The Mystery of the Wichita Falls Country

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[by Rob Roehm. Originally published January 10, 2012, at rehtwogunraconteur.com; this version updated and lightly edited.]

I love a mystery. Unfortunately, I never have enough time to spend in Texas, where most of my favorite mysteries are, but I did manage a trip during the first week of January 2012 with my dad. Besides exploring several old Texas towns, this trip was also full of courthouses and documents. The mystery at hand was Robert E. Howard’s vague reference to the “Wichita Falls country” in his circa October 1930 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

Why, by the time I was nine years old I’d lived in the Palo Pinto hills of Central Texas; in a small town only fifty miles from the Coast; on a ranch in Atascosa County; in San Antonio; on the South Plains close to the New Mexican line; in the Wichita Falls country up next to Oklahoma; and in the piney woods of Red River over next to Arkansas.

This laundry list of locations was repeated close to a year later in a letter to Wilfred B. Talman:

I was born in the little ex-cowtown of Peaster, about 45 miles west of Fort Worth, in the winter of 1906, but spent my first summer in lonely Dark Valley among the sparsely settled Palo Pinto hills. From then until I was nearly nine years old I lived in various parts of the state — in a land-boom town on the Staked Plains, near the New Mexico line; in the Western Texas sheep country; in San Antonio; on a ranch in South Texas; in a cattle town on the Oklahoma line, near the old North Texas oil-fields; in the piney woods of East Texas; finally in what later became the Central West Texas Oil-belt.

Now, let’s connect the dots. Peaster, Dark Valley, and the “Palo Pinto hills” require no explanation. The “South Plains” and “Staked Plains” near New Mexico are references to Seminole, where the Howards lived from late-January to at least August 1908. “Western Texas sheep country” must be Bronte, where the Howards lived from September 1908 to  at least August 27, 1909. For San Antonio and Atascosa County, we turn to Dr. I. M. Howard’s November 7, 1936 letter to his sister-in-law, Jess Searcy:

I well remember when Robert was only four years old we spent the winter in San Antonio and the spring months in Atascosa County, some thirty miles south of San Antonio.

We also have Dr. Howard’s medical registrations for those places. He registered in San Antonio on November 20, 1909, and in Atascosa County on January 8, 1910 (just two days after Robert’s 4th birthday), with a mailing address at Poteet. This appears to be the location of the “ranch in South Texas.”

The “piney woods” are located in Bagwell, Red River County, where the Howards lived starting in 1913. The “Central West Texas Oil-belt” is the region surrounding and including Cross Plains. That leaves us with only two unidentified locations: “a small town only fifty miles from the Coast” and the “cattle town on the Oklahoma line, near the old North Texas oil-fields,” i.e. the “Wichita Falls country.” I haven’t done much traveling near the coast, so let’s see what we can find near the Oklahoma line.

“Wichita Falls country” has been a problem for biographers starting with L. Sprague de Camp. In Dark Valley Destiny, he handles it this way:

The Howards’ next move was to a place near Wichita Falls. Although there is no record of Dr. Howard’s medical registration in the District Clerk’s Office in any of the three nearby counties—Wichita, Clay, or Archer—Robert later told Lovecraft that his family had made their home in a little cattle town near the old North Texas oil field, which lies in the Wichita Falls area.

De Camp was wrong on at least one point, but we’ll get to that later. Some time after DVD was published, Howard fans started focusing on Burkburnett as the most likely “little cattle town.” A quick look at a Texas map will show that it is in Wichita Falls country and certainly near, if not on, “the Oklahoma line.”

Due to its format and intended audience, the next biographical work, Rusty Burke’s A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard, bypasses the issue completely: “Isaac Howard seems to have been possessed of a combination of wanderlust and ambition that led him to move his family frequently in search of better opportunities. By the time he was eight, Robert had lived in at least seven different, widely scattered Texas towns.” However, in Seanchai 111 (REHupa mailing 197, Feb. 2006), Burke notes the following:

Robert himself seems to suggest that, during at least some part of this three-year period [1911 to 1913], the Howards were living near the Oklahoma line, in what he calls “the Wichita Falls country” in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, and told Talman was “a cattle town. . . near the old North Texas oil fields.” Thus far no documentary evidence for this has been located.

Burke ends the section with this:

In 1911 the North Central oil fields produced almost 900,000 barrels of oil; in 1912 the figure was over 4 million and in 1913 over 8 million barrels. Either Electra or Burkburnett might qualify in REH’s mind as an “ex-cowtown,” since both had their beginnings in association with large ranches. Unless some other evidence comes to light, we will never really know whether Howard lived in the “Wichita Falls country” at all. If he did, it would have given him his first experience of an oil boom town.

Both Electra and Burkburnett are in Wichita County, with Wichita Falls serving as the county seat. Any investigation of Howard’s claim would have to include a stop in that county, but before we hit the road there’s one more source to check.

The most recent biography, Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, 2nd edition, has this: “The years 1911 and 1912 are pretty confusing. Robert mentions [. . .] that he lived in the Wichita Falls area up next to Oklahoma.” After recounting Howard’s description of the area, Finn adds the following:

The evidence suggests that Isaac pulled the family out to the burgeoning Burkburnett Oil Field in North Texas to see if it suited him. When oil was struck in 1912, the town became swamped as a torrent of people invaded the area in what had become the usual boomtown fashion.

Finn goes on to say that the Howards then returned to the Palo Pinto area before moving on to Red River County and Bagwell. This makes some sense, though I haven’t found any evidence of their return to that area.

With all of the book work finished, let’s look at the map. Howard’s use of “Wichita Falls country” leaves lots of wiggle room. De Camp says he looked in three counties— Wichita, Clay, and Archer—maybe by expanding the net to include nearby Wilbarger, Baylor, and Montague Counties, I could find something. Montague County was especially enticing: Dr. Howard had registered there in May 1900, could a return to familiar stomping grounds be the solution? My dad and I made our plans and hit the road on January 1, 2012.

After spending some time near Waco, we headed up to the Wichita Falls country: first stop, Montague County. After searching several courthouses in the days preceding our arrival, we were old hands at searching for what we were after. We scoured the land purchases from 1899 to 1915 and found nothing. Neither the County nor District Clerk knew anything about a physicians’ registry.

Over in Henrietta, the County Seat of Clay County, our luck changed. We walked into the courthouse and learned that the County Clerk’s office, where land records are held, was no longer in the courthouse itself, but located just across the street. The District Clerk’s office was just down the hall, so we hit that first. Once there, we asked about a physicians’ registry from the early 1900s. The clerk was surprised by our request, saying, “No one has ever asked for that before.” Despite this, she had no trouble finding it. I opened it up to the section marked “G H” and there it was: “Howard, I. M. – 51.”

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Breathless, I turned to page 51 and found the answer to the mystery of the Wichita Falls country: on December 19, 1912, Doc Howard was standing right there in the Clay County courthouse, presenting his credentials. The book must have been missed by whoever the District Clerk was back when de Camp was looking for it.

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While these physicians’ registries don’t actually tell you when the physician arrived in the county, it does appear that doctors needed to register before starting to practice; in all of the counties that I’ve found documents pertaining to Dr. Howard—birth and death records, mostly—the first one is always his registration. If this is how things worked, then the Howards must have moved sometime between the doctor’s last birth notice in Palo Pinto County—dated October 18, 1912—and his registration in Clay County—December 19, 1912. Not a big window, but where in the county did they land? A typed statement signed by Doctor Howard (above) says that his “post office address” was Byers, Texas (a scene from Byers circa 1910-20 heads this post).

I turned to the clerk: “Do you know where Byers is?”

“Sure,” she said. “It’s up north on 79, about five miles from the Oklahoma line.”

As I chatted with the clerk, my dad took several pictures of the book and its pages, with two different cameras. When he was finished, we crossed the street to the County Clerk’s office. No land records for I. M. Howard were found. Next stop, Byers.

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The town (above) will require a little more looking into, maybe there’s a newspaper or library, but based on what we saw in our drive-by I doubt it: lots of crumbling buildings and abandoned storefronts.

Even though we’d solved the mystery, my dad and I continued with our original plan and headed west to Wichita Falls. The Wichita County library and courthouse had no relevant information. The District Clerk there looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for a physicians’ registry; the County Clerk had never heard of one but did spend some time looking around, to no avail. From there, we went to Burkburnett and found nothing useful in their library. At Electra (seen below in 1912), we found a superior library, but no information on the Howards. Wichita County was all tapped out.

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Despite the lack of evidence in Wichita County, Isaac Howard may well have worked there, too. Without a physicians’ registry, there’s no way to rule it out. He was, after all, always trying to expand his territory, and what’s a county line to a country doctor? But at least we now know—without question—that I. M. Howard practiced in Byers, near “the Oklahoma line,” and we finally have the evidence to back up Robert Howard’s claim that he once lived in the Wichita Falls country.

Now, what towns are fifty miles from the Coast?