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Life, death and dog-trot houses

by Clay Coppedge
FLAT - Driving west on State Highway 36 toward Gatesville, just past Flat, if you look at just the right time at the right place you can see an old dog-trot house sitting about 100 yards off the road, somewhat camouflaged by a couple of trees but recognizable for what it is all the same.

"Where did that come from?" you might exclaim, knowing full well that it came from the century before last. Today's modern world gobbles nearly everything that preceded it, so there is comfort in knowing that an old dog-run house like the one in Coryell County survives.

These types of houses, also referred to as dog-trot houses or, in certain parts of the Deep South, possum-trot houses, date back to about the middle of the 19th Century. The houses, or cabins, were built in two parts separated by a 10-15 foot passageway. Some had four structures, two on each side.

Had there been a need to advertise these houses - or anyone to advertise them to - the pioneer real estate agent might have said, "Simple but functional Cool in the summer. And your dogs will love it!"

The name "dog-run" comes from the comfort that family dogs found in the shade and the summers breezes the passageways afforded. People enjoyed the same comfort. The passageways were designed to provide shade and breeze in the summer, sort of a pioneer climate control system.

In the winter, chilling winds were funneled through the passageway which gave early-day residents the concept if not the term "wind chill factor." More often than not, the passageways were closed during the winter, which kept the wind out and provided an extra room.

Dr. Rufus C. Smith, one of a passel of Smiths who migrated to Texas from Boonesville Hill, Tennessee in the mid 1800s, lived in the cabin off Highway 36 for several years. He came to Texas with his brother David and his brother's wife and 15 children. They took a train from Tennessee to Salado and lived in that bustling village for a time before buying land in Coryell County.

Rufus was not the only Smith to become a doctor. Dr. Jack Smith and Dr. Carl Smith followed him into that line of work. Jack Smith gave up the medical profession for a time to work for the America Mining Company, where he ran afoul of the notorious Mexican revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa. After the mining company obtained his release, Smith reported that he had been treated well by Villa's men but complained that he had only venison to eat. No salt.

Even a century-and-a-half later the Coryell County dog-trot house looks like it was a comfortable place to live in its day. It must have been hard to leave it in the middle of the night to do something like deliver a baby, which Rufus Smith was called upon to do one dark and stormy night in April.

Rufus Smith left his house that April night to deliver a baby for Ed Cash's wife. Smith was attending to the matter at hand when a group of men arrived at the cabin - riders on the storm, as it were - toting guns and bad attitudes. They came through the house with guns drawn. Others covered the back door, in case Cash tried to make a run for it.

Cash was a suspected horse thief and cattle rustler, whose activities had apparently had begun hitting too close to home. The men at the Cash house that night were believed to be local men, many with missing horses and cattle they believed Cash had taken.

If there was any doubt about the men's intentions those doubts were dispelled when two of the men put guns to Cash's head and hustled him outside to a hanging tree.

Dr. Smith pleaded with the men to put off their frontier justice for just a while longer because the baby was due any minute. "Just let him see his child before he dies," the doctor pleaded. It was no use. The men were in no mood to tarry, birth or no birth.

Cash was taken out back and hung. Muddy tracks led to several houses in the area but no one was ever charged, tried or convicted of the lynching. In those days, that passed for a fair trial.

We can assume that part of the story ended with Dr. Smith returning to his dog-run house and pondering the vagaries of life and death, so often present and urgent in one place at one time. We can only hope the house gave him some comfort at times like that.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" >
March 11, 2006 column

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