a highway in 1879 was a little easier than it is these days.
A 21st century roadway involves engineering, public hearings, right
of way acquisition, environmental surveys, archaeological work,
financing and finally, construction.
In 1935, as Texas readied for the celebration of its centennial
of independence from Mexico, the son of the man who laid out
the first road across the South Plains told of an earlier road-building
methodology. One a whole lot simpler than it is today.
Bog Smith recalled how his father, H.C. "Hank" Smith, along with
Charlie Howse, got public transportation off to its start on the
Llano Estacado. What they did was solve a problem by finding an
innovative use for a commonly found material.
was knowing the right way to proceed from point A to B.
On the plains, the difficulty faced was not a lack of suitable terrain
for travel, but the very vastness of the land. Miles of waving grass
on flat land was no less intractable than the open sea. A person
could easily get lost, and many did. In times of extreme weather,
this could prove fatal, and occasionally did.
When a hardy group of Quakers settled a community in Crosby
County they called Estacado,
Smith decided to lay off a road from his residence to the new town.
Recruiting Howse as his helper, the two men left the Smith place
one morning in an ox-drawn wagon. They stopped periodically to fill
the wagon with bleached buffalo bones, the legacy of the soon-to-be-completed
slaughter of the bison. When they had a wagon full, they stopped
and piled all the bones to make a road marker that could be seen
for miles in either direction in good weather.
Then they traveled on, gathering more bones. Stopping after a mile,
they made another big bone heap. The two men continued the process
until they reached Estacado
and West Texas had its first known marked roadway.
How long the buffalo bone mile markers lasted is not known, but
most of the buffalo remnants on the plains vanished in the next
wave of land exploitation-the collection of bones for shipment east
to be ground into fertilizer. Those who made their living doing
this were called bone pickers, and it was not a particularly complimentary
Buffalo bones quickly became big business. It started when a St.
Louis company announced in May 1879 that it would begin buying bleached
buffalo bones. The company was not trying to tidy up the Great Plains,
however. Their scientists had discovered that buffalo bones could
be pulverized and then mixed with potash, nitrates and ferrous compounds
and turned into a crop-boosting fertilizer. In addition, buffalo
horns and hooves could be used in the manufacture of paints and
The company offered to pay $8 per ton-in cash-for buffalo bones
and $14 per ton for hooves and horns. While 2,000 pounds of buffalo
bones constituted a pretty big pile, back then, so did $8. And $14
was really big money.
great slaughter that produced all the now-valuable bones, a buffalo
hunter's basic tools were a well-cared-for .50 caliber Sharps rifle
and a good skinning knife. Buffalo bone hunters carried large ball-peen
hammers to break up the bones to make it easier to heft the remnants
into their wagon. Larger hammers were used to break knee, hip and
shoulder joints. Vertebrae also had to be broken into easy-to-handle
A bone picking party might consist of as many as six mule-drawn
wagons, five for bones, one or horns and hooves. Collecting them
often was a family affair, from grandpa to father to children and
Bone picking flourished in the Texas
Panhandle and all across the Great Plains. Those who were making
good money at it thought their supply would last forever. But just
as the creatures who left the bones got hunted out, so did their
While it had the distinction of being the first town on the South
Plains (Mobeetie and
were on the North Plains, though that term has fallen out of usage),
Estacado did not
last a whole lot longer than the buffalo bones that assisted travelers
in finding it.
When Crosby County
was organized in 1886, Estacado
became the county seat, but that status held only until 1891. A
town called Emma
became the new county capital, and Estacado
pretty much went the way of the buffalo and its bones.