Buffalo Bill and the Saga of His Dime Novels

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The SWC has a lot of books. Some of them are rare, some not so rare, and some incredibly entertaining. And as you may know by now, we love to share the latter most of all. These dime novels about Buffalo Bill are a prime example. According to the preliminary pages of the books, “they depict actual adventures…interwoven with fiction; historically the books are correct.” Is that true? Well, head on over to browse amongst them in our digital collections and find out. You could start with Buffalo Bill’s Determination, above, which having been published in 1910 is one of the earliest ones we possess.

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The Buffalo Bill dime novels were written by Prentiss Ingraham, a Mississippi-born author who served in the Confederate Army in 1861 where he was wounded twice working for the Texas cavalry. By 1884 he had met Buffalo Bill Cody, worked for his Wild West Show, and penned over six hundred dime novels, many of which concerned his employer. He swore up and down that they were based on actual events. Perhaps the above tale of Buffalo Bill’s Bold Play, or Tiger of the Hills–the story of Juniper Joe’s carefully guarded mine and the tragedies that befell him, the nearby town, and those who sought his fortune–was the truth. Who’s to say?

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But let’s back this story up for a second. What is a dime novel? Glad you asked. Typically published as pamphlets of about 100 pages, dime novels often spun yarns of the Wild West and figures such as Buffalo Bill (of course,) Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp. These heroes were cool customers, quick-drawing cowboys who were always on the lookout for maidens needing rescue from outlaws and Indians. Prentiss’ stories were among some of the most popular, and of course they only cost a dime (or, on a lucky day, a nickel.) By the 1920s, most of these publications were replaced by pulp magazines and, a little later, western novels of the Louis L’Amour variety. But in their day, audiences couldn’t get enough of them.

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Curious to read more about Buffalo Bill’s exploits? Then head on over to our digital collection of Ingraham’s stories. And if you’re interested in other rare books or our many archival holdings, browse around that site and see what you find. Finally, and as always, if you need to see something live and in person, our ever-diligent Reference Staff will get on top of that for you.

Conan the Barbarian! (And Robert E. Howard and The Cross Plains Review)

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This weekend, June 13th and 14th, Cross Plains, Texas is hosting its annual Robert E. Howard Days celebration. Who was Robert E. Howard? Why, the creator of Conan the Barbarian! In honor of the legendary adventurer and his author, this week we’re sharing excerpts of Howard’s writing from 1930s editions of the Cross Plains Review, the newspaper in which many of Howard’s stories first appeared. The SWC is fortunate to have an almost complete run of the Review, almost all of which is now available digitally.  Sadly, the Howard pieces we’re about to share do not concern Conan – but rest assured, they are still entertainment of the highest quality!

The story, Drums of the Sunset, begins poetically: “Now come all you punchers and listen to my tale/When I tell you of troubles on the Chisholm Trail!” And so begins the story of Steve Harmer (and, soon enough, a host of other characters.) We’ve truncated the text here to make it more readable, and also because there is a lot of it…and of course to inspire you to read the whole first installment.

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We’ve skipped part two and are sharing this excerpt from part 3. We hope that you’ll check out its predecessor so as to make sense of why Steve demands from Murken a new hat! Also, what mine is he talking about? And who is this woman he so gallantly offers to defend? Read on!

howard part 5Once again, we’ve left you guessing about part 4, a feeling no doubt shared by folks in 1928 who had missed the previous issue of the Review. That must have been particularly painful because our hero, Steve, had apparently just fought the Edwards! Who are they? Fortunately for you, we have the issue available online with all its many answers. (Note that we’re also not posting part 6, so to follow this tale of the old west you’ll need to follow along in our digitized issues!) In the meantime, this fifth installment contains Howard’s usual mix of action, gallantry, and the inevitable cliffhanger ending.

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Drums of Sunset was published in eight parts. This is the seventh. Steve and Hard Luck, his newfound companion (or is he? The curious should check those back issues linked above!), are hot on the trail of a host of criminals ranging from ‘Navajoes’ to a ring of counterfeiters. Pieces of the mystery that have plagued Steve for six installments are starting to come together. And oh, the CLIFFHANGER! Steve and Hard Luck are locked in mortal combat with a rowdy group of Native Americans. For the thrilling details of part 8 you’ll again have to visit our digital holdings…but we regret to say that we have dire news. The story was actually published in 9 parts, the final of which we haven’t found. Organizers of the Robert E. Howard Days have similarly come up short in their search. If you should find it, you have to let us know! We’re dying to read the end of Steve’s tale!

Speaking of our staff, at least one demands – nay, commands – that you attend Robert E. Howard Days. If you can stomach his disappointment, then at the very least read through the story we’ve been linking above. It is a good one, with a pace that will be familiar to any of Howard’s fans. And as always, for an in-person view of our newspapers or any of our other collections, you can always contact our ever-diligent Reference Staff who would be happy to arrange that.

Anson, Texas’ Cowboys’ Christmas Ball

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This drawing is used annually in Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball promotions. It depicts the instrumentation described by Larry Chittenden in his poem, as well as depicting dancers performing a quadrille.

The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is a nearly unbroken Texas musical tradition held every December in Anson, Texas (in Jones County, roughly 25 miles northwest of Abilene). The event began with a grand ball thrown at Anson’s Star Hotel in 1885 in honor of the cattlemen of the region. William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden attended that night and was so impressed by the festivities that he immortalized them in poetry. “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was first published in the Anson Texas Western in 1890 and subsequently in his Ranch Verses of 1893. He describes his Ranch Verses as being “born in the idle hours on a Texas ranch.” Chittenden’s ranch on which he lived for almost two decades was located seven miles outside of Anson. For more information, check out the Texas State Historical Association’s biography of Chittenden.

Chittenden’s “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was dedicated “To the Ranchmen of Texas,” and paints a vivid picture of a holiday celebration. He describes the hotel as being “togged out gorgeous” and decorated with candles, mistletoe, and “shawls” (which many have interpreted as blankets placed at the windows to insulate the hotel better). Lead by “Windy Billy,” who sang and called the dances, the crowded Star Hotel saw a very “lively gaited sworray” that evening in 1885. Chittenden even describes the original instrumentation: bass viol, fiddle, guitar, and tambourine.

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Larry Chittenden

Though the hotel would be lost to a fire in 1890, Chittenden’s poem immortalized the spirit of a cowboy Christmas celebration for generations to come. Many folklorists reprinted his words through the years (including John Lomax first in his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. Lomax eventually attended the Ball in 1939). Even to this day we see the Chittenden’s poem in pop culture. Anson Texas would see some Christmas celebrations similar to the ball held irregularly in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn.

In 1934, an Anson schoolteacher and local folklorist named Leonora Barrett helped stage the first re-enactment of the 1885 ball in the school’s gymnasium. Once again, people from Anson and surrounding communities joined in to celebrate the Christmas season. Sadly, Chittenden passed away in September of 1934 and would never get to see the ball reborn. Barrett insisted that the reincarnation of the ball retained the original dances, music, and customs of the first ball. This tradition, which includes men removing their hats on the dance floor and women only allowed to wear skirts, is kept to the present day.

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Photo from the Frank Reeves Collection (http://ow.ly/rOf5t). We believe this to be a rare image of Cowboy Christmas Ball founder, Leonora Barrett at one of the 1930s balls.

Barrett, along with Hybernia Grace (another local historian), meticulously researched the conditions surrounding the original ball and worked diligently to preserve as much local history as possible. For example, another tradition kept to this date is one suggested by Mrs. Ophelia Keen nee Rhodes, whose father owned the Star Hotel in the 1880s. She wrote a letter to Barrett that was then published in the Anson newspaper Western Enterprise of December 19, 1935. Keen remembers that one of the early Christmas balls celebrated a wedding, and so at the ball each year, you will see a newly-wed couple lead the grand march at the beginning of the ball. The grand march is one of eight dances that are traditionally performed at the Ball; others include the Paul Jones, the Virginia Reel, a polka, Schottische, two step, waltz, and ‘put your little foot’.

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Several couples dancing at the Ball in the late 1940s or early 50s. The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association members emphasize that the event is a recreation of an 1885 celebration, and therefore have rules about dress. Men must not wear hats on the dance floor, nor should they wear spurs. If women are on the dance floor, they must be in skirts but no split skirts are allowed. Because of the spirit of the event, many participants attend in period attire. Notice in this picture the attempt for historically accurate western clothing. But also notice the many onlookers in the background; pioneer hall has plenty of seating for those who just want to watch the festivities and not dance or dress up.

Soon after its rebirth, the Ball became part of the Texas Centennial festivities in 1936, and in 1938 Anson residents danced on the lawn of the White House during the National Folk Festival. The Ball was expanded from one night to three, with a parade of historic vehicles even being featured in the late 1930s. Because of the Ball’s continued success, Barrett helped to copyright the reenactment, as well as creating a board of directors, who are now known as the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association. Pioneer Hall was built in 1940 as a permanent home of the three day festivities. The Hall was designated a historic site (and the Ball a historic event) by the Texas Historical Commission in 2010, after 75 years of re-enactments.

From the 1940s up until the 1990s, few records exist of the ball. We know it was a successful event based on newspaper articles, as well as the few surviving photographs, film reels, and one amazing ledger. The Southwest Collection is proud to house the original ledger started by Leonora Barrett in 1934 on the occasion of the first re-enactment. Each year she details noted guests, hosts, broadcasts made by radio stations, the leaders of the grand march, and other pertinent details. The ledger was kept updated until 1994 and is one document that allows scholars to see the completely unbroken tradition.

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The ledger that Leonora Barrett started with the first re-enactment of the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in 1934 and was kept until 1994. This is the first page of the ledger, which details some of the earliest Cowboy Christmas Ball activities and participants. The original ledger is kept in the Southwest Collection, and the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association displays a facsimile copy at the ball each year. (Click on the image for a larger version!)

The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn in a sense in the early 1990s, when Michael Martin Murphey began performing in Anson as the annual headliner. In 2010, Murphey began donating his materials to the Southwest Collection’s Crossroads Music Archive. It was also at this time that he put the archive in touch with the organizers of Anson’s Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball. In 2014, Texas Tech professor emeritus Paul Carlson’s book on the Ball will be published through Texas Tech University Press.

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Cowboy singer and songwriter Michael Martin Murphey has been the annual headliner at Anson’s Cowboys’ Christmas Ball since 1993. Here he performs one of tunes with his daughter, Sarah.

Though the music has been electrified and grown beyond four instruments, and historical dress is not required, attending the ball is still a festive step back into an older tradition. Each year, the ball is held on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday prior to Christmas. If you would like to attend this year’s Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, it is this weekend! December 19th, 20th, and 21st. Michael Martin Murphey will be performing on the final evening.  For information on tickets, times, and directions, visit the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball website.

by Elissa Stroman, Southwest Collection Audio/Visual Department