Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas at the Matador

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce.

The Christmas dance at the Matador Ranch during the 1880s was the highlight of the year in a vast, lonely region of frontier West Texas. The historic ranch was organized in 1879, east of the Caprock Escarpment. At its height the Matador would graze 80,000 head of cattle on more than a million and a half acres of open range. An experienced trail driver, Henry Harrison "PaintCampbell, was one of four investors who put up $10,000 each and incorporated the Matador Ranch under Texas law. Campbell was placed in charge of ranch operations, and when the ranch was sold in 1882 (for $1.25 million) to a Scottish syndicate, he was retained as ranch manager. 
One of the earliest structures at Matador
headquarters stood during the dances of the 1880s.

Mrs. H.H. Campbell, the lovely and capable wife of the Matador manager, made the ranch a social center of lonely West Texas. She happily organized dances, church services, and other activities for the cowboys, and riders from adjoining ranches. Her most popular event was the annual Christmas dance, begun in 1882 at the two-room ranch house at Ballard Springs. Mrs. Campbell assembled five other women from as far away as 100 miles, and headquarters cook Ben Brock and Jim Browning provided fiddle music. With 50 cowboys waiting in line to dance with the six women, the festivities went on for two nights. 

The main house at the Matador was built atop a hill
just south of the town that was named for the ranch.
By the next year there was a large bunkhouse and a stone mess hall, as well as more women, and in future years the two-room residence was expanded into the "White House." Mrs. Campbell soon entertained upwards of 100 people, but she demanded that there would be no liquor and no quarreling. During the summers Mrs. Campbell put up gallons of wild plum jelly to take the place of cranberries. As Christmas approached, some of the cowboys hunted deer, antelope, and turkey. A beef or two was slaughtered and barbequed, and two days of baking produced dozens of cakes and loaves of bread. There were tubs full of doughnuts and hundreds of fried dried apple pies, as well as gallons of black coffee. 
This spring-fed stone water tank towers above the
ranch site, providing Matador headquarters
with running water by gravity.

On the afternoon of the first night, guests began arriving. Matador cowboys who had been laid off for the winter always were in attendance. The women brought their party clothes in a suitcase and changed in the White House.

The party began with a supper in the mess hall, For the remainder of the two nights and a day food would be available at a serve-yourself buffet set out in the bunkhouse. When the opening supper ended the tables were removed from the mess hall, the fiddlers tuned up, and the caller directed, "Get your partners!" 
These Matador cowboys at a chuck wagon in the 1880s
could look forward to the annual Christmas feast.

The dancing went on for the next 30 hours. Women were always outnumbered at least three or four to one by the men and had a constant line of expectant partners. The men swung their partners so enthusiastically that female exertions were minimized, and occasionally ladies would slip away for a nap in the White House. Periodically, the cowboys would snack in the bunkhouse or, in discreet defiance of Mrs. Campbell's temperance edict, nip from a jug. 

These memorable Christmas celebrations continued through the 1880s, until the Campbells moved on and Murdo Mackenzie became the Matador manager for the next four decades. But during the formative frontier decade of the 1880s, there truly was a Merry Christmas, Matador style.

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