Driving through the sleepy community of Desdemona, Texas, it is almost impossible to believe the story that I am about to tell you, yet it is the absolute truth, according to my grandfather and the few history books who deign to mention this amazing piece of history.
Many years ago, I bought much of a photographer’s studio in Dublin, Texas. One of my treasures from that auction are the negatives that produced the photos found here. There is one photo, however, that I have hidden from myself for the moment. That missing photo shows the hawkers, the tents, and the excitement of days gone by in Desdemona…days hard to imagine today.
No, it wasn’t a shot heard round the world; it wasn’t even a boom heard round the state, but it was definitely an explosion that changed many lives here in Central Texas.
My grandfather, M.F. “Buck” Davis, was marked by that boom in many ways; however, on the night of September 2, 1918, the first was just plain old fear. According to Granddad, people were startled from their beds as they awoke to the belief that the world had come to an end, many falling to their knees in prayer.
Once it was determined that the world did in fact still whirl, people piled into wagons or whatever transportation they had, coming from miles in every direction to see the Duke Well that had “blown in” at Desdemona…Hog Town, as Granddad always called it, and to a nineteen-year-old partially crippled farm boy (His hands were very crippled due to falling into a fire as an infant.), the lights of Hollywood would never burn as brightly as burned the lights of Hog Town in his own life for the next year.
Established in 1857 or so, Desdemona, of course, had a broader scope in 1918 than it does today. But then, all small communities did before we became such a mobile society; however, I’m not sure anyone really understood what would follow that enormous boom….what always follows every boom, so to speak.
According to Granddad, who shucked his farm duds as quickly as possible, people poured into what immediately became a tent city, the lights from the drilling rigs, saloon, and hotel/brothel making sleep something that was no longer easy as the population swelled into the thousands.
It couldn’t have been an easy place to live, and yet to the young farm boy who had never seen much more than Hasse, Texas, those lights served as a drug…offering something that the farm and his Baptist training just couldn’t offer.
As for the established residents of Desdemona, it had to have been hard. In fact, there were those who simply packed up and headed out, unwilling to deal with the kind of people who always seem to come out of the woodwork to follow the smell of money…women, yes, but also those men who believe they have the right to the things others have attained through their own initiative and hard work. It’s happened every time there’s been a “rush” in this country, and Hog Town was no different.
As for Granddad, well, he stayed there for a year….by then his training was complete. He had come to work in the oil field, but he had learned a different trade…learned it well…and it had nothing to do with drilling for oil with his crippled hands.
No, my grandfather had finally found a use for the head that could hold more numbers in it than most of us could count. He had become a gambler in Desdemona, Texas, and that would be how he made his living for the rest of his very, very long life. It broke my great-grandmother’s heart, but it is what it is.
During his year in Hog Town, Granddad also developed a distrust for those who wear a badge. It happened not long before he left the place, and all I know of the story is what was related to me. I believe the following must have happened in the summer of 1919.
Apparently there was a café in Desdemona called the Busy Bee Café. I have no idea if it was an established business or one that sprang up out of necessity. All I know is that apparently the owner of the café (who packed lunches for the men) and an oil field worker had an argument over a lunch that escalated into fists.
Now, the nineteen year old in my grandfather believed that the men should have been allowed to settle their own differences until one of them asked for help. Instead, a policeman jumped into the fray, slammed his pistol into the man’s face, knocked his eye out of the socket, and I won’t give you any more of the horrible details of it.
Instead of immediately getting medical help for the man, the officer threw him into an old building the town was using as a jail, and as the workers began to learn of the situation, they began to mumble, grumble, and threaten until they had grown to mob number and strength.
This mob destroyed the Busy Bee. Then…the men turned their attention to the jail, destroying it and freeing the poor man trapped inside. The remains of the jail were dumped into Hog Creek, and Granddad thought he remembered that the injured worker was taken to the hospital in Gorman, but that may not be correct.
Granddad left Hog Town shortly after this incident happened. By the time I knew him, he was just a wonderful old Granddad who thought his four grandchildren could do little wrong. Although he told me lots of stories from what to me were long, long ago days, he never knew that I knew his trade, and I never embarrassed him by telling that I did.
Granddad lived on to be 101, and today I ask myself why in the world I never turned on a recorder and simply asked him about the life he never shared with us, the life that we never discussed. The bottom line is that I didn’t do it because I knew that with me he just wanted to be Granddad…nothing more and certainly nothing less.
Today, Granddad is gone and that part of Hog Town is also long gone. In fact, just this week I told a young person about the thousands who lived in the once upon a time boom town. I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t quite sure that I knew what I was talking about…and I completely understood.
No, there’s just no way to gaze upon the rolling pastures that are Hog Town and understand the rough and rowdy tent city that once kept its citizens awake both day and night…but I know all about it because Granddad told me…well, he told me most of it.