cultured gentleman from Philadelphia generally credited with inventing the Western
novel, a genre that evolved into film and eventually television, spent some time
in West Texas on his way to becoming
a nationally-known writer.
Born to a well-to-do Pennsylvania family in
1860, Owen Wister graduated from Harvard in 1882. He wanted to be a composer,
even though his father stood dead set against it. Still, Wister traveled to Paris
for a year of musical study before giving up his dream and returning to the U.S.
for a clerical job with a Philadelphia law firm.
Planning on entering Harvard
Law School, Wister suffered an attack of symptoms that read like the description
of a nervous breakdown. A doctor said going out West might be good for whatever
Wister did as told, in 1885 visiting and becoming enchanted
with Wyoming. For the next 15 years, during which time he took up writing, he
traveled to various Western states. He drew inspiration and stories from each
place he visited, one of which was Brownwood.
purpose of his trip was to visit Fitzhugh Savage, a fellow Philadelphian who owned
a ranch called the Seven Springs. Savage raised and trained polo ponies,
which he sold back East. Two of Wister’s former school chums, Frank and Dick Conover,
had ranches near Seven Springs.
with friend Harry Groome, Wister stepped off the train at Brownwood
on Feb. 20, 1893.
is a fair specimen of these board towns,” Wister wrote, apparently referring to
other Western communities he had visited. But while Brownwood’s
architecture did not particularly stand out in Wister’s mind, its moral standards
and civic tidiness caught the young Philadelphian by surprise.
authorities are all church members, and professional ladies are run out!” Wister
continued in his journal. “Also I read a regulation forbidding anyone to throw
paper or refuse in the streets or alleys, except in the barrels or boxes placed
for the purpose. This is not much like…Casper [Wyoming], or Buffalo [New York]!”
The visitors left Brownwood
the next morning and spent most of the day traveling the 40 miles to Savage’s
ranch, bouncing along through the live oaks and leafless mesquite in a wagon pulled
by a four-horse team. Though it already seemed like spring, no wildflowers had
had not yet done much writing for money, but in his diary he went into considerable
detail describing the landscape, the people and the culture of the Brownwood
“Texas life breeds sayings and doings enough to fill a volume,”
he wrote. “For instance, on the road to Brownwood
there used to be a sign: ‘See Cross-eyed Jim before you sell your hides.’”
also recorded for posterity “a unique song” popular with cowboys in the area.
He placed no title above his transcription, but it’s a version of the range classic,
“Get along little Dogies.”
than a decade before, Brownwood
had been the epicenter of what came to be known as the Fence Cutter War,
a bloody feud between those opposed to the end of the old free range days and
those who enclosed their acreage with barbed wire.
The worst of the violence
occurred in the mid to late 1880s, but as recently as three years prior to his
arrival, Wister wrote, “this part of the country was in a high state of disorder…In
18 months there were 34 murders.”
Those suspected of fence cutting and
or cattle rustling often received a letter giving them 10 days to vacate the area,
“The results that followed upon neglecting the hint were so
uniform that a man upon being given 10 days…was heard to exclaim, ‘I’ll let ‘em
have nine days back.’”
Some of those involving in issuing the warnings,
Wister hinted darkly, later purchased land vacated by those who heeded the dreaded
Wister collected stories, noted peculiarities of Texas speak
and partied with his friends, noting one occasional when “we unexpectedly caroused
to such a note that next day I was nearly obliterated, and poor Frank [Conover]
was entirely so.”
After more than a month in Texas,
the two visitors left Brownwood
on March 25. Wister wrote his next diary entry three days later in New Orleans.
than a decade after his visit to Texas, Wister hit
the literary big time in 1902 with his novel, “The Virginian.” The book
firmly established the cowboy as the prime icon of the Old West and contained
the now famous but often misquoted line, “When you say that, smile.” ||
Payne of Dallas wrote was still
stands as the best biography of Wister, “Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West,
Gentleman of the East” (Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), but Payne
did not offer any specifics on the Seven Springs Ranch.||
digital vastness of the World Wide Web, a plane of knowledge far more vast that
the plains of Texas, sheds no light on the ranch
or its present owners. There’s a Seven Springs Ranch in San Saba County, but that’s
77 miles from Brownwood.
There’s also a farm with that name near Jacksonville,
but that’s in East Texas.
the Seven Springs Ranch is, it helped shape Wister’s view of the West. Who knows?
Wister might have rustled his “When you say that, smile” line from some Texas
cowboy. That’s enough to make any Texan grin.
© Mike Cox
15, 2009 column
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