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from the Gillespie County town of Harper

A short drive from Fredericksburg you can meet a transplanted East Texas philosopher who went to Washington-on-the-Potomac. He wanted to dig graves but became the "lion and tiger man" at the Washington Zoo. Along the way he donated a motorcycle to the Smithsonian Institution and narrowly escaped getting rich.

We were passing through Harper, Texas. A town that is not mentioned as frequently as Fredericksburg is. We spent a few minutes in the town's shady midtown park and crossed the highway to read the historical marker about the McDonald massacre. We spotted a huge flowering cactus next to the door of a 1930s era gas station, which is now a residence. While we photographed the cactus, a man appeared in the door and gestured to us to come in. He didn't wait for an answer but turned back inside, confidant we would follow.
Bones  with glasses
Bones never has to hunt for his glasses
TE photo

We entered and were offered a chair and a Coke. Our host wore an under-beard, overalls and work boots. The room was comfortable and neat as a pin. If it wasn't for the cowhide chairs and the nail keg-bongo drums, you might have thought the room to be military barracks ready for inspection or a monk's quarters.

A high clothesline passed between the living area and the bed, but rather than supporting a screen, the line suspended twelve cow rib bones, joined by string to form six pair. They were draped over the cord much like pairs of sneakers thrown over power lines in the better neighborhoods of Houston. The man had introduced himself as "Bones" so we knew right away there was a connection. He took down a set and positioned them in his fist like they were a primitive martial arts weapon. He then flicked his hand like you would if you stuck your two longest fingers in a bowl of boiling oatmeal. The sound of bone on bone was crisp and clean. It sounded like last call at a Mahjong parlor or one of those 1930s cartoons featuring a chorus line of dancing skeletons.

His broke into a smile, not out of pride, but out of reaction to the sound. It's a sound that even makes the performer smile. He said he had learned it from a man in Newton County and while many people have heard spoons played in a similar way, it is definitely an art (and a different sound) playing Bones. Bones (the man) plays harmonica as well, and sits in on jam sessions in one of Harper's Cafés.

Space permits only a few of Bones' stories, but each one deserves to be recorded. Bones has been featured in Texas Monthly. We asked for the month and year of the issue so we could read what they had to say. He told us he couldn't remember the month or year, but that "it was on page 65." It seems he caught the writer's attention when he was selling handmade horsehair fly whisks in the replica oil field town of Gladys City in Beaumont.

Like many exceptional Texans, Bones was born out of state, but spent a lot of time in Bon Weir, Newton County. Bon Weir is French for Good Weir. It's so close to Louisiana you can hear their loud music. He reached under his chair that had a swivel built in to accommodate a family- size tin of Prince Albert. This is the chair he sits in when he stretches cowhide over chair frames, nail kegs and even (at least one) toilet seat.

Bones told us he bought this place after it had just finished being a gunsmith's shop. Since it was built in Bones' birth year of 1929, it has also been a laundromat, several cafes, a bakery and a store, besides it's life as a gas station. About the only enterprise he didn't mention was a bowling alley.

Bones with Doll
TE photo

Q: What's the difference between Bones and Vidal Sassoon?

A: Vidal Sassoon probably never skinned a possum.

Bones honed his skinning skills as a boy, and his father taught him to cut hair as well. He recently donated this talent to the Salvation Army men's facility in Kerrville, cutting the hair of "about 400" men. He observed that out of all those souls, only 3 or 4 felt their circumstances were a result of their actions or attitude. An observation worth repeating.

His observant nature and his knowledge of animal anatomy have served him in the capacity of "jackleg veterinarian" when the real McCoy wasn't around. You'll have to admit, he'd taken enough critters apart to know where things belonged and when they weren't in the right place.

As for himself, he's never been sick after being discharged from the Army in 1946 and he considers himself to be blessed. He's able to pay his mortgage with his social security benefits, and still has money left after buying his groceries to extend small loans to friends. One of his sons and a daughter-in-law do volunteer work in Guatemala. Pecans don't fall far from the tree.

Plots Thicken in The Big Thicket

He told us an interesting story of a formerly well-known suicide in an East Texas county that shall remain nameless. The suicide was a Sheriff who had run the County like George Pharr ran Duval County or Huey Long ran Louisiana. Except Huey had his good points.

The story was told to Bones in 1986 by a man in his seventies. Bones said he "sort of went into a trance" while telling the story, "like he was reliving the event." The man had been a boy during the depression and helped feed the family by slaughtering found hogs. A calf crossed his path one day, and let's just say he didn't look too hard for the owner. He butchered it and was caught with a smoking cleaver. The Sheriff made a special effort to get the boy tried as an adult. He got 18 months in Huntsville.

Several years passed and the Sheriff had shot not a few unarmed "fugitives." We mention this to establish the fact that this guy was not a nice person. The narrator saw the Sheriff entering his office alone one day, when he (the narrator) just happened to be returning a borrowed pistol to someone in town. He entered the office and got the drop on the Sheriff who asked him what he wanted. "I'm here to kill you," he supposedly said. He had the Sheriff call his son on the telephone. With the gun pressing the flesh, he was told to say "I've decided to kill myself." The son heard these words and then a bang. It was ruled a suicide. Bones might be pulling our leg bone, which is (eventually) connected to our head bone, but he did furnish the name of the Sheriff, so we'll check it out and let you know. Bones has also said that neither the Sheriff nor the shooter have living kin.


Born to Donate

One day while he was working in Washington, his boss at the Zoo asked him to retrieve a canoe from Chesapeake Bay. It was, of course after hours, and the boss paid him $6.00. He was also asked to dispose of some trash, including a 1918 Stearns Motorcycle. He told his boss if he could have the cycle, he'd give him back his $6.00. Bones and his brother rode it around D.C. for quite sometime. A man from the Smithsonian talked them into donating it and indeed, there's a photo on Bones' wall of a Smithsonian Motorcycle Exhibit. Bones tells us that the donor's plaque is actually hanging around the headlight of another cycle, three cycles to the right of his.


Dolls don't have bones, but….

Bones has a miniature of himself, which is so lifelike it's scary. About a foot tall, the effigy is hunkered down in overalls made from real ones, with the real metal buttons on the suspenders. His hat is made from a real hat as well, including the Stetson nameplate. The beard is coyote fur and the face and hands were baked. The mini-he was given to him by a woman who made Abraham Lincoln dolls. Bones' took her husband to the hospital after he had had a heart attack, thereby saving his life. Looking for a way to partially repay Bones, she noticed how much he resembled Abe Lincoln and made the few alterations necessary on a doll she had just started.

We had to get on the road, so we left Bones there in Harper, although we would have enjoyed having him come with us. We'll be visiting him again, for stories, observations, or just to refresh our outlook on life.

June, 2000
© John Troesser


Readers' Comments:

You cannot imagine the nostalgia you invoked when I read your article about Bones in Harper! Being his neighbor for 3 years we could not have done a better job writing his story - we even read a few things we did not know about him in your article! There are a couple of things, though, that I think are worthy of adding.

True enough Bones plays the bones in the Friday night jam session at the Harper Cafe, but you didn't mention his friend Spoons who plays the spoons you talked about. The whole thing is great, but it wasn't the same after the washtub lady died.

I can't remember when Bones set up his "Bovine Fecal Art Gallery," but it was probably some time after you passed through based on the fact that you didn't mention it at all. He shellacked cow pies to a wooden plaque, fashioned some yellow rope to look like blonde braids, and hung it on the outside of his gas station/home. I suppose he had to have something to do after he stopped covering stuff with hides he got from the Raz Auction rejects!

I could go on and tell you about the breakfast burrito operation that was quickly abandoned for a scuba gear shop, but it's getting late. Thank you for so accurately depicting the charm of Harper - the people!

-The Myers family formerly from Harper across the street from Bones in the white house that always looked like a zoo/construction site! September 12, 2002

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