“WHIS-key” – The Road to Ruin – A Haskell Memory from Long Ago

A few weeks ago, I wrote about visiting the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock (see Stepping Into the Past). Seeing all those old buildings and other artifacts made me start thinking about the old frontier days here in Haskell. The first generation of settlers into this part of Texas certainly had more than their share of interesting events and occurrences – and none were more unique than the story of Haskell’s first saloon.

According to R.E. Sherrill’s book, Haskell County History, two early-day Haskell businessmen, a Mr. Draper and his partner, Mr. Baldwin, sometime around 1886 or 1887, discovered that a license they already had to sell whiskey wholesale also permitted them to sell it at retail. A large, two-story building was erected on the eastern end of the south side of the square; long-time Haskell residents will remember that as the location of the Haskell Free Press for many years. The original name of the establishment was the “QT Saloon.” “QT” was an old slang term for “quiet;” to keep something on the “QT” meant to keep it quiet, private, secret. These days, people might say “keep it on the down-low.”

If running a “quiet” saloon had been the owners’ original intention, the reality did not match up. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Not long after the building was built, a new preacher came to town, looking for a place to hold services. It was not unusual in those days for a minister to preach in places other than church buildings. The saloon was stocked with inventory but had not yet opened. Mr. Draper told the preacher that he was welcome to hold services at the saloon, which he apparently did before moving on to the next town.

Messrs. Draper and Baldwin continued running the QT, and one day, a one-legged sign painter showed up, looking for work. The owners apparently felt sorry for the man and agreed to hire him to paint a new sign for the establishment. The sign painter sat down and began to sketch out some ideas for Mr. Draper, including one that looked something like this. Mr. Draper loved it, and reportedly said, “That’s the one. That suits me better than any of them. That’s the most honest saloon sign I ever saw. Put her up.” And so the “QT” became the “Road to Ruin,” with its distinctive “WHIS-key” sign.

This is an approximation of the sign that hung outside the old Haskell saloon, which was known as “The Road to Ruin.” The “Whis-Key” advertising was allegedly done by a one-legged sign painter.

There were four murders in Haskell over the next fourteen years. Three of those killings were inside the saloon; the fourth was next door. The first occurred on Saturday, October 3, 1887. George Scarborough, sheriff of Jones County, was in the saloon, writing a letter to his wife. Another customer, A.J. Williams, who had been drinking in the saloon, attacked Sheriff Scarborough for reasons unknown; the sheriff shot and killed him. A few days later, October 17, W.M. Carter accused owner J.L. Baldwin of being unfair to the late Mr. Williams; guns were drawn, and Mr. Carter was killed. Both killings were determined to be self-defense, and Scarborough and Baldwin were cleared of all charges.

The next shooting was on May 27, 1890, when George Mason and a Mr. Marshall began having an argument about a recent horse race. Two other customers became involved, and one of those men was shot and killed, with that shooter also cleared for self-defense. The fourth killing happened next door to the saloon, in a livery stable that used to be where the county extension office is now. Saloon co-owner J.L. Baldwin also owned the livery stable, and he had a running feud with another livery owner, W.L. Yoe. On May 13, 1899, Mr. Yoe came to Mr. Baldwin’s stable to continue their disagreement; he attempted to draw his pistol, but it got hung up in his clothing. Mr. Baldwin drew his weapon cleanly and fired, killing Mr. Yoe.

Local history is not clear as to when the saloon closed; it may have been when national Prohibition went into effect around 1920. But many area residents were no doubt glad to see it shut down; an old poem from that time known as “Called a Bar” summed up the feelings of many:

— A Bar to joys that home imparts
A door to tears and aching hearts;

— A Bar to heaven, a door to hell
Whoever named it, named it well!

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?

A Chapel Car missionary leads a worship service for a small gathering.

Well, neither had I, until I read the book, This Train is Bound for Glory. It tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In many towns, saloons, gambling dens, and “dance halls” (usually brothels) outnumbered all other establishments combined. Most towns did not have schools, nor a church of any denomination. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. They knew that having a church in their community was essential. And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.  They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea. Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style pump organ. The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down bunks that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/ living space, a water closet/ toilet, and a tiny office/ study area.

The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance. The usual pattern was to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding. Sometimes it was parked near the railroad’s shops; often it would be parked near a town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women there.

Baptist Chapel Car #4, “Good Will,” was a frequent visitor to Abilene and this part of Texas. Its history shows several revivals between 1910 and 1930, held in association with Abilene’s First Baptist Church and other congregations.

The missionaries who served on board had to have a special calling. The men had to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work. They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there. They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone. And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

Their wives had to have a calling of their own. It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car. They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment. Most of the couples who served were young and newly married and had not yet started having children. Sometimes they were older couples whose children were grown. There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

There are many stories of the “rolling pastors” intentionally working among the newly arrived immigrants, the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society. At the front of the partition of one chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” written across it in gold leaf. It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board. They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.