As a child growing up in Texas there is something about life on the frontier that stirs our emotions. In our hearts it was a simpler time filled with adventure. New land was discovered on horseback with a six-shooter mounted at your side. Real battles were fought against American Indians and rival pioneers to the death over the likes of cattle, land, gold and oil. Like our fathers did before us and our children will that follow, we simply can’t resist the urge to romanticize the life of a real cowboy. For generations little boys have valiantly (and sometimes successfully) defended the Alamo like Davy Crocket without ever leaving their own backyards. Little girls played their part too by marrying a great Comanche chief like Cynthia Ann Parker and donning a pistol like Annie Oakley. Even as we get older and move away from our childhood fantasies, we still can’t resist the thrill of the life of the cowboy. Although for most of us, it is now just a good John Wayne movie on a rainy Saturday.
Now that summer is upon us, the days are longer and warmer and we move at a slower pace. We relish in our children’s relaxed schedule from the hurried activities of the school year and search for ways to spend more time together. So take this time to dust off your cowboy boots and perfect your quick draw. It’s time to celebrate our rich western heritage as Texans and enjoy the simpler life of real frontiersmen (and women!) with our families. It’s time to saddle up for summer.
Cowboy At Home
Once the rugged frontiersman found good land where he could lay his claim, he set up his homestead. It was a place where his wife could mother their children and they could farm the land to bountiful crops of fresh vegetables and hearty livestock. The work was hard and the days were long, but it was a time centered on nourishing a family. So it just makes sense, when we are all overscheduled and plugged in to the outside world, to corral your little wranglers and have an official cowboy weekend at home. Now is the time to transform your modern home into your very own little house on the prairie – or Indian village – or cattle drive campsite. You are only limited by your imagination.
First begin with a little research and planning. Abilene is at the epicenter of a tremendous amount of historical activity. We are surrounded by the Texas Forts Trail, the early start of the Goodnight-Loving trail, intense battles with the Comanche Indians, innovative development of Buffalo hunting and trade, and much more. Before you begin your cowboy adventure at home, visit some of Abilene’s unique attractions dedicated to this part of history. Frontier Texas! and the Buffalo Gap Historic Village, without the ability of time travel, somehow almost catapult you back to the 1800s. They are informative and exciting and will give you a great deal of historical information to help you set the stage. This is also the perfect opportunity to get early school-aged children involved in exploring their own new frontier and develop a love of research, learning and Texas history. Once you’ve brushed up on your history, it’s time to get ready to play the part. Join in your children’s gusto when it comes to themed events and dress the part. From dime store cowboy to ranch mogul, the array of western wear available today has something for everyone.
Now that you are an expert on cowboy history and have authenticated yourself with your wardrobe, the fun begins by turning your home into an official prairie homestead. Pepper your backyard with a few inexpensive items like bales of hay, stick horses, garden fencing for a make-shift cattle pen, and a perhaps a tent, and you will instantly be whisked away to life on the frontier.
How you fill the weekend is up to each family. For some it may consist of play-acting the part with stick horse races and a quick draw duel with water pistols or cap guns and for others it may be historical reenactments of actual battles or even instructions on campfire building and dummy steer roping. Consider the following when planning your activities.
- Balloon Team Penning – If you have been to a rodeo, chances are you’ve seen team penning. Cowboys on horseback drive three calves from a herd of thirty into pens in 60 to 90 seconds. The sport comes from cowboys having to actually separate calves in groups for various reasons, like administering medicine and for general check-ups. For the home version, blow up balloons in a few equal groups of different colors. (Example: four red, four blue, four green) As an announcer, a parent will call out a certain color and the kids have 90 seconds to drive all of the balloons of that color into a makeshift pen of your choice. Whether on stick horse or on foot, everyone will enjoy trying to beat the clock. To conquer the west Texas winds, add a small amount of water in each balloon to weigh it down.
- Tin Can Shootout – A cowboy had to use his gun often and he needed to be a good shot. Practice your sharp shooting skills with a tin can shoot out using water pistols. Today, water guns pack more of a punch with a more forceful water stream. Take advantage of this by shooting soda cans off of your backyard fence or other structure. Add to the fun by painting faces of outlaws with bandanas and mustaches on the cans.
- Horse Play – A horse is a must for any cowboy. It was his transportation, best friend and critical to his survival and livelihood. Equip your little cowboys and cowgirls with their own trusty steed. With a little bit of crafting skill and a vivid imagination, you can turn any large cardboard box into the perfect stallion. Authenticate it with yarn for the mane and tail, markers and paint for the details, or even cut out holes and let your children use it as their own horse costume.
- Cowboys At Night – After a long day on the trail, gather everyone and prop up your boots around a homemade campfire or fire pit. (Please check burn bans, fire restrictions and homeowners associations before having an open flame in your back yard.) While you are roasting marshmallows for s’mores, spend the time engaging in real cowboy entertainment by telling tall tales and western folklore. Kids will love to hear how you took down Black Bart and his crew of ten rough riders in a single shot. And let them get in the game by adding to or creating their own western tale. Musically inclined? Now’s the time to belt your best rendition of “Home on the Range” or write your own song using cowboy poetry. Once dinner is complete, lie back under the stars and search for constellations. If you’d like to add a little technology to your evening, download one of the many constellation finder apps on to your smart phone. And for a lot of technology (and a bit more planning), create your own outdoor theater. Hang a white bed sheet from a tree for the screen and borrow or rent a projector compatible with your computer. You and your family can watch your favorite western and enjoy your own campsite “drive-in.”
- Frontier Dining – Use this time to teach your children (and maybe yourself) the art of alfresco cooking and dining. Cowboys ate simply, often focusing on seasonal fresh vegetables and foods made from shelf-stable and canned items, like biscuits and homemade jams.
Real cowboys weren’t known for sitting at home for long, often giving in to the call of the cattle drive, gold rush or race to claim new land. If your children are older or it’s time for an “adults only” recess, take inspiration from the adventuresome buckaroo that blazed the trails before us; and saddle up and head west for new adventure. Well in this case, it’s actually northeast. Just one hundred miles away, in Graham, Texas, sits one of the most beautifully unique, rustic resorts in the Lone Star state: the Wildcatter Ranch & Resort. Located in the North Texas Hill Country, the Wildcatter is perched atop a vista in the middle of 1,500 acres of pristine land, with a breath taking and awe inspiring, 360-degree overlook of some of the most abundant terrain our great state has to offer. Named in 2007 by Southern Living as one of the “10 Top Texas Retreats,” this resort is the ideal place to combine western ranch activities with luxurious surroundings.
Far from “Dude Ranch,” the Wildcatter is as genuine as its history. Colonel E.S. Graham purchased the ranch in 1870. And although the property had changed ownership over the years, his great-grandchildren own it today. Some of the most influential and pivotal moments in Texas history occurred within twenty miles of the resort and the ranch where it sits. At least four movies are based on these events, including unquestionably one of the greatest western cinematic events of our time: Lonesome Dove. This area hosted such great cattle legends like Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving as well as intense Comanche battles from great warriors like Chief Satanta Satank and Quanah Parker. During the 1920s, many aspiring oil tycoons struck it rich and hit black gold and this area became popular for the surfacing of boomtowns all along the Brazos River. The Wildcatter Ranch is aptly named for those pioneers who drilled wells in hopes of finding oil in new territory.
Accommodations at the Wildcatter Ranch are a beautiful mix of modern luxury and unpretentious frontier lodging. The resort offers 16 upscale suites, which are actually small cabins with two queen beds, one and half baths, and a back porch fully equipped with comfortable rocking chairs and an astonishing view. Each room has the most luxurious amenities from granite countertops, custom stained concrete floors, custom bedding, Texas artisanal handmade soaps, locally made custom furniture, coffee bar with microwave and under-counter refrigerator. And if you just have to have it, each room has high definition televisions and high speed wired and wireless Internet access. The resort also has two larger guesthouses and a newly constructed hotel with 16 rooms on the second floor.
There is absolutely no shortage of activity at the Wildcatter. Channel your inner trailblazer and saddle up for a private morning trail ride over rugged hill terrain through majestic Mesquite, Oak and Juniper trees. Practice your gun slinging at their state-of-the-art 6-point sporting clay range. You can even hand feed the longhorn or become a ranch hand for the day on the Wildcatter’s working ranch. The adventuresome will thrill in the likes of hiking, the fitness course, canoeing and archery; while those yearning for a slower pace will enjoy sitting poolside after a long massage, tank fishing, or stargazing under the expansive Texas sky. Added to that is an ever-growing list of activities like horseshoes and washers, sand volleyball, basketball, tetherball and wagon rides.
As the sun sets, it’s time to gather ‘round the campfire, so to speak, at the Wildcatter Steakhouse. As you’d expect, beef is “what’s for dinner,” and by beef, we mean steaks. Thick, juicy and perfectly prepared steaks made only better by a beautiful glass of wine from their extensive wine list, and a magnificent view of the vast land you sit above. After dessert, enjoy a hand-rolled cigar and after-dinner drink from the Blowout Saloon, then head out to the patio and find a spot for stargazing before heading off to your cowboy cabin. Tomorrow will be another full day of western adventure!
For most of us the life of our pioneering Texas forefathers will always remain romantic and adventurous and very few will get to live that life today. The rest of us will just have to continue to make do with the next best thing: a backyard frontier, a weekend away to a ranch in the Texas hills, and John Wayne movies on a rainy Saturday.