By Kate Nowak
Special to the Index
PART 1 of 2
While most may think of April as a time for celebrating fools and spring showers, some of the local folk in Palo Pinto County are more apt to think of it as the perfect time for celebrating history. They have good reason. Ever since 1837, when Bigfoot Wallace first planted his reportedly big feet on a portion of the 948 broken and hilly square miles that make up the county, the area has been steeped in a rich and varied history worthy of celebration. That’s why every other year the Palo Pinto County Historical Commission hosts a driving tour, opening wide the gates to yesteryear and giving history buffs an opportunity to venture through the beautiful Palo Pinto Mountain range and straight into the past.
Offering fascinating legend and lore along with postcard-worthy landscapes, this year’s biennial tour, aptly dubbed the Palo Pinto County Historic and Wildflower Tour, will take place April 27, the last Saturday in April, beginning at 9 am and lasting until 4 pm.
As with past tours offered by the commission, you will be free to start the tour at any point along the way; but to give you an idea of what to expect, let’s take a quick peek at all the places along the designated route:
Our first stop is the Palo Pinto County Old Jail Museum in Palo Pinto. Constructed of native sandstone in 1882, the jail housed the area’s scalawags on its top floor for just shy of 60 years. In 1940, when the current courthouse was built, a new jail was constructed on its third floor, and the historical old jail building bid farewell to its last prisoner. In years since, the Palo Pinto County Historical Association has successfully operated the old jail as a museum, offering visitors a glimpse of many of the interesting artifacts and memorabilia currently housed within its walls. Tour day, the Old Jail Museum features “The Way Things Were.”
Leaving Palo Pinto, we’ll next head west, our destination Lovers’ Retreat. One of the most scenic spots in the county, in its heyday Lovers’ Retreat was a popular gathering place with regularly scheduled outdoor rodeos and other entertainment venues designed to both draw and please the crowds.
It was the rugged splendor of nature’s artwork, however, that garnered the most visitors, with many coming to see for themselves the gigantic stones hugging the banks of Eagle Creek, forming a network of crevasses, canyons and ledges along the creek bank.
While stories of its name abound, one particular legend tells of a young Indian couple from rival tribes who chose the secluded area as a hiding place from those who would separate them. With only the slightest mental nudge, it is easy to imagine such a couple living secretively and happily along the banks of the creek, settling each night around the twisting curl of smoke rising from their evening campfire.
Don’t get too comfortable around your mental campfire, though, for there are other places along the tour that will just as easily spark your imagination and carry you back to times long past. Our next stop is one of them. So let’s head west for a few miles and then turn south down FM 919 toward Gordon. It’s time to pay a visit to the Johnson League Ranch.
William Whipple Johnson and his brother, Harvey, came to Palo Pinto County from Michigan in 1878, lured to the area by the building of the railroad and the promise of new enterprise. Together the brothers settled in a small community of settlers that would eventually become Strawn. There they established a successful business selling cedar posts to the westward-advancing Texas Pacific Railroad.
Having come west to seek their fortunes, the brothers truly found it when, a few years after coming to the area, William discovered coal in the southwestern corner of the county while out scouting for new sources of cedar. He and his brother quickly bought up all the land in the area they could get hold of and diversified their business interests to include coal mining. Their fortune was not quite big enough, however, and eventually the brothers were forced to sell the bulk of their mining operation because of lack of operating capital.
Along with this reversal of fortune and the feeling that he’d been duped into the sale by those he had hoped would invest, Johnson’s life was soon marred by far greater tragedy when, within the span of a few short years, he lost his brother and his two young children.
In 1905, following the death of his second child, Johnson purchased a league (4,428 acres) north of Gordon, where he and his wife then moved and where he hoped to build a community large enough to rival Thurber, the company town built by his business nemesis, Robert Dickey Hunter.
Though his hope never materialized, Johnson remained both a successful businessman and rancher throughout the remainder of his life. He was the first importer of whitetail deer to the area, keeping the animals in a high-fenced game preserve. Ironically, today, the present owners of the ranch also manage a wild and exotic game preserve on the property; so at least a part of Johnson’s vision for the property lives on.
No visit to the Johnson League Ranch would be complete without first stopping by the Johnson League Mausoleum, the history of which speaks to both the love of parent for child and the heartbreak of loss. As previously mentioned, William and his wife, Anna, lost both of their children to disease prior to moving from their home in Strawn to Johnson’s League.
Unable to bury either of the children because of their grief, the parents chose instead to keep their only daughter and only son in an upstairs bedroom where Mrs. Johnson is reported to have lovingly changed their clothing daily. After moving to their new home on Johnson’s League, Johnson had a small wooden mausoleum constructed and attached to the new house. However, when Palo Pinto Creek overflowed its banks in 1908 the little mausoleum and its contents narrowly missed destruction when swept away by floodwaters. Only the action taken by quick-thinking ranch hands saved it. After its retrieval, the mausoleum was moved to the highest point on the ranch, Salt Point.
Preceded in death by her husband, when Anna Johnson died in 1922, she left specific instructions detailing the building of a stone mausoleum, which was to house the bodies of herself, her husband and their two children. She specified that once the bodies were placed inside, the building was to be forever sealed shut. Today it remains a silent reminder of a time gone by and the deep and lasting mark William Whipple Johnson and his wife made on this land.
As an interesting side note, the original wooden mausoleum, having been found and fully restored, can be seen on the tour.
See Tuesday’s Index for part 2.