The Arroyo Formation, Coffee Creek and Ernest


When I first began to work in the Permian of Texas in 1936, I went to the red beds of the Arroyo formation north of Lake Kemp in north central Texas (Figure 6) — right where Paul Miller (Figure 7) suggested I should start. My ventures started humbly and naively, sort of learning on the job, on the Waggoner Ranch. Some miles in from the highway, I was down on my hands and knees scraping at a poorly preserved skull of the extinct reptile Dimetrodon. The skull was buried in some hard, dry red clay, coming near the surface some 275 million years after the demise and burial of the animal it represented.

I was intent on my digging, head down, when I looked up to see Ernest Cruthirds sitting high on a big gray horse which somehow or other had been maneuvered close by without my companion Father Rigney or I hearing it. From my vantage point Ernest looked big, tough and forboding.

"What the goddamned fuckin' hell you think you doin' here?" didn't help much, as I stood up, reaching hastily to pull out my permit from Robert L. Moore, ranch executive. Father Rigney, unaccustomed to the language, which we later found was just Ernest's way, sort of cringed in the red dust, hoping, 1 expect, that it all would go away.

"Oh," said Ernest, after reading the memo from Moore, "You'll be one of them goddamned bone diggers?" This with a big, snaggled toothed grin, which made me feel a bit better.

Figure 6. Detail of that part of Texas treated in the text, showing the locations of towns, rivers, camps and sites as discussed in the text. Note in particular the geological formations: (from east to west) Lueders, Arroyo, Vale, Choza and San Angelo. The boundaries of geological formations are approximate.


"Well," he went on, "you'll better get your water from my cistern. This stuff'll give you the shits." We already knew that.

Ernest (Figure 7) wasn't gentle in his talk and, it turned out, he was nearly tongue-tied if he couldn't intersperse his nouns and verbs with strong, expletive adjectives. Along with his talk, his deep red, sunburned face, capped by the cowboys sallow-faced forehead, his dirty blue shirt and heavy leather chaps and spurs were enough to frighten any city bred Texas neophyte. Ernest was a real, genuine cowboy, a dying breed, and like his kind, having made his entrance and scared us enough, he turned his horse and rode away.

Figure 7. Left: Ernest Cruthirds on his porch, 1950. Right: Paul Miller, about 1940, in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.


We — Father Rigney and I — were pretty miserable. I hadn't quite learned to cope with the Texas breaks and weather, and Father Rigney really never did. It was mid-summer, crackling dry and everything in the country seemed to be trying to bite, sting or stick us. The deep red, warm water of West Coffee Creek wasn't much good for washing or bathing and least of all for drinking. So Ernest's cistern water — even with its frogs, live and dead, and mosquito larvae — was a godsend.

We stayed a few more days in our miserable camp. About the third day after Ernest's visit, the late "Hod" Sawin, in later years to become a dean at the University of Houston, showed up with his gang from Harvard. They arrived at our camp about noon, after being lost during the morning, and never really got over the shock of finding my assistant lying in the meager shade of a mesquite reading his Bible, snapping off an occasional insect pest. Bone digging and religion just didn't seem to mix to us young, budding scientists who more often than not proclaimed our adherence to an atheistic "faith" which I understood better then than I do now. An even worse hazard arose later when, in Seymour, Texas, a filling station attendant with our best interests at heart tried to "fix" Father Rigney and me up with dates with a couple of the town girls. I first here began to appreciate the real and practical problems of mixing science and religion. Father Rigney, I must say, in proper "philosopher's" fashion bore this mixing well and steadfastly followed his course to the doctor's degree in science while retaining all the grace of his position in the church.

Ernest was usually away when we went for water, so I didn't see much of him until later. After a few more weeks the summer was gone and we headed out.

I didn't see Ernest again until 1938, when I was back once more on the Waggoner Ranch. He was still living in his two room wooden house a little east of the old Seymour-Vernon road. When Lake Kemp (Figure 6), constructed for a reservoir, was filled about two decades before this, the old road had been abandoned and a new one put in over the dam about five miles east. Some eight miles of gradually decaying red clay road led from the Flippen Creek gate of the ranch to Ernest's place. As the old bridges went out and crossings washed away, new ways around were found, so that by the mid-1940s all but the first part of the original road was gone.

There was another way in, but even with this not many people came to see Ernest. Occasionally his mother stayed with him, as did one or another of his seven sisters, but mostly he was alone, the proper stereotype of the lonely but proud and self-sufficient cowboy. He "rode line" for Waggoner, getting his keep and a small wage for tending a pasture of well over 50,000 acres. The ranch as a whole covered 550,000 acres; it was split up into pastures ranging up to 100,000 acres in area. Ernest checked and repaired fences, tended cattle tanks (earthfill-dam-med water holes), saw to the health of the cattle, checked on strangers and poachers on the land and, when the "wagon" and its roundup crew arrived, aided in directing their activities in his bailiwick.

This pattern is pretty much gone now. The roundup hands live in town and come out to the ranch by pickup. Helicopters flush the cattle and the cowboys guide the animals into pens and corrals. Then the cattle go to feedlots and off to market. Its more efficient, but it is nice to have lived a few days with the older way in its last days. Even then, the wagon was a specially equipped truck, although a team of six mules still was in service on the Four 6 s Ranch in King County to the west.

When I returned to Texas in 1938, I began what was to become a long association with the ranch and came to know Ernest much better. Contrary to my first impression, he was not a big man, standing about 5 feet 6 or 7 inches. This hard, cussing cowboy turned out to be rather shy and somewhat childlike in his curiosity about what was going on in his world. His profanity and vulgarity were a ruse, a coverup, used when he first met someone. What I came to know of him came from several seasons spent with him in his Coffee Creek rider's camp and from yarns, with various versions, from the people of Seymour, Texas. The two pictures were very different.

Ernest grew up locally and had a less than admirable reputation in Seymour and the surrounding area. He was with cattle most of his life and seemed to delight in being the hell raising, shoot-em-up cowboy when he got to town on a spree with beer and spirits to cloak the shyness. A night of cooling in a local jail usually did the trick, after which Ernest was again free to go back to his cattle.

One time, so one version of the story goes, Ernest and a young friend of similar persuasions managed to rope a bull by the horns and drag it through the railroad station of Fulda, terrifying the people on benches waiting for the train. In one door they went and out the other, the bull bellowing and Ernest and his friend hollering and cussing and away they careened down the railroad tracks as the trained puffed in. Now, there are other versions of this story, some with two stations and some denying that Fulda was anything but a cattle loading station. True or false, the story was already legend in 1938. It was one side of Ernest. The last time I heard it, in 1979, it was much improved. That's a side of Texas.

Part of it was that Ernest liked his beer and liquor well, but couldn't handle them. In the later 1930s Seymour was dry, but to the northeast, towards Wichita Falls, beer was still to be had. One time we drove Ernest to Wichita Falls in our Model A. We needed gypsum plaster to block out fossils, but every time we passed a beer joint, and there were many, Ernest would plead, "Doc, I'm getting might dry." So we pulled over. He got very incensed that I would not drink one-for-one with him, but I had to drive. Finally we were getting lunch in Wichita Falls, and Ernest, now in great shape, was roundly proclaiming about his exploits in the whorehouses of the town. In spite of his colorful protests, we were unceremoniously tossed out of the restaurant while Ernest and all of his 5 feet 6 inches wanted to beat up everyone inside and on the street. But this wasn't Ernest, only the man who couldn't handle liquor well.

On the ranch it was different. Ernest, like the other line riders, knew his land perfectly and had an uncanny knowledge of who was on it, where they were and what they were doing. We never needed to fear getting lost, for if we didn't know where we were, he did and, if necessary, would ride out and bring us in. During the springs or summers of 1938, 1939, 1940 and — after WW II — until about 1950, I spent several weeks each year on Waggoner lands working out of Ernest's Coffee Creek house. Ernest's house lay in the middle of some of the most fossiliferous areas of the Arroyo formation (see Figures 1 and 6). Ernie DuBois, Bill Read, Roy Reinhart — some of the graduate students who assisted me with this field research — shared his hospitality. I came to learn something about ranching, ranches and ranchers, and developed an immense respect for Ernest, the old reprobate by town standards. Most of what I picked up from Ernest came during long evenings while sitting, waiting for the day's heat to drop off, and swapping yarns.

To get along anywhere comfortably, of course, it is necessary to understand the local mores, at least well enough to avoid violating tacit taboos. In north central Texas it is important to understand the local variety of Texan speech, not so much the pronunciation as the pacing, the lack of emphasis on anything important and avoidance of anything that smacks of being an outlander.

Ernest, Ernie DuBois and I were sitting at the evening table having supper one evening early in the summer of 1938. Ernie and I were talking about the day's work in rapid-fire, Yankee style. Ernest, after a long silence, let us know in no uncertain terms, by Texas standards, that he didn't think we were behaving in a kindly fashion.

"Doc," he said softly, "I know the words you're saying, but I don't understand none of it." Back to his plate of beans and hide.

Gradually the slow, unhurried pace, the art of indirect palaver, and local colloquialisms began to sink in. At the table, "I wouldn't care for any," was understood to mean, "I don't want any more, and don't urge me!" When trying to get on a man's land to collect, 'I don't guess you better," turned out to be a flat "No!" and no sense arguing any more. Hanging over the "bob-wire" fence for half an hour or so and talking was friendly. "Had much rain?" long pause; "Looks like you might make twenty bushels" (of wheat per acre); "Cattle looks good, but how'd them white-faced Angus get in there?" and finally, "Mind if I walk over them breaks back there?" all went a long ways further than an abrupt, "Can I look on your land for fossils?" Slowly we came to understand this genuine way of good neighborliness.

Here we were, of course, wanting to go on land, at least to walk and look it over, to go through gates, under and over fences and finally, perhaps, to take our vehicle in and dig out fossils. We were of no earthly good to the owners and especially suspect on big spreads which were subject to all sorts of hunting, poaching and "pickup" cattle rustling. Land had an almost sacred meaning.

Gradually all of this became a part of us. I think that the attempt to conform to the local mores helped develop friendship and understanding. One side of living with Ernest that I, or my field partners, never really mastered, however, was a taste for his culinary efforts. We all ate together, of course. Cooking was no problem, for Ernest had a butane stove and even a gas-operated refrigerator big enough for a hotel. Except when the wind blew out the flame, the refrigerator was great, although it was used mostly to store beer when someone brought some in. Ernest's favorite dish was not good beef, as cowboy lore would have it, but a somewhat uncertain stew. This was usually put together on a Sunday, simmered all day and night, and eaten during much of the week. The base of the stew was a five or six pound slab of fat side-bacon. Some lard was added. A couple of cut up cabbages, several large onions, carrots, and a half peck of potatoes for a thickener went in. Add water until the five gallon container was nearly full, put in some salt and pepper, garlic if handy, and simmer to serve. Cook up a batch of unleavened "hoe-cake" and spoon the stew over it, garnishing with small pieces of cut green onions. Salt heavily and eat. Hot pepper sauce helps.

A near crisis in the art of stew making hit in 1939. This year there was a plague of the giant, nearly wingless grasshoppers, locally called Mormon crickets. By the time we arrived, the grasshoppers had eaten the tops of all the onions and Ernest could not seem to find the onion bulbs in the hard red clay where they had grown. He asked us to dig for them with our small hand-picks, so-called Marsh picks after their inventor, the famous fossil hunter. So we did, we found them, and we hung them to dry in his shed, called the garage — but car-less. The Mormon crickets were not slowed by the garage, however, and they ate all the onions there — and if one cricket got hurt, they ate him too. Thereafter, that year, the stew was made with store-bought onions, and Ernest felt it was never really the same.

Some days, when near the end of the week and the -stew was running low, the diet was hoe-cake and hide and beans. This mess was kept in a glass jar in the refrigerator, which jelled the copious amounts of lard used in cooking. Whether stew or hide and beans, lard was an important ingredient. We were working enough and sweating enough that we could take care of the fat; the problem was that Ernest had a half full, five gallon tin of rancid lard that was his pride and joy. Everything had to be cooked in it. It seemed to agree with him for all the awful things that even good lard is supposed to do.

Each evening there was a polite battle between Ernest and me to get to the kitchen first. I had a five pound tin of good lard. If I won, Ernest let me cook Yankee food — a steak, pork chops or chicken, potatoes and vegetables. If we had beef, Ernest would eat it, although reluctantly. He would insist on making hoe-cake. Chickens were only for special chicken fries, which required lots of beer to ward off the bad effects. But pork, sausage or anything but beef was not on his menu. He would turn to the always present hide and beans or stew. We even tried tricks to get away from the rancid lard. We drained the coffee can on the stove and put in good lard and capped it with a bit from the main supply. Ernest never said a word, but the next day ours would be gone and his would be back.

Ernest seemed to thrive on his lard and lived to a reasonable age. I was on an ulcer diet for nine months in 1939-1940, but probably just had a ruined set of cells lining the stomach. Tobacco was another thing. Ernest, like many cowboys, smoked Bull Durham, rolled carefully with two hands, rather than the one-handed technique of the movie hero. I tried Bull for a summer and decided that it must be a matter of deprivation that prompted the Bull mystique. So, one summer when we left, I brought Ernest a carton of Camels, for which he thanked me warmly, in lieu of saying goodbye, which he never did. His eyes were always a little sad as we left him to his life alone, but he never said come again, or when we arrived, asked us to stay. This was all done by indirection over the course of a half day or so. We all knew how it would come out from the start, but some of my assistants got a bit restive as a seemingly homeless evening approached.

Next spring when we came back, I saw the carton of Camels on the shelf, unopened. Ernest really liked Bull Durham! So I "ran out" of cigarettes and smoked up the Camels. They were a true smoker's cigarette. I think it was partly the Bull that began to get to his lungs. In the mid- and late 1940s he would get up in the dark, at 4:00 A. M., like he did with the "wagon" in the early days. He'd heat the coffee and sit and roll cigarettes, while racked with a hard, dry cough until dawn.

The cowboys I know all had a weakness for patent medicines. Ernest continually sent out for asthma cures.

"Hey, Doc," he'd say, "that goddamned stuff done me some good." But it never did.

Medicine wasn't all. One spring, about 1946 if I recall the year correctly, an Avon lady, of unusual enterprise, "made" the ranch, getting even to quite inaccessible places. According to Ernest, most of the cowboys stocked up. On what I am not quite sure. I know that Ernest got some deodorant with a powerful odor. He always smelled of good sweat, leather and horses, plus a touch of onion or garlic. I assumed he bathed, although I never caught him at it. There was a washtub out back for this purpose. We swam in the muddy waters of Lake Kemp, but no self-respecting cowboy would do this. One day I came in and found Ernest rubbing something under his arms.

"Ernest," I asked, "you got some sort of problem there, under your arm?" Not good Texan, but not bad if said slowly.

"Oh," he said a bit shyly, "some goddamned lady was selling this goddamned stuff to us. I didn't get none of her fancy perfumes or soap, but this here cream makes you stink good."

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