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True Stories of Amazing People and Places in Texas

Life in Motley County Texas 1800 - 1950

The fascinating story of a pioneer family that risked it all on a journey to build a new life in West Texas. The  journey begins in Stephenville and continues by covered wagon, horseback and train to their first homestead near Estacado and finally to Matador Texas.



by Janelle Jackson Shirley

Reprinted with permission

Jim & Byrd Wideman Jackson Wedding Stephenville 1900The haunting sounds from the organ filled the room as Byrd played her favorite song, “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” for the last time in her Erath County home. As she pumped the organ to create the sound she so loved, her mind went back to the very first time she had played that tune in this house. What a happy memory that was! All was right with the world as she sat down to play for her family on her newly acquired organ.

On that occasion, the sounds from the organ were lively and happy sounds. Her children’s excited voices mingled with the tones of the organ as they urged her to keep playing. “Play another one, Mama!” they called out as she finished each one. To the delight of the children, their father joined in with his harmonica on some of the songs.

As she recalled that scene, a smile appeared on her face, and for one moment, she could forget this was the last time she would be playing her organ in this house. “Maybe,” she thought, “if I just keep playing, everything will be as it once was.” She pumped the organ harder and faster, as if that would keep the future at bay and she wouldn’t have to think of what was to come. But the same sounds from the organ that were such happy sounds now evoked a sadness that was overwhelming.

A knock on the door brought her back to reality. It was time to say good-by to her beloved organ. She ended her playing, and slowly ran her fingers over the smooth, ivory keys in one last loving caress. As she warmly greeted her visitor, a dear friend she had shared so much with over so many years, Byrd realized the organ was only a symbol of what she would soon be leaving behind. Her organ would be in good hands, for she was leaving it with her friend. But how would she manage without her friend who had always been there for her in good times and bad?

As if this were just another of the many times they had spent together, Byrd calmly said, “I’ll put the kettle on.” The two friends sat, sipping tea and making small talk, as if nothing would ever change. Not a word was said about the future, but they both knew this would be the last time they would enjoy a cup of tea with each other. Byrd’s husband Jim had given in to the urging of those who advised, “Go West.”

Today was the day, the year 1922. All good-byes had been said and now it was time to walk out the door of their Erath County home for the last time. Ever since the decision was made to move to West Texas, Byrd had tried to reassure her children about leaving their childhood home for a new home in the west. At the same time, she thought, “How can I prepare my children for what’s to come, when I don’t know myself?” Hiding her feelings, she had kept busy doing what needed to be done to make the trip. Jim and their oldest son had gone ahead by wagon to take the farm equipment and livestock. Their second-born son would make the trip later on horseback. Byrd and the younger children would be traveling by train.

Byrd had made new clothes for the children to wear on the train. For the two teenage girls, she made polka dot dresses with contrasting collars and cuffs. For the two younger girls, she made matching dresses with wide sashes, and for the two little boys, she made new shirts. The children were sad to be leaving their home and friends, but were getting excited about the train trip. Every time the little boys heard a train whistle, they excitedly asked, “Is that the one? Is that the train we’re going to ride?”

Once aboard the train, the children watched from the windows as the only home they had ever known disappeared from view. Their mother knew they would miss the large trees that made their play areas so shady and cool in the summertime and the creek where they spent hours wading in the clear water. The change began immediately on their arrival. When they left Erath County, the weather was sunny and warm. When they stepped off the train in Lubbock County, they learned firsthand what a West Texas “norther” felt like. The cold wind whipped across the open expanse of flat, treeless plain, as they continued their journey to their new home. One question on all their minds was, “Is it always this cold?”

The train trip from Erath County, with an unexpected layover along the way, had been difficult for Byrd and the children. Jim and their son, making the trip by wagon, had encountered many hardships, including both rain and dust storms, as they spent days traveling and nights camping by the wayside. Now, as the family neared their new home, Byrd hoped the worst of their move west was behind them.

The farmland Jim had acquired was in Estacado, noted for being the first white agricultural settlement on the South Plains. The house, located on a sheep ranch, was badly in need of repairs. Byrd, always the optimist, was hard pressed to find words to uphold her reputation of seeing something good in every situation. She took one look at her new home and all she could say was, “We’re here.”

Realizing the children were watching and waiting for her reaction, Byrd hid her disappointment and added, “This will do just fine.” To emphasize this was now home, she immediately hung the sampler she had so lovingly made when they first moved into their new home in Erath County. She hoped when the children saw the sampler on the wall, they would be reminded that “Home is Where the Heart Is.” She hoped somehow she could convince herself that her heart was now in West Texas.

As Byrd worked to turn the old farmhouse into a home for her family, she didn’t allow herself to dwell on the home they left behind. Bertha Frances Mae, affectionately called Byrd, was born in Stephenville and had spent very little time outside Erath County. In 1900, Byrd and Jim began married life in a log house on farmland near Stephenville. After the birth of their second child, Jim built a white clapboard house for the family, but kept the log house for storage and a playhouse for the children. Over the years, the new house became home to six more children. Byrd thought that house, which held so many happy memories, would always be their home. Now, she told herself and her children, “We’ll make new memories.”

Years later, when anyone asked why the folks left their home in Erath County to come west, the answer was always the same.

"Brother Will was the first to come out, and West Texas he began to tout.
Brother Will kept writing Brother Jim, and Jim began to listen to him.
The message: “Come out to West Texas, where the living is good,
Where the wind pumps your water and the cows chop your wood.”

Humorous response aside, there were reasons other than “windmills for water and cow chips for fuel” that influenced Jim in making his decision to go west. Jim and his brother, both farmers, had big plans for improving their lot in life. Those plans were cut short with the sudden death of Jim’s brother soon after Jim’s arrival. Jim now took on the responsibility of two farms and two families. Byrd and the children did what they could to help the bereaved family adjust to life without a husband and father.

In their first year on the plains, Jim’s hard work produced a crop sufficient to give him hope that their future would be better. The year had been hard on all the family, but no one complained. Wanting to do their part, the girls went to the fields to pick cotton. When they received their wages, they handed them to their father and said, “Pappy, this is to help buy a new car.” Their father, touched by their generous gesture, accepted their offer gratefully and bought a new touring car for the family.

In spite of the hardships the family endured, there were also good times. The family became acquainted with other families in the area, and benefited from a support system that only those of like circumstance can provide. The older boys made new friends, and the younger boys, who now numbered three after Byrd gave birth to another son, were free to explore the countryside. The girls enjoyed the social life of a close-knit farm community. There were parties for the young folks, and school and church activities for all to attend.

The South Plains Fair was the big event, and as opening day drew near, the girls talked of nothing else. At every opportunity they would say, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we could go to Lubbock to the fair in our new car?” Their father seemingly turned a deaf ear to their chatter. After a time, he decided he had kept them waiting long enough. With a twinkle in his eye, he announced what had been his plan all along, “We’re going to the fair!” On opening day, the family piled into their new car and was off for a fun-filled day at the fair.
In 1923, the exciting news on the South Plains was that Lubbock had been selected as the site for a new college, later known as Texas Tech University. A city-wide celebration was planned for August 28th, which included barbecue with all the trimmings. Jim wanted his children to be present for this historic event and wasted no time in telling them, “This is one celebration we’re not going to miss.” When the day arrived, the family traveled over miles of dusty roads to the city that was making history in West Texas. That occasion became one the family would always remember. Later, they would learn they were among 30,000 in attendance that day.

During their third year on the plains, the family had a most welcome visitor. Byrd’s father had ridden his horse to Estacado with a purpose. In 1900, he had come west from Erath County in a nine-wagon caravan, which included his son, and his two married daughters and their families. All had settled in Matador in Motley County, the foothills of the Caprock. Their mother had passed away before the family left Erath County, and most of Byrd’s siblings were now living in Matador. Nothing would please her father more than to have his youngest daughter join them there. Just how that would come about can best be summed up in one word--“Sisters!” Byrd and her oldest sister set about to make it happen.

Byrd’s sister enlisted the help of her husband in finding a “place” for Jim to farm. Byrd did her part by reminding Jim of all the advantages they would have in Matador. “You’ll have good land to farm and we’ll have a nice house for the children.” She also reminded him that besides her family, many of their friends from Erath County had already moved to Motley County. Finally, Jim was persuaded, and this time Byrd had no misgivings about moving. Once again, she hung her “Home is Where the Heart Is” sampler on the wall of a new home, and it wasn’t long until Byrd knew, without a doubt, her heart was at home in West Texas.

The family arrived in Motley County December 1924. In February 1925, a baby girl arrived. This is her version, based on stories told over the years, of the family’s move to West Texas, and eventually to Matador, a place they all call “home.”
Janelle Jackson Shirley

“West Texas Where the Heart Is“
was the first place winner in the “1st Annual Douglas Meador Writing
Contest” and was published by the Motley County Tribune in the
“1st Annual Old Settlers’ Anthology.”
August 26, 2010


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