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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
The next morning in Enid, we stop by the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, which is hosting a Chisholm Trail exhibit this summer, then visit the courthouse to see the charming 1930s Works Progress Administration murals depicting Chisholm Trail drovers. But the reason we’re here is to meet the man who holds the Holy Grail of the Chisholm Trail.
Bob Klemme lives a ten-minute drive north of the center. We find him sitting in a new La-Z-Boy in front of a painting of a trail crossing. At ninety-one, he is possessed of a razor-sharp mind, recalling exact locations of the trail and the number of cattle that reached Abilene in, say, 1871 (600,000).
“You saw the post north of Dover?” he asks. “At the Boy Scout sign?”
In the mid 1980s, Klemme stumbled on an 1870s survey map of Indian Territory, plopped his thumb in the middle, and randomly opened it to where the trail passed through downtown Enid. So he started hunting it down.
“Seeing ruts,” he says, “made the hair on my neck stand up.”
At first, he marked points where the trail crosses barbed wire fences with beer cans but by 1990 began planting concrete markers. No one knows the trail in Oklahoma better than he does.
“I had fun every day—even if I hurt myself,” he says.
Once, he took a tumble in some freshly cut Johnson grass.
“Dang thing cut through my hand,” he says. “Oh, it bled like heck.”
By 1997, the state’s trail was stamped in full by more than four hundred markers. Then, he got to work on his self-published book, which is packed with maps based on 1870s survey originals and now is laid out before me. There are only twenty copies. We snap photos of some pages for ideas on where to go next, then drive back south on 81 to track down some wagon ruts. We find some a mile south of Bison, where Bob planted the first post in 1990. In Kingfisher, we take a look at the Chisholm Trail Museum. One exhibit highlights barbed wire’s role in the trail’s demise.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan features a variety of interactive exhibits along with works by renowned painters like Frederic Remington, George Catlin, Charles Russell, and Allan Houser.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
I do enjoy this hunt. But I’m still restless to meet the actual stars of the trail. Longhorns—a pure Spanish breed first introduced to the Southwest by Coronado in 1541—might be connected with Texas lore and sports teams, but their survival was only assured a century ago because of Oklahoma ranches and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. I’ve never really seen one up close. Marna and Doug Davis of Shooting Star Enterprises in Hitchcock have some, so we detour a half-hour west.
The Davis’ farm has been in Marna’s family for more than a century. When we arrive, she’s donning an 1870s wrapper farm dress, and Doug is wearing a period-specific three-piece suit and cowboy hat. They call themselves “living historians,” meaning they evolve as they learn more of their subjects. Marna frequently plays Annie Oakley, and Doug does Theodore Roosevelt, whom he resembles. A visit here, we realize, is a bit like teleporting to the late nineteenth century.
Inside, we find a barn-sized, vaulted-ceiling addition to the house where their thirteen-year-old daughter Gabrielle is watching TV in the far corner. But the room is basically a museum, with shelves and walls and tables neatly filled with memorabilia from decades long past. I walk slowly past century-old furs, mounted trophies, various hats and suitcases, a tuba, a piano, neatly stacked shotgun shells, spinning wheels and looms, two shelves of flashlights, lures, and fishing rods.
Doug Davis of Hitchcock shows off a replica of Theodore Roosevelt’s pistol he had custom engraved.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
“Custer carried an identical one on campaign,” Doug says of one of the rods.
Then Marna shyly asks if we’d like to see her room. Wait, there’s more?
“It’s . . . chaotic,” she warns.
Marna makes period-accurate dresses and accessories—including the parasols for the 2003 Civil War film Cold Mountain. Marna’s room is indeed chaotic. Dress patterns are strewn over bolts of fabric and worktables. Bustle dresses hang on dress stands. Her fashion sense is strictly territorial—1860s to statehood in 1907.
“That’s when dresses started to get less interesting,” she says.
Some of her vocabulary is even older than her dress patterns. I hear her twice use the word harridan, which I later discover—via a circa-1700 British slang dictionary—means “a decayed strumpet.” She leads us to racks that hold her fashion magazine collections from the period.
“I actively look for Demorest magazines. My favorites,” she says. “I’m an eBay fanatic.”
Before we meet their herd, Kim and I are invited to change into farm wear from the Chisholm Trail era. Kim gets into a high-neck button-up farm dress with a sash; I’m in pants, vest, a flowing shirt, and a cowboy hat. Long live 1867! Outside, the Davis’ longhorns already know we’re coming. As we enter the gate next to the house, about two dozen are scurrying over for snacks. They’re big, beautiful creatures with giant horns. Their colors vary wildly, as if someone sprayed them with a water sprinkler filled with black, burnt red, toffee brown, and cream paint.
Gabrielle is with us too, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and turquoise cowboy boots. She regularly shows longhorns.
“I can’t explain how much you get connected to them,” she says as I pet one named Keepsake. “They just make your life whole.”
The longhorns head off once the snacks are gone. This is our cue for dinner. In the wide backyard, Marna stirs a spicy beef stew from a giant iron pot on an open fire, and we sit to eat outside as dusk falls. The lemon cookies are from a circa-1900 recipe. We swap tales. Doug regularly lets out huge, hearty laughs.
Doug Davis has lived along the Chisholm Trail for more than 16 years.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
At Marna’s prodding, Doug tells “Andy stories” of a tenderfoot California cowboy he once knew who made goof after goof years ago. Another cowboy he knew, Justin, was better fit for the range; he once wrestled an elk to the ground by its antlers. So when a pause comes, I pipe in.
“Did I tell you about the time I got bit by my gerbil and fainted?” I ask.
A lot of laughter follows. And I’m thinking, in many ways, this is as close to a real Chisholm experience as we could hope for in 2017—sitting by a fire, eating hot food, wearing nineteenth-century outfits, hearing moos, and swapping stories. Some of them are even true.
Kim’s liking it enough to suggest relocating to Oklahoma to set up something called “Coffee Barn” for towns without Starbucks. Ha! Oklahoma is pulling away in a landslide!
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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.