Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A Little Cowtown History Lesson

This article
was in today's Star-Telegram. Bill Fairley always has obscure little history tidbits, and I love his column. The story has Civil War heroes, wild west cowboys, relatives of past American Presidents, and World War I veterans - a quick ride through a little slice of Americana and Cowtown:

Brothers had stockyard, racetrack in late 1800s

By Bill Fairley

Special to the Star-Telegram

After the Civil War, Capt. James Hillard Polk of the Confederate Army of Tennessee had to abandon his plantation in Maury County, which had been in the family since the late 1700s, because Reconstruction authorities confiscated the property of former Confederate officers.

Polk, a cousin of President James K. Polk, headed west with his young wife, Molly Harding Polk, and younger brother, Rufus Polk, who at 17 had been wounded at the battle of Sharpsburg, captured and had spent three years in a Union prisoner of war camp.

The Polk brothers wanted to find land in the wide open West to raise cattle and horses.

After traveling in a two-horse wagon through several western states, the Polks arrived on the northern outskirts of Fort Worth in November 1885. They first camped near Cold Springs near the end of present Samuels Avenue.

The brothers built a four-room log home near the Cold Springs and bought a section of land bordered on the east by the Trinity River, reaching north almost to Marine Creek. Its western side almost touched what today is North Main Street.

While Molly kept the home clean and arranged the few items of furniture and other possessions from Tennessee, James and Rufus began building barns, corrals and pens to hold the cattle, mules and horses that they bought from several ranches.

Their new business, Polk Brothers Stockyards, grew as they bought and sold livestock. They also built a small horse-racing track of only about four furlongs (a circular track of about 880 yards) to capitalize on the growing popularity of gambling.

One of the Polks' best customers was outlaw Sam Bass, who grew up in Denton. Bass looked like a hymn-singing choir boy, but he was known for holding up stagecoaches and robbing trains. At the Polks' track, however, he raced his own 2-year-old mustang Jenny who was ridden by his favorite jockey, a young black man named Dick.

Jenny and Dick usually beat all the other horses, and Bass, then about 34, departed with his pockets stuffed with cash.

Bass should have stuck with horse racing. Soon he and his gang were tracked down to a hide-out near Round Rock near Austin where all but one was shot to death. The survivor was the gang member who had squealed to lawmen about the hide-out.

James Polk won a contract from the British army to furnish horses for the cavalry engaged in war against the South African Boers in 1899. The contract stipulated that all the horses must have been ridden at least once.

That was a hard order to fill. To keep his costs down, Polk gathered wild mustangs captured from West Texas plains and the badlands bordering Mexico -- horses that had never worn saddles or bridles. Then he gathered "devil-may-care cowhands, described as being only slightly less wild than the Polks' horses," William R. Polk wrote in his book about his family.

"Fortunately, when drunk, as they usually were, no rodeo ... could possibly compare with the bucking, whirling, screaming outbursts of fear and fury that exploded when a truly wild horse felt the weight of the rider.

"The cowboy was lucky if he lasted more than a few seconds" before being thrown, Polk wrote.

But the horses had been ridden at least once, if only for a few seconds.

"Oddly enough," William Polk wrote, "On the way to South Africa, the transport ships carrying the horses ran into severe storms and, when they were finally unloaded in the port, the grateful horses were as tame as saddle mares."

The Polks lived in Fort Worth until their deaths -- James in 1926, Molly in 1942.

Their son Harding Polk, born in Fort Worth in 1887, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. In 1916, Lt. Polk was assigned to General "Black Jack" Pershing's brigade, which was sent to the Mexican border to hunt down Pancho Villa. Polk served there with Lt. George S. Patton.

Patton and Polk met again in France during World War I, again under the command of Pershing. Patton was decorated for his actions in the Meuse-Argonne battle. Polk became assistant chief of staff of the 92nd Infantry Division.

Patton went on to become a general and commander of the Third Army in World War II. But Polk retired from service almost on the eve of World War II. He died in 1943.

Sources: Polk's Folly by William R. Polk; Hell's Half Acre by Richard F. Selcer; Outpost on the Trinity by Oliver Knight; and Cowboy Justice, Tale of a Texas Lawman by Jim Gober.

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