Center of Texas Oak Tree

Center Oak
In 1871, a geographical survey determined the center of Texas to be in the tiny settlement called Hughes Store. In the middle of this settlement was a large oak tree which, according to the old timers, had been there as long as anyone knew. The survey crew decided this old oak tree was growing in the exact center of Texas and placed a "this is the spot" marker beside it. The tree shortly became known as Center Oak and a town began to grow around the tree to serve the needs of the hard working families living in the scattered ranch and farm houses.

Taking it's cue from the Center Oak, the town's residents voted to change the community's name to Center City, a rather intrepid declaration of their intention to become important. When places so small they can barely be called a town change their name to include "city," it's a sure sign the residents are people with vision and ambition. Perhaps Center City could have become an actual city if all the people's dreams came true and, for a while anyway, their dreams actually were well on the way to fulfillment. 

Several mercantile establishments opened and then a bank and a hotel were built. A blacksmith shop and several saloons came next. A gristmill opened and a post office was gained in 1874. Soon, stage and freight coaches began stopping in town for a change of horses, to drop off and pick up mail and to load and unload travelers.  Until a 2-room school could be constructed, classes were held for the children of the area beneath the old oak tree. Plans were made for Center City to become the seat of government for Mills County and a large plot of land which included the Center Oak was reserved for a courthouse. While plans were being developed for the courthouse and funds sought, the giant Center Oak tree provided shade for the court trials that were held under its spreading branches and a traveling preacher began holding church services beneath those same branches every other Sunday.

In 1885 however, the dreams for Center City to actually become a city were dashed when the railroad bypassed the town, choosing instead to establish a stop in Goldthwaite which then became the county seat. In the early 1900's, surveyors, using newer and more accurate tools, determined the geographic center of Texas was actually about 50 miles west of the Center Oak tree along a lonely, middle-of-nowhere section of Highway 377. Center City continued as an ongoing commercial center for a few years, but it lost any chance it had to actually fulfill the goal of those early dreams. Slowly, over time, with one or another business going under every couple of years, with the closing of the school and finally the closing of the post office in the mid-1920's, Center City simply gave up and reverted back to a settlement of scattered ranches and farms.

In the late 1930's, the state decided to widen Highway 7 between Goldthwaite and Gatesville. Construction plans callously called for removal of the old historic oak. The remaining citizens however, knowing the significance of the tree and perhaps feeling it stood as a symbol of their shattered but still remembered dreams, banded together in a show of will to protect it. Letters were written, meetings were held, threats against the road crews and their machines were made and the state conceded. The highway was re-routed 100 feet to the north. The Center Oak was saved and Center City went back to sleep.

Time has a way of slipping by and today it seems it has completely forgotten Center City. It's no longer listed on most state maps and appears on numerous "Ghost Towns of Texas" lists. Other than the 12 remaining residents, all that's left is a small combination general store and gas station, an old lodge building, a small church and the Center City cemetery which was established in 1874 and contains more than 500 graves. Sadly, the Center Oak tree died in 2011 after bearing witness to the birth and gradual death of a town and men's dreams. During its life, it provided shade for roving bands of Indians, cowboys, Texas Rangers, pioneers, ranchers and farmers, romantic picnics and lawless men being tried for their crimes. For the last 100 years though, all it has seen has been the changing of the seasons. It's not known for sure what caused such a magnificent old-timer to die. Perhaps like Center City itself, it just got tired and gave up the fight.

Postcard From The Smallest State Park in Texas

Located in the town of Grandbury, Texas, there is a grave in Acton Cemetery which is the smallest official state park in Texas. Buried within the fenced 0.006 acre plot is Elizabeth P. Crockett, Davy's 2nd wife (his 1st wife died in March, 1815 and Davy married Elizabeth who was a widow later that same year). Upon his death as a hero in the Alamo, Elizabeth was granted 1,280 acres of land in Texas for her husband's bravery and sacrifice in the cause of Texas freedom. She also received Davy's paycheck for his Texas military service - $24.

In the late 1830's, the land Elizabeth had been given by the state of Texas was still ruled by Comanche Indians and they didn't care that Davy's wife had been officially given some of their land by the white man's government, they still considered it theirs. It wasn't until the 1850's that Elizabeth, her daughter Matilda and her grown son, Robert, and his family felt it was safe enough to move onto the property she owned. By then nobody was sure of the boundaries so Elizabeth had to hire a surveyor. Having no money to pay for the survey and paperwork, she agreed to give the surveyor half of the property. The Crockett family finally moved onto their remaining 640 acres on Rucker's Creek about 6 miles outside Grandbury in the 1850's. She resided there until her death on January 31, 1860. From the day she was notified of Davy's death in 1836 until her own death, she only wore "widow's black" clothing.

Four years later, Matilda also passed away and was buried next to her mother. Robert died in 1889 and was buried next to his mother. Elizabeth's grave was originally marked with a simple headstone, but in 1911 the Texas Legislature authorized $2,000 for "the erection of a monument over the remains of Mrs. Elizabeth Crockett." In May, 1913, a 28-foot tall marble monument was placed at the head of her grave and unveiled in a public ceremony by Elizabeth's great-granddaughter. On top of the monument is a statue of Elizabeth shading her eyes from the sun and looking west, perhaps waiting and watching for Davy to come home. The 3 Crockett graves were fenced in and declared a state historic site until 1949 when the 12 by 21 foot site was declared a Texas State Park.

Bonnie & Clyde - Little Known Facts

The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, LA.
The building is the site of the former Canfield's Cafe
where Bonnie & Clyde stopped for sandwiches 45
minutes before their death. The museum is owned
and managed by "Boots" Hinton, the grandson of one
of the lawmen who ambushed and killed the outlaws.  
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was born in Rowena, Texas on October 1, 1910. When she was just 4 years old, her father died so her mother moved herself and her 3 children to Cement City, an industrial suburb of Dallas. By the time she was in high school, Bonnie was a top student, winning contests in writing, spelling, and public speaking. In her junior year though, she met Roy Thornton, also a high school junior, and fell deeply in love with him.  She had grown up wanting to be a famous actress, but the love-birds dropped out of school and married on September 25, 1926 just six days shy of her 16th birthday. Roy soon proved to be a womanizer and small time crook, often leaving Bonnie alone for weeks at a time while off with another woman or serving short stretches of time in jail for petty crimes. In January, 1929, he was sentenced to a term of 5 - 8 years for robbery and Bonnie moved back in with her mother. She found a job as a waitress in a local cafe, but she often complained of the boring and lonely life she was leading. At the cafe, one of her regular customers was Ted Hinton, a postal worker who would later join the Dallas sheriff's office and become a member of the 6-man posse who would have a meeting of a totally different kind with Bonnie on May 23, 1934.

Clyde Chestnut Barrow was born on March 24, 1909 in Ellis County near the town of Telico a few miles southeast of Dallas.  Clyde, his parents and 6 brothers and sisters moved to the slums of West Dallas in the early 1920's, sleeping at night under their wagon until their father earned enough to buy a tent large enough for them to all sleep in. Clyde's first passion was music. He became a good guitar player and taught himself the saxophone. He wanted to make his living playing in a traveling band. In 1926 though, Clyde rented a car to go see a girl who had broken up with him. He failed to return the car on time and he was arrested for theft of an auto. He gave the car back and the charges were dropped, but he was soon arrested again when found riding in a truck with his older brother Buck. The back of the truck just happened to contain a number of stolen turkeys. After a short stint behind bars for the stolen turkeys, Clyde decided to join the navy. He went to the recruiting station but before arriving there, he stopped and got a tattoo on his left arm which said, "USN." During his military physical, it was found he still had some lingering effects from his boyhood bout with yellow fever which resulted in his medical rejection for naval service. 

On January 5, 1930, Bonnie had lost her waitress job and with her husband still in jail, was staying in West Dallas helping out a female friend who had broken her arm. She was making hot chocolate in the kitchen when Clyde and a friend stopped off at the house for the friend to visit the girl with the broken arm. Clyde walked into the kitchen and it was love at first sight for both of them. The crime spree began soon after and "the legend of Bonnie & Clyde" slowly became entrenched across America over the next four years.

Marker at the ambush site. Some
people shoot it, some leave
flowers, some deface it with
graffiti, others leave bullets
and shotgun shells. 
At about 8:45 on the morning of May 23, 1934, Bonnie & Clyde stopped at Ma Canfield's Cafe in Gibsland, Louisiana for breakfast. They ordered 2 sandwiches and 2 coffee's to go. At 9:15, they were driving down Louisiana Highway 154 about 8 miles south of Gibsland when they slowed down because they saw the car of someone they knew pulled off to the side of the road like it was broken down. With no warning and before the car even came to a stop, six law enforcement officers, including Ted Hinton, one of Bonnie's regular customers when she was working as a waitress, opened fire with shotguns, automatic rifles and hand guns. The shooting stopped only when the officers had used all of their ammunition. There were over 150 bullet holes in the car. Clyde had been hit with 17 shots; Bonnie 26. When the officers got to the car, Bonnie was found leaning against Clyde, her head on his shoulder, a half-eaten sandwich clutched in her right hand. She was still wearing her wedding ring given to her by Roy Thornton when she married him at age 15. Visible on the inside of her right thigh was a tattoo, two interconnected hearts labeled "Bonnie" and "Roy." On the floor behind Clyde, officers found his saxophone. 

Word of the ambush quickly circulated when 4 of the officers went into town to telephone their respective bosses. Before the undertaker could get to the site, a large crowd of people had gathered around the death car and the two officers who had remained behind to guard the scene couldn't control them. Individuals began reaching in the car and cutting off pieces of bloody clothing to take for souvenirs. Broken glass from the shattered windows was taken, several guns were taken from the car and when the coroner finally showed up, he found people cutting patches of hair from the bodies. He had to chase away one man who was trying to cut off Clyde's left ear with his pocket knife and another man who was trying to cut off Clyde's trigger finger. Additional police finally arrived and pushed back the growing throng of onlookers and souvenir hunters.

The side of the remote road where Bonnie & Clyde's
car came to a stop after being shot over 150 times
with rifles, shotguns, and pistols. 
The coroner had the car with the bodies still inside towed to the Conger Furniture Store and Funeral Parlor in downtown Arcadia. He called H.D. Darby, a young undertaker in nearby Ruston to assist him with the bodies. Just 13 months earlier, Darby and a lady friend had been kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde during a robbery. They were both later released unharmed about 50 miles from Ruston. He said the outlaw pair had treated them kindly and had even given them some money so they could get back home. He also reported that Bonnie had asked him what kind of work he did. When he told her he was an undertaker, she laughed and replied, "Maybe someday you'll work on me." He did.

The side of the road where the lawmen hid in a stand
of trees when they ambushed Bonnie & Clyde. 

The 6 lawmen who took part in the ambush were each promised 1/6 of the reward money. At that time, rewards totaled over $150,000. After the deed though, most of the state, county and other organizations reneged and never paid. In the end, each of the 6 lawmen received $200.23 and a few souvenirs.

Bonnie & Clyde wanted to be buried together, but Bonnie's mother refused to allow it. She hated Clyde, blaming him for her daughter's life of crime and death. Clyde is buried next to his brother Marvin with a double headstone marking their graves. It is inscribed with the phrase, "Gone but not forgotten." Bonnie's grave, also in Dallas but in a different cemetery, is marked with a simple stone inscribed with her name, birth and death dates, and a poem - "As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you."

Faithfully Waiting

High atop Crowley's Ridge in Maple Hill Cemetery north of Helena, Arkansas is the grave of Dr. Emile Moore. In early 1883, Dr. Moore got into an argument with Dr. C. R. Shimault because Shimault had treated one of Dr. Moore's patients who had suffered a broken leg. The argument took place when the two men happened to meet in the middle of town. As their words grew more heated, Dr. Shimault pulled his gun and shot Dr. Moore in the head, killing him instantly. 

The deceased was the owner of an Irish Setter dog named Pedro. Dr. Moore was reputedly a hard man to like when he was drunk and he was drunk pretty often, but by all accounts, he was a good doctor when sober and he loved Pedro so much that the dog was often seen beside him as the doctor called upon the sick and injured of the community. Dr. Moore was not married and had few relatives or friends. When he was laid to rest, Pedro was in attendance at the sparsely attended ceremony. After the funeral, one of the attendants tried to take Pedro away, but the dog ran off into the woods and nobody cared enough to go after him.

Late that evening, there was only a sliver of a moon and as the darkness grew complete, residents of the few homes around the cemetery heard the mournful sound of a lonely dog up on Crowley's Ridge baying in the night. Through rain, heat, cold and snow, night after night, season after season, people would hear Pedro howling in his loneliness. Sometimes a kind-hearted person would try to take him away, but Pedro would growl at anyone who came near the grave of his beloved master and offers of food and water were not enough to coax him from his solitary vigil. He must have drank from dirty ponds or licked the morning mist from tree leaves for water and he evidently caught rabbits or squirrels in the woods for his meals. Sometimes if the cemetery caretaker had some lunch leftover, he would leave it where Pedro was sure to fine it. Over time though, people saw him grow skinny until his ribs seemed to poke out of his skin and eventually, the elements and a broken heart took their toll and the nightly baying ceased. After 2 nights of silence, several men made the trek up to Dr. Moore's grave and there they found the body of Pedro laying across it, still waiting for his master's return. 

People in the community were so touched by the dog's devotion and loyalty that after burying Pedro in Dr. Moore's grave, a collection was taken up and a monument to Pedro was placed on top of Dr. Moore's stone. Below the statue of a dog written in stone on one side is the single word "Fidelity." And on the front side - "Waiting." Even in death, Pedro remains forever faithful, keeping watch over his master.

Rest Stops in Texas

Jessie Wilder Jones
In the quiet middle of Abilene's Elmwood Cemetery, eternally resting in a pretty, tree-shaded plot lies Jessie Wilder Jones. Surrounded by other members of her family who have also departed mortal life on earth, with the birds chirping and singing in the trees that protect her resting place from the hot Texas sun, one can imagine Jessie is very much at peace. No historical plaque or marker designates her burial ground and other than the occasional living relative, few visitors come to pay their respects. A good number of Texas travelers though should be offering up a thankful thought to her memory.

Jessie Kenan Wilder was born August 11, 1882 in Graham, Texas to financially blessed parents. She had a privileged, but unremarkable youth and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in music from Weatherford College. After post-graduate studies in music at the Sherwood School of Music, the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and the Bush Temple Conservatory of Music in Dallas, she established her own music school in Seymour, Texas. While operating her successful school, she met Morgan C. Jones, the nephew of a wealthy railroad builder. The two were married in October, 1902 and a few years later, the happy couple moved to Abilene. With their combined wealth, Jessie soon embarked on her subsequent life as a civic leader and during the Great Depression, was the founder of several charities which provided free milk to needy children and free child-care services for working Black parents.

As a civic leader in Abilene, Jessie served as chairman of the Home Service Committee for the Taylor County Red Cross during World War II. Then over the next 20 years, she served as president of the Abilene Museum of Fine Arts, the Abilene Garden Club, the City Federation of Women's Clubs, the Abilene Women's Club, the Abilene Parks and Recreation Board, and the Rosenfeld Music Club. She also served as the state treasurer of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs and served on the committee that wrote the city charter for Abilene.

So what does any of that have to do with travelers on the highways of Texas? Directly, not really anything, but in the early 1930's while driving alone with her five children for a vacation in Colorado, she found there was no shady spot along the road to spread out the picnic lunch they wanted to have. With her children hot, hungry, tired of riding in the car and clamoring with their lack of patience, in desperation, Jessie pulled over in the small shade under a train trestle. With cars passing on the road close by and with the stench and dirt of a train which passed overhead, the unpleasant memory was etched deep in her mind.

Upon returning to Abilene from their Colorado vacation, Jessie attended a highway beautification meeting and proposed an idea for roadside parks. With her credentials and with all of the influential people she knew due to her civic activities, she was able to get an audience with the Governor of Texas, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who liked her idea and began actively advocating for it.

Today, the Texas Department of Transportation maintains and operates 101 rest area's and 743 picnic area's along the highways and byways of Texas. Even in the vast empty expanse of west Texas, travelers are never more than 2 hours away from a designated stopping point along a paved Texas road. The next time you need a break from driving; the next time while traveling down a highway in the middle of nowhere and you need to re-leave yourself of that morning coffee; the next time you just can't keep your eyes open and need a safe place to get 40 winks, stop at one of those rest stops, take care of your needs and give a quick thought of thanks to a forgotten lady forever resting in Abilene and those five clamoring children.

Old Rip, The Miracle Horned Toad

The Eastland Courthouse constructed in 1928
In the Eastland, Texas courthouse, protected by 2 thick layers of glass and a uniformed guard, a Texas legend lies in state. Resting on velvet and white satin, he was once famous around the country. Fans from near and far arrived daily to see him and even a U.S. president had a personal meeting with him. Today, it's usually just the rare curious visitor who stops by and every now and then, a tour bus of senior citizens will pull over for the occupants to make their way to the viewing area. Mostly, he lies forgotten and ignored. But there was a time...

In 1897, the cornerstone of Eastland County's new courthouse was scheduled to be dedicated. As the ceremony was underway, Justice of the Peace Earnest Wood, who was also a member of the band on hand that day, noticed his son was playing with a horned toad, a common and favorite creature in Texas at that time. Old Earnest decided it would be funny to place the toad in the cornerstone so that's exactly what he did just before it was sealed up tight. Several witnesses saw him do it and a good chuckle was had by all. For the next 31 years people would pass by the courthouse, point and say, "There's a horned toad snoozing in that building."

In 1928, the population of Eastland county had grown bigger and the courthouse had grown older. Money was raised and plans drawn up to replace it with a bigger, modern building. Stories were going around that horned toads could go into hibernation and live for years without food or water. Some even said they could stop breathing until conditions turned favorable. Arguments raged with others swearing talk of horned toads going into suspended animation was just old wives tales. 

On February 18th, the old structure had been demolished down to the cornerstone. On that day, over 3,000 people were on hand anxious to witness the opening. As they looked on in suspense, the block was cleared and the covering removed. Judge E. S. Pritchard removed some other items which had been sealed inside - a bible, several newspapers, a book. He then reached into the very bottom of the stone and pulled out something that looked like a dust covered piece of dark brown tree bark. It was the desiccated toad. The poor creature was handed to Eugene Day, a leading citizen of the town. He turned around and handed the stiff-as-a-board remains to Frank Singleton, the local Methodist pastor. After examining it, the preacher handed it back to Judge Pritchard who then held it up by the tail so everyone in the crowd could see.

A Texas Horned Toad
Some were disappointed, some smiled and said, "I told you so" and a few of the young children started to cry. But as everyone began to leave, people in the front gasped and someone shouted, "It twitched! That thing's alive!" As people turned to look, they were astounded to see the dried-up animal wake up from its 31-year nap and wriggle back to life!

The miracle horned toad became an instant sensation. He was dubbed Rip Van Winkle, which of course was quickly shortened to Old Rip, and travelers from miles away came in droves to see the animal that refused to die. The local veterinary made sure Old Rip was fed and watered and folks made sure he had a good home in the display window of a store on the town square. Eventually, the demand to see him was so great that he went on a tour of the United States - Dallas, St. Louis, New York City and Washington, D.C. When he arrived in the nation's capitol, President Calvin Coolidge requested he be brought to the White House where he could see the country's most famous animal in person.

Old Rip returned to Eastland after the tour but sadly, after 31 years encased in an airtight stone with no food or water, he was on borrowed time. On January 19, 1929, Old Rip passed away. An autopsy was performed and he was found to have contracted pneumonia and drowned due to water in his lungs. 

Old Rip lying in state in his custom-made casket
The people of Eastland were unwilling to let Old Rip go so they had him embalmed, placed in a small casket and put on display in a window of the new courthouse. For years, people continued to come to see the diminutive miracle animal. In 1962, Gubernatorial candidate John Connally stopped in Eastland on a campaign tour around the state. Like all politicians, he took every opportunity to have his name and picture in the public's face so he requested and was given permission to have his picture taken while holding Eastland's most famous resident. He was indelicately holding up Old Rip by a back leg when it broke off. The news reporters were amused, but the people of Eastland were not. Old Rip was placed back in his little casket and that was the last time anyone has been allowed to touch him.

Closeup of Old Rip

In 1955, the legend of Old Rip inspired cartoonist Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese to create the classic cartoon, One Froggy Evening. It tells the story of of a frog who is freed from a building's cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. That cartoon became so popular it morphed into Michigan J. Frog, the official mascot of the Warner Brothers Television Network.

Michigan J. Frog

Postcard from Baby Head, Texas

Texas Historical marker at Baby Head Cemetery
Sometime between the late 1850's and 1873 (no written historical records have been found giving the exact date), Mary Elizabeth, a 10-year-old white girl, was kidnapped from her parent's cabin in the sparsely settled Texas county of Llano. By riding several miles to other local ranchers, the alarm was raised and a half-dozen men were formed into a search party. Shortly after meeting at the missing girl's home to begin their rescue attempt, an Indian pipe was discovered. The poor unfortunate child must have been taken by a raiding party of the same Comanches who had recently been stealing horses and committing other depredations in the area.

The next afternoon thinking the Indians were long gone, the men were about to give up the mission when they crested a high hill and came upon a most grizzly discovery. In the forks of a large mesquite tree they found the tortured, dismembered body of Mary Elizabeth still wearing the muslin dress her mother had made. Nearby, at the very top of the hill, they found her severed head impaled on a stick that had been stuck in the ground. Wishing to spare the women, especially the mother, from the gruesome manner in which the child had died, the men buried the body nearby in a hastily dug grave marked only by a crude cross made from sticks. Mary Elizabeth's parents soon moved away and time erased all traces of the little girl's grave.

Grave of J. Willbern who
died in 1887 at age 27.
The local people began calling the small mountain Babyhead Mountain in honor of the child who suffered such a terrible death. A creek which flowed nearby was also called Babyhead. As more people settled in the area, a community was established with several stores, a community meeting house and a school. A post office was granted in 1879 under the name of Baby Head and in 1884, the Baby Head cemetery was established when a young boy who had died of an illness on New Year's Day was buried. The community of Baby Head became the site of an election and justice court precinct, but with better and more job opportunities in bigger towns, people began to move away and the post office was closed in 1918. Within a few years, every business moved away or closed and Baby Head became a ghost town.

Today, the quiet little cemetery located on State Highway 16 is the only physical remnant of the community and the grave of a little angel remains unfound and undisturbed.

Margaret Calley - died in 1888 at age 22.
"Husband and children; I must leave you,

leave you all alone; My blessed Savior 
calls me;  Calls me to a heavenly home"

Lelah Bell Frazier, died in 1897 4 days shy
of her 4th birthday. "A precious one from us is
gone;A voice we loved is stilled;A place is
vacant in our home; Which never can be filled"

Death by Elephant in Texas

Entrance of Oakwood Cemetery
Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana, Texas is a large, very old and quiet place. The grass is kept trimmed, any trash is quickly picked up and the flowing stream which runs through it is kept clear of brush and nature's debris. There are a number of notable folks resting in peace within the fenced grounds - government officials, pioneer settlers, Indian fighters and war veterans. Also interred here is the victim of what surely must rank as one of the most unusual causes of death.

On October 12, 1929, the Al G. Barnes Circus came to town. The citizens of Corsicana, the oil field workers and cotton farmers from near and far made their way in to see the show and the elephants. The circus paraded right through downtown where thousands of men, women and children lined the streets. The largest elephant, a 32-year-old Asian male named Black Diamond, was being led by H. D. "Curly" Pickett.

For seven years, Curly had been Black Diamond's trainer and caretaker, but he had recently left Black Diamond and the circus to work for Eva Speed Donohoo, a prominent landowner, businesswoman and former society editor for the Houston Post.  Eva had spoken with Curly while he was feeding Black Diamond and when he agreed to work for her, Curly and Eva had simply turned their backs and walked away from the creature. When Curly heard his previous employer would be in town, he got in touch with the circus owner and for old times sake, the owner agreed to let Curly lead the massive beast in the parade.

What the people didn't know however was that Black Diamond, who had been born and spent his first 17 years in the wild before being captured and sold, had killed 3 of his trainers in his first 8 years as a circus performer. After each of the first 2 killings, Black Diamond was sold to another circus until finally coming to the Al G. Barnes Circus. The 3rd trainer to die was the one before Curly. 

Curly had a good reputation for being gentle and taking good care of his charge, ensuring the animal had plenty of food, was exercised and washed regularly and removed from the dark, confining boxcar whenever an opportunity presented itself. By all accounts, Black Diamond seemed to have taken to Curly and there were no incidents during their 7 years together. The man who replaced Curly was told of the 3 previous deaths and to prevent another attack, he had sawed the elephant's tusks short and placed a heavy iron bar across them to restrict his trunk's movement. While being led in the parade, he was also chained between 2 other elephants.

 At one point during the parade, the procession just happened to come to a momentary halt stopping Black Diamond right where Eva was standing between 2 parked cars watching the parade. A moment later, Black Diamond picked up Curly and tossed him over the nearest car breaking his wrist. Pushing the parked cars aside and smashing them with his weight, he used the remainder of his sawed-off tusks to drag Eva back into the street where he began flailing her with his trunk before finally stepping on her. 

Screaming in shock and fright, women and children bystanders ran out of harm's way while some of the men tried to pull Eva away, but Black Diamond wouldn't let them get near and continued pummeling her until circus handlers managed to tighten the chains attaching him to the other elephants and used them to pull the enraged brute away. Eva was quickly transported to a local hospital, but there was nothing that could be done for her. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

An angry mob of local citizens soon descended upon the circus grounds demanding the death of the guilty elephant. Black Diamond was confined to his boxcar and guarded by 2 burly roustabouts armed with clubs. One man proclaimed himself the executioner and armed with a .45 pistol, tried to get into the boxcar, but the roustabouts managed to stop him and convinced him to be on his way. When word leaked out about the previous 3 deaths, the pressure to put down the killer became even stronger. Late the next day, word came from the owner of the circus - Black Diamond must die, but he wanted it done in the most humane way possible.

The execution of Black Diamond
(photo courtesy of
There was much discussion as to a humane way to kill such a huge animal. First, a large quantity of poison was put in his food, but other than an upset tummy, this didn't seem to bother him. It was finally decided that death by firing squad would be the quickest method. By this time, the circus, which had quickly left the angry mob in Corsicana, was in Kenedy, a small town outside of San Antonio. On October 16th, the elephant was led to an wooded pasture and securely chained to several trees. While hundreds of spectators watched and circus performers cried, 3 local men standing just a few feet away fired shot after shot into Black Diamond. Estimates vary, but it is agreed between 50 - 120 shots were required to end the elephant's life. 

A taxidermist removed Black Diamond's head and after preservation, transferred it to the Houston Museum of Natural History. An undertaker who was a member of the firing squad, received one of the huge feet and made it into a stool which is still displayed in the Karnes County Museum near Kenedy. The local butcher was given the hide which he sold for 10 cents a strip. The owner of the pasture received some of the bones. Spectators took the rest of the body as souvenirs. Soon, there was nothing left of Black Diamond except a large spot of blood-soaked ground. Even that was scooped up in jars and buckets and carted away by the last of the souvenir hunters.

Two weeks later, the stock market crashed. The Al G. Barnes Circus went bankrupt and disbanded.

Why did Black Diamond so deliberately kill Eva Donohoo and injure his one time trainer? Did he blame her for taking away the only trainer he had loved?  Did he hold Curly responsible for leaving him to the care of a man who cut off his tusks and saddled him with that heavy iron bar? Did he blame them both for simply turning their backs on him and walking away without even a goodbye? Did he think Curly had returned for him and seeing Eva, thought she was back to take Curly away again? Or did he simply miss his home in the wild and have an "I'm not taking this anymore" moment with Curly and Eva merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Nobody will ever know for sure.

In the Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana, Texas lies Eva Speed Donohoo, the one and only person killed in an elephant stampede in Texas.

President Roosevelt & The Teddy Bear

In 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt accepted an invitation from the governor of Mississippi to go bear hunting in the Delta National Forest. A number of dignitaries and powerful businessmen joined in the hunt and split into several groups, each going their own way. After 3 days, all had found and shot a bear, all except President Roosevelt. With the president's reputation as a world-class hunter at stake, the governor ordered that something be done about it.

The Delta National Forest Ranger Station - complete
with Smokey The Bear statue.
That evening, one of the guides, Holt Collier, born a slave who later became an admired and much in demand hunting guide, managed to corner and capture an old black bear with the help of his dogs. While the bear was fighting with the dogs, Holt managed to stun the beast with a hard blow to the head with the butt of his rifle. The wounded bear was then securely tied to a willow tree to wait for the president.

Leading Roosevelt to the tree the next morning, the men in the party urged him to shoot the helpless beast, but the president, saying doing so would be extremely unsportsmanlike, refused and ordered the bear set free. News of this was picked up by the newspapers and articles about the president who refused to shoot a defenseless bear quickly spread across the country. 

The cartoon which inspired the
Teddy Bear industry
A political cartoonist heard of it and decided to humorously lampoon the president of the United States' refusal to shoot a bear. His cartoon appeared in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902. A Brooklyn, New York candy shop owner, Morris Michtom, saw the cartoon and was hit with an idea of how to capitalize on the popular story. Morris and his wife Rose also made stuffed animals and sold them in their store. Morris asked his wife to make two stuffed bears which he put in his store's front window. He dedicated them to President Roosevelt and called them "Teddy's bears." 

Soon, Morris and Rose could not meet the demand for Teddy's bears. After receiving Roosevelt's permission to use his name, they founded the Ideal Toy Company and began mass producing Teddy Bears. Now more than 100 years later, the Teddy Bear is still wildly popular around the world and it can all be traced back to that hunting trip in the Delta National Forest.

Today, the Delta National Forest contains over 60,000 acres and is the only remaining bottom-land hardwood national forest in America. From this forest each year, the Forest Service harvests over 3 million board feet of timber, maintains 87 campsites and over 50 miles of all-terrain vehicle trails. The Service also plants over 100 acres of wildlife food plots for wintering, migrating and resident birds annually. It is one of the most popular area's in Mississippi for outdoor enthusiasts.

While on a road trip to the Delta Forest, about 2 miles from the site of the famous hunt and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Youngest-daughter and I came upon an interesting little store in the small unincorporated community of Onward, Mississippi. In 1913, the Onward Store was opened to meet the basic necessity needs of the locals and hunters who came to the Delta National Forest. Since then, the store has become a staple for the community as well as travelers on historic Highway 61 (nicknamed "The Great River Road" and "Blues Highway"). With creaking floorboards and shelves filled with all manner of old fashioned goods and various food items, the store is considered an important historical structure. Entering the front door is like stepping back in time.

The Onward Store
After a fairly recent renovation by the new owner, Molly VanDevender (a former Miss Mississippi), the Onward Store now serves breakfast and lunch in 2 small dining rooms whose walls are adorned with old photos, animal heads and memorabilia. The food is rather eclectic to say the least, but it is very good and sold at a reasonable price. With choices from quail and filet mignon, to "Mr. Ben's chicken and biscuits" and a "Half-pound Big Bear Burger" with Hoop Cheese and bacon, every selection is pretty tempting. I usually just go for a burger, but this time I got adventurous and ordered the pulled-pork sandwich with fries. The sandwich was good, especially the bun. The pulled-pork wasn't of sufficient quality to write home about, but perfectly acceptable. The fries were pretty good too. I wouldn't hesitate to stop there for lunch again. I still want to try that Big Bear Burger with Hoop Cheese.

After perusing the store shelves, taking a few pictures and buying a couple of cold Dr. Peppers for the road, I turned the nose of the pickup north and set out to cover more interesting miles on The Great River Road.

Souvenir Teddy Bears just $4.99!

Of course there's a lot of bear-
themed items for sale.
Youngest-daughter didn't like this old bear. Don't
really blame her as it is a bit spooky.

Big friendly bear on the front 
porch standing by the front door
to greet you.

Page's Tree

In the middle of Clarksville, Texas, a small town that nonetheless calls itself  "The Gateway To Texas" because of its location in the far northeast corner of the state, is the old Clarksville Cemetery.  The first burial in the cemetery took place in 1838, but in the northwest corner is a large, scarred, but still very alive and healthy post oak tree. This tree had already reached its prime when it was selected to help dispense frontier justice by the early settlers in the area almost 200 years ago.

In 1837, Captain Charles Burham and Levi Davis rode off together from their farms in search of several runaway slaves. After a few days when they had not returned, neighbors raised the alarm. A group of men went hunting for them and came upon a stranger riding Captain Burham's mule. Under questioning, the man proved to know nothing about either Burham or Davis and produced a scribbled bill of sale proving he had bought the mule from a man named Page.

One of the group knew Page to be a less than honorable man and also knew where he lived outside of Clarksville. The men rode to Page's place and took him, his son, his son-in-law and a Mexican hired-hand into custody and brought them to town for questioning. The Mexican confessed that Burham and Davis had been murdered during a robbery. Put on trial by the Clarksville Vigilance Committee, Page's son broke down and told how all four suspects, led by Page, had robbed and killed the two men. The four were declared guilty and promptly taken to the large post oak tree in the middle of town and hanged. The tree has since been known as "Page's tree."

Over the following years, numerous men who were found guilty of sins against their fellow man met their fate at the end of a rope tied to the sturdy branches of Page's tree. Sometimes, just the threat of being taken to "see Page's tree" was enough to straighten up a trouble maker or convince them to take their outlaw ways somewhere else.

In late 1839, the sheriff of Miller County in Arkansas was sent to Clarksville to collect taxes in an area which was in dispute between the territory of Arkansas and Texas. When the townspeople discovered what he had come to town for, a committee of men grabbed him, tied his hands behind his back and took him to Page's tree. They informed him what the tree was used for, showed him the scars in the tree's bark and kindly explained what would happen to him if he delayed his departure. In his haste to leave, the Arkansas sheriff is reputed to have forgotten his travel bag back in his hotel room. 

It's been more than 140 years since the last outlaw breathed his last when a rope tightened around his neck under Page's tree and most folks nowadays have no idea of the history and significance of the old post oak. In their haste to get from one place to another, they travel right past thinking it nothing more than just an old tree shading a few graves in the corner of the cemetery. It would probably shock them to know they just passed by a living relic of times gone by, a relic with many interesting tales to tell - of life, of death, of justice meted out, and the inexorable passing of time.

Texas Plains

While God was creating the earth, quitting time came one day as He was working on Texas. So He smoothed over the great Plains of West Texas with His hand and said to Himself, "I'll come back in the morning and make it beautiful by putting in lakes and streams and trees and some tall mountains."

When He returned to work the next morning though, He found the land had hardened like concrete. He would have to tear up all of His work and start over. But being as how He was God, He had a perfect idea. "Instead of tearing it all up, I'll just make some folks who have appreciation for this kind of land." 

And that is how it came to be that the hardy people who live on the Texas Plains like it that way.

Postcard From Miss Laura's House of Ill Repute

In the early 1900's, Fort Smith, Arkansas was a wide open raucous border town located next to the still untamed Oklahoma territory. Outlaws with loot from robberies and holdups like the James Gang, the Dalton Gang, the Younger Gang, Belle Starr and Cherokee Bill all came and stayed a while. Cowboys with a month's pay, rowdy's looking to blow off steam, soldiers from the fort, outcast characters and a few God-fearing pioneers passed through or settled down in the town. Each had their own reason for being there, seeking their own adventure, seeking their own pleasure. Fort Smith was eager to accommodate all requests.

Front entrance of Miss Laura's
At that time, houses of ill repute openly catered to one of the many vices sought and enjoyed by the men while in town. The bustling red-light district with its 6 houses of prostitution and 66 saloons on Front Street along the Arkansas River became known far and wide as simply "The Row." It was here in 1903 that Miss Laura Zeigler borrowed funds from a respectable local banker and opened a new high class brothel. It proved to be an astute financial decision as business boomed from the very first day. It was so good that Miss Laura paid off her $3,000 loan in just 17 months.

Side entrance
Although it was a bordello from the start, it was originally named the River Front Hotel and it quickly became one of the most celebrated "services" house in the entire Southwest. Miss Laura's ladies were known to be the most refined and healthiest "daughters of joy" in all of Fort Smith (the girls were given a thorough physical checkup every month and if any "illness" was found, they were out of action until cured). Miss Laura herself was well educated, poised and had an air of class about her. However, she was known to have confronted any rowdy customer with a loaded and cocked hog-leg.45 pistol. Problems were few and far between once word got out.

A handyman was employed full time to keep everything clean and in working order. Beautiful stained glass windows were installed. Customers were not allowed to put their dirty boots on the Victorian furniture. The girls were required to keep the rooms where they lived and entertained clean and orderly. With their name engraved on a wooden plaque on the transom above their door, they took pride in their room and had them outfitted in decidedly feminine wall paper and furnishings.

Painting in the front parlor
For a number of years, life at Miss Laura's was like one continuous party - song, dance, gambling and other pleasures were all there. Champagne was kept chilled in an upstairs bathtub and served to the customers at no charge. The only piano player in town played popular tunes in the front parlor while patrons mingled with the ladies. The upscale class, cleanliness, and attention to their wants and needs paid off. Men willingly paid $3 in Miss Laura's for a commodity the other 6 sporting houses charged $1 for. When some of the church-going citizens began clamoring to have the sporting houses closed down and the "fallen doves" driven from town, Miss Laura didn't have to worry as the sheriff, the mayor and most of the other prominent local men were regular patrons who enjoyed free entertainment.

By 1910 however, there were more families and church-going citizens who called Fort Smith their home and they were tired of the frontier permissiveness. Politicians and community leaders started feeling the heat and fearing for their jobs and status in the town. In January, a very questionable "freak" accident happened. In the middle of the night, an oil storage tank next to The Row exploded. The blast was so great it was felt throughout the city. A wall of flames roared down Front Street and engulfed the brothels, sending scantily clad ladies and their very embarrassed customers running down the street. It became known locally as "the night of the lingerie parade."

Stained-glass windows were installed throughout the house
It was also a night of a miracle. Strong winds had pushed the fire from one end of The Row toward the other end where Miss Laura's stood. The roaring flames were within 75 feet of the building when all of a sudden the wind shifted direction. Of the 7 brothels in Fort Smith, 2 were burned to the ground and the others were severely damaged. Miss Laura's escaped with no damage at all.

Business was especially good for the rest of the year at Miss Laura's and in 1911, having made her fortune, Laura Zeigler sold her property to Bertha Gale Dean (known as "Big Bertha") for $47,000, a very nice sum of money when the average person earned just $545 in an entire year. The now wealthy Miss Zeigler moved away from Fort Smith, left her past behind her and completely dropped from history.

The room of a "fallen dove"
The new owner of Miss Laura's didn't keep up the maintenance of the building and replaced the high class girls with cheaper, less refined women of the night. Soon, the remaining buildings which survived the fire declined and the area became a slum where none but the most desperate visited. It became a haven for drifters, drunks and down-on-their-luck gamblers. Even though prostitution was outlawed in Fort Smith in 1924, Big Bertha kept the building in operation as a brothel until 1948 when Miss Dean died and the building was abandoned.

In 1963, the decayed and still abandoned building was scheduled to be demolished, but Donald Reynolds, founder of the Donrey Media Group, saw the need to save an important part of Fort Smith's early days. He purchased the property and began renovations. Restoration work was slow, but 20 years later in 1983, the building re-opened as Miss Laura's Restaurant and Social Club.

The restaurant lasted for a few years, but closed when business declined. The Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau then made the decision to purchase the property and restore it to the glory days when it was a high-class brothel. In the fall of 1992, Miss Laura's reopened as the Fort Smith Visitor Center. 

Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Where ladies of the night once greeted visitors with the lure of the world's oldest profession, local volunteers now man the property, telling tales from way back when and giving escorted tours of the grand old building. They like to say, "Our brothel still caters to out-of-towners." It's interesting, it's entertaining, definitely worth a stop, but I'm pretty sure that phrase doesn't mean exactly the same thing it did way back when!