Oh! Where have gone those happy cowboy days?
– Adolph Huffmeyer (my great-grandfather)
After you live in one place for a long time, you eventually stop noticing the details of such things as art on the walls. To counter this phenomenon, we sometimes like to shake things up to create a fresh new look.
Except that at our house, there is a carved stone frieze cemented in place over the fireplace. There is no changing it ever, and although I REALLY loved it when I initially saw it, I honestly hadn’t stopped to study it in a very long time.
Recently, as I was passing through our living room, my eyes were drawn to the piece. Supposedly it was created by one of the stonemasons who created all the fantastic carvings on the campus of Rice University in the early 20th century. I have no proof, but I cherish the concept.
Why did I suddenly notice it again? Perhaps I was still somewhat in a rodeo frame of mind. Or maybe it is because our friends, the Caos just had a baby, and you guessed it… everyone is referring to little Sabine as “the Caogirl”.
Anyway, the frieze depicts two cowboys on horseback driving a herd of ten longhorn cattle. I remember the first time I saw this stone carving when I visited the house as a prospective buyer.
It called to me because of my Texan heritage; my great grandfather Adolph Huffmeyer was a cowboy who drove cattle from Frio County to “Fort Sill in the Indian Territory”. He wrote about his adventures, and his memoirs were published in “The Trail Drivers of Texas” (copyright 1924). I am privileged to have a copy of this book, passed down through his grandson (my dad).
The title of his article is “Catching Antelope and Buffalo on the Trail”. It tells of his experiences during three years of trail riding (1876-78). Eleven men and a cook drove 1600 steers for seven weeks in 1876; in 1877, it took them four months.
In 1878, they had 2000 head of mixed cows and steers; it was a wet season and they had numerous problems as a result. He recounted that while they were waiting for the rise in the Red River to ebb,
“… a severe thunderstorm came up, and rain fell in torrents. While it was in progress, I could see the lightning playing on the brim of my hat and the tips of my horse’s ears. Suddenly a terrific bolt of lightning struck right in our midst and killed nine of our best cattle. It stunned my horse, and he fell to the ground, but was up in an instant and ready to go. The cattle stampeded and scattered, and it was all that we could do to keep ahead of them. After running them for a mile or more, every man found that he had a bunch of his own to look after, they were so badly scattered and frightened. I managed to hold 236 head the balance of the night, and when daylight came, we worked the bunches back together and made a count and found that we had lost over three hundred head, which meant some tall rustling for the boys. Before night, we had rounded up all of the strays except about forty head, which we lost entirely.”
I can’t imagine how exhausting that episode must have been for all the cowboys and their horses, as well. The whole concept of a months-long trail ride boggles my mind, cooking and eating whatever you could catch while on the trail. When I think about modern cowboys, there is no comparison.
For instance, when we were driving through Idaho a number of years ago, we came to a stop on a lonesome road while a rancher drove his cattle from the field across the road to the barn. He was on a four wheeler with his kids on the back, and his dogs were having a blast herding the cows home. It was charming to watch. What would Granddaddy Huffmeyer have thought about that?
And what would he think about the extravaganza known as the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo? Modern “trail riders” that come to town for this annual event ride their horses during the day, then sleep in their climate controlled RV’s at night.
Rodeo cowboys? In my book, they are mostly show cowboys, not working ones. They may practice their one area of skill, but is it job related? I know there must be some out there that actually do use their skills in real jobs, but it is my impression that most of them work the rodeo circuit rather than punching cattle for a living.
Certainly, no real cowboy needs to ride a bull in the real world. Broncos? Maybe that skill might come in handy when teaching a horse to accept a rider, but in my book, gentling is a better method. Would Granddaddy Huffmeyer scoff at me with my 21st century attitude?
From what I know about him, my great grandfather was a very interesting man, born in 1855, orphaned at an early age and raised up by his Uncle Louis Oge of San Antonio (his home in the King William District is now a fancy bed and breakfast inn). Adolph graduated from St. Mary’s College there in San Antonio, and after his trail riding days, ended up in the mercantile business in Bandera, where he and his wife Mattie Rugh Huffmeyer are now buried there in the cemetery. They were founding members of the Methodist Church there, and their daughter, Minna Lena Huffmeyer Simpson was my grandmother… my dad’s mother.
At the time of his death in 1945, he was the oldest graduate of St. Mary’s College, and was mentioned in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” in 1942 because he rode his bike 10-12 miles daily at age 87. Other interesting facts about him are that he never lost a tooth nor had a toothache (neither did my dad, or me… at least not yet!), and that he worked well into his 9th decade, collecting bills for a San Antonio firm, while riding on the aforementioned bike, dressed in a formal suit, complete with a fedora.
He submitted an article to the “Frontier Times” magazine ten days before his death, and his picture was featured on the front cover as a tribute to him. The editor wrote, “Thus passes another fine old frontier character, whose death is mourned by hundreds of friends throughout Texas.”
My great grandfather’s stories remind me why I cherish and celebrate the stone frieze above my fireplace. I am grateful to have written documentation of his experiences, and it goes without saying that I am very proud of my Texan heritage!
Oh! Where have gone those happy cowboy days?
And where has gone the old historic Chisholm trail?
And those jolly wide-open cattle towns,
Where the frisky cowboy played his part?
Alas! All have vanished like a dream,
In the long and silent past-
Never, never more to return.
– Adolph Huffmeyer