12.17.2008,11:57 AM
Goodnight, Mr. Goodnight

Goodnight, Texas. A ghost town on the Texas High Plains. A place of many ghosts from the days before state parks, before paved highways and fast food joints serving hamburgers, before steel wheels and whistling coal engines, before the wolf, elk and bison dissipated into time, and even before the Comanche rode down into the canyons on their ponies.

Once a community of ranchers, farmers, pioneers, even college students; cowboys, railroad hands, the post masters, ministers and shop keepers. Today, cars, trucks and tractor-trailers speed through the middle on a straight paved ribbon; trains still transport coal and cotton on old rails. Few drivers see the two-foot long, 5-inch high green sign on the road, “Goodnight.” Fewer see anything here at all but another glimpse of emptiness outside their windows as they listen to the stereo, talk or try to stay awake, wondering ‘How far is it to the next city?’

But if you know what to look for, if you’ve read any of the Panhandle history, if you stand on the land they were born, worked and died on….. if you stop and listen, you can sense what it was like one, maybe even two hundred years ago.

The town is not noted for much beyond the legend for whom it was named, Charles Goodnight. He was the driving force behind the community. After selling his share of the JA Ranch and dabbling in a few other ventures, he built a house a mile or so from the edge of the Llano for he and his wife to live in their late years. Here on his new ranch the couple made notable contributions to the local community, the ranching world and our country.

Charles is a legend. But he wasn’t one to regal in it. In fact, he avoided publicity and he was known for his cantankerous nature. He didn’t suffer fools and, though he didn’t like violence, he was not hesitant to use it when necessary.

He possessed an uncanny sense of direction for which he relied upon as a scout for the rangers and during the Civil War.

“It was the scout’s business to guide the company under all conditions. Thus, above all things, the scout and plainsman had to have a sense – an instinct – for direction. He had to have the faculty of never needing a compass. With the point of destination fixed in his mind, a thorough plainsman could go to it as directly in darkness as in daylight, on a calm, cloudy day as well as in bright sunshine with the wind blowing steadily from one quarter. ….. I never had a compass in my life. I was never lost.”

But it takes more than just being born with a compass in your head:
“The first requirement is that by merely looking at the country the scout should be able to judge accurately in what direction water lies and the approximate distance to it. He should be familiar with every grass and shrub that indicates water. He should be able to tell by watching the animals, if animals there be, whether they are going to or from water.

The scout and plainsman should know the significance of the vegetation as well as the animal life of the country he ranges. By both, but mainly by observing the plant life, he usually estimates his elevation, and certainly his approximate latitude and longitude.”
(recollections and interviews with J. Evetts Haley)

Through observation and patience, Charles became intimate with the country and range he traveled upon and lived on. He had a respect for it and all that lived on it, four- and two-legged. He learned and strove to work with it, not against it.

Known by many names –Old Man Goodnight, Colonel Goodnight, and Leopard Coat (name given by the Kiowas) – Charles was a man of integrity. “What is important today about Charles Goodnight is the man’s unshakable belief in right and wrong. He lived by a code, which most people on the frontier did. And that’s almost unheard of today,” said actor Barry Corbin.

Corbin has performed a one-man play, Charles Goodnight’s Last Night, since 1996. "It's a story about a man who is a symbol of what we need to be reminded about where we came from. This is a man of absolute loyalty and a man of absolute conviction about right and wrong, north and south."

And you can see that still in the descendants of the animals that he preserved from extirpation – the bison and the Longhorn breed, now living in Texas parks. He echoes in our time with his name on honors and awards to outstanding family ranches, roads and trails, and stories and legends about his deeds and quotes. He left his imprint on a large area of Texas, as well as Colorado and New Mexico.

The closest to his heart was his wife of 56 years, Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight. Often called “The Mother of the Panhandle,” she was the only woman on those wild plains for many years. She bottle-fed orphaned bison calves, helped restore turkeys to the plains, tended to injured and sick ranch hands, and shot a dose of civilization into Charles, the two of them building and supporting the Goodnight college and the community church.

On the south side of Hwy 287 in the town-that-was Goodnight stands a historical marker. You can pull up and read it out the window of your car. Or you can get out and look further south at the house he had built for he and his wife, Mary.

At this spot in the early 1900’s was a busy working ranch with Charles doing as much work as his aging body would let him. He and his hands built stout fences and corrals for his herd of 200 (sometimes more) bison, his Longhorns, some elk, the crosses he tried with cows and bison, the turkey flock and flowering trees and shrubs.

“His interests were still those of fine cattle, buffalo, cattalo, and native game – the life of the soil……And here was an old man, this extremely sensitive nature, contemptuous of sham, hypocrisy, and littleness, settled himself behind the mask of a brusk exterior to watch the race go by.” (J. Evetts Haley, Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman)

To immerse yourself a bit further, turn south down the gravel county road and pull along the shoulder about a quarter of a mile. Behind a long wrought iron fence is his house. Donated to the Armstrong County Museum in 2005, the house along with 30 acres is being restored in part with a $100,000 donation from the Texas Historical Foundation. The bison guarding the front of the house is reminiscent of Goodnight’s contribution to saving the species. He was very active in the American Bison Society.

Now all that is left of the ranch are run down fences and a broken paved road that turns to gravel within a few hundred feet.

Near the end of the public county road are two ranches: one on the east side, Goodnight Springs Ranch, and the other lays between us and the road going south down into the canyon. Private and gated road.

Wiley likes Mr. Goodnight, but, like most ranch and cattlemen, I'm not too sure Mr. Goodnight would have liked the likes of Wiley the Coyote.

Admitting defeat, we turned around and headed north of Hwy 287 to find the Goodnight cemetery. Again, down a county road and long gravel road up a hill, we found a part of history that made it all more real.

Mary died in 1926 and was buried in the community church. Charles was laid to rest beside her in 1929, with her brothers and other family flanking each side of the Goodnight couple. The Goodnight’s had no children, but in essence, they bore a legend and code that would be known throughout the West. Even to this day, many stop to pay their respects and give honors. For a few moments, I stood and gave my own; “Goodnight, Mr. Goodnight. I hope that you can be proud of what you left behind and know that a portion of the land you loved is in good caring hands.”

Other markers also leave their imprint upon the place.

The hilltop offered a subliminal view of the tabletop, as far as the eye could see. There is a serenity on that hilltop that is almost tangible. It was a very wise choice for a cemetery, and appropriate for the Goodnights' final resting place.

One final farewell and it was time to make the long cold ride back to camp.

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posted by Macrobe
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