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Texas | Columns | Notes From Over Here

A Majestic History

by Byron Browne
I cannot take my eyes off of it. Or, rather, I just can’t put it down. I even put it in the other room so that I would take up another. But like trying to quit smoking when there’s still a cigarette in the house, I went and grabbed it back up again.
It is a book, ‘Jeff Davis County, Texas’ by Lucy Miller Jacobson and Mildred Bloys Nored. A tome of a work, the text attempts to span the history of that section of west Texas from pre-historic times to the early 1990s when the book was published. And, because the pages, all 676 of them, are filled with the histories and brief biographies of the county’s more influential families, I have become enthralled with the book.

Every writer is something of a voyeur. Typically, we enjoy peering into other’s lives, watching when they themselves are paying little attention. I honestly believe that this desire to observe is a God-given personality trait. When I was in school at Texas Tech back in the late 1980s I spent many hours in the medical library scanning through psychiatric textbooks and journals. Some of these held intriguing patient case studies. Sometimes grossly personal and always informative, these stories revealed those aspects of a person’s personality when it is at its most vulnerable; when the behavior is illustrated in stark, honest detail by a subjective, third party. Because of or due to this separation, the information proffered presents a picture of the individual in its most naked form. And again, because of this we, as the audience, receive a very real and unaltered version of the subject.

This is the case with all of the family portraitures within Jacobson and Nored’s book. The individual stories are presented with heart-felt honesty and attention to personal detail that only persons who have a direct connection can reveal. Indeed, both Mrs. Jacobson and Mrs. Nored are (were) residents of Fort Davis, their family’s ancestries reaching far back into west Texas history. Together they created a book that relates the story of Jeff Davis County from a perspective that few others could have obtained.

I would do an injustice to the book if I told of all the stories that seized my interest. For starters, there are simply too many for that. The story of the Griersons I have already mentioned here before. Of course, there is much more to relate about that family but the rudiments have already been exposed. The Grierson story forms a large portion of the foundation of Fort Davis. Anyone interested should take the time to study this family’s story. It has all the elements of a good novel: greed, sickness, untimely death, wealth, genius and a healthy dose of surrealism. Fort Davis may have, eventually, become what it is today without this family but it certainly would not have had as much of the color or illustriousness that it does without them.

Additionally, the Keesey family, brothers Whittaker and Otis in particular, are in many ways responsible for the early construction and general dynamic of Fort Davis. Having served in the Ohio infantry during the Civil War, Whittaker Keesey came to Fort Davis as a carpenter under the employment of Col. Wesley Merritt (later the superintendent of West Point). When his service was due in 1875 Keesey stayed in the area and opened a “mercantile” store. Enormously successful, Whittaker’s store enabled him to also branch into banking. In fact, as Jacobson and Nored write, “W. Keesey & Co. served as banker for the entire area and loans and credit extended by the firm helped many early cattlemen, as well as others, become established”. Another entry states that, “At one time or another nearly every resident of the area was in debt to W. Keesey” (364).

Whittaker’s younger brother Otis “was the politician of the family” (368). The first County Judge as well as the first school superintendent of Jeff Davis County Otis was also somewhat careless and whimsical. Maybe the expanse of the country invited a haphazard attitude, maybe owning the majority of the land in the area induced a certain insouciance. Whatever the reason, Otis was removed from office in 1891 when he was, “… indited [sic] by the Grand Jury for drunkenness in office” (368).

Otis was also responsible, at the time, for one of the greatest dramas in the town. After his divorce from Adelina Fernandes in 1894, Otis left town for the rich climes of California. Adelina however, stayed in Fort Davis and opened a “bawdy house”. Difficult to imagine such a business in the area nowadays but Adelina was wildly successful in the early years of the twentieth century. In fact, one of the couple’s daughters, Belle, continued the Keesey tradition of liberal thinking when she became the mistress of Nick Mersfelder years later. Belle, a married woman lived just next door to Mersfelder who was himself, the county’s coroner and judge and something of a local celebrity due to his eccentricities. In fact, Mersfelder’s old home, with it’s dual front doors, is today, the Overland Trail Museum. Belle’s house, the one Mersfelder bought for her and her husband, is directly across the side street.

Overland Trail Museum, Fort Davis, Texas

Overland Trail Museum

TE photo, 2000

Without a doubt, the boots in this section of the state kick a different dust from their heels at the close of each sun-baked day. This could be due to the fact that many of these families trace their roots back to the eighteenth century when the Irish or German relative, by way of either Pennsylvania or Virginia, settled in Texas where the land was still up for grabs. Obviously many Texas families can sketch their lineage back more than two centuries. What demarks these ruddy clans as extraordinary was their willingness, indeed, eagerness, to settle down in an area where danger was omnipresent. This was a land teeming with Mexican Bandits, hostile Apache and Comanche Indians, rattlesnakes, flooding and space that is dangerously expansive; so open and broad that it invites a certain degree of lawlessness.

Jacobson and Nored’s book opens its chapter on the “Twentieth Century” with an entry on one of just this sort of family. The authors write of the Sproul family: “Franklin Lee Sproul was elected sheriff of Jeff Davis County in November 1914. He was honest and fair with all citizens and was extremely popular.” This sort of writing, drawn as much from the heart as from personal experience and introduced with the same earnestness as any lore or mythology, is the type with which this book is filled. The section continues with a sad but not uncommon story for this part of the state during this era, “On February 24, 1933 three young tramps robbed the Sproul Ranch north of Fort Davis…”. Later the same day Sheriff Sproul assembled a posse and soon found two of the three “… near the Sproul Ranch house.” The third robber had sought his escape farther into the countryside. When the posse found this man, “… he rose up from behind some boulders and shot `Sheriff Sproul in the abdomen.” (287) The sheriff died that evening.

All of the accounts state how the community was devastated by their singular, incorporate loss. The robbers, on trial in Fort Stockton a month later, had to be constantly guarded and shuffled around on back roads in order to shield them from the lynch mobs. Due to their ages they were given lenient sentences (seven years each) and the citizens of Fort Davis were understandably incensed. Then, in what was obviously an effort to regain some of what they had lost, the town appointed F. Lee Sproul’s wife, Louise, to finish her husband’s term as sheriff. Noted for her refusal to wear a gun while on the job, the community announced itself to be under “Petticoat Rule” for these years. Indeed, Louise Sproul won the next sheriff’s election and held that position until 1936.

As with most stories that emigrate from west Texas the Sproul’s story is too lengthy to just be outlined here. In fact, even in Jacobson and Nored’s enormous book the family’s tale is only a detailed sketch. However, that is all right. The peripheral glance offered leaves room for dozens of other similar stories. Each one is as enthralling as the previous. From the four and a half page tale of Civil War veteran Henry Mayfield and his wife Zilla (Old Moss and Old Miss) to the eight sentence paragraph about NIcanor Estrada who was called Gringo “…because he could not speak plainly,” (362) each story is, itself, a vivid albeit brief, glimpse into our past. The authors have presented a book that is a treasure of Texas ’ roots.

I had thought that Jeff Davis County, Texas, on account of that title, was going to be as dry as a seventh grade science textbook. A large, white hardcover book it certainly gives that impression. However the authors have delivered a text that is as honest in its revelations as it is insightful. These stories and histories are related with a confederate’s knowledge. Only someone intimately involved with his or her subject could have produced such a volume. The writing not only describes but also offers candor as brutal as that heard at the breakfast table. For local writer and historian Barry Scobee, Jacobson and Nored have little patience. Regularly hinting at a hint of megalomania the authors write that many of his newspaper and magazine stories were little more than tall-tales told to him by the council of locals. Of these, “Scobee accepted them for the literal truth but if they were not quite romantic enough he had no compunction about adding to them.” (587) Again, when the Fort Davis Historical Society had wanted to mark the graves of the Confederate soldiers in the old cemetery, the authors write that, “Barry Scobee, with his usual attention to accuracy, kept adding Charles Mulhern (a thirty year veteran of the United States Army) to the list.”

Another story that has stayed with me is the one of Mrs. Sarah Janes Locke. The daughter of John and Susan Janes, Sarah married, in 1907, Dr. Scott Locke, himself the son of Dr. George Locke. (It was the Locke family who donated the two hundred acres to the University of Texas as space for the McDonald Observatory in the early 1930s) The younger Locke was a chronic alcoholic (a fact the authors try not at all to conceal) and, although nursed lovingly during the course of their brief marriage, “Scott Locke died at age thirty-five from pneumonia and contributory alcoholism in November 1910.” (455)

After her husband’s death Sarah Janes found that the Locke family, now living back in New Hampshire, declared that Scott had not only had a prior marriage but a daughter as well. This daughter, now sixteen, was to be the doctor’s heir and family representatives soon arrived in Fort Davis to reclaim every item that was in the Locke-Janes house. Those items repossessed even included Sarah’s piano; the one she had had since childhood. Devastated, Sarah moved to El Paso where she soon passed away. A young woman when she died I have been unable to discover an age at death or even a cause. Although, whatever the official cause of death, it is not difficult to imagine what precipitated the occurrence.

Other stories told with graphic honesty and a sense of realism are the dozens of tales of gunfights and shootings. While all true and accurate, as far as we know, sometimes I find that I wish the authors had been less than forthcoming with their information. As in the case of one thirteen year-old boy who on one page is shown smiling in an early daguerreotype image, linked arm in arm with his large family and then from the following page’s text we learn that that same year he accidentally shot and killed himself while crossing through a barbed-wire fence. Another story involves a man who, after surviving a gunfight at the Valentine train depot, dies a couple of short months later in Alpine; shot accidentally by a Mexican bandit who was blazing his way out of a saloon after being identified by a deputy sheriff.

There are other stories; lots of others. Some are so moving as to bring tears. Others are as horrific as any fiction. Regardless, Jacobson and Nored’s book is full of the clarity and attention to detail that any recounting of history demands. Whether the story is a historical fact check or a family’s saga the writing here is delivered as potently as expected or hoped. The text unfolds with all the cold candor that a family member would deliver. The editorial blunders and numerous solecisms only endear the work; they serve to illustrate the innocence of the tales told. However, even with the mistakes and errors I cannot put the thing down. The story it tells is a majestic history-it is our history.

© Byron Browne
Notes From Over Here
June 8 , 2011 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com

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