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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Texas Hill Country Freighters of the 1800s

Freight wagons heading west from Kerrville, 1905.
This photo was taken below what is today Kerrville's Riverside Nature Center,
at the confluence of Town Creek and the Guadalupe River.
Click on any image below to enlarge.
Modern stores are stocked with an abundance of products which appear on the shelves of our local stores by hard work, magic, and algorithms. Even shopping lists populated with obscure items can usually be filled.
How do all of those products get here today? And how did they once get here?
Freighters crossing a creek in
Kerr County, around 1900
Consider the freighters who hauled products to Kerrville from the 1850s until around 1918, men with mule teams hauling goods in two and sometimes three heavily-packed wagons hitched together, traveling over hills, through rivers, down steep canyons: theirs was not an easy job, but a vital one.
Winifred Kupper, in her book on the Texas sheep industry, “The Golden Hoof,” has a chapter devoted to these freighters, based on stories told by her uncle, Robert Maudslay, a sheepman, and rounded out with her interviews of Roy Littlefield, William Ward, S. U. Dickey, and Charley Switzer, freighters.
“There were usually three wagons to a train, the last one smaller and lighter than the two in front. The whole outfit was drawn by eight to sixteen mules and horses, two or four abreast,” Kupper writes.
Freight wagon postcard, 1915
These wagon trains could haul as much as fifteen thousand pounds of freight, “with the freighter riding his wheel horse and cracking and snapping his long rawhided-braided whip over his team.”
Most of the freighters were known by a nickname: Old Jim, Old Scotty, Old Smitty, Old Pirtle – you get the idea. “The roadways, a common environment, put a common stamp on them all. They were hard, ingenious, and profane. A lot of them, the ranchers will tell you, were plumb ornery besides…. They were important, and they knew it,” Kupper writes.
Wagon camp yard, downtown
Kerrville, around 1910
“A man’s own team occupied at least the place in his mind and his talk that the modern truck driver concedes to his favorite make of machine. Moreover, between the teamster and his mules there was a relationship that no truck driver had with the engine under his hood. Mules might be eternally full of cussedness, but they were the best pullers there were. They could pull through mud holes and up rock-ledged hills, and they could bring the wagons through hell and high water. To the old freighter there was something personal and almost human about them. He talked to his mules – urged them and encouraged them and swore at them. And they responded with heaves of their shoulders and a tremendous straining of legs.”
But the mules could prove difficult, as well. Here’s a story, which was likely true:
Wool wagons, Kerrville, around 1908.  Wagons
came to town filled with wool, and headed out,
filled with ordered products
One freighter told about “mules that balked at one of the rare pasture gateways in the region. The teamster lashed and tugged and gee-hawed, but the mules just stood. Finally, unaware that the mail hack had driven up behind him with a preacher for its sole passenger, he let out a stream of language that would have put the devil to shame, ending with: ‘You [expletive] sons of hell, you’d make a [expletive] preacher cuss.’
The preacher got out, walked up behind him, and said sympathetically: ‘Brother, I believe you’re right.’”
Their ‘voyages’ took a lot of preparation. “Provisions and equipment were laid in – coffee, slabs of bacon, flour, tobacco, dried fruit, a sharp ax, extra harness parts, feed for the mules, bedding, a slicker, cooking utensils, a jug of water. These were likely to be put in the small last wagon, the other two being loaded with the great variety of things…that ranchers ordered: windmills, sheepshears, lumber, salt, wire – anything from a washtub to a barn roof…. The loads when finished were covered with great tarpaulins stretched tight and fastened well. These were the only protection against the weather.
In the freighter’s mind, “there would be diverse matters: the girl he was leaving behind him, the loneliness that stretched before him for God knew how many days, and the anticipation of what troubles the road would bring. For trouble there would be. It was the one certain thing in an uncertain voyage.”
Until next week, all the best.

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Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who tries to find everything on the grocery lists Ms. Carolyn requests – even though there’s always that one obscure item he’s never heard of before. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times June 15, 2019.

If you enjoyed this column, you'll enjoy my two books, which are collections of my columns from 1994 to 2018.  Both books are available at Wolfmueller's BooksHerring Printing Company, and online by clicking HERE.

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