The Texas Spur

In a July 22, 1977 interview with Norris R. Chambers (NRC) who had been a friend of the Howard family, L. Sprague de Camp asked if Dr. and Mrs. Howard were close. Chambers responded, “I’d say that Doctor Howard and his wife weren’t too close.” This prompted the following exchange with Catherine de Camp (CdeC):

CdeC: We got that feeling, yeah.
NRC: Because they—they never did separate, or anything like that, but lots of times they didn’t get along too well.
CdeC: Was there a lot of family bickering or fighting?
NRC: I don’t know about that. I don’t think that there was a whole lot of bickering. I think that he was just gone so much of the time that he wasn’t there, and she was, so much, I think.

In a March 6, 1978 interview with Norris’s older sister, Deoma Morgan (DM) recalled the Howards’ time in Burkett, circa 1918. Talking about Dr. Howard, Morgan told the de Camps that “He and Mrs. Howard didn’t get along too well at times.” The chat continues:

DM: [. . .] he’d tell my father about the problems he and Heck [Hester] were having. Maybe threaten to “take out,” but Papa –
CdeC: Did he really threaten, back –
DM: Ah, he did. But Papa always tried to – to iron things out. And he did. And first thing you know, they’d be getting along better.

At some point, de Camp learned that Dr. Howard had transferred his church membership from Cross Plains to Spur—a little town over in Dickens County, more than 100 miles northwest of Cross Plains—and started asking questions. In a July 7, 1978 letter, Norris Chambers responds:

Received your letter asking about Dr. Howard’s trip to Spur? I heard a little about this, but all I knew then (I was pretty young in 1929 [11 or 12 years-old]) was that he was thinking of moving his practice out there. I remember he talked some in later years about the country out there, but I never really knew that he went out there with the intention of “taking out.” However, this could easily have been the case. He often spoke of moving to various parts of the country, but we had heard this talk so much that we just listened to it and figured that nothing would come of it. The Dr. talked of doing many things that he never did. Sometimes he would start on something, but usually got other interests or changed his mind before he went very far with the actual act.

In a July 17, 1978 letter to Charlotte Laughlin, who was helping with some research, de Camp’s ideas are starting to solidify:

[I]n 1929, Dr. Howard went to Spur, Dickens County, TX, where he joined the Baptist Church and registered as a physician in that county. It is known that he and Hester Jane Howard did not get along well; he frequently complained to his friends about his domestic situation and sometimes threatened to “take out” as he expressed it. He also was much given to forming grandiose plans for moving somewhere else, and he did in fact move a great deal, even for a Texan, down to the time he settled in Cross Plains in 1919-21. One of his plans, of which he talked, was for moving his practice to Dickens County. Now, did he move to Spur as an abortive attempt to desert his family? Or did he expect them to join him there? If so, did they refuse to move from CP? In any case, he was soon back in Cross Plains.

In an August 28, 1978 letter, de Camp told Mrs. Lindsey Tyson that he’d “discovered that in 1929, Dr. Howard left his family and joined the church in Spur, Texas, where he also registered as a physician. Next year he was back in Cross Plains.” He then asked, “Does Lindsey recall any quarrel in the Howard family at this time, which might have led to this temporary separation?”

De Camp’s partner in crime, Jane Whittington Griffin, was also asking questions. Jack Scott responded to her in an August 31, 1978 letter: “I was in college in 1929 at the time you say Dr. I. M. Howard moved to Spur and opened temporary practice. Consequently, I have no knowledge of that. Neither am I familiar with any unhappiness in his marital life.” In de Camp’s “Notes on talk with Jack Scott, 2/21/80,” de Camp wrote, “The reason for IMH’s stay in Spur was a cotton boom in that region, which he thought would give him a chance to make some money.”

All of this information was used to create the following paragraphs in 1983’s Dark Valley Destiny:

Early in 1929 a professional colleague had told Isaac Howard of a cotton boom in sparsely-inhabited Dickens County. This was the real West Texas cattle country, the Lower Plains adjoining the High Plains still further west. The vegetation there was thin. The climate, while not so severe as on the High Plains, was exacting enough, with over twenty inches of annual rainfall, temperatures ranging from 10°F to well over 100°, and lots of wind.
Dr. Howard learned that many new people would be coming into the region to grow cotton by irrigation. Undoubtedly they would have need of a physician. Thinking this a chance to make some quick cash, Isaac Howard went to Spur, a town of moderate size in Dickens County, 112 miles northwest of Cross Plains.
On May 4, 1929, he took out his license to practice medicine in Dickens County. He transferred his letter of membership in the First Baptist Church of Cross Plains, which he had joined in 1924, to the Baptist Church in Spur. He evidently meant to stay for some time in Spur, one of those places on the fringe of things to which he had always been drawn. We can only guess what part was played in Isaac’s move by his discomfiture over his wife’s royal pretensions, his son’s animosity, and the necessity of sharing his small house with a roomer.
While the dates of Isaac’s moves are uncertain, it appears that his sojourn in Spur lasted at least half a year. He must have come back often to Cross Plains to visit his family, for the townsfolk of Cross Plains seem to have been unaware of his absences. In mid-1929 he probably returned home to stay for at least half a year, because of Robert Howard’s absence during this time. We do not know whether the doctor returned to Spur during the first half of 1930; in any event he transferred his church membership back to Cross Plains on August 28, 1930.

All of which has the following footnote: “Interview with J. Scott, 21 Feb. 1980; letter from Rev. T. Irwin, 25 Aug. 1977.”

And here’s how it’s all handled in the 2nd edition of Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder, the Life and Art of Robert E. Howard (2011):

Between the money made by Robert for his prize-fighting fiction and the three hundred dollars that Weird Tales paid him for “Skull-Face,” Robert was sitting pretty in 1929. However, his home life was in a turmoil; the Howards had taken in lodgers again, and the house was filled to capacity. Robert, then, decided to go to Brownwood for six months. No records indicate why he did so, but he left sometime in July, 1929, and returned to Cross Plains in December, 1929. Considering that his parents’ marriage had broken down to the point of partial estrangement, it is possible that Robert just needed a change of scenery from cold silence and hostility from his mother and loud complaining about his wife’s lack of attention and bouts of pretension from his father. What Robert did in Brownwood and who he stayed with are unknown. During the first part of 1929, Isaac Howard went to Spur, Texas, either to test the waters and see if he could set up a practice there, or to get away from Hester, or maybe both. Robert, then, may have moved away to force his father to come home and take care of her. No one can say for sure what maneuverings took place at the end of 1929, nor what prompted them. Robert wrote to Smith, after returning from his six month furlough in December 1929, “Here I am doing business at the old stand or trying to. I don’t know if I’ll be able to write worth a damn here or not.” Apparently, things hadn’t settled down at home just yet.

So. While there aren’t a lot of people who testify to it, it does seem that there was some marital discord in the Howard house, at least when they lived in Cross Cut and Burkett. (And I haven’t even mentioned Annie Newton Davis’s interview, in which she tells of Hester Howard pining for a lost love and regretting her marriage to Dr. Howard altogether.) Even without marital discord, though, there was a lot going on in the Howard home in mid-1929. [Update: The Coleman Democrat-Voice for December 27, 1928 tells us that “Dr. I. M. Howard of Cross Plains was here Wednesday, enroute to Spur on business.”] While I have not uncovered the August 25, 1977 letter from Rev. T. Irwin that tells of Dr. Howard transferring his church membership from Cross Plains to Spur, there is this May 3, 1929 notice in the Cross Plains Review:

Dr. I. M. Howard left on Wednesday [May 1] of this week for Spur, Texas, where he has gone with a view of tentatively locating there for the practice of his profession. If the climate of that locality is more agreeable to his health he may make it a permanent location; otherwise, he announces, he will return to Cross Plains. Dr. Howard has been one of the most prominent physicians of Cross Plains and this community for a number of years. Barney Lindley, former owner of the City Drug Store here, is now operating a drug store in Spur.

That same day, The Texas Spur announced, “Dr. Howard and family, of Cross Plains, are moving to Spur. Dr. Howard will be with the City Drug Store and engage in the practice of medicine.” It is interesting to note the “and family” portion of this note. If Dr. Howard’s intention was to “take out” and leave Hester, he certainly wouldn’t be bringing his family along. Let’s just chalk this up to a writer’s exuberance. On the very next day, a Saturday, while Robert E. Howard entertained Clyde and Truett in Cross Plains (see notice in Cross Plains Review from May 10), Dr. Howard was registering his credentials at the Dickens County courthouse. He had arrived.

Or had he? The following Friday’s Review (May 10) has this note: “Dr. I.M. Howard left on Wednesday [May 8] of this week for Spur, Texas, where he has gone with a view of tentatively [locating] there for the practice of his profession.” That same day, The Texas Spur had a front page item:

Probably unrelated to the tale of Spur, on May 14, T. H. Collins of Burkett filled out a promissory note to “Howard & Young” for $290. The note gives him one year to repay the amount. It was recently found in a stash of Dr. Howard’s papers. No further details are available at present.

On May 17, The Texas Spur picks up the tale:

Robert Howard was long out of school by 1929, so it is unclear why “the close of the school term” would provide the green light for Dr. Howard to move. Perhaps the Howards had a boarder who was leaving then, or maybe the reporter just assumed. In any case, the article seems to imply that the whole family is relocating.

The next edition of The Texas Spur, May 24, has more details:

If this item can be believed, it sure puts a damper on the idea that Dr. and Mrs. Howard were having marital problems at the time, much less that he was planning to leave his wife. After spending some time with Isaac in Spur, Dr. Howard returned the favor by visiting Hester in Cross Plains on June 1-2, as this item from the June 7 Review attests: “Dr. Howard, who has moved to Spur, visited with his family here past week end.” The paper also reports that “Robert Howard is visiting relatives in Brownwood this week.”

The Texas Spur for June 7 reports that Dr. Howard attended a funeral in Belle Plains. It also has a “Professional Announcement” regarding the opening of his offices in the Campbell Building, but far more interesting is this third item:

It seems unlikely that Mrs. Howard had actually moved to Spur, but there’s nothing to say with certainty that she didn’t. Edit: Actually, it looks like Hester didn’t last the week, as this clipping from the June 14 Spur paper points out (thanks to Patrice Louinet for bringing this to my attention):

Whatever the case, by June 21, Dr. Howard is advertising in the local paper and visiting Cross Plains, again, the following week, June 28.

The same ad appears in The Texas Spur on June 29 and July 5, but it appears that it did not induce people to visit the good doctor. On the same day that his final ad appeared in Spur, July 5, the Cross Plains Review was reporting that “Dr. Howard Moving Back to Cross Plains”:

DR. HOWARD MOVING
BACK TO CROSS PLAINS

Dr. I. M. Howard, who went to Spur about two months ago with the view of investigating the prospects of a permanent location there, has returned to Cross Plains and will resume his practice in this locality. He will occupy his former offices at the Cross Plains Drug Store. The doctor’s many patrons and friends are glad that he decided to return to Cross Plains.

Around the same time, Robert Howard was receiving visitors from Brownwood. The July 12 Cross Plains Review has not one, but two items for Howard:

Item: Truett Vinson and Clyde Smith of Brownwood spent past weekend with Robert Howard here.
Item: Harold Creece [Harold Preece] of Austin visited with Robert Howard last week.

The July 26 edition has this: “Robt. Howard, son of Doctor and Mrs. I.M. Howard, spent the past week-end on a visit to Brownwood.” Perhaps he was moving there, and not just visiting, as the August issue of The Junto lists Howard’s address at 816 Melwood, in Brownwood. It was a good time to move there: Tevis Clyde Smith graduated from Howard Payne on August 7.

On August 9, the Review reported “Lindsey Tyson visited with Robert Howard, at Brownwood, the past week-end.” The September, October, and November issues of The Junto have Howard in Brownwood. The December issue has not been located.

Following his return to Cross Plains, there is scant reference to Dr. Howard in the papers, [Edit: though he does appear in the August 2 edition, where it is reported that he and his wife attended a July 28 dinner party together. The August 22 Brownwood Banner-Bulletin has the good doctor in the small community of May “prospecting.” (hat-tip: Patrice Louinet)] He also appears in a November 1 item in the Review: “Robert Howard returned to Brownwood Monday after spending several days with his parents, Dr. and Mrs. I.M. Howard, here.”

There is no further mention of Spur on the record.

[Originally published in Onion Tops #80 in REHupa 281, February 2020. This version has a few corrections.]