Monday, April 8, 2013

Camel Wrestling at Camp Verde

Not all of the stories I find about the history of our area are pretty.
This week's story is one of the stories I'm reluctant to tell, because I'm sure it will offend some people. I found the story interesting, even if I find parts of it unpleasant, because it reveals something of the character of folks long ago, but also because it's a story of unintended consequences.
I found the story in the November 1940 issue of the "Frontier Times," a magazine published in Bandera by J. Marvin Hunter. These magazines have been collectors' items for a long time and so they're hard to come by. A long-time family friend let me borrow a stack of "Frontier Times," and I was as tickled as a kid in a candy store.
This particular story was written by the publisher, and called "Wrestling Camels Provided Frontier Sport."  Camels at Camp Verde were Kerr County camels, and so I read the article with interest.
According to the story there existed in the Middle East a "sport" where camels are trained to fight one another. And there was one camel in particular, named "Major," who had superior talents in this "sport," though, in the end, it was these very talents that lead to Major's death.
The sad story of Major, of his victories and of his death follow:
"Among the camels bought at Smyrna were four fine Loks; these have all been trained at 'Pehlevens,' or wrestlers. Wrestling matches between camels being an amusement in which Turks take great delight, although they sometimes get a fine animal maimed in the sport.... The camels are trained at wrestling when quite young; they exhibit great dexterity in throwing their antagonists, and seem to take much pleasure in the fray."
One of the camels trained in the sport was Major, and his biggest victory occurred far from Camp Verde.
"On one occasion when the camels were approaching Fort Davis a few of the soldiers accompanying the caravan on horseback hurried to the fort and in a saloon they boasted of having two wrestling camels with the caravan, and offered to bet that either of the camels could throw any mule in the corral. There was a big mouse-colored mule in the [Fort Davis] herd that was considered the strongest animal ever brought to that post."
Hadji Ali, who everyone called Hi Jolly, and who was a camel expert from the Mid-East who traveled to this country with the camels, and who served as a driver of the animals here, tried to avoid the matchup between old Major and the strong Fort Davis mule, claiming the camels were too tired from their journey and needed to rest for an early start the next day.
But the Camp Verde soldiers would not be dissuaded and, after letting the camels rest all night, they schemed to have the match between the camel and mule early the next morning, before the caravan headed out. Even then "Hi Jolly" said no to the match. But when promised a $10 gold piece, his reluctance disappeared.
"The big mule and the camel were quietly led a mile or so down the Limpia canyon, and about 150 of the troops stationed at Fort Davis, including some of the officers, went along to witness the match. When the big mule was led up near the camel he gave a snort of fright and tried to break away. 'Hi Jolly' said something to Major, and as he removed the camel's halter, the ungainly beast made a bound toward the mule, which turned suddenly and kicked the camel in the side with both heels, braying as he did so. Major ran up alongside the mule, flung one leg over his neck, and by a dexterous twist threw the mule to the ground on his back. The mule attempted to rise, but before he could do so the camel leaped upon him, and forced him back. 'Hi Jolly' spoke to the camel, and he drew off to one side. Examination revealed that the mule's back was broken, and he had to be shot. The camel had several ribs broken by being kicked in the side, but after daylight, when the caravan got underway, Major was in his usual place, carrying a cargo of six hundred pounds."
Despite winning a pile of money for the Camp Verde soldiers, Major afterwards developed the bad habit of killing mules and being considered "ill-tempered," despite the fact that the camel had been trained to fight, and had followed that training and his driver's instructions.
Major's final "crime" was that he "killed seven good army mules, one after the other, by jumping on them and crushing their backs," when back at Camp Verde. And so, when soldiers found Major near the edge of a high bluff, the soldiers pushed the poor camel to its death.
It's an odd story, but for some reason I can almost see it as I read about it. Perhaps it's because Ms. Carolyn and I often travel to Fort Davis; perhaps it's because I've been so interested in Camp Verde.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has wandered around in the Limpia canyon many times, but has never actually walked the Camp Verde grounds, since they're now private property. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times April 6, 2013.

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  1. Very interesting tale, Joe. One mean camel. Frontier Times always had great stories. Thanks for sharing.


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