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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Stars Falling
on the Texas Panhandle

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Like the most famous Christmas story of all, this one begins with an unusually bright light in the night sky.

At some point when the vast landscape of the Panhandle still lay unfenced and unplowed, an intensely luminous ball of fire streaked across the sky. A huge hunk of iron from outer space lanced through Earth's atmosphere with such speed that it sent a shockwave through the air, a phenomenon later known as a sonic boom. And then the superheated object fragmented, raining red hot stones on the bare, grassy plains below.

Maybe it happened on a clear, cold night in December. If it didn't, it should have. No one knows when the meteor broke up and fell in hundreds of large and small pieces along a 16-mile long, 4-mile wide path just south of what would become the town of Plainview.

If human eyes saw this event, it would have widened the irises of the beholders, be it Paleo men, Spanish explorers,19th century Indians or buffalo hunters. Later, following settlement in the area, anyone who happened to notice the slick, dark stones extending along what scientists now call a "scatterfield" would have taken them merely as rocks, albeit stones heavy in iron content.

But not until 1915 did a wheat farmer come to realize that the iron rocks strewn about his pasture were only found in a small part of Hale County. Having an inquiring mind, he packaged one of the rocks and mailed it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. There, George P. Merrill, curator of the National Museum, recognized the stone as a meteorite.

Merrill published two scientific papers on the Plainview meteorite and placed the original specimen and others he later received in the museum's giant collection, the wide-ranging accumulation of artifacts filling what amounts to the nation's attic.

Back in Plainview, after word spread that the iron rocks had come not from the bowels of the Earth but from the heavens above, other farmers and their families often picked up the stones when they found them. They lined flowerbeds or made for unusual door stops.

Nearly a quarter of a century went by. Then, in 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed as spectacularly, and much more disastrously, as that virtually forgotten Plainview meteor. In the Panhandle, an unusually severe drought made the hard economic times even worse. Giant dust storms rolled across the plains, darkening the daytime sky. Fine grains of sand made their way inside the tightest homes and even into the lungs of their coughing occupants.

Hard as times were, the Bible Belt folks around Plainview had not lost sight of Christmas or the story behind it. They would go to church and otherwise celebrate the holiday as best they could, no matter the Great Depression.

In December 1933, with the holiday only a few weeks away, one Hale County farm family settled down to supper by the light of a kerosene lantern, grateful for what they did have even in the face of a withered crop and dismal hopes for a successful spring planting. About the time they started unfolding their napkins, a bespectacled, well-dressed man knocked on the door.

The caller identified himself as Harvey H. Nininger of Denver. He said he had been driving from farm to farm in the area looking for anyone who might have found any unusual iron stones on their property.

Thinking a man posing such a peculiar question might well be deranged, the farmer was just about to shut the door in his face when the visitor blurted out that he would pay $1 a pound to anyone interested in selling any of the rocks he had described. Given that for many men a dollar amounted to a day's pay for sunup to sundown work, the scholarly looking man suddenly had the farmer's attention.

The ruddy faced head of household grabbed the lantern off the table and with his eight-year-old daughter in tow headed out the back door. A few minutes later he returned hefting a pitted, eight-pound rock and asked Nininger if that was what he was looking for. Indeed, the visitor said, that's exactly what he had in mind. Writing the farmer a check for $8, Nininger took the meteorite and drove to Plainview to find a hotel room.

After a restless night, Nininger returned to the area and again started knocking on doors offering money for rocks. By the time he left town, his Model T -- laden with dozens of meteorites -- rode considerably lower on its springs. Back in Colorado, he quickly obtained a bank loan to cover all the checks he had written in Texas.

A self-taught scientist, Nininger would go on to acquire the world's largest privately held collection of meteorites. Nine years after visiting the Plainview area, he opened the American Meteorite Museum near Meteor Crater, AZ. Credited with having played a major role in fostering the scientific study of space rocks, in 1958 he sold part of his collection to the British Museum in London. Two years later he conveyed the remainder of his many specimens to Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies.

For the Plainview area families who sold Nininger their meteorites, the Christmas of 1933 proved far more joyful than expected. Thanks to the rocks that fell from the sky one night long before they were born, children who might have done without woke up on Christmas morning to find toys under the tree. Farm wives had the extra flour and sugar they needed for holiday cakes and cookies and, with assistance from the local bootlegger, husbands who didn't view a little whiskey now and then as sinful could relax with a glass of spiked eggnog and reflect on the minor Christmas miracle that had made all that possible.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - December 22, 2015 Column

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