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The California of Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Clyde is not the most evocative of Texas town names, and residents might even have found it somewhat embarrassing during the reign of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

The Callahan County community got its name from one Robert Clyde, a railroad construction crew foreman who operated a commissary in the vicinity when the Texas and Pacific laid tracks through that part of West Texas in December 1880. A year later, enough folks had settled in the area to support a post office that Washington approved designating as Clyde. Though historical sketches of Clyde the town offer nothing more about Clyde the man, he must have been a likable enough sort to be honored in such a way. Or maybe early residents lacked imagination.

Someone representing Clyde's second generation did a little better in the 1920s when civic boosters painted "The California of Texas" on the town's water tower. That tank held H2O drawn from a sizable aquifer beneath the town, enough to sustain the kind of agricultural produce that came from the Golden State. Alas, Clyde's nickname faded along with the paint and the abundance of water.

One thing Clyde ought to be remembered for is a tale from the early 1900s about an area farmer and his prized jack, a long-eared, four-footed Casanova with quite a reputation. Local farmer-rancher-businessman John Berry, who late in life wrote a little book about Clyde and some of its colorful characters and notable events, told the story in his "The Hills of Home."

In the days before farmers relied on tractors, mules played a vital role in any agricultural operation. A mule is the hard-working if sterile result of breeding a mare with a jack. That process begins in the spring. Consequently, back then any farmer owning a robust young jack could bring in a little extra money every year by making his animal available for procreation purposes. Owners of fine jacks with strong blood lines did particularly well.

Otto Schmidt, an aging farmer of German heritage, possessed such a jack. While a hard-working man of faith and integrity, neither he nor his long-time spouse commanded English with fluency. Of course, that was not unusual. In the era prior to World War One, many German Texans were much more proficient in the German language than English.

As usual, farmer Schmidt scheduled social visits for his stud jack, an animal that took natural pleasure in handling this line of work. Clearly, even a jack understood that romancing mares beat more mundane tasks. Unfortunately, as the country greened and breeding time arrived one year, Schmidt took sick and grew progressively worse.

Their family doctor told Mrs. Schmidt that her husband was in no condition to deal with all the farmers coming by with the female stock they needed to have serviced. Such business activity simply would have to stop until the old fellow with the frisky jack got to feeling better.

So, following doctor's orders, Mrs. Schmidt looked around for something to write on and settled on a shoebox lid. Then she put down in bold letters what needed to be said and nailed the sign to their gate post.

It read:

"The old man is sick, do not come to see the jackass until he gets better."

In saving that story for posterity, Berry also noted that the Schmidts had two sons, August and Otto. The couple had their first son christened Otto August. When their next boy came along, his birth certificate listed his full name as August Otto.

Though people and what they did are the core of all history, local or world, descriptions of pivotal events are another key element in understanding the past. For instance, when Berry's book came out in 1949 and for years after, it practically stood as a federal law that any work of local history had to contain three things: The name of the first white child born in the county, details surrounding the first automobile and a discussion of the first airplane seen in the town or county.

Berry doesn't mention the first Anglo kid born in Callahan County, but he did not fail to describe Clyde's first car and first aircraft ever seen over his town.

"Sam Sherrill had the first car I remember in Clyde," Berry wrote. "It was a big red Reo. He had the [Reo] agency and sold Drs. Estes and Bailey one. It was a run-about, had one cylinder and cranked on the side."

While he didn't mention the date, Berry said an east-bound bi-plane was Clyde's first flyover. The only way the pilot knew his route was to look down and follow the T&P tracks, and on this day that took the airplane from Abilene to Clyde and additional points east.

The depot agent heard via telegraph that the plane was headed toward Clyde and quickly spread the word. With the plane expected about 2 p.m. that day, schools let out early and people crowded the streets near the tracks to see a flying machine.

"Soon we could hear the hum of the motor, and we stood with open mouths as it slowly buzzed past....," Berry wrote. "We watched it until it went out of sight. Some said they still didn't believe it, there was a trick to it. Nearly everyone said they wouldn't ride in it for a million dollars."

Speaking of money, when Berry's book came out, it sold for $2. Readers definitely got their money's worth with "The Hills of Home".

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June 9, 2016 Column

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