by Sarah Wyman
The noose hangs above the trap door, faded and frayed.
This hank of looped rope was justice in the Old West for horse thievery or cattle rustling and a litany of other crimes neatly written up in the leather-bound charge book for this defunct jailhouse.
I’m on the third floor of the Archer County Museum, which has occupied the old jail building since 1974, standing on the pale hardwood floor, an open space meant for anyone willing to view the gruesome spectacle.
I lived forty years in England. My knowledge of the Old West comes largely from books and movies. My first hand experience zero. I came to Archer City for a three-week writing course centered centered on Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer prize winner, and the West’s most acclaimed living writer, who was born here.
I arrived at the Archer County Museum hoping to find a display or plaque honoring McMurtry. I found neither. In fact, when I got to this three-story, solidly square, sandstone building, it looked abandoned. The doors were locked and the lights off. As I was walking away a man pulled up in a rusted pickup, said he saw me snooping around and unlocked the doors.
Standing by the noose, I see the cruelty and violence of the Old West in a way no history book could explain. Soon, I’d realize my imaginings of the Old West were far from the reality evinced by the dusty, weatherworn objects in the museum.
On the first floor is a display of Native American relics. There are the stones used to grind corn, and a series of pictures depicting the struggles between cowboys and the Indians who called this land home.
I had seen Indian battles in the black-and-white westerns I watched with my mother. But here, with arrowheads on display, looking at what’s left of the Native American presence in Archer County, I feel the clash of two powerful civilizations – pioneers and natives – bent on destroying one another. The first Archer County settlers came to this land in the mid 1880s, after the U.S. military secured the territory. Looking into the black eyes of a proud chief in a picture, I sense his misery; a proud warrior and his people now under the thumb of the white man, his land no longer his own, his people no longer free.
Pencilled prose on the edge of a photograph tells of a young girl kidnapped by Comanches. The photograph shows a smiling old lady. But when she was nine years old Dot Babb and her sister were abducted, their mother killed and scalped. It had taken their father two years to find them.
Wiping the dust and sweat from my face, trying to breathe in the oven-like museum, I wonder why these settlers left their civilized residence in the first place, why leave the safety of an already settled town? In England, my town had been heavily populated for centuries, some form of government in place even before the Romans came there. Here in the museum I realize Archer County residents today are only two or three generations removed from the first settlers. I had never asked the question before- why come at all? Why come to a place as bleak as the moon, as hostile as a nest of rattlers?
Another photograph shows a crowd of 15,000 people packed into a town square to see the first train rumble into the region in 1928. The faces of these second generation settlers are still and expectant, their pants, shirts and shoes saturated with dust. For some, the land they settled was their only possession.
Newcomers on that train would soon face what the pioneers had already encountered: heat, drought and death.
There are maps, some crudely printed; the paper looks like it would rip in a breeze. Across one map are notes written in pencil: “2000 Ikard cattle starve to death here in 1886-7.”
Around the museum are other traces of the Ikard family, surviving the drought they became soldiers, sheriffs, and later oilmen. They survived to help forge this community.
If the museum has a central theme, it’s the land – the ranches and cattle spread over it, the drilling for oil underneath it, the life forms that once occupied it, the settlers that civilized it.
Witness to the land in this museum are a five-foot model of an oil-drilling rig and drill bits. Cases of fossilized bones taken from Archer County soil and reconstructed into their original form. This is the land where the first fossil of the Permian Era; a 5 foot newt called Eryops that slowly paddled through the swamps of ancient Texas. Here are chains and pegs dated 1891 and 1908 that were used to set the metes and bounds of the settlers new homesteads a million years later on the same land.
I turn back to the photograph of the settlers waiting for the train. I wonder if any of them had used these instruments for measuring their own land. I imagine feeling what it was like first to settle a slice of the Old West. To hear of others doing this, miles away, and to pick up everything you own and follow them westwards. To wait for the first train ever to cross that land. I stare into their faded but determined faces.
The jailhouse kitchen has relics from a pioneer kitchen. There are jars, buckets, kettles and bowls. There are meat grinders, sausage stuffers and butter churns. All important in the daily struggle to eat and preserve food for the harsh Archer County winters. But it’s the stove that dominates the kitchen. Cast-iron, wood-burning, stately and solid. I imagine the wife and mother, aunt or grandmother, spending her days bending, lifting, turning, sweating, cursing and hurting at this stove. A 5:00 a.m. breakfast for the boys before they ride out to run the cattle before dawn. A lunch prepared here before
delivering it on horseback. And keeping the fire burning to prepare the chicken, rabbit, pig or cow; whatever hadn’t rotted from a recent slaughter, or been eaten by buzzards and coyotes.
One of two poems, unframed, tacked to the wall, tell of the chores and tasks of an Archer County housewife:
The Pioneer Women
Grandma, on her start of day
Milked the cows and fed them hay
Slopped the pigs, saddled the mule
And got the children off to school.
Did the washing, mopped the floors
Shined the windows and did some chores Cooked a dish of home dried fruit
Pressed her husband’s Sunday suit.
Swept the parlour and made some beds Baked a dozen loaves of bread
Split some firewood and lugged it in Enough to fill the kitchen bin.
Cleaned the lamps and put in oil
Stewed some apples she thought would spoil Cooked a supper that was delicious
And afterwards, washed all the dishes
Fed the animals and sprinkled some clothes Mended a basket full of hose
Then opened the organ and began to play ‘When you come to the end of a perfect day’
I had never pictured the role of the housewife in the Old West. It’s always cowboys and Indians, sheriffs and bank robbers, trail drives and oil strikes. But, holding these crude implements of domestication, seeing the cast-iron kettles, imagining the heat of a wood- burning stove on a 100-degree day, I realize the life of a settler’s wife was just as rough as anything on the ranch.
In the hallway is a sign labeled SCHOOLROOM.
Beneath is a single desk. The finish reduced to streaks across the wooden top rubbed an ancient orange. Three books rest on the desk, titles unclear, pages unreadable. On the wall a notice from 1872 spells out the duties and proper decorum of teachers of the era:
- Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys
- Make your pens carefully; you may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
- Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
- Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
- Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earning for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
- Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
- The teacher who performs his labor faithfully without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay.
- The words same tone in old British ordinances. But in England, there was civilization. Here, in the Old West, justice was hanging, and it was felt Indians deserved less than that. Life was dust and blood and death from gunshot or infection or rattlesnake.
- This teacher’s code seems to suggest something different – order in a time of disorder, civilized conduct when there was little-to-no civilization.
Yet, the more I think about this contradiction, the more I realize this theme exists in many of the relics in this museum. I see it in the photographs: The ranchers with suits and ties and mud covered boots; the women in lace dresses that were only worn for photographs; the oddly shaped flat-irons that would be used to press the lace, to be respectable for Sunday Service in the wooden whitewashed church.
This Old West attitude could never be understood by watching a movie or reading a book. It has to be experienced, lived alongside the dust and heat and pain and fear. I don’t understand it. But for generations of people who lived here, people like Larry McMurtry, it’s bred into them.
The museum is unlit, sunlight striping through the cell bars and making the dust dance in the air. Walking out of the building, the direct sun blinds me. When my eyes adjust to the light, the vast prairie land surrounding Archer City comes into focus. The land looks different than before. Different from when I entered the museum.
I can picture the square a hundred years ago, with dirt streets and stamping horses. Cowboys coming in to town to meet and talk, ranchers exchanging news, voting in a sheriff, buying land from those who couldn’t endure the climate, the work and the struggle to make a future here.
Back at the Spur Hotel, I skip my classmates talking, and open McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a book I had tried to read while living in England but couldn’t relate to. I can see the faces of the characters more easily now. The faces of the settlers waiting for the train remind me of the ones in McMurtry’s prose. The idea of leaving Lonesome Dove for the promise of land in Montana makes sense now.
– codifying an upstanding life on the frontier- make me laugh. I’ve seen the
On page 554 I read, “We’ll hang him for the killings and the rest of you for the horse theft then,” Augustus said. “Out in these parts the punishment’s the same, as well you know.”
In Archer County and the rest of the Old West, “the punishment” was swift, brutal and absolute.
He gave Dan Suggs’ horse a whack with a coiled rope and the horse jumped from under him. When Dan’s horse jumped, Little Eddie’s bolted too, and in a moment the two men were both swinging dead from the limb.
I can see this scene now, more clearly than anything I’d read about the Old West. For all the movies, the dime store novels, the images of cowboys I had seen, the Old West had never held any meaning for me. Now, entertainment became history, and history came alive. As I read about Dan Suggs hanging from the tree, I saw the noose in the museum, the determined faces in faded sepia photographs showing the will to see justice done.
I’m an aspiring writer. I never tried to write about the Old West because I knew nothing about it. Even with the museum giving me some material to draw from, could I write authentically? Could I put into prose the struggles and defeats, hopes and heartbreaks of the people who had come here to build a life, a town and a literary tradition that America would cherish for ever?
The snapshot of the life I found in the museum was the life Larry McMurtry was raised in. I saw a noose on display. He probably climbed trees men had hung from, heard the stories of public hangings. I saw a picture of an Indian. He heard first hand accounts from his grandmother about traveling from Missouri to Texas, seeing United States military holding Indians at gunpoint, putting them in shackles and executing their horses. I stood at a cast-iron stove. He watched his mother and grandmother struggle to raise a family, to feed them in an untamed land, keep them safe from infection and disease.
The last thing I looked at before leaving the museum was a saddle in one of the cells. It was smaller than I imagined a Western saddle would be; the seat polished and patina’d from years of use. A tag hanging from the saddle read W. J. McMurtry. It had belonged to Larry’s grandfather, William Jefferson McMurtry. McMurtry absorbed the western life from this town and took it around the world in his books and films.
Dust lay thick on the old McMurtry saddle, the same dust that stung my eyes as I walked across the square; that Hud had knocked off his hat in Horseman Pass By, that Billy endlessly sweeps in The Last Picture Show. The dust that blows up from the bones of all that is gone before – before the pioneers and the cowboys and the settlers and the lawmen, and even before the Native Americans, dust that blows through McMurtry’s tales and sharpens my sense of the Old West like a knife on a grinding stone.