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On the trail of history

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Rotarians from three countries resurrect the forgotten Great Western Trail

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At Doan’s Crossing, in a remote corner of Texas near the southeastern tip of the Panhandle, the local folks hold a picnic every May. It has all the things you would expect from a small-town picnic: A few hundred people from the nearby town of Vernon and the surrounding area gather to eat barbecue and socialize. Riders on horseback cross the river from Oklahoma to attend. A Picnic King and Queen are crowned. 

But the event, which claims to be the “oldest pioneer festival” in Texas, also marks a piece of American history that was nearly lost: Doan’s Crossing was a key point along the Great Western Trail, a major cattle trail that, during its 20 years of existence, was more heavily used than the better-remembered Chisholm Trail. While it was in use, some 6 million to 7 million cattle and a million horses made their way up various parts of the route. 

At Doan’s Crossing, near the historic Doan house, five trail-saving Rotarians gather around the first marker erected in Texas: Rick Jouett, left, Paul Hawkins, Jeff Bearden, Sylvia Mahoney, and Phil McCuistion.

But unlike the Oregon Trail, along which pioneer wagons left ruts that are still visible, cattle trails could be a mile wide and left few traces – except in people’s memories.

The Great Western Trail traversed the Red River at Doan’s Crossing. It’s the spot where Jonathan Doan and his family set up a trading post in 1878. It was the last place where the cattle drovers – the cowboys – could stock up on supplies before they headed north across the Texas border into Indian Territory, as Oklahoma was then known. Doan’s Picnic was started by the wives of the drovers who had gone up the trail in 1884. It has been held every year since.

Today, Doan’s store is gone, but the small adobe house where his nephew lived still sits in a field, much as it did when the first picnic took place. On an August day, the site is quiet but for the crickets’ song. A few stone historical markers keep vigil in the tall grass. 

Not far from the house stands a tall white concrete post with “GREAT WESTERN TR” in red letters, and next to it stand Rotarians Sylvia Mahoney and Jeff Bearden, who are largely responsible for that marker being there. They’re chatting with John Yudell Barton from across the Red River in Oklahoma, who made this post and helped launch the Great Western Trail project, one of the biggest and most complex Rotary projects in the state – if not the country – which has involved hundreds of Rotarians across three countries.

“There used to be a town here with the streets all platted out,” Bearden says on an unusually cool summer day. “There were about 300 people living here, with a school and a post office. This is all that’s left. The rest just dried up and blew away.” 

A map of the trail as it might have appeared more than 130 years ago, when Oklahoma was still known as Indian Territory.

The memory of the Great Western Trail almost blew away too, the only traces being the stories handed down through families and the yellowed documents and maps in small-town archives along the 2,000-mile route that stretches from Matamoros, Mexico, all the way to Val Marie, Sask. That’s when Rotary rode to the rescue.

In the fall of 2002, Mahoney attended the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas, where she met Barton and Rotarian Dennis Vernon (no relation to the town). A college rodeo coach and a member of the Rotary Club of Vernon, Mahoney was intrigued by this almost forgotten slice of history. She knew about the Chisholm Trail and the Shawnee Trail. And she knew about the Goodnight-Loving Trail from her favorite TV miniseries, Lonesome Dove. But the Great Western was a mystery, which was strange since she lived right on its path. In fact, it was just a stone’s throw from her office at Vernon College, where she was an administrator and taught English.

Back home, she invited Barton and Vernon to speak to her Rotary club. “They came back in a few months and challenged us to participate in marking the Great Western Trail,” says Bearden, who’s also a member of the Rotary Club of Vernon. “They were marking it in Oklahoma and wanted to extend it to other states.”

Dennis Vernon, a member of the Rotary Club of Altus, Okla., was working with the Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus to mark the trail, but he realized that Rotary could take the project further than he and Barton ever could. “I told them, ‘This would be great not just for your community, but for those south of you too, to help mark this historic trail,’” recalls Vernon. “And we said, ‘We’ll make the first marker for you.’”

Posts mark the trail including in Altus, Okla., USA, near the Museum of the Western Prairie, left, and the rodeo grounds in Throckmorton, Texas, USA.

Mahoney grasped the importance immediately. “It would be a history-making project, because the Great Western Trail was the last Texas cattle trail, ” she says. “It was the largest Texas cattle trail. It was the longest Texas cattle trail. And it was almost forgotten.”

After discussing it with their club, Mahoney looked over at Bearden, who owned a chuck wagon and appeared at re-enactments as Davy Crockett. Not quite knowing the magnitude of the undertaking, they accepted the challenge, agreeing to co-chair the project and try to mark the trail every six of its 620 miles across Texas.

“When our friends from Vernon Rotary Club joined in,” Dennis Vernon says, “that’s when it really took off. ”

As time went on, scores of other Rotarians joined the project – including Ray Klinginsmith, who, as president of Rotary International in 2010-11, became one of the trail’s most prominent champions.

Cattle trails occupy a key place in American history and culture. The Civil War devastated the economies of the former Confederate states. In the summer of 1865, Texas had little industry, and many of its young men had been killed in the war.

Cowboys would often eat beans, bacon, and other things that could be preserved on long cattle drives. See some common recipes here.

One thing the state did have was cattle: millions of feral longhorns roaming the high plains. They were a strange and hardy breed that resulted from half-wild Spanish cattle mixing with English stock. They had few birthing problems, were easy to raise, and were immune to tick fever. And they were so tough they often gained weight on the long journey north. 

Before the war, some cattle had been sent north (mainly on the Shawnee Trail), but back then, people in the United States consumed more pork than beef, partly because pork was easier to preserve. The cattle drives helped change the American diet. In the 1860s, ranchers and cowboys in Texas and northern Mexico started rounding up loose herds and driving them north en masse to Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. From the railheads there, the cattle traveled to Chicago and other points east, where people were developing a taste for beef – and where a steer worth $4 in Texas might sell for as much as 10 times that amount.

But first the cattle had to travel across hundreds of miles of open range – in some instances going beyond the railheads as far north as Montana and even into Canada, where they could feed the growing population and still earn a pretty profit. The journey required months of inching along day by day as the trail hands tried to keep thousands of cattle moving together in the same direction.

Overseeing this task was the trail boss, who was aided by about 10 drovers, who herded the cows, rounded up strays, cut out interlopers, and got the longhorns where they were going. Some of the trail hands worked as wranglers, overseeing the remuda – the herd of spare saddle horses.

These were the cowboys, young men (and a few women) at loose ends because of the war or the economy or their own deeds. Most were white, but some were freed slaves, others were Native American, and many came from Mexico. (Cowboy culture first evolved in Spanish California in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as seen in words such as “buckaroo” (vaquero), “lasso,” “chaps,” and others; see “How to Talk Cowboy,” page 36.) Some were criminals, and others were adventurers, but on the trail, they were all equals.

A ranch hand uses his lariat to lasso a cow. Cowboy terms with Spanish roots reveal the origins of many Old West traditions.

In time, the cowboys came to embody America’s most prized character traits – independence, toughness, fairness, self-reliance. They had an informal ethical code, with a number of tenets: “When you make a promise, keep it.” “Live each day with courage.” “Always finish what you start.” (You will find these and other maxims in James P. Owen’s Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.) It was a simple, hard-bitten wisdom that was the foundation of the culture of the West.

Mahoney, who was raised in southeastern New Mexico and Texas, sees those values reflected in Rotary’s Four-Way Test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? “The cowboy code has so much in common with The Four-Way Test,” Mahoney says as we drive across the high plains of Texas. “And I think The Four-Way Test is the best ethical statement. If everyone lived like that, the world would be a much better place.”

We are on our way to Vernon, where those first markers set out by the Great Western Trail project now stand. One is outside the Red River Valley Museum on the outskirts of town.

When Mahoney and I arrive, we meet some of the Vernon Rotarians who spent years bringing the trail back to life: Phil McCuistion, who poured the concrete for 121 of the markers with Rick Jouett, and Paul Hawkins, who hand-painted the markers white with red letters. They’re each wearing Great Western Trail shirts, Rotary pins embellished with longhorns, and large belt buckles.

Marking the Great Western Trail’s route through Texas was a massive project: It stretches 620 miles across that state alone. The Vernon Rotarians were rescuing history, and in the process they were putting some small towns back on the map. Marking historic routes such as the Oregon Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Natchez Trace has proven a good way to draw history buffs and infuse small towns along the way with tourist dollars.

As promised, Barton and Vernon donated the first marker. This handoff was scheduled for Doan’s Picnic in 2004. On that day, the Vernon Rotarians gathered at Doan’s Crossing. As the dedication ceremony began, Oklahoma state Sen. Robert M. Kerr rode in on horseback from the north, followed by a wagon carrying the marker. From the south came Texas state Rep. Rick Hardcastle on his own horse. When the groups met, they rode to the marker location, planted the post in the ground, and cemented it in place. Then the Texans and Oklahomans took turns pouring water from the Red River out of a Mason jar onto the marker. “Everyone got a chance to pour some Red River water if they wanted to,” says Mahoney. That ritual became a key part of marking the trail.

“All of the dedications gave people this feeling that their community was part of this big trail and part of history,” says Dave Mason, a past governor of Rotary District 5790 in north-central Texas, who got involved with the project in Abilene and has attended several dedications from one end of the trail to the other. “They really cemented the whole thing. There was some coordination by email and phone calls, but until you meet face to face, you don’t really know each other. Now we’re all tied in with 2,000 miles of communities, all the way from Mexico to Canada.”

Rick Jouett, right, and Paul Hawkins at the courthouse in Vernon, Texas

After it had the marker, the Vernon club got two metal molds from Barton so it could make its own concrete posts. Then the members got to work. They looked at the map and figured out which towns along the trail in Texas had Rotary clubs. 

“We contacted the Rotarians in these towns,” says Mahoney. “And everyone I talked to was excited to be included and eager to do something in their towns with their history. Some of the Rotary clubs had never even heard of the Great Western Trail.”

Ted Paup, a ranch owner and a member of the Rotary Club of Abilene at the time (he’s currently with the Rotary Club of Fort Worth), remembers getting that call. “I said, ‘You’re going to mark it for 2,000 miles north and south? That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard. You-all are out of your minds!’” 

In fact, they hadn’t planned to mark the entire trail quite yet. But that would change soon. And before long, there was a trail marker at Frontier Texas, a history museum in Abilene, and another in Moran, Texas, near Paup’s ranch. (Paup funded that marker and another about 45 miles north in Throckmorton.)

In Texas, the markers began to accumulate. But getting from expressing interest in the project to actually installing a post took a lot of work. First the club or town had to produce documentation that the trail did in fact pass through the location. This could usually be found in the family histories compiled in small-town museums and historical societies. (An invaluable resource for marking the trail was “The Great Western Cattle Trail to Dodge City, Kansas,” which Jimmy M. Skaggs wrote as his 1965 master’s thesis at what is today Texas Tech University.)

Once that was established, the club had to choose a location and secure any needed permissions. Then the Vernon club would pour the concrete into the marker mold, let it cure for a month, paint it, and work out the logistics of either a formal dedication – complete with Red River water – or a quieter ceremony. (As work on the trail expanded to other towns, states, and countries, volunteers from other clubs along the trail eventually took on the making of the markers.) Sometimes, the hardest part was getting the 225-pound markers to their destinations. But little by little, the trail in Texas began to come back to life. 

“It seemed like a pretty insurmountable thing, going from one end of Texas to the other,” says Bearden. “But people got involved, and it worked out well.”

Marking the trail across Texas was a huge job, but the Great Western Trail project was about to get even bigger. Jim Aneff, District 5790 governor at the time, got excited about the project, and in 2005, while the planting of the Texas posts was ongoing, he invited Mahoney to set up a display at the Rotary institute in Corpus Christi. She packed up her maps and photos and installed herself in the hallway of the hotel where the district governors had gathered. Many of those governors were from states that the Great Western Trail passed through.

“When Bill Boyd [then the president-elect of Rotary International] saw it, and the governors saw it, they immediately wanted to be involved,” Aneff recalls. “That’s when it changed from being a project Sylvia’s club was doing to a very large Rotary endeavor.”

This project could be used as a model for other Rotary clubs. They may not have a cattle trail, but they may have a common bond with another country. ... We created such goodwill out of this.


Rotarian

Soon, the Vernon Rotarians were fielding inquiries from across the country and even beyond. Dave Mason, who grew up in Chile and spoke fluent Spanish, contacted Matamoros Profesional, a Rotary Club in Mexico just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Matamoros is cattle country, and the southernmost segment of the Great Western Trail was once known as the Matamoros Trail. The Matamoros club was thrilled to be involved. It secured permission to put a marker at the Museo del Agrarismo Mexicano in Matamoros; a location of national importance in the history of Mexico, it celebrates the land reforms that followed the revolution of 1913. “For them to get approval to put the post at that museum was a big deal,” says Mason. 

The dedication of the trail marker in Matamoros had an even deeper significance: It showed that the two nations have deep, shared roots that cross international borders. This point was driven home again when Rotary clubs in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan began researching their section of the Great Western Trail. Once they had established the route, the clubs scheduled dedications for Regina, where many of the cattle ended up on dinner plates, and the small town of Val Marie, the last marked point on the Great Western Trail (though in the 1880s, cowboys continued to drive cattle on to other points in Saskatchewan and Alberta).

“If I’d been trying to do that as an individual, people in the next county would have started laughing at me, because I don’t know anybody there,” says Ted Paup. “But if you say ‘Rotary,’ all of a sudden you’ve got the president of a club in Mexico saying, ‘Will you come down and dedicate a marker?’ No other organization can do that.”

As RI president-elect, Ray Klinginsmith seized on that idea of a cooperative international effort to commemorate the trail. In December 2009, at his suggestion, Rotarian representatives from Mexico, Canada, and the United States gathered for a ceremony at the trail marker in Brownsville (see photo, page 8). Klinginsmith attended that event, and in August 2010, he was keynote speaker when the first trail marker went up in Montana. 

How to talk cowboy

Big swimming: Crossing a high river

Cantle: The raised, curved back of a saddle

Cavvy: Group of saddle horses (from the Spanish caballada)

Chuck Box: Cupboard-like structure on the back of a chuck wagon for storing food, pans, etc.

Cut the herd: Separate specific cattle from the herd

Dally: To twist a rope around the saddle horn after lassoing a cow (from the Spanish dale vuelta! or “Give it a turn!”)

Honda: Knotted or metal eyelet in a lariat that allowed the rope to tighten

Lariat: Braided loop for roping cattle (from the Spanish la reata; reatar: to tie again)

Lasso: Long rope with a running noose for catching horses and cattle (from the Spanish lazo)

Merry-go-round in high water: Confused cattle swimming in circles at a river crossing 

Remuda: The group of horses for cowboys to choose from (from the Spanish remudar, to exchange)

Scratching gravel: Riding a horse up a steep bank or hill

Shaking hands with grandma (also: clawing leather, reaching for the apple): Grabbing the saddle horn on a bucking horse

Spoiled: A herd that stampeded early in a drive and learned to stampede at the slightest start 

Woolies: Wintertime chaps covered in fleece or animal hair

Wrangler: Cowboy who tended the remuda

In May 2011 at the Rotary International Convention in New Orleans, Mahoney enchanted attendees from around the world with her presentation about the trail and the myths of the American West – while Klinginsmith, in his farewell speech as president, celebrated the merits of “cowboy logic” and its intrinsic relationship to “the spirit of Rotary.”

For Mahoney, one lesson is clear. “This project could be used as a model for other Rotary clubs. They may not have a cattle trail, but they may have a common bond with another country. This ended up with three countries involved. When we’re talking about building a wall, and there’s lots of anger and all that, it’s important to talk to people and say, ‘This is our common heritage. We share in this.’ We created such goodwill out of this.”

One by one, the markers were planted across Texas and beyond. In Ogallala, Neb., in 2006, a post was dedicated at the foot of Boot Hill Cemetery, and the descendants of some 40 drover families came to watch. At that ceremony, the Vernon Rotarians delivered one marker and molds for each of the six remaining states: Nebraska and Colorado (which shared a mold), as well as South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. When a state planted its first post, the Vernon Rotarians would be there. 

So far, every state but Wyoming has dedicated at least one marker for the Great Western Trail. Texas is marked with 121 across its 620 miles. Oklahoma has 60 posts – one every six miles. There has been good progress in Kansas (14), Nebraska (30, with 10 more ready for installation), and South Dakota (six, with nine more ready). So far, Montana and Colorado have dedicated one post each, and North Dakota has two. Hundreds of Rotarians have been involved with the project, and numerous friendships were formed along the way, but there are still many miles of trail on the plains for Rotarians to mark. 

Today Mahoney lives in Fort Worth, where she moved to be near her children and grandchildren. She’s involved with the Great Western Trail Association, which she helped found to champion the trail, document its history, and continue marking its route. (Her 2015 book, Finding the Great Western Trail, published by Texas Tech University Press – and with a foreword by Klinginsmith – provides a vivid account of the trail’s past and of present-day efforts by Rotarians to preserve and commemorate that past.) Her main aim now is getting official recognition for the trail – as well as the Chisholm Trail – from the National Park Service, which would elevate awareness of its history, of Rotary, and of the towns along the route. At this writing, a feasibility study had been completed, and a vote before Congress was pending.

“They say that Rotarians are ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” says Mason. “And here a small club in Vernon, Texas, did something pretty extraordinary to help document the history of the trail, to join these communities from one end to the other. Some of them have started annual celebrations based on reinvigorating that history.”

A modern herd enclosed by the wire fencing that helped bring an end to the cattle drives.

After we cross the Red River, Mahoney and I drive into Altus, Okla., where we pass a huge bronze statue called Crossing the Red in front of the county courthouse. The statue, depicting a cowboy wrangling cattle across the river, was donated by the Altus Rotary Club for the city’s centennial in 1991.

A few blocks later, we stop at the Museum of the Western Prairie, where the idea for marking the Great Western Trail took root. Inside we poke around the exhibits. Barton and Vernon have come to meet us, as has the Altus club’s president, Mary Beth Dobbs-Tischler. Also present is 85-year-old cowboy poet (and former Rotarian) LeRoy Jones, who drove down from Mountain View, Okla., and is scheduled to perform a song he wrote called “The Great Western Trail.” In the next room, Jones takes the stage. 

“You know, ” he says, “a lot of people have the idea that being a cowboy was all fun and that you went rip-roaring into town on Saturday night and had to sleep it off the next day. But I would suggest that the cowboy life was not all that entertaining.” He talks about the flooded rivers, the bad weather, and the loneliness of life on the trail. Then he starts singing his song:

For four months and more we attended this chore

Just to move those old cattle along

So that when they were sold and our wages were doled

We’d be heading home singing this song.

His voice has a slight canter, like a horse moving down a trail. The song evokes the dust and loneliness that were the constant companions of the cowboy, always homesick for a home he didn’t have. 

The last drive went up the trail in 1893. Barbed wire, strung up by ranchers, closed the open range, and the railroads that ultimately crisscrossed the West made cattle drives obsolete. Some cowboys bought land along the trail with the money they had made, and today many of their descendants live where those cowboys first settled. 

Now, thanks to that small club in Vernon and all the people who helped them, the Great Western Trail will not be forgotten, and those who live along the trail have been reconnected to their history, to Rotary, and to one another. 

• Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.


 

5 great movies

Red River 1948

From director Howard Hawks, this is the definitive cattle drive movie, with John Wayne beginning to show the dark side that would make him so great in The Searchers. He’ll work his men to death to get his cattle to market, but he faces a challenge from his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift. This is the movie the boys go see in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film, The Last Picture Show. (DVD, streaming)

Cattle Drive 1951

Joel McCrea made a sharp turn from wartime comedies (The Palm Beach Story, The More the Merrier) to Westerns in the mid-1940s and spent most of the 1950s onscreen riding the range. In this movie, he plays a cowboy on a cattle drive who takes spoiled brat Dean Stockwell under his wing. (DVD)

The Cowboys 1972

To get his cattle up the trail, the Duke has to hire a pack of teenagers, who learn to be men while facing stampedes, saddle sores, and a villainous Bruce Dern. The score, an early effort by John Williams, is simply terrific. The line “We’re burnin’ daylight ” can still send a chill down the spine. (DVD, streaming)

Lonesome Dove 1989

Based on the wonderful, sprawling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry (who also wrote The Last Picture Show), this television miniseries takes us from Texas to the Montana Territory with two former Texas Rangers (Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall), whose friendship endures every test life can throw at them. (DVD, streaming)

 

City Slickers 1991

Everyone remembers Jack Palance’s Oscar-ceremony onstage pushups, but he gave a great performance as the flinty saddle tramp who toughens up the titular city slickers, Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby. Yes, it’s silly, but it’s worth a look for the way it pokes gentle fun at our collective nostalgia for the Old West. (DVD, streaming)

 


 

Trail life

A trip up the Great Western Trail was a hard, dusty, lonely time. The cook would be up first before dawn, making the fire, cooking breakfast, boiling the coffee (sometimes letting the coffee beans soak overnight). The cowboys woke at first light, and when they finished eating, they picked out fresh horses from the remuda and took their positions. Generally, the trail boss was up front, followed (on each side) by the point, swing, flank, and finally drag riders. 

On good days, with 2,500 head, they covered 15 miles. On bad days, they crossed swollen rivers, losing cattle and sometimes men, or they covered no miles at all because the herd stampeded. Once, when 30,000 cattle stampeded at Doan’s Crossing in a nighttime thunderstorm, it took six days to round them up. 

One of the best accounts of that life is Up the Trail in ’76, by trail boss Lewis Neatherlin, a spare journal he kept of the four-month journey from San Antonio, Texas, to Ogallala, Neb., in 1876. “Owing to a late start and the trouble crossing the first creek, we made but a short drive, some 8 miles. Camped on a red, sandy prairie. Fine grass,” he wrote one day. On another: “I went over the river again today and got some more cattle out of a herd and sent them to camp. Am very tired and feel lonely this evening.” 

After dinner, the cook would clean up and point the chuck wagon tongue toward the North Star. That way, they could know where they were going when they got up to do it all over again.