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Texas Tales

published: August 10th 2018
by: Mike Cox
Terrible, bitter news for all true Texans—the storied jackalope is not indigenous to the Lone Star state.
Surely just about anyone with even a casual awareness of Texas popular culture will remember having seen gag post cards of a creature with all outward appearances of being a jackrabbit except for the antlers growing out of its head. And in gift shops and tourist traps, mounted specimens of ferocious-faced furry jackalopes have delighted souvenir hunters (and the occasional game hunter in search of one more trophy) for decades.
Imagine the shock experienced by a Texan innocently visiting the Pioneer Museum in Douglas, Wyoming who discovered that the jackalope originated in that small western town, not West Texas.
“This is crushing,” a recent visitor (OK, it was me) said after taking in an exhibit dedicated to Douglas’ long-eared claim to fame. “I’ve always thought the jackalope was invented in Texas.”
The curator, eating a takeout salad at her desk, looked up from her lunch with barely concealed disdain.
“We hear that from most of our Texas visitors,” she said as she continued to munch on her rabbit food. 
The sad truth is, the jackalope is as much a part of Wyoming’s taxonomy as the American bison, grizzly bear, elk or moose. 
The story of the jackalope goes back to the Great Depression, when millions of Americans struggled to earn a living for their families. Brothers Ralph and Douglas Herrick were taxidermists, but mounted game animals are not a necessity of life when people across the nation are standing in soup lines. During hard times, taxidermy customers can be as scarce as jackalopes. 
Clearly a fellow with a sense of humor, it occurred to Doug Herrick that if he affixed small deer antlers to a stuffed jackrabbit (which actually is a hare, not a rabbit) tourists probably would be willing to buy them. Jackrabbits and antelope being plentiful in wide-open Wyoming, he decided to call his hybrid creature the jackalope. 
Of course, anyone who knows their North Ameri-can wildlife understands that antelope horns are in no way similar to deer antlers. Further, they know that jackalopes are not real animals. On the other hand, its conceivable that some naive visitors might actually buy the jackalope story. If not the story, at least a mounted jackalope. 
Herrick sold his first jackalope mount for $10 to Roy Ball who added it to the decor of Douglas’ old La Bonte Hotel. Back then, 10 bucks was a lot of money when a newspaper and a cup of coffee cost only a dime.  
Jackalopes multiplied like, well, jackrabbits and before long, the mythical creature had hopped straight into American folklore. The La Bonte Hotel sold the two brothers’ taxidermy work and soon the Herricks were shipping their creations all over the West, including Texas. 
How the jackalope became associated with Texas in the minds of many is open to speculation, but as even a cursory google search shows, it did. It may trace to a popular post card that dates to the 1930s. That classic, an example of what postcard collectors call a real photo card, is a tricked up image of a Texas cowboy skinning a deer-sized jackrabbit hanging from a tree. It fits perfectly with the old gag that everything’s bigger in Texas, though its as phony as a jackalope.   
Meanwhile, back in wide-open Wyoming, as the years went by it occurred to the local chamber of commerce that the jackalope could benefit Douglas’ aspirations as a tourist destination as well as the bank account of individual sellers. Founded in the mid-1880s on the banks of the North Platte River when the Wyoming Central Railway made it a train stop, the town now bills itself as the Jackalope City. To prove the point, the community put up an eight-foot jackalope statue outside the community center in what is now called Jackalope Square. 
The Wyoming legislature has even considered making the jackalope the official state mythical creature, but lawmakers have withheld the honor so far. Official or not, every June the town holds a Jackalope Days celebration.
Finding further fun in jackalopes, some other entrepreneur created a jackalope hunting license. For a modest fee, a licensee is entitled to lawfully harvest one jackalope in Converse County, Wyo-ming. However, to qualify for a jackalope license, a person must possess an IQ over 50 but below 72. So as to protect the jackalope population from depletion, hunters can only take them during daylight hours on June 31. (Get it? June has only 30 days.)  
***
In the winter of 1896, Texas’ most famous prizefight nearly took second place to an unscheduled and potentially much more violent match in Sander-son.
Gov. Charles Culberson had sent 30 Texas Rangers to El Paso to stop a scheduled championship fight between Robert Fitzsim-mons and Peter Maher, two bare-knuckle pugilists. When it became clear to promoter Dan Stuart that he would not be able to pull off what he dubbed a “Fistic Carnival” in Texas (he had tried Dallas before looking to far West Texas as a venue), he hit on another idea. He would stage the fight on an island in the Rio Grande across from the small town of Langtry—an international no-man’s land where state lawmen would have no jurisdiction.
Its engineer sounding two long blasts to signal “brakes released, proceed,” the special Texas and Pacific train moved slowly out of the El Paso depot at 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 20. Filling 10 passenger coaches, Stuart and a contingent of cronies, die-hard fans, gamblers and reporters headed east for Langtry, the rail stop best known for its most colorful resident, saloon owner and justice of the peace Judge Roy Bean. Hearing that Stuart had given up on the City at the Pass, the Rangers had gotten on the train as well. 
When the T&P Special rolled into Marathon for a water stop, Fitzsimmons saw someone’s pet bear chained outside a house. To the delight of his fans, the fighter jumped off the train and charged the frightened bear. The bruin backed up, but  Fitzsimmons kept coming, soon embracing the animal in a literal bear hug. The dapper Stuart, visions of the bear getting a knock out on Fitzsimmons with one swing of a clawed paw, pulled him off the bear and got him back on the train. 
Next stop, at 1 p.m. on Feb. 21, was Sanderson. The conductor said the train would only be in town for 10 minutes, but the passengers were hungry and the train had no dining car. Ignoring the conductor, 200 hungry men piled off the train to hunt up lunch.
One of the growling stomachs belonged to Stuart’s chief of security, Bat Masterson, former buffalo hunter, one-time Dodge City policeman and current boozer-gambler.
Dissatisfied with the level of service in the crowded eatery, Masterson pulled a castor from the leg of the table where he had been seated and hit the Chinese waiter on his head as he walked by. Several people laughed, but two Ranger captains sitting nearby did not.
Captain Bill McDonald, as legendary a lawman as Masterson was legendary as a gunman, stood and grabbed Masterson’s arm. Also on his feet was Captain John B. Rogers. Both rangers at various times in their careers had come out first in gunfights in which there had been no second place winner.
“Don’t hit that man,” McDonald said, easily heard in the suddenly dead quiet restaurant.
Standing, Masterson’s light eyes met McDonald’s. 
“Maybe you’d like to take it up,” Masterson said.
“I done took it up,” McDonald replied.
Even out in the middle of nowhere, carrying a pistol was illegal in Texas unless a man had a badge or was on his own property. In his capacity as security guard, Masterson may or may not have had a pistol tucked in his waist under his coat. But McDonald and Rogers definitely were wearing six-shooters.
If Masterson had made a sudden furtive move, the prize fight would have been delayed by a coroner’s inquest. But like any good card player, Masterson knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. He smiled at the lithe Ranger captain and sat back down to wait for his meal. 
McDonald let go of Masterson’s arm and took his seat as well. 
Lunch went on and so did Masterson. Had he not had the good sense to shut up and quit harassing the waiter, he could have died of instant onset lead poisoning right there in Sanderson. Instead, he lived another quarter century. Eventually he vacated the West and settled in New York, where he became a well-followed sportswriter for the New York World.
After the meal in San-derson, the train proceeded to Langtry. Near there, to the disappointment of everyone, Fitzsimmons KO-ed Maher in the first round on the international island. Having nothing official to do, the rangers took in the fight from the Texas side along with everyone else on the train.
As for Masterson, on Oct. 21, 1921, while lighting a cigarette at his desk in the World’s news room, he fell over dead on his typewriter. He had just finished writing what would be his last column.
After they moved his body, someone pulled Masterson’s last piece of copy from his typewriter and noted the unintended appropriateness of his last sentence:
“There are many in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed, for example, that we all get about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in summer and the poor get it in the wintertime.”
SLS

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