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Texas Tales

published: May 29th 2020
by: Mike Cox

Newspapers once openly published fiction along with fact, but sometimes readers had to wonder whether a story really rang true. 
    The tale of one Sam Walker, told in the Shiner Gazette on Jan. 12, 1898 and rediscovered by Austin history buff Sloan Rodgers, is likely fiction disguised as news, but that surely didn’t lessen the pleasure of reading it.
    A correspondent na-med D.C. Cherry wrote that he and a friend had been sitting around a San Antonio hotel lobby one day when they overheard some traveling salesmen (better known back then as “commercial travelers” or “drummers”) regaling each other with stories.
    “Having nothing to occupy us at the time,” Cherry related, “we concluded to join them.”
    Drummers, used to making their living on their verbal skills, were good storytellers, he observed.
    The incident Cherry so thoroughly enjoyed hearing about took place in a community he called Paradise Flat. While Texas has no town with that name, the most prominent settlement in Wise County used to be a place called Paradise Prairie, later shortened to just Paradise. Settled on a flat six miles from Decatur, in its heyday, Paradise boasted two hotels, two cotton gins, a lumberyard and a weekly newspaper.
    On Dec. 1, 1896, the tale’s protagonist supposedly gunned down a fellow named “Silver” Davis on the streets of Paradise Flat.
    Law-abiding citizens who saw the shooting did not consider it a fair fight. Taking Walker into custody while gunsmoke still wafted in the air, they concluded to spare Wise County the expense of a trial by lynching him.
    Though not smart enough to have killed Davis in the absence of witnesses, Walker demonstrated an admirable talent in thinking on his feet.
    “The rope was already noosed…when he asked to make a few remarks,” Cherry wrote.
    Since execution etiquette has always called for the condemned to be granted a final statement, the vigilantes readily agreed. Clearing his throat, Walker began the most important declamation of his life:
    “This town…hadn’t any Fourth of July to speak of, and it was way behind …on Thanksgiving,” he began. “Christmas will soon be at hand, and you can’t even get up a decent dog fight to celebrate the occasion. I should think you’d want to show off over Hill City and Jackville.”
    The civic-minded leader of the mob allowed that indeed, the good people of Paradise Flat would like something to distinguish their community from the other two towns, but given the circumstances, he didn’t see how it could be done.
    Fortunately Walker had thought it over, albeit rather quickly.
    “You’ve got [your chance] right here,” he said. “I killed Davis and have got to be hung. Instead of hanging me today, why don’t you put it off until Christmas and make a big thing of it? It’ll be the only hanging for 50 miles around.”
    The mob concluded that Walker had come up with a fine idea. He would be “saved up” like a holiday goose until Christmas. Handed over to the real though apparently powerless local authorities for safe-keeping, Walker soon languished in Paradise Flat’s lockup.
    In recounting the story, Cherry said Walker en-joyed three good meals a day while in custody and that “every evening a number of the boys made it a duty to call on him and help him to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.”
    Meanwhile, the condemned man seemed al-most to be looking forward to the day of his hanging and all the attention the event would focus on Paradise Flat. Mob members and others who visited him grew so found of the killer that all agreed he should be hanged as gently as possible when the big day finally came.
    With Christmas nearly at hand, Walker made one last request.
    “Boys, as I’m doing the fair thing by you, I expect you to pet me a little,” he said. “For instance, I’m going to hang up my stocking on Christmas Eve, same as innocent children do, and I hope I shan’t be neglected.”
    And indeed he wasn’t. Knowing they’d get their money back as soon as Walker hanged, the vigilantes and residents cheerfully contributed to Walker’s holiday “gift.” By the time the collection hat had made its rounds, it had lost its creased crown under the weight of $200 in silver subscribed toward making Walker’s final Christmas his brightest ever. 
    Christmas Eve, the last person who saw Walker reported him sleeping peacefully as a child no matter what would happen the next day.
    Christmas morning, as families gathered around their tree or got ready for church, someone walking past the jail noticed a man-sized hole coming out from beneath the frame hoosecow. Walker had decided not to hang around for the festivities. Also missing was the purse so jocularly collected to enhance his Christmas.
    As Cherry put it, “Public indignation was so great that all were stupefied for a time.”
    However, shock soon hardened into firm civic resolve: The next fellow who needed hanging in Paradise Flat “would be stretched up so durned quick  that  nobody  but himself will get any fun out of it.”
    With the exception of offshore crews, modern Texas oil industry workers seldom have far to drive when they get hungry. All varieties of junk food and even healthy fare are readily available at any number of fast food franchises across the state, not to mention convenience stores and locally owned markets and eateries.
    But at the height of the 1920s petroleum boom, a time of wooden derricks and iron men, when drilling depended on brawn and intuition rather than automation and computers, roughnecks and others in the oil patch could not take the availability of groceries for granted. Espe-cially scarce was “woman cooking,” then a popular term for good food not prepared by calloused male hands with no shortage of black crude under their fingernails.
    Journalist Sam Ash-burn, who had a long career with the San Angelo Standard-Times, gave state-wide publicity to a woman he considered the best cook in West Texas’s storied Yates Field – Mrs. R.L. Rice. (Regrettably for posterity, back in those days reporters seldom gave a woman’s first or maiden name.)
    The wife of a driller, Mrs. Rice ran one of nine boarding houses owned and operated by the Illinois Pipeline Co., then a major player in the Yates Field and elsewhere in West Texas and New Mexico. Given the remoteness of its areas of operation, Illinois Pipeline furnished a structure, fuel, electricty and ice to vendors who in turn managed the boarding houses and made a living off the profits.
    The accommodation Mrs. Rice operated fed employees and occasional visitors at the Mid-Kansas Oil Co.’s Camp No. 2 in Pecos County. Today it is less than a ghost town, with no trace remaining. 
    “The boarding house isn’t a dirty establishment with chairs marked by the greasy hands of the working man,” Ashburn wrote. “It is clean and attractive with chairs for the men to sit in, pegs on which to hang their hats, large tables to hold the food and lace curtains on the windows.”
For most oilfield men, however, the quality of the food that went on the table trumped ambiance. And when it came to cooking, Mrs. Rice did not disappoint.
    “The food is home cooked and with the seasoning that gives it the best of taste,” Ashburn reported. “A gourmand would be delighted with the menu at a noonday meal while on Sunday he would be overwhelmed by his inability to do the meal justice and realize that as a consumer of food he is the first letter in failure and the last letter in incompetence.”
    About 120 men ate at the boarding house every day. Not only did Mrs. Rice cook breakfast, lunch and supper, she had food ready for men who worked at night and slept by day.
    “Thirty minutes in this boarding house would enable a man to live without food for a week,” Ashburn rhapsodized.
    Since roughnecks and drillers made more money than roustabouts and other oilfield denizens, some boarding houses charged them 25 cents more per meal. Mrs. Rice, however, sold meals for a set price regardless of how much a man earned. Not only that, if  a man found himself short of cash between paydays, Mrs. Rice let him eat for free until he could pay her back.
    While Ashburn did not say how much Mrs. Rice charged per plate, he did describe a typical noon menu: “Meat and gravy, dressing, onions, squash, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, corn on the cob, beans and greens, fresh tomatoes, turnips…potato salad, light bread (white bread) and corn bread.”
    Dessert, either washed down with iced tea or a glass of sweet milk (as opposed to buttermilk) was a piece of pie “as big as the Russian army.”
    All those dishes got carried to the tables by a trio of waitresses Ashburn des-cribed as “dainty,” young women “without the tons of paint that load down the young faces of some girl servitors.” Listing them as Irene Lauderdale, Ruby Clendennen and Dixie Davis, he said they worked on salary and declined tips.
    Mrs. Rice treated her customers well, and that in turn paid off for her. Ashburn said she had been able to buy a house in Artesia, New Mecico and two cars with her boarding house earnings.
    While the long-lived Yates Field remains one of the world’s most productive oil pools, the boom eventually faded and the pipeline company shut down its boarding houses. What became of Mrs. Rice remains to be determined, but her former customers doubtless fondly remembered the generous table she set.

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