Silent Witness - Halfway Oak Tree

Trees have been used as landmarks, meeting places and for protection from harsh weather. They have provided wood for homes and church's and provided cooling shade in the hot summer. In times of war they have been used as mustering places, scouting nests, and sniper's perches. In times of peace, churches and courts have been held under their limbs and sometimes, those same limbs were used to provide frontier justice. Over 500 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue and Europeans first came to America, some of the saplings from then are still alive, silent witnesses to history. If only they could speak.

The Halfway Oak Tree next to Hwy 183
One of these trees, an gnarled, old live oak, lives on the windswept plains 13 miles south of Breckenridge, Texas. For miles around there's no other tree so it's hard to miss. The tree got its name from its location: halfway between Breckenridge and Cisco. In the 1800's it served as a halfway rest stop on the original Fort Griffin to Stephenville stage coach passage. Noted on maps as early as 1858, it provided travelers a refuge for centuries.

in 1867, Fort Griffin was one of the frontier forts built to defend settlers against Indians and outlaws. The town of Fort Griffin, named for the fort but called "The Flat" by everyone, was established nearby. This lawless frontier outpost attracted many infamous characters of western lore such as Mollie McCabe and John Wesley Hardin. Lawlessness was so bad that the Flat was eventually placed under martial law and soldiers ran the outlaws and troublemakers out of town. As the bad guys rode south, they no doubt stopped under the old oak tree just long enough to rest their horses for a few minutes. In 1877, Wyatt Earp came through The Flat hot on the trail of a fleeing criminal. Doc Holiday was coming to help his friend apprehend the scofflaw and Wyatt left word for Doc that he would wait for him at the Halfway Oak. The next day, Doc caught up with Wyatt at his camp beside the tree.
In the oil boom of the 1920s, thousands of prospectors rushed into Breckenridge. Photographs from that time show almost nothing but wooden oil derricks stretching to the distant horizon. The oil boom brought railroads and the tracks for one line were laid less than 200 feet west of the tree. The tracks are long gone now, but the Half-Way Oak still stands.

Over the many years of its life, the tough old tree has suffered through drought, ice storms, misguided pruning, an accidental poisoning and several car crashes, one of them fatal. (It must be rather embarrassing for there to be only one tree for miles around and somehow you crashed your car into it.) In the 1970s the tree was scheduled to be removed for the widening of Highway 183, but the citizens of Breckenridge banded together, refusing to allow the tree to be cut. Instead of living history being destroyed, the road was routed around it and a few picnic tables and a nice highway pull-off were added, allowing the Half-Way Oak to continue to provide a welcome respite for travelers.


World's 2nd Longest Burning Lightbulb

There's something to be said for an object that just keeps on doing its job, day after day, year after year. Especially when that object consists of thin glass and wispy little wire. Steadiness in good times and bad. Reliability and durability you can count on.

In 1970, the Guinness Book of World Records listed a light bulb in in Ft. Worth, Texas as  the world's "most durable." But then somebody in Livermore, California jumped up and said a bulb in a fire station there had been burning even longer. A lady claimed she was the daughter of a man who had donated some light bulbs to Fire Station #6 on East Avenue and she remembered the light bulb being installed and turned on in 1901. Or maybe it was 1902. Or it might have been 1905. Even with this somewhat sketchy "documentation," Guinness decided the claim was legitimate and the little lightbulb in Ft. Worth was dethroned and relegated to obscurity.

Since bulbs usually fail when they are turned back on, the city of Livermore installed a dedicated power source for the bulb to ensure no electrical interruption even in a blackout or a fire house blown fuse. A rheostat was installed to smooth out any power surges. For its maybe, possibly 100th birthday, the Sandia National Laboratories donated and installed a "Bulbcam," a small camera which has its own web page showing the world that "The Centennial Light," as it has been named, is still burning.

"The Eternal Light"
But what about that forgotten bulb in Ft. Worth? Even in relative obscurity, it still burns, still doing its job. Known as "The Eternal Light," it spent its early life illuminating a stage door entrance at Byer's Opera House on 7th Street. Thanks to meticulous record keeping by the opera house, this bulb is proven to have been screwed in and turned on by a stagehand named Barry Burke on September 21, 1908. The opera house was sold in 1919 and turned into the Palace Theatre, but being a rear door, the light was never turned off throughout the years.

In 1970, a nameless somebody flipped a very dusty, never used switch just to see what it went to. The building's owner happened to walk by as the bulb went dark. When he found out what caused it, in a panic, he flipped the switch back and was astounded and relieved when the little light came right back on and burned as steady as ever. After shouting a while (nobody knows what happened to the guy whose curiosity got the better of him and flipped the switch), he placed a piece of cardboard over the wall switch with clear instructions to never, ever, ever touch the switch. 

"The Eternal Light" in it's display case.
Ft. Worth Stockyards entrance portal.
The only other time the bulb was dark was in 1977 as the old building was being torn down. A man named George Dato knew about the bulb which had been burning for so long and managed to remove it and put it in a socket at his home which he then kept turned on. In 1991, it was turned off one more time, the bulb unscrewed and transported to a socket in a glass display case in Ft. Worth's Stockyards Museum. Everyone held their breath when the power was flipped on, but once again, the bulb began glowing and it hasn't stopped yet. 

To see the unheralded World's 2nd Longest Burning Lightbulb, visit the Stockyards Museum at 131 E. Exchange Ave, Ft. Worth, Texas. You might want to hurry as there is no telling when it will finally give up the ghost and become just another burned out bulb. Or who knows, the thing just might keep on shining and outlast us all.

Postcard From Terlingua, Texas

Just south of Alpine on Texas Hwy 118 going to Terlingua is where civilization takes an abrupt vacation.  This seemingly endless highway, devoid of towns, gas stations, motels, stores and most other cars is like a road leading to the end of the world. If you are the kind who likes isolation and simplicity, the 80 miles of desert, ranch land and mountains have the ability to awe you with beauty. A drive through any desert can be very enjoyable if you have a reliable car, but if your car is sickly, this is one of those roads that should only be aspired to rather than attempted.

Man has inhabited the area around Terlingua for at least 10,500 years. The Comanche and Apache Indians controlled the region for many generations. Explorers occasionally came here, but never stayed. The land was too remote, too harsh, and the fierce Indians drove away even the hardiest and most dedicated. In the late nineteenth century, after the Indians had been largely subjugated and removed by the soldiers, a few settlers came to this wild area to try and make a go of it, but the land accepted civilization only reluctantly.

To call the area settled and fully civilized today would be stretching it. It takes a different kind of person to live here year-round. The few ranchers, desert-rats, and other residents are strong-willed, determined, stubborn individualist who protect their way of life and freedom with fierceness not usually seen in "normal" folks. There are few police and the area is large. If people here have a problem, they take care of it themselves. And if one of their own needs help, they're right there to lend a hand. A lot of people would like to live that way, but few actually can.

Once you pass the Longhorn Ranch Motel, you know you are close to the town. There is no town limit sign, no official boundary. Stubbornly remaining unincorporated, you are either in town or you are not. Like most of Texas, being in Terlingua isn't so much a matter of physically being there as it is a state of mind.

Cinnabar in the area was found and used by Native Americans who prized its bright red color for body art and as paint for rock and cave paintings. Mexican miners had discovered the cinnabar deposits by the 1850's, but until the 1890's, the remoteness and hostile Indians prevented wide-scale mining. Since mercury was used in the fuses of bombs and bullets, mining in the area took off in the early 1900's and continued through 1945 until the conclusion of WWII greatly reduced the market. The population plummeted from 3,000 to zero within weeks of the mines closing and Terlingua became a true ghost town with abandoned buildings, mine tailings and discarded cars and wagons rotting away in the desert sun.

Terlingua ruins
Terlingua remained deserted, desolate and lonely until 1967 when Wick Fowler, Frank Tolbert and Carol Shelby organized a chili cook-off to be held in the former town. The whole thing began when H. Allen Smith, a writer from New York, claimed in a magazine article that nobody could make better chili than him. The Texas boys promptly answered, claiming Smith was a "know-nothing maker of vegetable stew" and issued a challenge to pit Wick Fowler's Texas chili against Smith's New York version in what they called "The Great Chili Confrontation." Shelby owned a 220,000 acre ranch outside Terlingua so it was decided to host the competition in the ghost town just to see if they could attract a crowd of people to the middle of nowhere. News of the upcoming contest became widely known when it was written up in numerous national publications, including Sports Illustrated.

More than 1,000 people showed up for that initial contest, all of them sleeping in tents or their cars since there were no lodging facilities. Large quantities of alcohol was imbibed and all sorts of foolishness and nudity was not only tolerated, but encouraged. In the middle of it all, Fowler and Smith managed to cook their chili. 3 judges were tasked with determining a winner. The contest was declared moot when the tie-breaker judge gagged on a spoonful of Smith's chili and fell to the floor in gastric distress. He eventually was able to claim his taste buds had been damaged beyond repair and he had been rendered physically incapable of submitting a vote.

From that debaucherous start, a few hardy individuals began arriving to live in the crumbling buildings. A commune of hippies tried, but failed to create a sustainable desert utopia. Eventually, others came who wanted to settle there because they liked the isolation or needed the remoteness to leave their past behind and get a clean start. Asking a person about their past was considered rude and could even be dangerous.

Terlingua has come a long way since that first chili cook off. Some of the roads are now paved and there are several motels, gas stations, stores and a new post office building.  Business warriors and moneyed elites from Austin and Georgetown have started buying up property and refurbishing structures into weekend retreats. A private airport has been built. The little ghost town far from anywhere even has Wi-Fi. Progress has arrived.

Terlingua Store
Some folks, like myself, would rather civilization and progress not touch this place. I selfishly would like for it to stay the way it is in my memory, the way it was when I first made trips here in the 1970's.  If I could, I'd tie an anvil to the feet of time in Terlingua, causing it to drag forward slowly, ever so slowly. For now, it's still a cool little town, but it ain't what it was. 

Terlingua Cemetery grave

Old abandoned wagon

The Terlingua Cemetery dates from the early 1900's.
Final resting place for miners & residents who
died in mine accidents, gunfights & the
influenza epidemic of 1918. Very few died
of old age.