not mentioned in any of his biographies, but one of Texas’ best known
authors wrote portions of one of his best-known books while sequestered
in a tarpaper-covered shack in the Chisos Basin.
J. Frank Dobie, raised in the flat brush country of South Texas and
schooled in humid Central Texas at Georgetown’s
Southwestern University, first saw the high, dry Big Bend country
in 1910 when he got off the train at Alpine.
Fresh out of college, he had been hired to teach English at Alpine
High School. Being the only male faculty member, he also – at twenty-two
– would be the school’s principal.
Dobie’s letters to his future wife Bertha reveal that while he didn’t
like the isolation of the small West
Texas ranching town, he did appreciate that he had come just about
as close to what remained of frontier Texas as he would ever get.
While in Alpine,
where he lived in a boarding house, he became acquainted with John
Young, an old South Texas cowboy. Though schooled in the classics,
the young teacher-headmaster liked to listen to oldtimers like Young
hold forth on their adventurous salad days.
classes ended in the spring of 1911, Dobie got offered a teaching
job at his alma mater’s prep school back in Georgetown
and quickly accepted it. While the rancher’s kids he taught probably
ended up knowing more about English poetry than they thought useful,
the payoff for Dobie’s Alpine
stint was his association with Young, which in 1929 culminated in
his first book, “A Vaquero of the Brush Country.”
Producing a succession of books after that, including the best-selling
collection of treasure stories he called “Coronado’s Children,” by
the late 1930s Dobie had become a Texas icon. And in 1938, he signed
a contract to produce a book on another Texas icon, the longhorn.
In January 1939, Dobie holed up for a time at the four-year-old Civilian
Conservation Corps camp in the Chisos Basin, the future heart of Big
Bend National Park. While CCC men blazed trails, graded roads and
built infrastructure, Dobie worked to cobble together earlier longhorn
stories he had written while also adding new material for a work that
would bear the simple title “The Longhorns.”
little is known of Dobie’s stay in the Big
Bend may be credited to Fred Gipson, then a roving columnist
for Texas’ Harte-Hanks newspaper chain. Gipson, who while a student
at the University of Texas had taken Dobie’s popular Southwestern
literature course, probably remembered Dobie better than Dobie remembered
him. A sucessful if typically low-paid journalist, Gipson still
chafed at the suggestion Dobie had made after reading some of his
work at UT – don’t figure on a career as a writer.
Nevertheless, the affable, white-haired writer graciously greeted
Gipson at the door of the CCC structure he had been living in.
"Come into this house," he said, taking Gipson's hand in both of
his. Inside, the air was thick with Dobie's pipe smoke.
"How's the Texas longhorn book coming?" Gipson soon asked. He saw
paper in a typewriter on a small table and a clutter of notes on
a bigger table nearby.
"I'm just this minute chasing a longhorn bull over a ridge," Dobie
said. "But sit down and tell me about yourself. I don't think that
bull will get away for a little bit."
They rolled cigarettes and talked. After the smokes, Dobie led Gipson
outside for a commentary on the magnificent peaks circling the basin.
Even though he was there to write about a notable breed of Texas
cattle, Dobie seemed constitutionally incapable of visiting a place
without acquiring information and stories about its people, animals
On their way back to the shack, Dobie stopped at the ample woodpile
stacked nearby. "Like to chop wood," he said, "nearly as well as
I like to ride a horse. When my mind doesn't work good, I come out
and chop wood . . . . See, here's a piece of mountain ebony."
The temperature fading with the sun, Dobie started a fire in the
cabin’s wood heater. Needing to do some writing of his own, Gipson
hauled in his portable typewriter, and both men hit the keys as
night came. By the time Gipson finished a column fine snow had begun
falling. Dobie had already quit for the day and had gone down to
park caretaker Lloyd Wade's cabin to see about supper.
As Gipson drove to Wade’s cabin to join them, the headlights of
his car stopped a mountain lion slinking in a nearby arroyo. The
big cat looked at the car for a minute, but then ambled off into
The visiting reporter, Dobie, Wade, and Tom Mercer, a Railroad Commission
inspector based in San
Angelo, sat on rough benches to a meal of chili con carne, frijoles
and fried potatoes. Afterward, as the wind howled and the snowflakes
grew bigger, the men talked of cattle and cowboys. It was nearly
midnight before they got the last old longhorn rounded up and went
1941 book still stands as the starting place for anyone interested
longhorns, but Dobie was not incapable of misjudgment. Ignoring
his former professor’s pronouncement that he’d never make it as a
writer, Gipson went on to produce one of the world’s enduring children’s
classics, “Old Yeller.”
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June
2 , 2011 column