Monday, July 26, 2021


 By Caroline Clemmons

Come take a tour with me of a setting I’ve used in numerous books. It's a real place in Texas that I sometimes give a fictitious name. Both the county and county seat are called Palo Pinto and they're reached on Highway 180 heading west from Fort Worth or Weatherford. An alternate route is headed west on Interstate 20 and taking Highway 4 heading north to Highway 180. In addition to being used by the real name in my books, it’s been the towns of Tarnation, Desperation, Radford Crossing, and others. The area has been the setting for my Stone Mountain Texas series, the Bride Brigade series, and several single titles such as CHARLOTTE'S CHALLENGE.

Longhorns in a Palo Pinto field

In addition to the fact that I think it’s a pretty (if rustic) area, it’s not that far from where I live. On several occasions, my husband and I went on the Palo Pinto County Historical Society driving tour. This included the towns of Palo Pinto, Santo, and Strawn. Also on the tour were the beautiful Belding-Gibson Ranch and Johnson’s League Ranch. I fell in love with both, especially the Belding-Gibson Ranch. I confess to having used these two ranches many times in my writing.

Belding-Gibson Ranch home side-door. This
door leads between the original cabin and the
smoke house, which have been cleverly preserved
and incorporated into rooms of the home. Even
the cold space has been preserved. Note the
use of cedar logs on either side of the door.

This area is the Palo Pinto Mountains. If (like Sweethearts member Angela Rains in Colorado) you are from a state with high mountains and you traveled through the Palo Pinto area, you would laugh at me calling them mountains. However, geologically     speaking, they are genuine mountains. To someone like me who spent most of my growing up years in fairly flat West Texas, I enjoy driving through the scenic Palo Pinto “mountains”.

Their name, according to some sources, is because the Indians called the scrub oaks “painted sticks”. In fall the foliage is colorful and I suppose the thin scrub oak trunks do resemble painted sticks.  Numerous creeks as well as the Brazos River run through the county. Some springs, like one on the Belding-Gibson Ranch, don’t dry up in summer. These constant water sources made popular camping places for Comanche and other Indian tribes.

Belding-Gibson barns

With the internet it’s possible to do research from the comfort of your home while seated at your computer. Like most authors, I also have many reference books in my office. Writers have to depend on second-hand accounts for some things. After all, I’ve never been in a coal mine (O'NEILL'S TEXAS BRIDE), never been on a sleigh ride in the snow (JAMIE and WINTER WISH), never been to Montana (but I'd love to visit), never shot a person, never been shot (I’d like for this last one to remain true!). Armed with facts and imagination, writers create settings for their stories. What’s even better, though, is having been to a place in person. I fell in love with this area and enjoy writing about it under any name.

Former blacksmith shop now part of  
Palo Pinto jail museum. Man is not part of the
display--that's just how many local men dress.

Charles Goodnight resided in Palo Pinto for a time when he and his stepbrother worked cattle. In 1857, the young partners trailed their herd up the Brazos to the Keechi valley in Palo Pinto County. At Black Springs, they built a log cabin buttressed with stone chimneys to which they brought their parents in 1858. 

You probably know Goodnight later settled in Palo Duro Canyon, but not before creating the Goodnight-Loving Trail. You probably also know that he and Oliver Loving were models for Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE. The model for Deke, Bose Ikard, is buried in nearby Weatherford, Parker County, and some of his descendants still reside there. But I digressed...

Perhaps Goodnight's activity in the county is one reason Palo Pinto calls itself the "Cradle of the Cattle Industry." Located in the high desert in north-central Texas, Palo Pinto was settled by cattle ranchers in the early- to mid-1800s. Today the Old West spirit lives on in the rugged patch of hilly land. A handful of historic sites and buildings continue to draw tourists like me.

Black Springs Fort
(not affiliated with the military)

The small rock fort at Black Springs was a gathering place for area families when Comanche were raiding. The exterior appearance reminds me of a mill. Having seen the size of this building from the outside, I sympathize with those confined inside while they waited, not knowing if their homes would still be standing when they emerged. Small as it was, it provided sanctuary for families. At times the women and children waited with  only a few men to protect them while most of the men pursued the Indians.  

Front view of Belding-Gibson Ranch home

The mountains have been called a northern extension of the Texas Hill Country.
 Both are dissected plateaus featuring karst topography (Karst explained in next paragraph) with similar vegetation, including post oak, blueberry juniper, and mesquite. The smaller Carbonate Cross Timbers has a limestone substrate, as does the Hill Country, although the surrounding Western Cross Timbers area is underlain by sandstone.

I didn’t know what karst meant until I was researching for more on Palo Pinto County. If you're interested in specifics, karst is an area of land made up of limestone. Limestone, also known as chalk or calcium carbonate, is a soft rock that dissolves in water.  Karst landscapes can be worn away from the top or dissolved from a weak point inside the rock. Karst landscapes feature caves, underground streams, and sinkholes on the surface. 

This definition makes sense. There are a lot of caves in the area, some deep and some shallow, and I’ve used them in my writing. I really, really don’t like being in deep caves (shudder), but they’re great for creating stories. HIGH STAKES BRIDE, PRUDENCE, and DESPERATE IN DELAWARE use Palo Pinto County caves. I use caves in other stories, but they're not set in this part of Texas. I suppose my phobia with them makes caves pop up in my stories.

In front of the original jail are these
cages used to allow prisoners to get
sunlight and fresh air (shudder)

Palo Pinto County Jail

One of the oldest structures in the town of Palo Pinto, the county jail was built in 1880 and served Palo Pinto County until the building was abandoned in 1941. In 1968, it was converted into a museum. Today, the Old Jail Museum Complex is operated by the Palo Pinto County Historical Association ( and includes several pioneer cabins, a carriage house, the Black Springs Fort, and the actual jail and yard. The two-story, sandstone jail includes various artifacts and, topping steep iron stairs that lead to the second floor, are a hangman's noose and trapdoor (added in 1906 but never used).

One of the scarier exhibits is in front of the jail--a metal cage in which prisoners were allowed to get some fresh air (shown above).

Johnson League Ranch house

Johnson's League Ranch house from back

On a hill overlooking the ranch, this mausoleum
was built when their young son died 

Johnson's League Ranch from Mausoleum Hill

Cabins from the museum grounds

Cabin interior

Bed with ropes supporting the mattress--
that's where "sleep tight" came from. The ropes
had to be tightened periodically.

A commode chair in the Strawn museum. This
one has missing pieces: a chair seat/lid that converts
it to look like a regular chair, and a door to
conceal the chamber pot. Owning one of these
would be a luxury.

Old style storm cellar. Which is more
frightening--a possible tornado or the 
creepy-crawlies waiting in the cellar?

Palo Pinto County ranchland

As promised, I have a 99¢ sale on one of the Bride Brigade books, set in the fictitious town of Tarnation, which is modeled after Johnson's League Ranch's location. Now through July 29, JOSEPHINE is on sale. If you haven't read this series, I hope you'll take advantage of the special price and will enjoy the book.    

I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of the Palo Pinto area of Texas. Y'all come back now, you hear?

Photos by the author  

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