Mesas in the background, Perini Ranch Steakhouse on the outskirts, and bluebonnets everywhere–it’s undeniably Buffalo Gap, Texas.
Just as Mother Nature can lay claim to the mesas, and Tom and Lisa Perini created the steakhouse, Mabel Reynolds can at least take some credit for the bluebonnets. A plaque at the entrance to Buffalo Gap Cemetery, just west of town, pays tribute to “Mabel Reynolds and numerous pioneers whose dedication and hard work have made this a beautiful resting place for our loved ones. We thank God for this consecrated spot.”
Reynolds turned 104 on Oct. 21, 2021, and lives at Chisholm Place Assisted Living on E.N. 10th Street. With a sharp mind and a keen eye for beauty, Reynolds remembers exactly how she and her late husband, Forrest, got interested in bluebonnets.
“Three little plants is all I started with,” Mabel said.
And from those three little plants, a mighty sea of bluebonnets would grow. The original plants were a gift from a doctor Mabel had worked with in Abilene. He got the three bluebonnet plants, each about six inches tall, on a trip to San Antonio and gave them to Mabel and Forrest for the home they built west of Buffalo Gap in 1964.
“I planted them, and they multiplied and multiplied and multiplied,” Mabel said, still with a sound of awe in her voice.
And, they’re still multiplying. Today, Jason and Amber Groves live in the house that Mabel and Forrest built. The house also is headquarters for Refuge Ranch, a scenic getaway that Jason and Amber operate for couples, families, and groups. Each spring, the beauty is intensified by the bluebonnets that blossom into their full glory.
“I would say there are thousands of them,” Jason said.
The Buffalo Gap bluebonnets were an inspiration for a song written by Abilene singer/songwriter Aaron Watson. In 2011, Aaron and his wife, Kimberly, lost their daughter, Julia Grace, shortly after she was born. She is buried in the Buffalo Gap Cemetery and Watson’s song, “Bluebonnets ( Julia’s Song)” honors her. Words from the opening of the refrain are haunting:
Like bluebonnets in the spring
We’re only here for a little while
It’s beautiful and bittersweet
So make the most of every mile
Bluebonnets Through the Years
A scenic piece of land west of Buffalo Gap seemed an unlikely place for Mabel and Forrest Reynolds to spend their lives together. Mabel was born Mabel Murphy on Oct. 21, 1917, in the family farmhouse in Cherokee County in East Texas.
“There weren’t any hospitals,” Mabel explained, and so she came into the world at home She graduated at age 17 from Alto High School in Cherokee County and graduated at the top of her class in 1939 from the Registered Nurse program at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. She recalled working at the hospital seven days a week for $60 a month. Years after retiring from nursing, Mabel is still a nurse at heart. Jason Groves, who now lives in the Reynolds’ house, laughed about her tendency to still be a nurse. When Mabel lived at Wesley Court, she was known to hand out Band-Aids to people in need.
“She was always going around checking on everyone else,” Jason said.
After working at Parkland Hospital, Mabel got a job at the Rusk State Hospital. While living in Rusk, she met Forrest Reynolds, who was from Jacksonville, not far from Rusk in deep East Texas. The two hit if off and were married in Jacksonville July 14, 1941.
Not long afterward, Forrest was drafted into the Army and was stationed at Camp Barkeley, a huge Army base located southwest of Abilene during the early years of World War II. His new bride got a job as a private duty nurse in Abilene and later at what was then the Abilene State School.
Forrest served in the 90th Infantry Division, part of the 3rd Army commanded by Gen. George S. Patton. He was in the third wave of troops to hit the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. After the war, the couple settled in Abilene for a simple reason–Mabel had a job here.
The couple lived in an apartment until they saw an ad in the newspaper for a strip of land west of Buffalo Gap. They bought it in 1954 and every weekend for the next 10 years, they drove out there and cleared the land in preparation for building a house. After getting the first three bluebonnet plants and seeing how easy they were to grow and maintain, Mabel and Forrest had an idea–they would plant them at the Buffalo Gap Cemetery, too, to enhance its beauty.
“I just thought they were pretty,” Mabel said, “and they didn’t take any care.”
As a bonus, Mabel observed, cows wouldn’t eat them. Mabel remembered sitting in the passenger seat of the couple’s pickup truck, with Forrest driving and her tossing seeds out the window. She had saved seeds from the first three plants and had a plentiful supply. Once they are tossed onto the land, not much else is required.
“Pray for rain and water and warm weather” is all it takes, Mabel said.
The key to a successful bluebonnet crop is the amount of rainfall the land gets in December. With good conditions, they begin peeking out of the soil in January and February and come to full bloom in late March and April.
The bluebonnets in the Buffalo Gap area are enjoyed by hundreds of people who drive down FM 89 each spring. And, of course, folks who live near Buffalo Gap get to enjoy them, too. That includes Lou Ellen and Tom Gates, who were Mabel and Forrest’s neighbors before Forrest died and Mabel moved into town. The Gates family moved to Buffalo Gap in 1979 and to their country property in the mid-1980s. At the time, their two children were kids, and they loved being around Mabel and Forrest.
“They’re like another set of grandparents to my kids,” Lou Ellen said.
Both families attended Tuscola United Methodist Church, and when Forrest could no longer attend services, Tom Gates would stay home with him while Lou Ellen and Mabel went to church.
Today, Lou Ellen spends as much time as possible visiting Mabel, first at Wesley Court and now at Chisholm Place. In 2008, Lou Ellen brought back samples of sand from the beaches of Normandy as a gift for Mabel and Forrest since he had been there during World War II.
Lou Ellen can attest to Mabel’s love of bingo, which is offered three times a week at Chisholm Place. It’s a “never miss” event for Mabel.
Mabel and Forrest Reynolds will get to eternally enjoy the bluebonnets they planted in the Buffalo Gap Cemetery. Forrest is buried there and Mabel will be someday. In the meantime, she already has her headstone ready–and it bears testimony to her sharp wit with this inscription:
“I told you I was sick. Thanks for stopping by.”
By Loretta Fulton
Photos Provided By Lou Ellen Gates