not mentioned in any of his biographies, but one of Texas’ best known authors
wrote portions of one of his best-known books while sequestered in a tarpaper-covered
shack in the Chisos Basin. |
J. Frank Dobie, raised in the flat brush country
of South Texas and schooled in humid Central Texas at Georgetown’s
Southwestern University, first saw the high, dry Big Bend country in 1910 when
he got off the train at Alpine.
Fresh out of college, he had been hired to teach English at Alpine High School.
Being the only male faculty member, he also – at twenty-two – would be the school’s
Dobie’s letters to his future wife Bertha reveal that while
he didn’t like the isolation of the small West
Texas ranching town, he did appreciate that he had come just about as close
to what remained of frontier Texas as he would ever get. While in Alpine,
where he lived in a boarding house, he became acquainted with John Young, an old
South Texas cowboy. Though schooled in the classics, the young teacher-headmaster
liked to listen to oldtimers like Young hold forth on their adventurous salad
classes ended in the spring of 1911, Dobie got offered a teaching job at his alma
mater’s prep school back in Georgetown
and quickly accepted it. While the rancher’s kids he taught probably ended up
knowing more about English poetry than they thought useful, the payoff for Dobie’s
Alpine stint was his
association with Young, which in 1929 culminated in his first book, “A Vaquero
of the Brush Country.”|
Producing a succession of books after that, including the best-selling collection
of treasure stories he called “Coronado’s Children,” by the late 1930s Dobie had
become a Texas icon. And in 1938, he signed a contract to produce a book on another
Texas icon, the longhorn.|
In January 1939, Dobie holed up for a time at the four-year-old Civilian Conservation
Corps camp in the Chisos Basin, the future heart of Big Bend National Park. While
CCC men blazed trails, graded roads and built infrastructure, Dobie worked to
cobble together earlier longhorn stories he had written while also adding new
material for a work that would bear the simple title “The Longhorns.” |
little is known of Dobie’s stay in the Big
Bend may be credited to Fred Gipson, then a roving columnist for Texas’
Harte-Hanks newspaper chain. Gipson, who while a student at the University of
Texas had taken Dobie’s popular Southwestern literature course, probably remembered
Dobie better than Dobie remembered him. A sucessful if typically low-paid journalist,
Gipson still chafed at the suggestion Dobie had made after reading some of his
work at UT – don’t figure on a career as a writer.
Nevertheless, the affable,
white-haired writer graciously greeted Gipson at the door of the CCC structure
he had been living in.
"Come into this house," he said, taking Gipson's
hand in both of his. Inside, the air was thick with Dobie's pipe smoke.
"How's the Texas longhorn book coming?" Gipson soon asked. He saw paper in a typewriter
on a small table and a clutter of notes on a bigger table nearby.
just this minute chasing a longhorn bull over a ridge," Dobie said. "But sit down
and tell me about yourself. I don't think that bull will get away for a little
They rolled cigarettes and talked. After the smokes, Dobie led Gipson
outside for a commentary on the magnificent peaks circling the basin. Even though
he was there to write about a notable breed of Texas cattle, Dobie seemed constitutionally
incapable of visiting a place without acquiring information and stories about
its people, animals and features.
On their way back to the shack, Dobie
stopped at the ample woodpile stacked nearby. "Like to chop wood," he said, "nearly
as well as I like to ride a horse. When my mind doesn't work good, I come out
and chop wood . . . . See, here's a piece of mountain ebony."
fading with the sun, Dobie started a fire in the cabin’s wood heater. Needing
to do some writing of his own, Gipson hauled in his portable typewriter, and both
men hit the keys as night came. By the time Gipson finished a column fine snow
had begun falling. Dobie had already quit for the day and had gone down to park
caretaker Lloyd Wade's cabin to see about supper.
As Gipson drove to Wade’s
cabin to join them, the headlights of his car stopped a mountain lion slinking
in a nearby arroyo. The big cat looked at the car for a minute, but then ambled
off into the darkness.
The visiting reporter, Dobie, Wade, and Tom Mercer,
a Railroad Commission inspector based in San
Angelo, sat on rough benches to a meal of chili con carne, frijoles and fried
potatoes. Afterward, as the wind howled and the snowflakes grew bigger, the men
talked of cattle and cowboys. It was nearly midnight before they got the last
old longhorn rounded up and went to bed.
1941 book still stands as the starting place for anyone interested in Texas
longhorns, but Dobie was not incapable of misjudgment. Ignoring his former
professor’s pronouncement that he’d never make it as a writer, Gipson went on
to produce one of the world’s enduring children’s classics, “Old Yeller.” |
"Texas Tales" June
2 , 2011 column
Books by Mike Cox - Order Now|