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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Business in Wild and Woolly
Tee Pee City

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A buffalo wasn’t the only critter that could get skinned on the High Plains if he wasn’t careful.

In 1877, when the Panhandle still teemed with hundreds of thousands of shaggy-haired bison, a young traveling salesman checked in with his home office at Galveston by telegraph from Henrietta. He worked for Leon and H. Blum, then the Southwest’s largest wholesaler of staple and dry goods.

“They directed me to proceed to Tee Pee City in Motley County to collect an account against Armstrong, who operated a general store [there],” the one-time salesman later recalled.

Founded in 1875 as a buffalo hunter camp on the site of an old Comanche village on the east side of Tee Pee Creek where it enters the middle fork of the Pease River, Tee Pee City was one of the Panhandle’s first settlements. Consisting of dugouts, tents and a few frame buildings, it boasted a couple of saloons, a small hotel and one or two eating places not quite refined enough to be called restaurants. In addition to booze, the saloons offered girls and gambling. Finally, Tee Pee City had one or two retail establishments, including the store operated by Isaac O. Armstrong, the fellow whose account stood in arrears.

Armstrong and his partner reported to Charles Rath and Lee Reynolds, traders who had hauled everything it took to start Tee Pee City from Dodge City, Kansas. Rath and Reynolds had since moved on to the Clear Fork of the Brazos, where they had opened another buffalo hunter trading post.

Knowing nothing lay between Henrietta and Tee Pee City but open prairie, the salesman got a horse and a pack horse and rode northwest for 170 miles or so until he found the place.

“When I reached Tee Pee City,” the salesman continued, “I found Armstrong had gone to Liberal, Kansas with a load of buffalo hides and to bring back merchandise. The smallpox was raging in the town, many people suffering from the epidemic. I went down the creek about a mile and established my camp and waited.”

Three or four days later, Armstrong returned from his buying trip and the salesman hit him up about “the matter of settlement.”

Lacking any ready cash but having a small mountain of unsold buffalo hides on his hands, Anderson cleverly – he thought – offered to pay off what he owed in hides. Unfortunately, Anderson didn’t know what the salesman knew. Before leaving Henrietta, thanks to the telegraph, he had learned of a recent “sensational rise in the price of buffalo hides.”

Realizing the hides in question would fetch a lot more than Anderson thought, the salesman readily agreed to the merchant’s proposition. In fact, he later said, “I bought all the hides he had…, gave him credit for the account he owed and wrote a draft on the house [the Galveston jobber he represented] for the difference.”

The young salesman then chartered every available wagon in Tee Pee City, all seven or eight of them, loaded them with the newly purchased hides and headed east for the nearest market in Fort Worth. Hurrying back to Henrietta from the community that would later be known as Cowtown, the salesman wired his company about the draft he’d writen.

“In the deal I made several hundred dollars for my employers,” he said.

Barely a year later, most of the buffalo had been killed or moved off and Tee Pee City declined, though Armstrong continued to run his store until his death in 1884. Tee Pee City got a second wind when ranching came to the South Plains as merchants realized cowboys could spend as freely on booze and dance hall girls as the buffalo hunters had.

Rowdy cowboys kept the Texas Rangers busy and greatly annoyed the pious owners of the sprawling Matador Ranch. When it got the opportunity in 1904, the ranch gladly bought the land on which Tee Pee City stood and quickly killed off the town.

The salesman who had skinned Anderson in the financial sense was Sam Lazarus, a man who continued to demonstrate his business acumen. Lazarus, who by then lived in St. Louis, told the Tee Pee City story to G.E. Hamilton in 1921 on board his private railroad car between Quanah and Roaring Springs. Hamilton related the story to the editor of the Matador Tribune, who published it. The reason Lazarus had his own railroad car was because he was president of the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railroad.

Tee Pee City Texas markers
Tee Pee City Historical Marker & Centennial Marker
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, July 2009

The only reminders of Tee Pee City today are a gray granite historical marker put up by the state in 1936 on a mesa just west of the site, Anderson’s grave and the graves of two children.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
April 14, 2011 column

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