Buffalo bones were first known highway markers

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Texas Tales

Building a highway in 1879 was a little easier than it is these days.

A 21st century roadway involves engineering, public hearings, right of way acquisition, environmental surveys, archaeological work, financing and finally, construction.

In 1935, as Texas readied for the celebration of its centennial of independence from Mexico, the son of the man who laid out the first road across the South Plains told of an earlier road-building methodology. One a whole lot simpler than it is today.

Bog Smith recalled how his father, H.C. (Hank) Smith, along with Charlie Howse, got public transportation off to its start on the Llano Estacado. What they did was solve a problem by finding an innovative use for a commonly found material.

The problem was knowing the right way to proceed from point A to B.

On the plains, the difficulty faced was not a lack of suitable terrain for travel, but the very vastness of the land. Miles of waving grass on flat land was no less intractable than the open sea. A person could easily get lost, and many did. In times of extreme weather, this could prove fatal, and occasionally did.

When a hardy group of Quakers settled a community in Crosby County they called Estacado, Smith decided to lay off a road from his residence to the new town.

Recruiting Howse as his helper, the two men left the Smith place one morning in an ox-drawn wagon. They stopped periodically to fill the wagon with bleached buffalo bones, the legacy of the soonto-be-completed slaughter of the bison. When they had a wagon full, they stopped and piled all the bones to make a road marker that could be seen for miles in either direction in good weather.

Then they traveled on, gathering more bones. Stopping after a mile, they made another big bone heap. The two men continued the process until they reached Estacado and West Texas had its first known marked roadway.

How long the buffalo bone mile markers lasted is not known, but most of the buffalo remnants on the plains vanished in the next wave of land exploitation — the collection of bones for shipment east to be ground into fertilizer. Those who made their living doing this were called bone pickers, and it was not a particularly complimentary title.

Buffalo bones quickly became big business. It started when a St. Louis company announced in May 1879 that it would begin buying bleached buffalo bones. The company was not trying to tidy up the Great Plains, however. Their scientists had discovered that buffalo bones could be pulverized and then mixed with potash, nitrates and ferrous compounds and turned into a crop-boosting fertilizer. In addition, buffalo horns and hooves could be used in the manufacture of paints and glues.

The company offered to pay $8 per ton — in cash — for buffalo bones and $14 per ton for hooves and horns. While 2,000 pounds of buffalo bones constituted a pretty big pile, back then, so did $8. And $14 was really big money.

During the great slaughter that produced all the nowvaluable bones, a buffalo hunter’s basic tools were a wellcared-for .50 caliber Sharps rifle and a good skinning knife. Buffalo bone hunters carried large ball-peen hammers to break up the bones to make it easier to heft the remnants into their wagon. Larger hammers were used to break knee, hip and shoulder joints. Vertebrae also had to be broken into easy-to-handle section.

A bone picking party might consist of as many as six muledrawn wagons, five for bones, one or horns and hooves. Collecting them often was a family affair, from grandpa to father to children and their cousins.

Bone picking flourished in the Texas Panhandle and all across the Great Plains. Those who were making good money at it thought their supply would last forever. But just as the creatures who left the bones got hunted out, so did their skeletal remnants.

While it had the distinction of being the first town on the South Plains (Mobeetie and Tascosa both were on the North Plains, though that term has fallen out of usage), Estacado did not last a whole lot longer than the buffalo bones that assisted travelers in finding it.

When Crosby County was organized in 1886, Estacado became the county seat, but that status held only until 1891. A town called Emma became the new county capital, and Estacado pretty much went the way of the buffalo and its bones.

An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction books, Mike Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters. A long-time

freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley in the Hill Country. To read about more his

work, visit his website at mikecoxauthor.com . He can be contacted at texasmikecox@gmail.com.