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Cow Patties

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When the meteorologists start forecasting the first real fall norther, sellers of corded firewood appear on the roadsides to cash in on city-dwelling homeowners either without hardwood trees to cut or chainsaws to cut them with.

Someone has always made a little money selling firewood in Texas. If you are handy with a saw and have a lot of trees on your property, harvesting oak on a commercial basis makes perfect sense. And with increasing urbanization, the enterprise has grown in popularity.

For much of Texas’ history, though, getting firewood posed no particular problem – at least across the right half of the state. Campers could find plenty of wood along creek and river banks or under the oak motts that dotted the prairie before juniper and mesquite proliferated.

On the High Plains, where trees were scarcer than sinners at a revival, finding fire fuel took more effort. While folks traveling in a wagon might haul an emergency supply of split wood, travelers, scouts, and cowboys soon realized that a ready source of fuel surrounded them – buffalo chips.

Before commercial hunters killed them off, hundreds of thousands of buffalo grazed the native grasses covering the seemingly endless Panhandle landscape. After getting the nutrition their huge bodies needed from the grass they ate, the bison disposed of the end product in plentitude.

In time, buffalo dung dissolved into the soil, keeping the ground fertile for the next growing season. But before that happened, the product hardened in the sun, becoming something that could easily be picked up. Early on, Indians figured out that this natural fertilizer made good fuel. Buffalo hunters quickly adapted the technique.

“Sometime before sunset we began to look for a place suitable to camp,” former buffalo hunter George Andrew Gordon later recalled. “The place being selected, and the horses picketed, the young men set to work to collect fuel. If wood was not convenient, buffalo chips were generally plentiful.”

When cattle replaced buffalo on the plains, cow chips in turn replaced buffalo chips as a ready source of British Thermal Units. Of course, cowboys didn’t know BTUs from balky mules, but they knew what it was like to be hungry or cold without a fire.

Fortunately a thousand-pound cow can produce from 60 to 90 pounds of manure a day. Once the moisture content drops below 20 percent, it makes fine fuel. Just don’t expect the same sort of pleasing aroma that comes from an oak or mesquite fire.

Well into his old age, Harold B. Campbell wrote about cow chip cooking in a family history he self-published in 1992, “Spotted Stripes.”

“There is a considerable difference in the quality of cow chips,” Campbell wrote. “During the spring when the grass was watery and green the chips were splattery and no good. They were called spring dimples.”

Cow chips improved in the summer, but still ran pretty thin. Panhandle settlers called those “summer flats.”

Ah, but come fall and into winter, the time of greatest need, cow patties reached their prime. The grass had cured and the moisture level was low. “Tall, thick and solid,” Campbell wrote, “these were called fall browns.”

Everyone in his family chipped in, so to speak, in collecting fall browns. The family headed to the prairie in a wagon with sideboards and “all who was big enough helped load the wagons.”

Though usually in ample supply, getting cow patties to burn could be tricky on windy days.

Dick and Ada Tisdale bought four sections of land in Hartley County near Channing in 1901. One day Ada gathered chips preparatory to cooking lunch for her husband, out working cattle. No novice at building camp fires in Central Texas where she grew up, she lit the fire but the wind blew it out. She lit it again and the same thing happened.

When Dick arrived for his mid-day meal, he found his wife crying. Wiping away her tears, he dug a trench and kicked in the cow chips. Soon they had a nice fire followed by a hot lunch.

If a steak grilled over cow patties doesn’t sound appetizing, dried pasture plops are good places to look beneath for fishing worms. Obviously, cow patties make good fertilizer. Too, cow patties sprayed with gold paint make inexpensive gifts for people who seem to have one of everything.

Also, cow chip tossing is considered a sporting event in some circles. All you need is spray paint to mark some circles on the ground (or use a Hula Hoop) and a supply of dried cow patties.

Establish a starting line 20 or so feet from the target and let the fun begin. The winner is the person who can chunk a chip and land it in or near the target. Each contestant gets three tries.

(Author’s note: My daughter Hallie, when younger, placed first in her age group in a cow chip tossing competition at a ranch on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. Her ability to sling bovine by-product proves without doubt that the apple does not fall far from the tree.)

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"

September 26, 2007 column

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