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Texas History: What makes Stephenville a 'Cowboy Capital of the World'

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Michael Barnes arrived in Stephenville in time for the Moo-La Fest. The Erath County courthouse square is actually a lot busier than is suggested by this photograph.

(Update: An earlier version of this story had the wrong year of death for John M. Stephen in a photo caption. Stephen died in 1862.)

STEPHENVILLE — The Texas road is open. 

I recently took advantage of the safer health horizons by visiting Stephenville, Glen Rose and Thurber, all southwest of Fort Worth. The first spot is a small Texas city with a growing university, the second a thriving tourist town, and the third a ghost town whose history is preserved in an amazing museum.

Today's column is about Stephenville.

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This bustling city of 21,000 anchors a micropolitan area of 43,000. It lies in a crook of the North Bosque River within the verdant West Cross Timbers region of rolling, wooded hills. Once near the heart of the Comancheria, it was first settled in the 1850s, primarily as ranch land. Intense cotton farming arrived by the 1870s, and after the soil inevitably played out, Erath County became known for its dairy industry.

Lying outside the penumbra of the Dallas-Fort Worth force field, Stephenville celebrates its independent identity as "Cowboy Capital of the World," a claim it shares with Bandera to the south. Also dubbed the "Dairy Capital of Texas," it gave birth to many a rodeo star and its burgeoning Tarleton State University — with a student body of 14,000 —fields a rodeo team, which has won seven national championships. Downtown, you can visit the Cowboy Capital Walk of Fame, although the paver-level plaques are a bit hard to read from the distance of an adult's height.

The oldest surviving home in Stephenville was built in 1869 by J.D. Berry of native limestone.

Memories of Wolfe Nursery

The first place in town that I visited was also one of the last places I visited, because I had to return to the Stephenville Historical House Museum, a grouping of old structures just northeast of downtown. This includes the Berry Cottage, a modest, two-story limestone home, the oldest in town, as well as a half dozen well-tended log structures and an old Presbyterian church.

Nearby is an extravagant Victorian home, the Oxford House, which is undergoing the last stages of renovation, as well as the giant cartoon highway sign for Wolfe Nursery, a business that was started by pioneer horticulturalist Ross R. Wolfe in Stephenville in 1919 to provide pecan tree saplings for area farms and ranches. The Wolfe nurseries in Houston played a big part in my youth before its parent company faced bankruptcy.

What is now called Wolfe Nursery Direct serves landscaping firms as a wholesale outlet. The site for the former Stephenville headquarters is now penned in by a Panda Express, Taco Bell, Walmart and Starbucks, which are at least found on or near North Wolfe Nursery Road.

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The next stop was the town square with its rough-hewn Romanesque Revival courthouse. Businesses around the square, partly revived by the Texas Historical Commission's Main Street program, bustle. The surrounding blocks, however, fade into some neglected areas. Just west of the square are two giant churches, one Baptist, one Methodist, plus an equally enormous older Baptist church, now a school. According to local histories, these denominations have dominated religious life here.

Not far down Washington Street — almost everything in town brings you back to this long thoroughfare — are the mysterious Erath Arches, which I had to explore. Turns out they were monuments to pioneer, soldier, legislator and county namesake George Bernhard Erath. They were put up in the 1930s for the Texas Centennial, but were resituated when streets were widened in the 1960s.

The real deal: Spicy sausage sandwich with fries and Shiner Bock at Hard Eight Pit BBQ in Stephenville.

Two types of research in Stephenville

Early the next morning at the West End Cemetery, I combined some productive early summer birding with a type of research beloved of genealogists, but ignored by almost everyone else. Shaded by row after row of oak trees, this graveyard reveals layers of Stephenville history, starting with the monument to city cofounder John M. Stephen, who died 1862.

Clearly there is no shortage of granite, marble or limestone in this part of the country, because almost every grave is marked with something sculptural. Tablets and obelisks — along with lambs, angels and religious symbols — populate the older part of the cemetery, whereas the newer lanes are lined with more inventive forms, many of them decorated with Western themes. One notes the increased number of Hispanic names as the 20th and 21st century progressed, indicating changing demographics.

The Oxford House, a fine example of 19th century domestic architecture, preserved near the main campus of the Stephenville Museum.

Later the same day, I checked out the Stephenville Public Library, a handsome building near the courthouse square. Although at first a bit difficult to find on the shelves, two books proved quite useful: "Fragments of History — Erath County: Philosophical Essays, Cities of the Immortal Dead," compiled in 1966 by Homer Stephen, and "Stephenville," an Arcadia series paperback written by high school social studies teacher Ricky L. Sherrod.

The first is presented in a grab-bag style formerly popular among local histories and it includes cemetery lists, family photos, tales of frontier battles and personal memories. It reminds you how family genealogy is often the gatehouse to more formal history, a path represented by the second book. 

The small city of Stephenville celebrates the Moo-La Fest with a carnival, concerts, hot-air balloons and salutes to the local dairy industry.

Sherrod tells us that John M. Stephen and George B. Erath surveyed the town square in 1855. Although Stephenville was still deep inside the Comanche Empire at the time, early settlers also interacted with the Caddo tribe, which had been pushed west from their former homelands in East Texas. 

Another of Stephenville's slogans is "City of Champions," and archives of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, a sibling paper within our Gannett / USA Today newspaper chain, attest to a long, local love for sports, especially the high school variety. That said, almost everyone I talked to in town pointed out that Tarleton State, founded by John Tarleton in 1899 as an agricultural school, and a part of the Texas A&M System since 1917, had recently earned NCAA Division 1 status.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb and Hugh Wolfe, fullback for the 1938 NFL champion New York Giants and part of the Wolfe Nursery family, both grew up here. Among the area rodeo champions have been Tuff Hedeman and "King of Cowboys" Ty Murray. Famed musicians who lived in Stephenville include Lee Roy Parnell, Johnny Duncan, Larry Joe Taylor and Jewel.

The Stephenville Historical House Museum campus includes several expertly restored log structures.

Eating out in Stephenville can be historical, too

I had planned to sample several eateries in Stephenville, but to tell the truth, the servings here are so generous, I ate out only twice. Both meals were excellent and came with sides of history.

Greer's Ranch Café in the courthouse square might be called an American comfort-food bistro with a heavy Texas accent. Chef and sommelier Phil Greer, a veteran of 30 years in the hospitality sector, transformed what originally was Dawson's Saloon, keeping the wood beams and flooring, as well as a record of its past. My server happily told me the history of the place and pointed out key photographs and artifacts, which add to the place's enormous charm and updated authenticity.

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I ordered fried pickles for an appetizer, then the chicken fried steak, of course. When in Rome ...

In Austin, a fried-pickle order can translate into a few loosely breaded hot spears. My server brought out a tall basket of expertly prepared medallions, enough for a meal. When she arrived with a biggish salad, I had to turn it down. After all, what followed was a breaded steak the size of a small frying pan along with two tasty sides.

Not far from this lovely memorial at the West End Cemetery in Stephenville is the monument to city cofounder John M. Stephen, who with George B. Erath surveyed the town square in 1855. Stephen died in 1862.

The next day, I made a pilgrimage to Hard Eight Pit BBQ out on Glen Rose Road. This popular joint spreads out over a chunk of land surrounded by a large parking lot, packed at lunch with pickup trucks, a good sign.

As with many barbecue spots I've encountered, the routines and rituals for ordering can be arcane. The Hard Eight staff guided me along the way to a spicy sausage sandwich on sweet bread, crispy fries and a too-large goblet of Shiner Bock (as in other partially dry precincts of Texas, you must become a club member to order beer or margaritas).

Family owned and operated, Hard Eight was founded by the late Philip Nivens and his wife, Vicki, along with son-in-law Chad Decker and his wife, Carie. I was shocked to learn that it has only been in business since 2003, and that it has since expanded to Burleson, Coppell, Roanoke and The Colony. It looks and feels like it has been in Stephenville for a century at least.

Next towns in line for the "Think, Texas" treatment: Glen Rose and Thurber.

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