A SENSE OF SCALE - BUFFALO HUNTING
I’m a fan of Tom Hanks. I’ve seen most of his films and I just love the actor. His ability to make his characters believable and authentic is unsurpassed. Lately, I’ve been watching the movie, News of the World. It’s the story of Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the owner of a newspaper printing business in San Antonio. He left to fight in the Civil War, and while he was gone, his beloved wife died of cholera. Set adrift by losing both his wife and his printing business, as well as the atrocities he witnessed in the war, he now rides town to town reading selections from local and national newspapers to audiences who don’t have the time to read or cannot read for themselves.
Traveling after a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, Kidd finds a young German girl who was kidnapped several years before by the Kiowa, speaks no English, and is being returned to her extended family in Castroville, a town near San Antonio. The man taking her was hung by vigilantes, so it falls to Kidd to take her on to her family. The situation forces him to confront his losses, as well as the emptiness in his life that he has refused to fill.
I’ve watched the film several times, absorbed with how life in 1870 is authentically and brutally portrayed. It’s also fun to recognize the background in the various scenes because the film was shot on a movie ranch south of Santa Fe. It was filmed, in fact, where the recent accidental shooting of a cinematographer occurred.
There is an incident in the film that takes place in “Erath County” and concerns the deplorable conditions of an encampment of buffalo hunters who kill buffalo, skin off the hides, bundle them, and then ship them back east to the hide markets. Erath County exists, roughly between Ft. Worth and San Antonio, while the encampment is similar to a historical encampment that was located farther northwest from Erath County, a hundred miles or so east of Lubbock, near the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River.
There were nominally three great regions of buffalo: the northern herds north of the Platte River in Nebraska, the central herds in Kansas, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado, and the great southern herds in eastern New Mexico, Texas, and western Oklahoma. They ranged outside those areas, from Mexico to Canada, but the majority were found on the Great Plains. They numbered between 70 and 80 million at the beginning of the 19th century, but by the beginning of the 20th century, only a few hundred remained.
Why were so many animals killed in such a short time?
I thought it was linked to the increased access that railroads gave to the Great Plains. There’s an iconic painting showing gunmen on top of train cars, shooting buffalo at their leisure, and I remember the boast of one shooter who had killed a thousand in a single day. There was also the desire of railroad owners to keep the herds away from the tracks. The dividing of the buffalo habitat by the railroads and the towns that followed them, caused considerable losses from the disruption of migration routes, as did the prevalent use of barbed wire to section off property. And it’s probably true that the Army decimated the buffalo at every turn so that the Plains Indians would lose their primary source of living.
I’m not sure what the numbers are in each of those cases, but I found another reason that has some frightening numbers when it comes to the disappearance of the buffalo.
In 1871, an English firm using buffalo hides to produce winter coats, robes, and rugs wanted to develop new processes for handling hides. They ordered 500 hides from Kansas for experimentation. More economical ways to tan hides were developed, and one firm in Philadelphia ordered 2000 hides, paying $3.50 each. Other tanneries, including some in England and Germany, began regular orders.
Money was a big motivator and the big hunt was on. It consumed Kansas first and then spilled over into southern Nebraska and eastern Colorado. Within three years, aided by new railroad lines, hunters and shooters had destroyed the central herds for their hides. In 1873, with some of the Indian tribes being sent to reservations, buffalo hunters seized the opportunity to enter the Texas Panhandle. By the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874, there may have been as many as fifty buffalo hunting outfits working in the Panhandle.
Two years later, in 1876, a man named Charles Rath joined with a succession of different traders to increase his mercantile operation based in Dodge City, Kansas. He had, by the way, provided the Adobe Walls trading post with equipment and supplies in 1874, eight weeks before the attack. He established other trading centers in Texas, then, following the burgeoning hide business, he moved from Dodge City to a small town that he himself had established, named Rath City, a few miles below the Brazos River. This sounds like the encampment in the Tom Hanks movie.
At its height in the winter of 1877-78, Rath City “consisted of some half a dozen adobe and cedar buildings…[that included] the main store, a magazine house, [Jim] Hopkins restaurant and hotel, George Aiken’s saloon and dance hall, Smokey Thompson’s wagon-yard, Charlie Sing’s laundry,…a barber shop and a blacksmith shop.”
It became well known that next to owning a cattle ranch, buffalo hunting was the most profitable enterprise on the frontier. Perhaps as many as 4,000 men (hunters, skinners, buyers, teamsters) sought hides across the West Texas country, many of them trading at Rath City when they came in to buy supplies. Charles Rath and his partners worked to keep prices low ($2.00 per bull hide, less for female hides) and in the two-month period from December 1877 through January 1878, bought and sold perhaps 20,000 hides. Before the place shut down in 1879, some 1.1 million hides had passed through the town, most handled by Rath’s store. Considering the number of other “hide towns” that had been created, included Buffalo Gap south of Abilene, Deep Creek at modern Snyder, and even Fort Concho, in present day San Angelo, buffalo hunting was no incidental occupation by a few hunters—it was an aggressive industry managed for profit that was responsible for the slaughter of millions of buffalo.
By 1877, Dodge City was on its way to becoming a major shipping point for moving cattle to northern markets, and the buffalo-hide business was becoming less important. Different markets were developed and centralized distribution centers were changed, but it was mainly the decrease in the number of buffalo available to be killed that put the industry on the decline.
In early February of 1877, an increasing number of Comanche Indians escaped the reservations in Oklahoma and returned to the Palo Duro canyonlands and the Llano Estacado of Texas. Several attacks took place, destroying camp equipment, stealing horses and mules, and killing the hated hunters, and then escalated into raids in the Rolling Plains area around the Wichita, Pease, Brazos, and Concho rivers. By 1878, it was not safe for hunters on the prairie, or even in Rath City. For most hide men, the big hunt was over.
With the aggressive settlement of the Texas Panhandle and the creation of large cattle ranches, the decade after 1870 decreased the herds to the point that they could never recover.
This information was mostly sourced from The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877, by Paul H. Carlson, 2003.
PERMISSION TO NOT READ
A friend and I planned on playing a WWII board game about the Battle of the Bulge. After the golf course closed for the winter, we’d used our regular golfing time to switch over and play a game that covered December 16 to January 15, 1944-45.
My personal reason for playing the game is that my dad was in Bastogne in 1944 when the Offensive began. He didn’t leave Bastogne until December 19 when the Allies realized they were seeing a full-blown attack by the German Army to take control of Belgium. My dad’s unit was a Signal Aircraft Warning squadron with a truck-based radar unit and since the radar was considered classified, he was ordered to keep it from being captured by the Germans. He and his unit moved ten miles away on the 19th, then twenty more miles away on the 22nd, and twenty more miles on the 23rd, settling in Philippeville, Belgium, until mid-January, after the Allies had successfully pushed the Germans backwards.
However, after watching YouTube videos of others playing the game, my friend figured out that our particular board game was based on a book by an eminent WWII historian, uses a play-board that is about five feet by six feet, uses a few hundred game pieces, has a twenty-page introduction manual, a twenty-page players’ manual, a huge guide to player strategies, and some pretty complex rules.
The time period for each “move” by a player covers six hours of historical time during the battle, but one “move” takes about two hours of clock time to complete. That is, if we (the Allies) made a strategic move using our game pieces, then the rules require updating the German pieces on the board (according to history) takes as long as two hours per move. We would then make another move.
If you consider that the game has 4 mutual moves per 24-hour historical cycle, for 30 historical days, taking about two clock hours per move, we could spend 240 hours to play one game. Playing only a couple of hours every week, it would take us a couple of years to finish. That didn’t seem reasonable, so my friend ordered another Battle of the Bulge game that takes a total of 2 hours to play. That’s more like what we wanted and is much more at my level.
Before realizing this, I had ordered the history book on which the game was based, planning on reading the book before playing the game. I found it to be about two inches thick, with 712 pages. I am sure that it has a great deal of information that I would like to know, but it might take the winter just to read it.
I decided not to read it, even with it being well-written and having information I wanted to know. I hate not reading books after having spent the money to buy them, and, in this instance, would certainly have learned many good details about the Battle of the Bulge. I’d like to visit Bastogne someday and reading the book would have given me an insider’s knowledge for my trip. However, playing the game was supposed to be fun and spending a significant part of my remaining life doing so wouldn’t be any fun at all.
Giving myself permission to not read the one book, I admitted to myself that I had a number of books in my office that I would never read, books that I’ve read once that I wouldn’t read again, and other books whose next use would be for selling at a garage sale after my death. Meanwhile, I had five stacks of to-be-read books, from five to twelve books each, sitting in various places throughout my house.
In a burst of honesty, I now have a table with more than 120 books that I am taking to my local library. They have a volunteer-led bookstore that sells donated used books. By consolidating the empty shelf space, I was able to fit in my other books.
I do feel bad. Writers are supposed to have immense libraries. Those bastions of literary words are meant to lead to inspiration, I think. In this regard, I’m rather weak. I have a lot of interests and reading is only one of them. Being surrounded by unread books makes me feel guilty, not inspired.
One benefit from my soul cleansing is that I now have a better idea of the books I have and what seems to be relevant to me. I have three shelves of books about New Mexico and the Southwest; one half-shelf about cowboys and frontier explorers; one shelf that holds large format books, pertaining mostly to history (and lighthouses; I like lighthouses); three shelves about World War II; one half-shelf about witchcraft in the Southwest, while the other half holds travel books. I have two shelves of writing books, four of novels, and one dedicated to a collection of books by Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Larry McMurtry. Lastly, I have one shelf that holds books about woodcraft, guitar making, and furniture making.
I’m sure that I’m giving away important books that would benefit me. On the other hand, they would only benefit me if I read them, so honesty is sometimes best used to improve the situation, even at the cost of giving away good books. I hope other people will enjoy them.
Last Friday, the tenth book in my Mogi Franklin Mystery Series, War Train, became available on Amazon.
The story is centered around the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a famous Fred Harvey House built in 1898 by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. A hundred yards from the tracks, the huge Spanish hacienda-styled hotel was built specifically for train passengers, but it also served the surrounding communities. Teddy Roosevelt held the first Rough Riders Reunion there in 1899.
It was a large, famous, and fabulous hotel in its first two decades but fell on hard times during the Depression. It came roaring back with Pearl Harbor and the years of World War II. A few million soldiers were fed in the lunch room on the way to training camps, military assignments, or on their way to Europe or the Pacific. On some occasions, the Harvey Girls took sandwich fixings out to tables on the sidewalk, made sandwiches, and handed them to GIs through the train windows as the train paused as it pulled through.
After the war, the railroad-based hotel business dissolved under an America that had fallen in love with cars and busses. The Castaneda limped along mostly as a vacant building until 2014, when it was purchased by Allan Affeldt, the restorer of the Las Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Affeldt began restoring the hotel in 2016 and it reopened in 2019. I was able to see the hotel under construction in 2017 (Affeldt hosted an open house), took an official tour a year after that, then visited in August, on the way back from Texas. It looks like it’s doing fine. Check out the accommodations at castanedahotel.org.
The historical mystery that anchors the Mogi story is a bank robbery that occurs in 1943, in Las Vegas, a block or so from the Castaneda, and from which two robbers and a bag full of fresh one hundred-dollar bills vanish without a trace. Mogi and Jennifer get involved in the present day when Jennifer becomes a summer student in an architectural program researching the building’s features before the interior of the hotel is demolished in preparation for remodeling. A hidden attic is discovered, and inside the attic is a locked trunk from 1945. When it’s opened, a few hundred-dollar bills fall out and the real mystery begins.
You’ll enjoy it, especially if you like World War II memories. As with my other books, if you would like to try it out before buying, the first two chapters are available for reading at DonaldWillerton.com.
In other news, the two books that were finalists in the New Mexico/Arizona Book Contest didn’t win any prizes, but it’s nice to know that someone other than friends read my adult novels.
Also, the rework of my latest manuscript, The Biggest Cowboy In The World, has been finished. It’s considerably smaller and better than my first edition. I’m forcing myself to wait a month before doing a final read-through, and then I’ll submit it again.
I don’t know what I’ll be working on next, but the brilliant colors of fall are fading away, we’re into Indian Summer, and Thanksgiving is coming. The weather will get colder, which means fires in my wood stove, which means I’ll be camped out in my recliner, watching the flames. That means more book reading time, contemplative time, and I’m sure to find a plot somewhere.
QUITE AN ADVENTURE
My three adult sons and I recently stayed five days near Glacier National Park. I rented a log home ten miles away from the Park entrance (it was a family home for thirty years; all of us had separate beds and bedrooms, plus multiple bathrooms; by far, the best way for a family vacation). Our main objective was to see the Park for the first time, but included hiking several trails, doing a number of landscape photo shoots, cooking meals, and eating out. We had a great time.
The mountains in Glacier are not like those in Colorado. I’m used to massive, broad-based mountains with peaks that are commonly climbed. The majority of the fourteeners (peaks higher than 14,000 feet in elevation) in Colorado have well-trod trails that are described in a number of guidebooks. There are typically different trailheads. Climbing most peaks involves miles of hiking through backcountry until you come to the above-treeline trails for the last one to two thousand feet of ascent. If close to other fourteeners, it’s typical to find trails in-between.
Glacier geology includes mostly sedimentary rock (versus granite in Colorado), and the mountain structures are left from glaciers grinding off layers of rock, giving the peaks a beautiful striated appearance. It also makes the mountains steep (sometimes shear) and relatively isolated; I didn’t see any peaks I would have the courage to climb. People have climbed them, but the Park Service firmly recommends that they should be attempted only by experienced mountaineers with appropriate equipment. The climbing season is also comparatively short—the main road through the park is typically closed in October or November because of snow (the main pass is only about 30 miles south of the Canadian border) until sometimes May or June. Climbing mountains in Glacier isn’t a major attraction.
The tallest peak in the Park is at about 10,400 feet. The most viewed peaks are in the 7,000 to 9,000 foot range. The highest trails average in the 6,000+ range, which meant that I was always lower than where I live, which made breathing no problem. There are many hiking trails (734 miles worth), and many are spectacular, but the Park’s calling cards are the vast panoramas and scenic overlooks, the abundance of remote lakes and streams (762 lakes, 563 streams, which makes drowning the biggest cause of death in the Park), the glaciers (yep, you’d better go soon; they’re retreating), and the wildlife (we saw a grizzly bear up-close and a mountain goat far-away).
There are things to be tolerated in the Park, the biggest being the traffic. There are more than two million visitors every season, with only one major, two-lane road that crosses from the west side of the Park to the east. The result is that parking lots and road pull-outs are mostly full after 8:00 in the morning. Last year, they implemented a limited-entry requirement to enter the Park, which turned away many visitors. My sons and I did a sunrise photo shoot one morning, and two hikes from the Logan Pass parking lot, which is the most popular location in the Park. Both times, we left the house by 5:45 am to make it to the parking lot before 7:00, by which it was already half-full, and we did not leave until after lunch. Many cars stay parked all day (hikers), which makes the parking lot problematic for visitors who just wanted to stop and take pictures.
The most pleasing part was having an adventure with my children. It was worth every penny.
On the book front, I was notified on Friday that The King of Trash is a finalist in Fiction Adventure/Drama category of the 2021 New Mexico/Arizona Book Contest, and that Teddy’s War is a finalist in the Historical Fiction category. They’ll announce the top three books in every category in a couple of weeks.
Also, in spite of promising to leave my aborted manuscript in the proverbial drawer for a number of months, I took it out after a couple of days because of my having new ideas for its resurrection. The major drastic change involves rewriting the story from a third-person omnipotent viewpoint to a first-person narrator viewpoint. It’s making a considerable difference and I like it better. I’ll finish it before Thanksgiving and then see how it reads.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.