bawling cattle, hell-raising cowboys and trains a half-mile long – that was Barnhart
in the 1920s and ‘30s. |
Once a bustling if miniature version of Fort
Worth, this unincorporated Irion County town is mighty quiet these days. The
population in 2009 was only 169, and Barnhart’s
school closed in 1969. (If you want big city life in these parts, go to the county
seat of Mertzon, population
when the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient railroad cut through West
Texas in 1911. The name honored William F. Barnhart, the land agent who obtained
the right of way for the company’s tracks west of San
Because of the Orient’s location between major rail
lines on the north and south, Barnhart
quickly became an important shipping point for the vast chunk of real estate in
and sheep poured
out of West Texas on trains loaded
The town had
everything the cowboys and railroaders
needed: A hotel, cafes, a bank and a theater. A weekly newspaper, the Barnhart
Range, provided the town with local news.
Given the remoteness of West
Texas, old-fashioned trail drives continued to Barnhart long after their heyday
elsewhere. In fact, all those cattle coming through began to cause local ranchers
problems. To protect their pastures from over-grazing, ranchers started putting
up more fences. That ended what may have been one of the last semi-free range
holdouts in Texas.
get around the problem, the Ozona-Barnhart Trap Co. was organized in 1924. A long,
narrow swath of leased or purchased land stretching 34 miles from south of Ozona
to Barnhart became Texas’ last major cattle trail, a corridor one newspaper labeled
“the world’s most unusual highway.” Along it acreage for a series of six “traps”
or pens – as important to cattle movement in those days as locks are to the Panama
Canal – was acquired by the company and fenced to hold traveling livestock.
company assessed five cents a head each night for cattle kept in one of the traps.
Sheep, for one cent a head, could also be kept overnight in the traps. All a trail
boss had to do was tell Ted Adkins, the company’ Barnhart-based weigher, how many
animals had stayed in a trap and pay him for that amount. No paperwork required.
If a sheep shipper needed help getting his animals motivated to board a train,
Adkins could furnish two lead goats – Lou and Whitney. Their follow-the-leader
services cost 50 cents a carload.
Meanwhile, the railroad constructed
large holding pens adjacent to its trackage at Barnhart.
With ample infrastructure to serve a rancher’s
needs, sometimes as many as three trail drives a day hit town while trains with
as many as 75 cattle cars hauled West
Texas livestock to distant markets.
Irion and Tom Green County maps showing Barnhart, Mertzon
and San Angelo.
Courtesy Texas General Land Office|
brought its problems. In April 1934, the town’s former postmaster pled guilty
in federal court to “conversion of funds.” Barnhart,
stuck pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, definitely lacked in the law and
At some point in 1934, the town solicited assistance
from the brother of one of the state’s best known peace officers, Texas Ranger
Capt. Frank Hamer, to pacify its lawless element. That man was Harrison L. Hamer,
a former ranger and just about as quick on the trigger as his older, more famous
sibling. Frank Hamer had presided over the bloody demise of the outlaw couple
Parker and Clyde Barrow that May, but brother Harrison had laid low a badman
or two himself.
“Harrison is doing quite a bit of cleaning up in our town
among the trash,” wrote his sister Alicia Cumbie to their mother on Aug. 20, 1934.
“And they sure are getting hostile. This place sure needs someone to clean it
up but he is sure up against a tough dirty bunch. He has a bunch of them in jail
The bad guys may have been “a tough dirty bunch,” but Hamer, who
apparently only stayed in Barnhart a short time before returning to his home in
Del Rio, lived to old age and
died of natural causes. Though what Hamer did in Barnhart seems to have generated
practically no newspaper coverage, he evidently prevailed in restoring order.
was not Barnhart’s only problem
in 1934. While that year the Associated Press declared Barnhart
the busiest livestock shipping point in the nation, not every outbound train held
jostling beeves. At the depth of the Depression, the federal government had begun
buying cattle and having them shot to reduce supply, hoping to revive a market
that had practically dried up. Ranchers got paid on the number of cowhides they
shipped out and sheep skinners made good money turning their knives on dead cattle.
Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe eventually bought out the Orient, but Barnhart
continued to flourish as a cow town through the 1940s. The advent of better roads
and the widespread use of cattle trucks signaled an end to Barnhart’s
era as a major shipping center and 20th century Dodge City.
March 24, 2010 column
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