|Rufus Edgar Combs
of Surry Co., NC
To Mr. Matthew in Boulder, Colorado,
Dear Great-Grandson, the only great-grandson I have. There’s quite a difference in our ages. You are very young, and I am very old. So we ought to get together and learn a bit of history. I was born back in the 18th century, July 1, 1887, to be exact, which makes me 83 years, 3 months and 20 days. And I think you are about one 1/2 years and are at Boulder taking a full course in our English language. Your mother reports that you are making fast and fine progress, learning a lot every day. So I think we ought team up and put into memory a few things.
Together we can cover parts of 3 centuries. I, the latter part of the 18th, and the larger part of the 19th century, and you can take up the latter part of the 19th century, and go way over into the 20th century and mention a few things that happened in those days. Might be interesting to read when you are about 90 years of age.
I have told you a few things that happened in the 13 years first of my life in North Carolina.
Along the latter part of the 18th century,there was a great movement or migration from the east to the west, kind of leap-frogging over one another. My Uncle, several uncles, and two or three of my aunts on my mother’s side had come from North Carolina up through Tennessee, Arkansas, east Texas to west Texas. My older brother, Gallio, your great uncle, had followed them out there in the late nineties and had seen the West there and was sold on the opportunities there came back to North Caroliner and persuaded our parents to sell out there and move to West Texas where there were many opportunities and land was very cheap and very good.
So they did that and started the journey, I think in the early part of December 1900 or latter part of November 1900, for Merkel, Texas. We made that trip in three days and three nights on the train. That was a very up to date and modern transportation in those days. The railroads developed very rapidly and this migration was made possible by some of the main lines of the railroads, reaching from the East to Pacific. Along those lines we had communications and transportation. And the migration more or less followed them. We started our trip, as we said, late in the year of 1900 and arrived at Merkel, Texas, which was a railroad point. Our post office was Nubia, Texas, that is spelled, N-U-B-I-A.
It no longer exists. The railroads came through, and the names was changed. But we located in what was known and still is known yet, Mulberry Canyon. It was a great horseshoe-shaped depression in the land with a flat limestone cap, and when you went up out of the canyon why the land was leveled off just like the plains, and down in there was considerable timber. They said the canyon was maybe 10 miles wide and 15 long.
We will go back to the starting. None of us, neither my father nor mother or any of us that started the trip had ever ridden on a train before. There was my father, my mother, my sister older than I, Marthie, and the sister younger than I, May, and myself on the trip. Gallio was along to show us around. I don’t suppose we would have ever got there. Any way I wanted to see all there was to be seen so as the train started out, I glued my eyes to window and tried to see everything that went by. The size of it was I got very seasick or motion sickness like when you ride on a train, a boat or something. When we got in to Salisbury, North Carolina, we had a short layover,Gallio went out to get some lunch for us. By the way we took enough grub to last all of 3 days. Mother and sisters cooked up a lot of stuff that wouldn’t spoil, and anyhow that was our mainstay for three days’ trip. Anyhow, Gallio went off to buy some fruit. You could buy a whole stalk of bananas at 25 cents. So we bought a whole stalk and brought them back and we tanked up. I had never seen one before or heard of one. But it tasted good and I was hungry and eat quite a few, and along with my motion sickness I was awfully sick.
The ol’ Porter came around and I was throwing up all over the depot, He says, “Y’all got somethin’ catchin’?” I remember seeing the whites of his eyes to this day. Anyway it wasn’t nothin’ catchin’ and I soon recovered and we went on our way the next morning.
The next layover we had of any consequences was New Orleans. And we had time off there to have one meal. The only meal, formal meal, we had all the way. One thing that they had on the table was cane sugar. At that time they hadn’t developed the process of making dry granulated sugar out of cane. It was what we call crawl sugar. You put a spoon full on plate, heaped up like now-a-days, and it soon it was crawling all around the plate. We thought that was funny and intriguing. We was hungry and we about made our whole meal on sugar. I remember the people in the restaurant watching us with curiosity and expressed on their faces why we were eating so much sugar! It was probably the cheapest and least sought of anything they had to eat. The sugar industry in New Orleans had little call for it to be shipped away, so the sugar was plentiful.
Anyway, why we crossed the Mississippi there, and we crossed on a ferryboat, no bridges at that time. This ferry was alarge affair, it carried the long passenger train and a big long freight train and had room for me. The river was a mile wide, so it took an hour to cross it. They allowed us to walk around and see the sights. That was quite a wonderful sight to me.
Here we were loaded on the Texas- Pacific, TP they called it in them days, and I believe it is quite the system yet today. They routed this by Marshall and Texarkana. At Marshall, we went into a big long-leaf pine forest and that was a great curiosity to me. We’d come from the most varied forest of all time and that had all kinds of trees to this place that only had one kind of tree. They were big, bigger than we were used to seein’, and tall, and made an impressive sight. They hadn’t done any commercial cutting of the long-leaf pine in that country at that time. It was quite a change for us. I remember Texarkana at that time was a great mail gathering center and I think it still is today for the US Mail. I can remember seeing them loading carload after carload of mail sacks. I didn’t know there was that much mail in existence. So, there on we were routed by Dallas, Fort Worth, and Abilene to Merkel, Texas. Which was more or less uneventful. I remember we went through Dallas just after dark and it was lip up with it up with electricity. That was the first time I ever saw anything lit up with electricity. They were using the mercury lamp, and they had no ceiling over the arc. It was not perfected as it is today. Anyhow, it made quite an impression on me!
So we journeyed west, and we run into halfway plains and wooded -- mostly mesquite -- and the mesquite looked like peach trees to us. We were inquiring to what they were, and people were explaining, the ones that knew. Looked like something that had been planted to us, they were all the same size and the same height, and the same distance apart. We thought they were a peach orchard (Ed. note: Between Abilene and Merkel, Texas). We got into places where there were patches of plains and no timber but the mesquite trees and a few live oaks.
Then we landed in Merkel where our Uncle met us and moved us into Mulberry Canyon. I believe I said before the size and shape of the canyon. Anyhow it had large ranching and farming area in the middle of it. That is where we landed at for a period of five years (Ed. note: 1901-1905). This was quite new to us to live there . Different crops and land. My Father leased a little ranch there, and we tried to get a little money, we were very short on money. I went to work for the old ranch man nearby and got a little experience as a cowboy for the first several months that we were there.
Father was an invalid at the time, he was not suffering much at that time. He had a large tumor on his knee, couldn’t bend his leg, had to have special pants leg to get his pants on. In about a year, I believe it was or two years later, he had an operation to take the tumor off. The doctor said it would just peel it off, and it would heal up right away and he would be as good as ever. It turned out to be malignant. And Father wasn’t able to do any work a’tall . He died by inches, I believe in October, 1905.
In the meantime I had to be the head of house. And do what farm and taking care of the cattle and running of the whole place. The government didn’t pay people in them days. If you wanted to you could just starve to death. Or you could hustle. I did the hustling for the 5 of us -- Mom, Dad, Martha, and me and May. Martha was big and young and healthy and four years older than I was so she was a quite a help in making the living.
I remember one thing that was very humorous to me. It was in December, and was winter time, and this wasn’t far enough south to get out of all the cold weather and it would get down to freezing quite often. We were used to wooden bedsteads in North Carolina, everything was made out of wood there we could possibly make. We came there and because of transportation and lack of wood, we bought iron bedsteads made out of twisted steel rods.
They was not too close together and my Father’s feet were sticking out, because he was a very large man, ‘like to froze his feet off one night. I remember he woke me up talkin’ to my mother. He said, “If I live to morning, I am gonna nail some boards to the foot of this bed so I can tuck my cover in.” And how he could nail boards to an iron rod hit me as funny. Which couldn’t have been done. He never did get ‘em nailed, and I still remember that. Just one incident.
Farming just beginning in that country at that time. The principle farming crop was cotton, then next feed grain, a few things to eat. It was a dry country and not too many vegetables, or corn to take much root. There was some land close by the owner said that if we would till it, we could have all we made on it for 3 years. So they started me clearing twenty acres of this land. To clear it, all you had to do was dig aroundmesquite tree, it had a large tap root, cut off top, and then dig down a foot, chop off taproot. Lift the tree out of the hole, fill up the holeand then start on another one. That was they did instead of sending me to school. Why I had a job of clearing 20 acres of ground. That was most of our income, raisin’ cotton on that plot of ground. In comparison to day a big fat steer was worth $15 then which was worth about $250 at the present time.
I want to comment right here that all the stories about feuding between the ranch owner and the farmer, was all one big fiction. I never knew any trouble a’tall between ranchers that were there and the settlers coming in. I never knew the least bit of dissensionor trouble at ‘all. The old Ranchman was the most friendly, the most very helpful, and went out way of his way to help any poor people in his community to get started and get squared away and earn his own living. You were as good as he was as long as you were honest and would work. That was the two requirements that a newcomer had to have, be honest, and he would work. If you did those two things, the old timers would help us to a great extent.
My Father was somewhat of an invalid most of the five years we lived in Texas. During first year, Father was able to helpme considerably clearing 20 acres of land. He was unable to get on his knees. He could stand up and do considerable digging and chopping on these 20 acres. One thing that was comical and pitiful, too, was when we raised our first crop of cotton. He was determined to help pick the cotton.
He would stoop over, get cotton out of one bowl, stand up, brush off any trash that might have gotten on it, blow it, and then put into his sack. The size of it was that if he had picked all day he wouldn’t have gotten 15 pounds of cotton. And the standard day’s work was 200 pounds. He only picked one hour. So picking of the cotton fell on us kids, me and my two sisters. That was quite a chore. I never did mind pickin’ cotton very bad. It was the habit of the country, when planting cotton to throw a handful of watermelon seed in with cotton seed. By fall, about every few rows, there would be a nice watermelon vine. And you would pick real hard to get up to this big watermelon and give it a whammy over your knee and eat handfuls with your hands, and when you got your thirst and appetite satisfied, why then you‘d go on and pick more cotton.
We was between two of the old ranchers. One was named Mapes andthe other was Ben Casey. Mapes was on the east side of us and Mr. Casey was on the east. They both took an interest in me and helped me in many ways, and in spare time they employed me to help them. Casey used to loan me a pony for the summer, if I would break pony. I believe it was a year he gave it to me. It was a wild mustang. He wanted me to break, tame it, make it useful for work and I could ride it for a year. I always had a pony to ride, and I always appreciated him for the use of the pony.
Well, I started to tell you about Mr. Mapes’ ability with the rope and the cow pony. He was the best I ever saw and in those days I saw lots of cowpokes. He could -- Mr. Mapes -- rope a steer full speed either by back feet, or by front feet, or around the neck. I seen him rope a calf one time at full speed through a barbed wire fence. Sorta between wires, that cut the baby calf a little. Caught him around the neck and both running as fast as they could go. That was quite a feat.
I don’t know whether I told you or not. Mr. Mapes was raised on a chuck wagon, the wagon that followed the herd of cattle and done the cookin’ and feedin’ of cowhands. One day they picked this boy up and raised him with the herd of cattle. A wagon following the cattle. That was back in the days when they didn’t have fences, just had open range. The herd went wherever they pleased. He didn’t know his name, didn’t know any of his folks. He didn’t know anything about who his people were. He was raised as a cowboy until he was, I suppose, 30 or 40 years old, and he had saved up enough money, so he could buy a ranch of his own. We happened to be his next door neighbors when we settled in the canyon. He was a very gentlemanly-like fellow, but without any book education.
Mr. Casey was one of the early settlers in the country. He went in there and got his start towards livin’ by the ol’ sheep man that ranged the country before there were any fences. He’d go to them and ask them and ask for hides of the dead sheep. When they died, the owner didn’t want anything to do with them. Mr. Casey would beg them and skin them,save the hides and sell the wool. When we knew him he had a horse ranch, just raised them. There was a big demand for the cow pony in them days. The Government would give $100 and that much was the price that a half a dozen steers would bring. So. he had a horse ranch. He would give us boys a pony to ride for a year if we would break it and gentle it. He was quite a nice gentleman, too. They were good to us, both Mr. Mapes and Mr. Casey. They were considerably rich men when I knew them, I was a just a poor, penniless boy, and they counted me as an equal with them in any society, so long as I was honest and would work.
That’s two requirements for any Texan, or a newcomer, to be honest and willing to work.
Around the edge of this Mulberry Canyon, the floor of the canyon, I suppose, was close to a 75 to 100 feet below the level of the country round about. It was ledge of limestone 20 to 30 feet deep, then two feet of soil on top of that, on top of the canyon, and broke off abruptly. A lot of the rocks had rolled down the hill and a lot of the land, in years gone by, and accumulated around the rim rock and onto the floor of the canyon floor. The slant up to the rim rock was pretty rough. There were limestone caves and holes. There were rattlesnakes by the dozens. We’d often kill 4 or 5 rattlesnakes a day just everyday workin’ around. There were a few mountain lions left, they called them cougars. Seen one comin’ one day just after a rain storm, a’comin’ pert’ near towards our house, just missing it a little bit, headed for this canyon rim. I got my 22 rifle out and commenced shootin’ at him, but I didn’t even make it flinch hardly, and it was about 100 yards from me. He just a kept on a goin’ towards the mountain. They killed quite a few cattle and there was quite a bounty on them. A man who lived within a few hundred yards from us made a business of hunting. He had a pack of dogs. I was scared of ‘em, but he said they wouldn’t hurt you, unless you hemmed ‘em up like in a box canyon someplace there they had to fight. Anyhow I was scared of em.
I remember one night I was comin’ home from seein’ my girl. I was growed up until I was pret’ near 18. This was the year that we left there. I had a girl, on the canyon head with fingers had running out in it. Coetta’s girl friends lived on ranches around there. Had to go to the tip of the ridgewhich went up the canyon to get to her house. I had a hog backed horse; if you rode him very much why he would get sores on shoulders where girth goes. I rode him, and got him sore back there. This night I left this loose, he was a gentle horse, I’d left this loose so as not to hurt him. I went on to see my gal, and went to visitin’ and played until about 10 or 11 o’clock, I started home.
Going around the tip of this mountain I come pert’ close to my house, where we had a little pasture fenced off for the milk cow. We had wire gates, I got down to open this gate to let horse through, opened gate, let the horse through, shut gate, started to get back on. Just as I put my foot in the stirrup and started to swing on, one of these cougars up the fence row about 100 yards; he let out a squall, a turrible hair raising squall. This ol’horse was raised in that country and he knew what they were, you know. They often attacked the horse. He went up into the air, way up, over and out, and I come down and hit the ground. The saddle turned underneath his belly, and boy, he started kickin’, a pitchin’, and a’runnin’, an’ a’bawlin’. He tore that saddle all to pieces and left me down there with the cougar. So, I wasn’t far behind him when he got to the house. Mother heard the horse come in at high speed, an’ run out, scared because she saw the saddle turned and I wasn’t on it. She thought he’d killed me, but she didn’t have to wait ‘cause I wasn’t far behind him. She didn’t have to wait but about two seconds until I was there. I guess the cougar was up the mountain as far as I was off to the side, so wasn’t anything serious about it.
Well, I was sayin’ I was the head of the house, I had to do all the managing, the planning, planting of the crops, which, where and whoop-de-do. I had to furnish the money for the grub. Of course, Marthie helped me to work wherever she could. Mother had all she could do takin’ care of my Father. After the operation why he was bedfast, just dyin’ and wasting away. He weighed 180 pounds when he was taken down and when he died I don’t think he weighed but about 50 or 60 pounds, he was just a bundle of bones. He died very gradually, over a period of 3 years.
I know I could go to the bank and borrow money. I needed a team of mules. I could go and borrow money and pay it back. It wasn’t legal, I wasn’t of age. But people trusted you for what you was instead of legal matters. Legal matters was mostly taken over by the citizens and the neighborhood. I remember one occasion that I needed a team of what they called cotton mules, they were very small mules, and they were only good for pulling a wagon to haul a bale of cotton under 1500 pounds and cultivating cotton. Just doing light chores. They wasn’t heavy for breaking land, and stuff like that. They was called cotton mules. My old Uncle, who preceded me down there, was a ranch man in the early days. I always went to him for advice and in the meantime he had sold out close to where we lived and moved on about 30 miles further west. I went out to see him, see what I could do. I didn’t have any money to get these mules to make a cotton crop. I went out and he said, “Yeah, we can fix that up, you go to my neighbors’ who’s got a mule ranch. Tell him what you want and when you can pay him back and so forth. He will let you have the mules. And then when you get your cotton crop this fall, you can go pay him.”
This neighbor was only lived 30 miles away. That is the way neighbors was in those days. Anyhow I went over to see him. He was a pretty big ranch man, he had a big spread and lots of men working for him. He said, “Oh, well, just put up your horses, feed ‘em and come into the house. We’ll send the boys out after the mules, and you can take you out some and then after dinner you can go.”
I was in a turrible big hurry, but I couldn’t do anything but mind him, he was the boss. I had to mind him. He sent the boys after the mules. I don’t know where ’hey were at. He took me into the house and he talked and talked. He wanted to know where I was from, he was lonesome for someone to talk to that was from some other place. He asked me a lot of questions, about where I was at, what I was doin’, where I had come from, why and how. Anyhow, pretty soon it was dinner time. T’ put on more dinner than you ever saw. T’ had 3 kinds of bread, biscuits, cornbread, light bread, and lots of vegetables. It was all hot, the finest meal you ever saw. And then we ate. We went and sat down, and he lit up a cigar and offered me one. I didn’t smoke, and he didn’t insist on it, so we talked some more and talked some more. Finally I said, “Let’s go pick out them mules, I’d like to be going home.” He said, “Oh, there ain’t no hurry, the boss hasn’t got in with them yet.” Finally, the boss came in with them, had them all in the corral.
The way t’ made places to keep mules and cattle either one in them days was to dig a ditch and set posts, touching each other, and weave them together with wire and made a solid fence about six feet high. Had places for you to climb up on it, and t’ would run the mules by you and you would pick out the ones you wanted. T’ would rope them and tie ‘em together for you. So I picked out a couple and named them Sheck & Jake. T’ tied them together, that way you can drive them anywhere. I had a saddle pony along. My brother-in-law had a wagon, he’d come with me. We started home. Meantime I told this guy, that my uncle sent me, and that I wanted to buy the mules on time, and when I could raise a crop, I could pay him. If he would make out the note and mortgage I would sign it. He went on a talkin’ and didn’t pay no attention to me.
Finally I got up courage enough and said, if you make up the note and mortgage for me, I will sign it and be on my way. He said, “We don’t do that away out in this country. You go on and take the mules home with you and this fall when you sell your cotton, you come pay me.” I couldn’t hardly believe my ears. About the only thing to do was get started with the mules down on the road. I felt like I stole them. I took them home and broke them.
In a month or two I seen my Uncle and told him what happened. I got the mules all right. I told him to make out a note and I would sign it, and he said we don’t do that way out here. And he said, “You just take the mules on home and when you get your crop, why come pay me.”
My Uncle said, yes, that’s the way we do things out here in the west. If a man’s word ain’t no good, and his name ain’t good, what’s the use of wasting all the paper? I says, “What happened if I sold everything and the mules and took the money and left the country?” He said, “Oh, that’s what t’ got the mesquite trees and lariat ropes for, for those kind of guys.”
So when I sold the cotton, I paid for the mules. Took it (Ed. note: money) to the local bank, and I could go to the grocery store and buy a year’s groceries on time, all I had to do was to go on and buy the groceries, and t’ would make out a ticket and give me a ticket for it, and then when I got my crop, I would go pay ‘em. Start over on another year, same system. Sometimes I would have enough money to last a month or two, and sometimes, I would run out.
Anyhow, when we got 20 acres cleared the first year, it was pretty soddy, with roots in it. But the last year, that we farmed it, 1905, that was the 3rd crop, it was in a good state of cultivation. We raised 15 bales of cotton that year. That was the year my Father died. Me and my sister, Martha, picked all that 15 bales of cotton. We used to sit on the wagon tongue and wait for it to get daylight to start picking, so we could see to start pickin’. And we’d pick until dark. Sometimes the moon was shining, and we could still see the rows to keep pickin’ after dark. We got those 15 bales of cotton and got my cousin to go with me and use his wagon and take the cotton to Abilene and sold it.
If I remember right, we got maybe a nickel and a fraction a pound for this cotton. The average bale of cotton weighs 500 pounds, so we had quite a little money. That was the year my Father died. It was the year that Marthie got married, 1905. That reduced our family and size, that was the year we moved to Oklahoma to homestead country. Our Father, before he was taken down with his malignancy, he had went to Beaver County, Oklahoma, and homesteaded 160 acres of ground. Broke out some of it. There were certain requirements that you had to meet with the government to own a homestead. He had done those. Then he had taken down sick an’ t’ gave him a leave of absence. I think t’ gave him two or three leaves. I think three leaves is all was you could get in succession from livin’ on a place and then it forfeits back to the government. He had got his leave of absence and before the third one came up, he had died. My Mother had to perform his duties in order to prove the homestead up and get the patent to it. That is another story. We will take it up at a later date.
This story in Texas lasted five years, and covered my age from 13 to 18. This was time that I was supposed to be sowin’ my wild oats, but I didn’t have time to sow wild oats, so I never had to reap any. Because if you don’t sow anything you don’t have to reap it. When we went on to a different country why I still had to take care of my Mother, my baby sister and myself. So that kept me out of meanness also.
I think if I have another tape I can bring myself up to date to the present time, so try that on another tape at a later date.
I think the year I spent in Texas under the advice and leadership of my Uncle John Burris have been profitable to me all the years of my whole life. I don’t begrudge it, by any means, very profitable sojourn, and I enjoyed it very much. I had a lot of cousins and friends in Texas and my cow pony, and we enjoyed life to the fullest along with a lot of hard work which didn’t hurt me, and doesn’t hurt anyone. It helps build muscles and growing up. I went back many years later and visitedthis same place many years later and it had grown up and settlers had thinned out considerable. It had gone went back to ranching. Hardly looked like the same place. I still have fond memory and my father died there and was buried in what t’ called White Church Cemetery in Mulberry Canyon.
The rest of us could be scattered over quite a ……
 Near Merkel, Taylor County, Texas. John William Combs, Rufus Edgar’s father, is buried in White Church Cemetery, Mulberry Canyon.
 Julius Coetta Combs, born 10 February 1881 in North Carolina. Died 1 April 1964. Married Ed Venable.
 One of Mathilde’s brothers, probably John Riley Burrus or, possibly, Weldon Robert Burrus. Both are listed in the 1900 Federal Census for Taylor County, Texas. However, Mathilde’s brother James Emery Burrus died there in 1914 and is buried in the local White Church Cemetery in Merkel, Taylor County, Texas.
 Ed Venable, husband of Julius Coetta Combs.
 At that time, this was in Oklahoma Territory.
 John Riley Burrus, born 3 June 1854 in Surry County, North Carolina. Died 25 July 1907.
 White Church Cemetery in Mulberry Canyon, near Merkel, Taylor County, Texas.