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The Long Drive Home
It became the most famous cattle drive route in the Old West, and this year, the Chisholm Trail turns 150 years old. To travel its modern-day path is to journey through the state’s still-vibrant cowboy culture.
By Robert Reid
Published July/August 2017
Cowboys leading herds of as many as 10,000 longhorn on the Chisholm Trail rarely had carefree moments like these. When they did, they sang. Songs like the infectious “a-tie yie youpy youpy yay” chorus of “The Old Chisholm Trail” had endless verses, with new ones added regularly. Sometimes, they came at the expense of cattle barons back in Texas. These were small victories, considering cowhands—usually in their teens—made $10 to $30 a month, while ranchers built ranches the size of Rhode Island and netted fortunes from one of history’s biggest animal migrations.
All this, though, is why I found it so fitting to happen upon the Cowboy Opry in Comanche. Up front, it’s a guitar shop—pronounced “gee-tar” here without affectation—but a stage in the converted garage in back looks like a Hee Haw set with faux chuckwagons and a cardboard Roy Rogers cutout. The kitchen, fronted by a wall of mounted guitars, serves dinner before the Thursday night country, gospel, and bluegrass open mic. The guy behind it, Allen Wooten, is a six-foot-three former oil field worker who’s been into music since his parents gifted him what he calls “a Ward’s Kay guitar.”
“Music doesn’t pay as well as oil,” he says, slouching over the counter. “But it’s more fun.”
Besides inspiring music, the Chisholm Trail saved Texas. After the Civil War, Texas had few jobs and no railroads, but it did have millions of stray longhorns. The Northeast was in need of leather and tallow, and cattle would go for ten times what they would on the Plains. Missouri didn’t want them, because they were a home for ticks carrying fevers that killed their less hardy cows. So in 1867, Joseph G. McCoy, an Illinois businessman, made a deal with the Abilene, Kansas train station and built cattle pens to load longhorns for St. Louis, Chicago, and beyond. Then, cowboy drovers—patterned after Mexican vaqueros—walked them there. It could take three months one way. They came by way of a network of old trails Delaware scout Black Beaver had blazed in 1861, when he guided federal forces to Kansas in order to escape Confederate troops. Cherokee/Scottish scout Jesse Chisholm, whose name gradually found its way onto the trail after his death, led trade wagons along the same route.
Top, On the Chisholm Trail is a life-size, 34-foot long sculpture by Paul Moore that sits outside the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan. Bottom, longhorn cattle at the Davis ranch in Hitchcock.
Photos by SHANE BEVEL
The Chisholm Trail was never a casual stroll across Indian Territory, however, with constant danger of stampedes, drownings at rivers, and Native Americans demanding tolls—usually just a few head, though sometimes a scalp. The trail ran for a couple decades, until new railroads and barbed wire put an end to the cattle-drive days for good.
And this is where the cowboy legend was born.
A good place to dive into that legend is Duncan’s Chisholm Trail Heritage Center. Best is its eighteen-minute video produced in Oklahoma that uses sensory immersion to show visitors what the trail was like.
Afterward, we make a quick hunt for wagon ruts east of town then detour on a patchwork of country roads northwest to Cyril. Filling a block, the Sia: Comanche Eagle Center is an impressive sanctuary for Comanche artifacts and a breeding center for eagles. Sia—the name is Comanche for “feather”—provides eagle feathers for use in Native American ceremonies nationally.
Founder and executive director Bill Voelker wears a “Comanche: Lord of the Plains” jacket, has his graying hair pulled into a ponytail, and leads tours of the center by appointment. He shows us historic photos and a glass case of Comanche lances decked in feathers and beads then leads us to the back garden to meet a golden eagle named Yahpahcony, or “cricket,” who only understands the Comanche language.
Bill tells me most Comanches sat out the Chisholm Trail, but some Texas ranchers employed “Comanche cowboys” to see their cattle safely to Kansas.
“Being a cowboy was one of the only ways we could have greater access to the world,” he says.
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Get There: The Chisholm Trail Museum, 605 Zellers Avenue in Kingfisher, (405) 375-5176 or ctokmuseum.org. The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, 1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway in Duncan, (580) 252-6692 or onthechisholmtrail.com. Shooting Star Enterprises welcomes tour groups. (580) 825-3374 or shootingstarhistory.net. To read more of Robert Reid’s journey up the historic path of the Chisholm Trail, order the July 2017 issue of Texas Highways magazine. (800) 839-4997 or texashighways.com.