After returning from Bob Wills’ day, the Empty Nesters needed a plan to visit the 244 remaining Texas counties. We started with the Big Bend area because, while we had gone through it, we had never lived it. That failure was a gigantic hole in our resume as Texans, now thankfully fixed. The learning began immediately as we made our way from Waco through Comanche and spent our first night finding the (real) Cisco Kid.
As background, M’Lissa works as a principal for a pre-K through 6th grade private school in Waco. She more than loves her work, but the end of the school year holds real meaning for her. The principal works as hard in summertime as during the school year, but the stress recedes in June and July. To kick off the summer, M’Lissa timed it so Stella the Mustang exited the school parking lot two minutes and 15 seconds after the last child evacuated. Top down, M’Lissa’s fist in the air and Alice Cooper blasting, we were off. A real life Pancho and Cisco Kid.
Day one was a pleasant drive west on State Highway 84 to Gatesville and then northwest on State Highway 36 through Comanche and on to Cisco, where we would bunk our first night. The summer heat was still more threat than reality and the spring rains had done their work. The green countryside relaxes you while the adventures ahead beckon. Very few things in life beat the first day of vacation.
Making the Grade
We sped through Gatesville and Hamilton, which are county seats, figuring that we live close enough to explore those towns another time. By early afternoon we pulled into Comanche, seat of its eponymously names county. Comanche County ranks as the 147th most populous county in Texas, with approximately 15,000 residents. Experience has since taught us that population figures around those numbers put a county in the “will it or won’t it” category.
Meaning that the county is not large enough for its population alone to ensure an active commercial life in the county seat. Yet, the county is big enough that with the right circumstances, the town square will hum with activity and interesting finds. With counties of this size, you never know quite what you will get until you get there.
Happily, Comanche is a “will it” county. The Stone Eagle Beer Garden and 4 North Events Center anchor the square in spectacular fashion. If you hit the hyperlink, you will see my recent story about the owners, so I am not going to belabor the point. Other than to say, that a Friday afternoon in May with a cold beer in hand and no particular place to be is living large.
A Boot and Square Talk.
Thirst quenched, we strolled the square. There are boutiques aplenty, stores for vintage picking and a variety of restaurants. We could easily spend a day doing deeper investigation and credit card damage. On this afternoon, however, we spent our time gabbing with the owner of the Frontier Boot Shop, a conversation that did my heart good.
Truthfully, we thought the shop would be a boot store. Instead, Comanche citizens bring their boots and other leather goods in for repair. The leather smell, however, was the same and always has the same effect on me. PETA will hate me for this, and I am often on their side, but the smell and feel of leather is just too comforting. Slipping off my well-worn boots after a day in my well-worn saddle so I can sink into my well-worn leather chair with its well-worn ottoman sounds right. Forgetting the part where I have not really ridden a horse in 36 years. Ranch work is out of my skillset, but ranch living I could master.
Anyway, the conversation. If you spend time on the site you will figure out pretty quickly that the Empty Nesters “identify” as center-left or maybe even the “L word” (liberals, not the other L word). You can guess the politics of the owner of a leather store in Comanche, Texas. We talked about the issues of the day, but we laughed while we talked. This all happened in May 2019 and with all the water under the bridge since then, I would not swear we could replicate that feat. For that afternoon at least, I felt like the America that I learned about in civics class, the one where we can respectfully disagree, was the America I was living in.
M’Lissa is inveterate reader of historical markers; I hold the opinion that too many mundane facts qualify as “history.” No one, however, will ever characterize Comanche’s markers as mundane. Almost exactly 145 years before we stood on the square, the locale served as the backdrop for gunfighting drama worthy of the movies.
The protagonist was John Wesley Hardin, easily a top-10 Texas criminal. Hardin gets style points for growing into a stone cold killer after his preacher father named him after the founder of Methodism. As befits a legendary criminal, the facts underlying the legend are a little hazy. Erring on the conservative side, Hardin gets credit for killing over 25 men, starting at age 15. By age 20, Hardin played an outsized role in a Texas version of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s; in our instance it was the Suttons and the Taylors.
The families and their allies brawled across the state; often the combatants wore badges as sheriffs or deputies. At the height of the conflict, Hardin visited family in Comanche for his 21st birthday. On May 26, 1874, Hardin and his allies celebrated at the local saloon that against all odds, Hardin had reached age 21 and won a ton of money early that day horse racing.
Into the celebration strode Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Hardin offered to buy Webb a drink, but something went wrong. The two men drew their guns; as usual Hardin was quicker and deadlier. Hardin fled the scene with his brother and two cousins, The posse chasing them caught up with everyone but Hardin, jailing his relatives. The locals were in no mood to wait on trials; they broke into the jail and hung the brother and two cousins while Hardin again escaped.
Although Hardin had successfully outrun the law up to this point, his luck finally gave out. Three years later, the authorities finally got to him. Of all the killing he had done, it was gunning down Charles Webb in Comanche, Texas that finally put Hardin in jail.
Hardin served 17 years of a 25-year sentence; his life was just as remarkable inside the jail as outside. Hardin claimed to repent and engaged in the study of law. After his release, Hardin somehow arranged a pardon, clearing the way for him to practice law. As a lawyer, I can say that maybe Hardin’s new status as a professional only confirmed his background. In any event, Hardin failed to mellow. In El Paso two decades following the Comanche saloon fight, another saloon battle ended with Hardin dead on the floor.
Comanche is one of the great Texas towns where you can still appreciate the state’s rough and tumble history from a more comfortable watchtower. The buildings still stand, the streets may be the same, but the chairs are softer and the beer is colder. You can almost see it all happen if you squint real hard and drink more than one of the cold brews at the Stone Eagle.
Cisco, The Innkeepers’ Hall of Fame.
As much as we enjoyed Comanche, we eventually needed to make it to Cisco, stopping point for day one. We chose Cisco over Eastland, the county seat, based on direct travel and the availability of what looked to be a cool Air B’n’B opportunity. We will reach Eastland on another trip, but for this go-round we knocked the ball out of the park.
John and Mark Kay offer their log cabin “Guest Haus” as a separate structure on their beautifully kept home and grounds. They bought the log house out of the Pennsylvania Amish country, deconstructed it and moved it to Cisco. Mary Kay has a decorator’s touch as she also owns a top-flight vintage store in town. The amenities were first class, the ambience “rustic-romantic” and comfortable. Nobody told Mary Kay that AirB’n’B usually means just clean, comfortable lodging. We need to agree to keep that secret so Mary Kay will keep serving spectacular breakfasts like the one we enjoyed on the porch of the Guest Haus the next morning. As an innkeeper, Mary Kay evokes the spirit of Cisco’s most famous former resident.
The nickname the “Cisco Kid” most often derives from a 1950’s western television show; before the show the title character originated in a 1907 O’Henry story and was the protagonist of a long series of movies. On paper, the Cisco Kid presented as a Mexican version of John Wesley Hardin. On screen, the Cisco Kid was a dashing, swashbuckling adventurer. Neither the film nor book versions of the Cisco Kid ever made it to Cisco, Texas. But a business version of the swashbuckling hero certainly did.
Conrad Hilton came to Cisco in 1919, while the region vibrated with the vitality an oil boom brings. Hilton found what generations of Texans have experienced when the right technology, the right geology and the right economics collide: money exploding out of the ground. Oil booms draw schemers and sharps; desperados and earnest engineers; prostitutes and house moms, all together in a combustible mix. Fortunes earned during the day vanish at the craps table at night. It is like a game show machine that blows cash around while you try to grab at it. Most contestants end up frustrated being so close to wealth, but only capturing a tiny fraction. Hilton figured out how to walk off with the whole machine.
Hilton grew up in San Antonio, New Mexico, which then was an active trading post. Hilton’s demanding father was a shrewd, industrious Norwegian immigrant who started with a small general store and just kept expanding. At one point, the Hilton family acquired substantial wealth, but a financial panic in 1907 nearly wiped them out. Struggling to survive, Conrad suggested to his dad that they transform their large home into a boarding house/hotel. Conrad assumed the front desk duties, his beloved mother cooked and his siblings cleaned. The concept worked and helped tide the family over until better times returned.
As a young man, the tall, good looking Hilton cut quite a figure. He enjoyed moderate success in a variety of commercial ventures, always backed by his father and other relatives. He dabbled in politics as the youngest member of the New Mexico legislature. More than anything else, Hilton wanted to own a bank; he had one in San Antonio for a short period, but it failed to grow.
World War I briefly interrupted Hilton’s business career; he found himself in Paris as an army officer. While Hilton wanted combat, the Army recognized his organizational skills and assigned him as a quartermaster. While the war did not bring him exactly what he wanted, Hilton’s time inhaling the Paris city life gave him an appreciation for hospitality that he would soon put to good use.
Tragedy and Beginnings.
By war’s end, the Hiltons had re-established their financial footing. So much so that Hilton’s dad bought the first car in the county. In Paris, Conrad got word that his dad had wrecked the car. By the time Conrad made his way back to New Mexico, his dad was dead.
Hilton faced a true crisis. He loved his mother deeply and desperately cared for her well-being. On the other hand, having seen Paris, the little New Mexico town that stood at the center of the Hilton family universe struck Conrad as too small for his dreams. His mother saved him. She knew her son was special and her town was not. She practically ordered Hilton to seek his fortune in the world, which he did with a mixture of deep guilt and smoldering desire.
An Elusive Lone Star Beckons.
Relatives made Conrad aware of the white-hot oil economy in the high plains of Texas. Hilton knew nothing about oil, but he did understand money and people; he was confident he could raise funds from his family and friends. San Antonio, New Mexico may not have needed a bank, but the Texas oilfields certainly did. He pinned his life savings of $5,000.00 inside his coat and headed east for Texas.
Hilton first spent time in Wichita Falls and then Breckenridge. In both places, the local power structure happily welcomed out-of-town roughnecks to provide physical labor. Sharing the fruits that capital could produce was an entirely different matter. Banks would remain local, no matter how smoothly the New Mexican talked.
Second only to his Catholic faith, Hilton’s core value was optimism. As a teenager, Hilton read Helen Keller’s autobiography, it moved him deeply. From that point forward, Hilton always saw the glass as half full, even if it was nearly empty. So Hilton kept floating west, looking for the bank that would make him rich. He found it in Cisco, indirectly.
A Missouri absentee owner controlled the bank in Cisco. When a teller told Hilton the owner would sell for $75,000.00, Conrad was euphoric. Hilton and the owner’s agent agreed to terms at that level, and Hilton got his financing in place. Ready to close, the teller informed Conrad that the bank owner had reneged. He now wanted $80,000.00 to close the deal.
The Resilient Cisco Kid.
In business, Hilton maintained great discipline, so he walked away from the deal over the the owner’s attempt to squeeze him beyond his last penny. Dejected, he went to the boarding house/hotel operating up the street, the Mobley. The lobby was full with roughnecks and oilfield sellers and suppliers.
In a typical desk transaction, the clerk asks the visitor how long he will need the room. Hilton likely said “a couple of days” so he could plot his next move. The next question was atypical: “Which shift?” A puzzled Hilton would have asked what the clerk meant; the clerk would have explained that the Mobley was letting its room in three shifts daily; you got the room for eight hours a day, depending on your shift in the oilfield. The lobby was full of people waiting for their turn to sleep.
The hairs on Hilton’s forearms stood straight up; he knew opportunity when he saw it. In every life, there are probably two or three days when your stars align perfectly. The question is what you do about it. Conrad Hilton found Mr. Mobley to ask him about how to get into the business. Mobley confirmed that Hilton’s stars were in order. Mobley’s view was that to make “real money” one needed to be in the oilfield; he wanted to sell the hotel to raise his stake. After a handshake, Hilton made the calls necessary to convert the bank financing to hotel financing. The Cisco Kid was in business.
Today, the Mobley Hotel serves as Cisco’s Chamber of Commerce building and houses a small museum detailing Hilton’s exploits. Conrad, of course, became a household name and remains so today. His innovations as an innkeeper were many, but most stemmed from three ideas he ferociously pursued in each property. First, there was no wasted space in a Hilton property; Hilton could squeeze an extra room or two or a larger restaurant out of any floorplan. Second, Hilton did not rent rooms; he sold an experience. Guests felt like there were in a second home. Third, Hilton loved his staff like family and expected the same in return; his employment practices were decades ahead of their time.
These tenets made Hilton an unstoppable force throughout the Roaring 1920’s. More importantly, Hilton’s message, his unrelenting optimism and belief in American capitalism and his personal integrity saw him through the Great Depression as a unique hotelier who did not seek bankruptcy protection. His creditors rewarded him by fueling a meteoric rise to worldwide prominence when the economy returned.
Hilton started in New Mexico and lived many places throughout his life, but he choose Texas as his resting place. The state’s wide-open, tomorrow-is- another-day ethic perfectly matched his own. The real Cisco Kid said as much in explaining how he ended up in Cisco:
“I thought, dreamed, schemed of nothing but how to get a toehold in the amazing pageant that was Texas.”-COnrad Hilton
The oil boom long ago passed, although surrounding areas still have working pumps. Interstate 20 passes nearby so travelers provide some financial impetus. Lake Cisco is a quaint recreation area. Downtown spreads out a bit; we enjoyed the painted bicycles throughout as the town’s quirky and worthwhile art project.
You might see a few “open carries” (guns to the uninitiated) around town. While I object to the idea in general, I give special dispensation to Cisco citizens as they have a long tradition of defending their own. The Santa Claus Robbery is one of the more infamous Texas crimes and generated the state’s largest manhunt ever. The posse tracked a gang who robbed the bank using Santa Claus as the lead robber. The story of the crime reads like Fargo 50 years early. Suffice it to say that if you are going to defile Santa in Cisco, Texas you will get what is coming to you.
We spent a great Friday night enjoying the town at the Red Gap Brewery. Better liquor stores and high-end grocery stores throughout the state sell Red Gap, but Cisco is where the beer comes to life. The company’s showcase brewery provides a relaxed atmosphere for a little live music and friends on the weekend. Red Gap’s logo perfectly sums up its hometown: “Grit and Charm.” We think the Cisco Kid would agree.
11 Down, 243 to go.
Background on Conrad Hilton largely comes from J. Randy Taraborrelli’s The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty.