“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!

Stepping Into the Past

My wife and I recently took advantage of having a little time off, to visit the National Ranching Heritage Center, on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock. The trip took us 140 miles from Haskell, and about that many years into the past.

The NRHC began about 55 years ago, as a way of preserving and celebrating Texas’ ranching history. Along the way, they have collected over 40 historic buildings and other artifacts, gathered together from the 6666, the Spur, the Pitchfork, XIT, King, and many other famous ranches and communities. Ranch homes, log cabins, bunkhouses, dugouts, barns, cattle pens, windmills – if it was found on an old ranch in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you name it, and the Heritage Center probably has at least one example of it. The collection also includes a ranch commissary, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a church building, and much, much more.

Our toured started at the beautiful, spacious headquarters building which contains several galleries, including a walk-through exhibition on the history of ranching and beef cattle; also on display is a collection of “Guns that Won the West,” beautiful Western sculptures, an authentic reproduction of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, “Burk” Burnett’s personal horse-drawn buggy, and more. From there, you step outside and onto the self-guided walking tour of ranching history.

The first building you come to is Los Corralitos, a replica of what may be the oldest standing structure in the state of Texas, dating from about 1780. Unlike just about everything else on the museum grounds, this building is a reproduction, because when historians were researching the old ranch fort, they discovered that the remains of five members of the land grant family may be buried beneath the original structure. It’s a fascinating building to examine, with its 33-inch thick walls of sandstone and mortar, no windows, and six gun ports for defending one’s family.

There are several dugout cabins, as well as log cabins, constructed before the railroads made lumber available. The interpretive signs along the way give you information about what you’re seeing. For example, you’ll learn about the Jowell House from Palo Pinto County (actually two buildings), two stories tall and made of cut stone – a replacement Mr. Jowell built to take the place of his original log cabin, which was burned in an Indian raid. And just in case you need a reminder of how hard life on the frontier was, also exhibited are the original headstones of five of the Jowell children, all of whom died between the ages of three and nine. (The original markers were replaced a few years ago.) Influenza, measles, snake bite, marauders, and accidents – it was not an easy place to grow up.

Of all the buildings that we saw, the one nearest Haskell County was an old mail cabin, made entirely of small, cut stones, dry-stacked to make a one-room structure, and originally from Knox County. Apparently, government riders from the postal system or the Army would use it as a stopover, to sort and drop off mail to and from various area ranches.

This cut-stone cabin, now at the NRHC, was originally located in Knox County. It was built about 1875 and was used to sort mail and messages for area ranches. (Photo courtesy, NRHC.)

It takes the average visitor about 60-90 minutes to see everything, but as the museum brochures explain, that depends on your level of interest. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome.

So much of the center reminds you of how hard life was on the frontier; every gain was at the expense of a great deal of hard work, and every improvement took considerable creativity and problem-solving skills. For the most part, there were no outside resources or help available – if you needed something, you made it yourself or did without. If it broke, you fixed it. Weaknesses in one’s character simply were not tolerated.

As an example – before they could build above-ground cabins, many settlers would construct partially-buried dugouts in which to live. Of course, since they had dirt floors and walls, the people who lived there had to constantly be on the lookout for tarantulas and scorpions. And in the fall, when the first cold wind came and mama built a fire in fireplace, the rattlesnakes would come crawling, driven out by the heat.

It was a hard life, and the NRHC helps you appreciate a little more those who came before us. May we always be worthy of that heritage.

Remembering the Abilene & Southern

Many people know that Abilene was founded by the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1881, but not as many remember another railroad that served this area for much of the twentieth century – the Abilene & Southern.

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Morgan Jones

The A&S was the brainchild of Col. Morgan Jones, a Welsh immigrant who came to the US in 1866, and assisted with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. He later helped built the Texas & Pacific, as well as numerous other rail lines throughout West Texas. In January, 1909, he began work on the Abilene & Southern.

Jones’ original vision was to build a railroad from Abilene through Winters and Ballinger, and then on to points south and west, but for various reasons, those plans were never completed. Ultimately, the line stretched almost a hundred miles, from Ballinger in the south, through Abilene, and northward to Anson and Hamlin.

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A&S Engine 18, a 4-6-0 “Ten Wheeler” type

The Abilene & Southern was very much a West Texas road. Its primary traffic over the years was grain, cattle, bales of cotton, and cottonseed oil. Passenger traffic was usually handled by a passenger coach attached to the rear of a freight train. (In the world of railroading, combined freight and passenger service is known as a “mixed” train.)

Those who rode the mixed train report that it was common for the passenger coach to be set out on a side track at a station while the train crew went about their switching duties, picking up and dropping off cars. They would then re-couple to the coach and be on their way. It must have really played havoc with the conductor trying to keep the train on schedule! Mixed train service ended in the late 1950s.

TimetableDuring Col. Jones’ lifetime, the A&S was operated as an independent railroad, interchanging with the Texas & Pacific in Abilene, and the Santa Fe at Tuscola and Ballinger. In 1927, however, after the old man’s death a year earlier, the profitable little railroad was bought by the Texas & Pacific, which continued to operate it for decades to come.

1914 Pass AAlas, economics and the dwindling populations of the towns it served finally caught up with the A&S. The tracks north of Abilene were abandoned in 1937. In 1972, the line from Winters to Ballinger was pulled up. Ownership of the line passed from the T&P, to the Missouri Pacific, to the Union Pacific, which finally abandoned the remaining portion of the line south of Abilene in 1989.

Today, only about seven miles remain, interchanging with the Union Pacific and serving industries in east Abilene. Southern Switching Company handles these chores, and their green switching engines can be seen trundling back and forth along the former A&S tracks.

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A&S Depot in Ballinger, TX

There are still a few reminders of the A&S today. The station in Ballinger, with its unique stone twin turrets, is still standing. Drive along the highway between Ballinger and Abilene, and if you look carefully, you can still spot the old right of way. The old A&S Freight Depot has been moved and incorporated into a brew pub on South First. And, when he died in 1926, Welshman Morgan Jones was laid to rest in his adopted hometown of Abilene, Texas.

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Morgan Jones’ final resting place in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery

And that is not all. Although the colonel never married and left no direct descendants, his nephews and other members of his extended family remained in Abilene, and continued to use the profits from the A&S – as well as their own fortunes – to benefit the entire community. There’s a huge wing of Hendrick hospital named for a nephew, Percy Jones, and his wife, Ruth Leggett Jones. The planetarium at Abilene High is named after another nephew, Morgan C. Jones. And every non-profit in town is familiar with the philanthropic investments of the Dodge Jones Foundation.

So the next time you’re sitting in the comfortable Percy Jones waiting room at Hendrick, think about the old Abilene railroad. The next time you’re driving along US Highway 83 through Winters and on to Ballinger, notice the old roadbed that was there before the highway, and remember the men who built that line, and those who operated her.

The next time you’re on Treadaway Boulevard, and you see those little green switchers shoving hopper cars loaded with grain, remember the Abilene & Southern.

15X5 Abilene & Southern photo

A&S Engine #20, a 2-8-2 “Mikado” type, August, 1949.