well when we next returned to celebrate Bob Wills. We had to stop to take a picture of the Quitaque mural.
In the almost two years after we stopped to snap the picture, we have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of murals across Texas. Almost all of them were great; the Quitaque picture is at least top 5:
My sentiments exactly.
Five down, 249 to go.