A family history, Part 1

Family | A hard man and a sturdy woman shaped by life on the frontier
by John R. Erickson
Posted 4/18/20, 04:04 pm

Author and rancher John R. Erickson’s 2005 book Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family includes stories of his ancestors and those who played key roles in their lives. Over the next several months, we’ll meet members of his mother’s family, who he first introduced to us in May 2018:

“My grandmother, Mabel Sherman Curry, was one of seven children raised on a ranch, 25 miles east of Seminole, Texas. Her father, Joe Sherman, had been orphaned as a child and raised by cowboys on a ranch northwest of Fort Worth. Comanches murdered his mother [in 1860] and his father died of disease in the Confederate States Army.

“As a young man, Joe lived an adventurous frontier life, drifted to West Texas in 1882, married Lina Underhill, a strong Quaker woman, and settled into the ranching business near what is now the city of Lubbock.”

In the excerpt below, we’ll learn more about the Sherman family and gain some insight from another time when families lived under difficult circumstances.

As an added treat, at the end you’ll find a video of the author reading from his popular Hank the Cowdog series. He posted the video earlier this week to help entertain us while in isolation. —Mickey McLean

The Sherman Family

My mother’s first-cousin, Roger Joe Sherman, described his grandfather as:

“… strong, exceedingly masculine, and over six feet in height. His face was spare, sharp-cornered, and intently serious and it matched his disposition. Although he usually walked stiffly and with short steps, he possessed a certain agility and could, when necessary, be quick and cat-like.”

Grandmother Curry remembered that in the early years of their marriage, Joe and Lina enjoyed each other’s company and seemed very compatible. There was laughter in the house and Joe tried to lighten his wife’s load of housework. In the mornings, he would rise early, build a fire, grind the coffee, and start breakfast. When the babies arrived, he was kind and attentive. In the fall of the year, he would ride the train with his cattle to the Kansas City market, and while there, he enjoyed shopping for Lina and the children. For Lina, he bought leather gloves, pretty hats, warm slippers, and bolts of cloth. Grandmother Curry remembered him bringing her an amethyst ring and a little cup and saucer. But as the babies grew into teenagers, discord crept into the home. In her later life, Grandmother Curry admitted that she was stubborn and willful, and said that Uncle Forrest was too. Joe Sherman had difficulty coping with rebellious children and began withdrawing into a brooding silence.

As they grew older, his children viewed him as aloof and stern, a man whose anger you didn’t want to arouse and with whom you wouldn’t want to spend a few years on a desert island—unless, of course, you shared his passion for silence. He seems to have had a temperament that darkened with age and drought, perhaps a genetic curse thrown his way by his father.

As he grew older, Joe Sherman wasn’t a loveable man, but on the frontier, that wasn’t uncommon or even a bad quality.

My mother said that Joe’s early years had done little to prepare him for family life: the murder of his mother and untimely death of his father; being shuffled around from relative to relative, always the step-child no one really wanted; and then his formative years in the Loving camps, tutored by bachelor cowboys who, one speculates, were there at least in part because they lacked the social skills to be somewhere else.

Writer and contemporary Max Coleman seems to have gotten along well with him, but Max had spent his youth trapping and breaking wild mustangs on the lonesome sweep of the Llano, and had the ability to deal with long periods of silence. We don’t know how many wordless hours he had to wait before Joe Sherman was stirred to tell a story about the old days.

As he grew older, Joe Sherman wasn’t a loveable man, but on the frontier, that wasn’t uncommon or even a bad quality. Once again, author John Graves says it well:

“Sharp around the edges, not tender. … They couldn’t have been, bringing wagonloads of women and kids and chattels where they brought them. Like the Comanches, they were unlovable to neighbors of other breeds, but like the Comanches too they did not care.”

The men who survived drought and Indians and horses that were serious about wanting to kill anyone who approached them—those men had qualities of spirit that, today, we would find harsh. Or “insensitive;’ to use the popular term.

No doubt Joe Sherman was insensitive. So were … all the other men who left deep tracks on the frontier—not to mention Quanah Parker and his Comanche companions. Men who were sensitive cried sensitive tears while their wives were being raped, and drowned their guilt in saloons while their children went hungry. Maybe his father Ezra Sherman was a sensitive man and maybe being sensitive in that time was another name for careless … or stupid.

The very qualities that made Joe Sherman seem distant to his children allowed him to raise beef cattle in a hostile environment, survive the droughts of 1885-7 and 1893-4, the ferocious blizzard of 1886, and the financial panic of 1893, pay off his ranch, and provide a home for six children who survived into adulthood and become productive citizens. Joe’s hard nature served as a shield for Lina, allowing her to bring warmth and love into the home. Joe loved his family and showed it through actions, not words or gestures: he kicked the wolf away from the door, and those who kick wolves don’t always have the luxury of being sensitive.

Ahorseback, Joe Sherman was a master of his craft. “He was completely at ease around livestock and sat a horse with the posture, assurance, and grace of a parade marshall,” Roger Joe Sherman said. He kept a tidy place and was fastidious about details. He saw to it that every wooden surface on the place wore a fresh coat of paint. In his work, he aimed for perfection and had little patience for incompetence and shoddy methods. For the older boys, he was a hard, demanding master.

Joe loved his family and showed it through actions, not words or gestures.

Inside the house, he seemed remote, letting Lina handle the squabbles of the children and the details of running the house. Mother said that he subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and read every issue from cover to cover, even though the news would have been weeks old by the time it found its way to Seminole and the ranch. I have wondered why he chose to read a paper from St. Louis, instead of one from Dallas, Fort Worth, Abilene, or San Angelo. Did he want a source of news from outside of Texas, or did the St. Louis paper give a more complete summary of the cattle market at the Kansas City stockyards? We don’t know, but by Mother’s account, when he was inside the house, Joe Sherman spent a good deal of his time concealed behind a page of newsprint, while Lina mothered and fussed and did her best to make the ranch house into a home. And apparently she did it very well. Uncle Roger Sherman recalled that his mother kept the house:

“… immaculately clean, and as she did her housework, she sang. In the evenings when the supper dishes were put away, she would gather her children about her for Bible stories. In those quiet interludes, Lina’s contagious contentment frequently infected the whole household.”

I have a few hazy memories of Lina from visits we Ericksons made to the Sherman ranch in the early fifties: a sturdy ranch woman in a long cotton dress, reaching work-thick fingers into a bucket and scattering grain for her flock of chickens. The thing I remember most about Great-grandmother Sherman was her chicken and noodles. She made the noodles from scratch, rolling them out with a rolling pin. They were thick and chewy, and she added them to the gravy from a chicken whose neck she had wrung herself. I must have been eight or nine years old, and it impressed my little boy’s mind that this gentle lady was so adept at executing chickens. It was the sort of thing I couldn’t imagine Grandmother Curry doing, she being the epitome of manners and propriety, although I am sure that while raising five daughters during the Depression, she beheaded many a chicken. No doubt she considered it distasteful and unladylike, and she shed no tears when Piggly Wiggly came to town and began offering whole chickens somebody else had killed and plucked.

One of the stories Mother told me about Grandmother Sherman was especially vivid. One day in the fall (Mother’s stories never had specific dates, so let’s guess that it happened in 1915), Lina was out picking okra in the garden at the ranch, assisted by the sixth of her seven children, a girl of fifteen named Olive. Olive didn’t see the rattlesnake hiding among the okra plants, and the snake struck, biting her on the calf. In those days, the accepted remedy for snakebite (now out of favor) required that someone apply a tourniquet above the bite, slowing the flow of blood to the heart, then carve an X with a knife or razor into each of the two puncture wounds and suck out the poison. Olive had been raised on a ranch that had plenty of rattlers and she should have known what to do: sit down, stay calm, grit your teeth, and look the other way while a rescuer went through the gory process of trying to save your life.

But she flew into a panic and ran, while her mother screamed, “Olive, stop! Don’t run, you’ll spread the poison.” Olive ran blindly, wildly. Grandmother Sherman’s response still strikes me as remarkable, even for a woman who had been raised on the frontier. She ran after the girl, tackled her, threw her to the ground, ripped off the hem of her petticoat and wrapped it around Olive’s leg, above the knee. Then using a kitchen paring knife, she carved two X’s into Olive’s flesh and sucked out the poison with her mouth. Such actions require a special category of grit, but I doubt that Grandmother Sherman considered it anything special. It was just one of those things a mother had to do to protect her children. I’m sure she was aware that the first funeral in Estacado had been said over the body of Mary Ellen Cox, a girl who had died of a rattlesnake bite.

Aunt Olive survived, apparently with no serious consequences, although Mother said that every year in the fall, around the day when she had been bitten by the snake, her leg would swell.

From Prairie Gothic: The Story of a West Texas Family by John R. Erickson. Copyright © 2005 by John R. Erickson. Published by University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sun, 04/19/2020 12:16 am

    I continue to be awed by the way John Erickson brings his experiences, and now his ancestors', to life so vividly. And I just listened to John reading his story about Hank and Drover going to town and meeting the boxer.  Fantastic!

    Thank you for bringing John's stories to us.

  • Carla
    Posted: Tue, 04/21/2020 01:04 pm

    I loved it. It felt good to laugh during this "pandemic".