A family history, Part 2
Family | How Grampy Buck spurred me on
by John R. Erickson
Posted 5/16/20, 12:49 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. The author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series first introduced us to his mother’s family in May 2018, and last month, we learned more about the Shermans. In the excerpt below, Erickson gives us more details about his maternal grandfather, Buck Curry. —Mickey McLean
When I was young, it never occurred to me that my grandparents had anything less than an ideal marriage. Marriage problems, if they ever occurred (and we know they did), were not considered a subject that children or grandchildren needed to hear about. But one night in 1970, when I was twenty-six years old and had a family of my own, Mother and I stayed up late, talking in the living room, and she told me some stories about Buck and Mable that I had never heard before. She said that they were not an ideal match. Like her father, Mable was fastidious, while Buck tended to be sloppy in his habits. Both were strong-willed and neither showed much talent for compromising. …
Mother said little about Buck’s family back in Milam County, only that Mable didn’t care for them. Buck’s father was “shiftless” (that was a favorite Sherman adjective) and an alcoholic, and Buck’s mother was sickly, shrewish, and whiney. Like many of the people who made their way out to West Texas in those days, Buck left home with no regrets. When he arrived in Gaines County from East Texas, he didn’t see sand, shinnery, and desolation. He saw opportunity. He came to town with a bag of carpenter tools and helped build Seminole’s first house, two churches, and the Lone Star Hotel.
After Buck and Mable were married, Buck served as county and district clerk for several years, but he had dreams and ambition, and public office didn’t satisfy him for long. In 1917, he and several investors organized the Seminole National Bank and Buck served as executive vice president. He was also involved in organizing the nearby towns of Denver City, Seagraves, and Hobbs, New Mexico, and served for a time as president of the First State Bank of Seagraves.
This profile gives us the story of a young man who left a dead-end situation in East Texas, moved west to a raw new land, and found the respectability he had never known under his father’s roof. But Buck didn’t quite fit the mold of a small town bourgeois, the kind of script that shows a man working hard in the first half of his adult life, then coasting into old age as chairman of the board of deacons and Citizen of the Year. …
Buck reveled in the western-ness of West Texas. He hunted. He trapped. He raised horses and traded cattle. He skinned his own animals and tanned his own hides, made his own coat out of coyote skins, built spurs on a coal forge, and kept Mable’s house cluttered with the treasures he brought home: old saddles, bits, spurs, Navajo blankets, guns, chaps, and musty books. Buck’s affection for junky treasures became a flash point in their marriage, especially the hides and stuffed heads he wanted to hang on Mable’s walls.
Another flash point was that she didn’t approve of his friends. In town, Buck mingled with the solid folk who made good banking customers, but after business hours, he sought the company of men who, in small towns, were politely referred to as “characters” In her later years, my mother was able to laugh about this, but when she was young and trying to fit in with her peers, it caused her embarrassment and great annoyance. One of Buck’s friends was a disreputable fellow named Marvin Prindle who made his living trapping skunks. Even if he had taken occasional baths, he would have been challenged to rid himself of the mark of his profession—the socially deadly smell of skunk musk—but apparently he didn’t try very hard, and Mable refused to let him inside her house. …
Buck made a successful career as a banker, but like many a Texan, he had a dream of owning a ranch and running his own cattle. In 1931 when the Depression fell like a cement wall on top of rural Texas, Buck’s bank closed its doors and Buck had his chance to get involved in the cattle business. (Depositors filed suit against the officers and board of directors, but Buck was not indicted.) A New York doctor, E.H. Jones, owned a 64,000 acre ranch in the northwest part of Gaines County and hired Buck to manage it for him. As the boss of this big outfit, Curry employed as many as thirty cowboys (the number fluctuated with the season) and looked after 2,500 head of cattle. But he faced more than the usual challenges involved in putting weight on cattle and shipping them to market. Hard times had brought back an old problem that had vexed ranchers from the earliest days on the frontier: cattle rustling.
I would suppose that the Jones ranch had a special attraction to cow thieves, since the owner was rich and lived in distant New York. An imaginative thief who might never steal from his neighbors could convince himself that during hard times, a Prince John from New York City could stand a few Robin Hoods doing night work in his pastures. Buck Curry had been hired to look after Dr. Jones’s interest in Gaines County and he wasn’t inclined to be careless with the boss’s assets. The problem grew serious enough so that Buck carried a .41 single action Colt pistol in his car, and Mother said he even kept it under his pillow at night.
Family stories don’t reveal much about Buck’s activities during the thirties, but in 1943 Dr. Jones sold his ranching interests to the Higginbothem family. My guess is that the combination of drought, ice storms, rustlers, and market vicissitudes had convinced him that there were easier ways of losing money than investing in hides and horns.
Dr. Jones sold out and Buck Curry returned to the banking business, more determined than ever to acquire a ranch of his own. Within a few years, he had put together a respectable outfit of eight thousand acres. Mother said that he had a favorite horse named Dollarbill, and she would imitate the way he called the horse to feed, yelling, “Dollar BILL! Dollar-BILL!” When he rode Dollarbill, he wore a pair of heavy blunt-rowel spurs he had made himself, beating them out of a Model T spring heated in a coal forge. She also said that he was bitten by a horse with rabies and had to take the only cure known at that time, a series of twenty painful shots injected into the navel.
I have often felt a closeness to Buck Curry, even though he died in 1947 when I was four years old. I seem to have inherited his love of ranching, horses, and books, his brown eyes and maybe some of his eccentricity. I’ve always lusted for a coyote skin coat. I remember feeding cattle with him and bouncing on his knee as he laughed and called me “Sweet Pea.” Mother said he used to take me and my cousin Mike Harter into town and buy us ice cream cones at the drug store. When we had coated our faces and clothes with melted ice cream, he would deliver us back to our indignant mothers and disappear. …
In 1972 when I was preparing to make my horseback ride down the Canadian River, which I used as the narrative thread for Through Time and the Valley, I bought myself a bay horse and named him Dollarbill. Then I wrote Grandmother Curry and asked if she might allow me to borrow the Grampy Buck spurs for the trip. She replied:
“I am so glad and consider it a compliment that you want to borrow your Grampy Buck’s spurs. He would be so pleased, as he spent happy hours making them. I am going to give them to you to keep, as I know you would appreciate them.
“I think Dollarbill will be an excellent name for your horse. May he live long and be a real companion. Do you know, one can grow very near to a good horse. They become a companion, a real one. You can talk to them and they seem to understand. I had such a horse once and my dad did too. I’ll be with you in spirit all the way.”
I wore the Buck Curry spurs on the river trip and rode my Dollarbill. He only bucked me off once.
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.