How writer John Graves helped preserve Fort Worth’s frontier past

Posted Thursday, Aug. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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kennedy Texas has lost much of the natural beauty John Graves loved, and now we have lost John.

There will be more talk about Graves in the next few days, and how his death at 92 on Wednesday on his Hard Scrabble farm near Glen Rose ended one of Texas’ storied writing careers.

If Hard Scrabble was his 400-acre “patch of land,” he also planted a few ideas in Fort Worth.

Graves is known for the wistful Brazos River canoe trip he chronicled in the 1960 book Goodbye to a River.

But when he wrote elegantly about the upland plover and the sandhill cranes and the pioneer cabins along the river, he was typing in a garage apartment behind his parents’ home on Fifth Avenue in the city’s Ryan Place neighborhood.

The son of a downtown clothier, Graves grew up on Hillcrest Street in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, where he fished the Clear Fork of the Trinity River and was teased in the 1938 high school yearbook as “Child Prodigy No. 1.”

Before “the River book” made him the talk of 1960s magazines, he wrote a booklet that led to a permanent gift to Fort Worth.

In 1958, his 46-page Home Place called for rescuing frontier log cabins.

Besides a treasured collection of Texas literature, he also helped leave us Log Cabin Village.

Writing for local leaders on the Pioneer Texas Heritage Committee, Graves warned that the frontier cabins on nearby ranches represented our heritage and “not many of them will be standing much longer.”

“Besieged by time and weather and fire and human disregard,” Graves wrote, “a few more each passing year disappear from view.”

Quoting Weatherford historian Fred R. Cotten’s Log Cabins of the Parker County Region, Graves wrote elegantly of frontier life and the intricate details of cabins, down to sketches showing the difference in a “half-notch” and “saddlenotch” corner cut.

The book led to the opening in 1966 of six cabins as Log Cabin Village, including pioneer Isaac Parker’s Double Log Cabin, once considered the “best house in the county” and the cabin where a woman captured by Comanches and renamed Naduah was brought home in 1860 to resume her life as his niece, Cynthia Ann Parker.

For the 1853 Tompkins Cabin, Graves’ description sounds like a book proposal: “His wife and children had to stand helplessly while 25 Comanches rounded up 17 good Tompkins horses and drove them away. … It was a long time before they were allowed to enjoy a peaceful life.”

With vivid pencil sketches signed “J.M. Smith,” Graves calls passionately for saving the Fort Worth area’s connection to frontier settlers.

“Quiet folk they were,” he wrote, “who farmed, ranched, fought Indians when they needed to, went to war when called, prospered or fell upon lean days, went to church or maybe aligned themselves with the sinners, raised children, and died without ever having said much about any of it except maybe to other old-timers.

“Without knowing something about them, we can only half-understand our own way of life.”

Graves has taught us all how to be Texans.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538 Twitter: @BudKennedy

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