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In the Days of Frontier Freighting

Published November 14th, 2015 by Unknown

From J. Marvin Hunter's Frontier Times Magazine, January, 1925

The Civil War left the people of West Texas exposed to the Indians, and without money, sugar, coffee or any of the luxuries of life. There were no markets for our flour, our cattle, horses, corn or other products. We raised our own bread and meat, and wore home-spun woven by our mothers on the old fashioned loom. After crops were gathered in the fall every farmer made a trip to the end of the H. & T. C. Railroad, which at that time was slowly crawling across the state from Houston towards Sherman. We always raised a good wheat crop; then took the wheat to the old water power mills on the Clear Fork of the Trinity that ran by Weatherford and Fort Worth. There was the old Harvick Mill, the Robertson Mill on the line between Tarrant and Parker, the Winslow Mill two miles above, and another mill opposite the present town of Aledo. We ground the wheat into flour, sacked it, saved the "shorts " and bran for home feed; and when ready, we started in a covered wagon for the "depot ". The flour was carefully packed in the wagon body, the camp outfit placed in the front, and all the bedding on top of the flour. The horse-freighters and the oxen freighters had entirely different customs. The horse freighters had to carry feed for their teams because the grass was practically dead by the time they started. The ox-freighters lived off of the grass. They hobbled the oxen at night and let them graze till late in the morning. They then yoked the oxen and traveled till late in the day, often after dark. The horse-freighter often started before daylight. It is true that many horse freighters made a trip to the "depot " after crops were laid by in the summer. In this case they depended on the grass to a large extent, but not entirely. Horses could not do the work without grain of some kind. This grain consisted almost entirely of corn or barley. In some rare cases even wheat was used, but it had to be used with great caution on account.of the danger of "foundering" the horses or mules. I remember with regret, my responding to the appetite of a big, brown horse and the result was that he was "foundered" and delayed us about a week.

The outfit consisted of the team, either two horses, four horses or six horses, the wagon, the down-load, the feed for the team, the bedding for the driver, and the inevitable and universal "mess box". This "mess box" varied in size and internal structure. It was rectangular in shape with a lid attached by leather hinges with a clasp on the front side. In the "mess box " was contained the "commissary department" of the freighter. The box of axle grease, which was the freighter's constant reliance in the ease of a horse wagon, was kept in a separate part of the wagon, never in the "mess box," and never in the feed trough. For a four-horse outfit the feed box at feeding time was attached to the tongue of the wagon by a slip joint. During the day it was carried on the side of the body or on top of the lead itself. A forked stick was used to place under the end of the tongue at night. The feed box was placed thereon and two horses were tied to the tongue on each side, and the corn was fed to them in the feed box. In the spring and summer after the team had eaten the evening feed it was staked out on the grass. In the fall and winter when the grass was dead the team was fed fodder, oats or hay after the grain meal. The four horse team consisted of the saddle horse, the off-wheeler, the lead horse and the off-leaders, while the freighter rode the saddle horse. A few drivers, however, preferred long lines on the wheelers and the leaders while they rode on the wagon. Young horses unbroken were always placed at the off-wheel. I remember starting out with a wild mule at the off-wheel. At the age of eighteen I could handle a four-home team like a veteran. A big gray mule by the name of "Sam" was the saddle mule. The wild mule was placed at the off-wheel. A strong halter was always kept on the wild mule and a long rope ran back and was tied firmly to one of the front horses. A second shorter rope was connected to his bridle bit and was attached to the driver's saddle. Thus when the wild mule became unruly the driver, by use of the rope attached to his hit, held him down. The near leader was generally an experienced and gentle worker. Some drivers preferred the single line and when this was the case a gentle pull turned the leader to the left, while a jerk was a signal for him to turn to the right. On one occasion we had no horse to work at the off wheel. We went out on the prairie on the Bear Creeks in Parker County and found a sway-back "stray". We drove the bunch of horses to the corral, caught the sway-back, and the next morning started him at the off-wheel where he worked throughout the trip. There were also six and eight horse teams. In the six-mule team we had the leaders the wheelers and the swing team.

The location of the camp was controlled by the demands for wood and water. The wagoners (for such was the name of the freighters in frontier days ) always looked ahead for the waterholes for noon and night camp. A few sticks of wood were always carried for an emergency, especially on the long trips over the prairies. During the dry summers the water holes or springs became oases for the freighters, and often from four to a dozen wagons would be camped around these springs or water holes at night. During very dry times enterprising farmers would go to the expense of digging a well near the road, and advertising the water. On one occasion we paid five cents per horse to have our team watered. In very rare cases the wagoners had to resort to "bois de vaca" (cow chips) for wood.

Generally four or five wagoners camped together around water holes or watering places. These nearly always messed together. They built a common fire, brought their mess boxes, each one cooked his own food, and then they passed it around. The inevitable coffee pot was always present, always on the fire, always full of coffee, red hot and boiling. I never saw a wagoner yet who would not use the half-pint tin cup, pour his coffee out of the pot into the cup, and drink it without waiting for it to cool off. It was a perpetual wonder that their lips were not blistered. Later I saw cowboys in Parker county do the same thing. On one occasion at a dare one of the wagoners took the coffee pot off the fire and drink the coffee right out of the spout. He never flinched or batted an eye lash. He denied vigorously that it even burned him, but I believe to this day that it did burn him, in spite of his denial. That coffee was strong and it would fulfill the Western test of "floating an iron wedge".

The term "depot" was used all over Western Texas, and it was universally understood that it was the end of th e H. & T. C. Railroad. My first trip was made to Old Millicin, a few miles below the present town of Navasota. Later the "depot" applied successively to Navasota, Bryan, Hearne, Groesbeck, Fosse and Corsicana. Although I was only a boy, I made trips with other teamsters to all these towns. Sometimes I made as many as two or three trips a year. These depots, to put it mildly, were "wild and wooly." Gamblers were thick, on all streets in all kinds of clothes, and gambling was not confined to cards, but every imaginable game of chance. Horse racing was rare around the "depots", while gambling with cards was rampant. The "depot" were wide open and all classes of men and women were to he found there. The bark of the six shooter at night was frequent, the saloons were 'always crowded, but it was surprising that very, very few of the wagoners drank to excess. Often I would beg the older men to take me along to the town at night, but they never took me into a saloon or a gambling house and never around drunk men. Although quarrels were frequent I never witnessed a shooting scrape. These happened late at night after I had retired. We always camped a mile or so from the "depot", went in the next morning, sold our flour, loaded up our load of goods for Cleburne, Weatherford, Jacksboro or any western town, even two or three counties away from our home. I remember distinctly that the Navasot a bottom (known in those days as the "Navasot" with the accent on the "sot") was the muddiest and the boggiest piece of road outside the Devil 's Race Track on the northeastern corner of Hunt county. It took us nearly all one day to get three teams across the Navasot. Our trip from Parker County to Millican , Bryan and Hearne led through Buchanan, Cleburne, Hillsboro, Mount Calm, Marlin, and on to Hearne. Our download was generally flour, but many was the load of dry raw-hides that I saw stacked on the wagons like a load of hay. These were sold by weight; and many a wagoner stopped the night before, unloaded his hides, spread them out on the prairie with the hair side up in order to baptize them in the dews of heaven and thus increase the weight for the next day. This seemed to be a universal custom.

The load from the "depot" always consisted of dry goods, groceries, etc., for the stores in western towns. The wagoners would often have to wait a week to secure a load. These goods were always shipped to the care of a local merchant in the " depot "town and he awarded the load to some wagoner. The local merchant inspected the team and always insisted that they have a wagon sheet because a good duck wagon sheet was necessary to protect the goods from damage by rain. I know in one case a local merchant overlooked the wagon-sheet requirement; and a rain came up on the wagoner. A new bale of ducking was in the shipment of goods. He took it out and proceeded to make a wagon-sheet himself by sewing the strips together, and at the end of the journey he paid the owner merchant for the duck that he had used. I witnessed this emergency tailor at work with a large spaying needle.

The upload often consisted of miscellaneous merchandise, and many times there would be a barrel of whiskey in the load. I saw one ingenious wagoner who understood the laws of physics, secure a bottle of whiskey. He took took advantage of the fact that the whiskey had a specific gravity of about .75 or about three-fourths that of water. He bored a hole in the top of the whiskey barrel through which he could fit the neck of the old Burbon bottle of whiskey, filled the bottle full of water, suddenly inverted it, pushed it through the hole in the top of the barrel, and gravity did the rest. The water went down, the whiskey carne up. He then whittled a plug out of soft pine, drove it through the hole, smeared it over with grease and the deed was done. Another wagoner with a strong pair of lungs resorted to the pneumatic process. He bored a small hole in the top of the barrel with a gimlet, inserted a long carne pipe stem through the hole into the whiskey. He then placed his mouth over the pipe stem and blew and blew and blew. The air filled the air place above the whiskey in the barrel: and the pneumatic pressure was enough when he moved his month, to produce a jet of' the whiskey. To prevent the whiskey's falling back vertically, he blew sidewise on the jet and cascaded the \whiskey over into a washpan. After his washpan was full he then removed the quill, poured water into the barrel through the hole, plugged it, smeared grease over it to cover up his traces. I saw another ingenious wagoner extract brown sugar form a barrel in a somewhat similar way. He bored a hole about a half inch in diameter in the top of the barrel, secured a piece of tin , rolled it into a cylinder somewhat less than a half inch in diameter, pushed it down into the sugar, and the tin cylinder, when withdrawn, was full of brown sugar. The process was repeated until he had all the sugar he wanted.

Before the H. & T. C. Railroad started from Houston all of west Texas "wagoned" to old Jefferson, at the head of Buffalo Bayou, Goods came up Red River then through the Bayou, to Jefferson, and were hauled from our other Western towns. It was a clearing house and the open port to the whole of West Texas. But after the railroad started from Houston, Jefferson ceased to be the clearinghouse for Western Texas. All towns from old Bell Ficklin to Jacksboro diverted their route to the "depot." Wagoner that obtained loads for towns in the Indian country would collect at some town on the edge of the frontier and there wait until eight or more wagons arrived. They would then make the trip as a train under the command of some leader, all heavily armed for an Indian attack. I remember on one occasion we had collected at Weatherford, and there were ten wagons about ready to start. One of the drivers suddenly became sick and a shift of drivers took place. I was going with an older driver with a four-horse team. In the shift they assigned me a two horse team of gentle, steady horses in the middle of the train. I sat up in the spring seat, my feet not touching the floor, with a double-barreled shotgun in the corner of the wagon ready for use. While it seems foolhardy to this day and past belief, I was anxious for a scrap with the Indians and I was continually looking out on the right and left for Indian signs. We arrived in Jacksboro safe and sound, camped by the side of a small creek and wandered over the town at night, free and secure, The government had established a military fort at Jacksboro and the soldiers afforded protection against the Indians near the town. However, the Indians would not hesitate to come within a few miles of the garrisoned fort. They calculated that the soldiers would require time in starting and they could easily get away. It most he said they generally did get away, and I have heard the Western settlers often complain at the slowness of the soldiers.

It must have been in 1863 that I went through the Indian country with the freighters to Jacksboro. After supper I was strolling along the hank of a little stream and I came upon a quarrel between a citizen and a soldier. I had not seen the beginning of the quarrel, but it soon developed into a regular bare knuckle and skull fight. They knocked each other down, but they did not attempt to stamp each other or gouge each other's eyes. It was fist and skull and no Marquis of Queensbury laws prevailed. The fight finally terminated in favor of the citizen. I stood off and watched it, the sole spectator. Each man was left bloody and almost completely exhausted. I retailed the circumstances to the freighters when they returned from the town. I gave a vivid description of all that occurred. Remember that I knew neither of the fighters, had never seen them before, and have never seen them since. At the conclusion of my recital one or my neighbor freighters said to me, "Tom, who were they?"

I replied, "It was a Yankee and a white man," for it never occurred to me to class a Yankee as a white man; then one of the men asked if the Yankee was not also a white man. I replied "Yes he is a white man, but he is a Yankee." That story of the Yankee and the white man got back to my neighborhood, and I never lived it down until I left there.


They Antedated Austin

It is true that Stephen F. Austin is called the "Father of Texas," but let me tell you of my great-great-grandfather, who blazed the trails to civilization which made Texas the peaceful land in which we now dwell. My great, great-grandfather was a native of Arkansas. In 1820 he started for Texas with his family. They had no wagons and had to depend on pack horses. On December 15, 1820, they arrived at the Brazos River. On January 8th, 1921, they crossed the Colorado River where the town of Columbus now stands. They were the first white family that ever crossed the Colorado River. On July 18, 1821, Stephen F. Austin landed at the mouth of the Colorado River in Matagorda county. My great-great-grandfather took some men and moved Austin and his followers up to the settlement. Ausin gave him a barrel of flour for his kindness. It was the first bread they had eaten in eighteen months. In June 1823, my grandfather left the settlement to go farther into this once vast Wilderness. He came to a large lake one day and found two big eagles upon it. He killed them both and from that time it has been known as Eagle Lake, where the beautiful little city of Eagle Lake now stands. On July 4, 1824, my great-great-grandfather died in his fifty-third year at a place now known as Cave City, in Wharton County. While Stephen F. Austin was a great and noble man, let us not forget the men who made trails in which Austin followed. Judge William Rabb, J. Duty, R. Kuykendall, Dan Gilliland, Thos. Williams, D. Rowals, Judge Cummins, Capt. Christman, and a few others were here when Austin's colony arrived in 1821. --Annie V. Blackburn, Blessing, Texas

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