I’ve spent the last few days in Texas Hill Country, visiting my aunt and working on a project. But before I tell you about that, let me walk you through her ranch.
My aunt Margie lives on a small ranch immediately outside of Utopia, Texas. When she first moved there a couple of decades ago, the smart-aleck kid I was thought the name was doubly appropriate; the idyllic climate and beautiful countryside were indeed paradisaical, and the location was, just like the original meaning of utopia, nowhere.
Utopia has become a lot more popular and populous in recent times, now a destination for hunters and a feature of books and films like Seven Days in Utopia, but it’s still a tiny Western town with one significant street and no mail delivery, trash service, or a franchise anything within an hour’s drive.
Her ranch is small by Texas standards, and in recent years she no longer keeps cattle, but it’s a darned fascinating place.
Archaeology & Paleontology
Texas hills are one of those places that just scream out geologic history. It’s an unusual day if you take a walk without finding a fossilized shell or something.
This is the edge of the road, cut into the hill, up the tallest hill (“the moutain”) on the ranch. Even a glance can reveal several fossils, though it’s harder to see them in a flattened image. Give it a try:
Like I said, it’s harder in a photo, but they’re in there. Here’s a photo Alena took of some fossils she picked up on her walk.
Three types of shell. Pretty cool, huh?
A nearby ranch had dinosaur footprints visible in a creekbed very near the road and let others come in a short distance to see them, but new owners have fenced them off. Margie’s creekbed had something which might have been dinosaur footprints, but they were never verified and were later destroyed in a flash flood.
(Funny how many things have lasted for thousands or millions of years only to be destroyed in the last century or so. Sometimes the changes are unintentional, such as changes to the land causing more flooding, and sometimes deliberate, such as the case of these petroglyphs we saw on the Snake River in Idaho, which have survived in amazing condition for about 4,000 years and then in the last few decades tourists have been picking away at them or stealing them for decor. Really, people?)
But there’s a lot more history on the ranch, which includes the site of a Kickapoo raid on one of the original white settlers.
The Kincheloe Raid
The Kincheloes built a tiny house protected by the creek’s high banks, and the women and children of the Kincheloe and Bowlin families stayed together there while the two husbands went to harvest corn on an overnight trip in October 1866.
The first frightening moment occurred when the Bowlins went home for chores and discovered a recently-arrived local Mexican shepherd ransacking their house — and saw that he wasn’t a Mexican at all, he’d only been using a disguise. Sarah Ware Kincheloe (daughter of explorer Captain William Ware) joined them and when the outlaw saw she was armed, he fled.
They returned to the Kincheloe house and shortly thereafter saw two Kickapoo approaching. The women hid the children under the beds as the arrivals killed the household dogs. It is speculated they were collaborating with the psuedo-shepherd, and so they knew both that the men were miles away and that Mr. Robert Kincheloe had recently sold sheep for a tidy sum, which might be found in the house.
Sarah seized the gun her husband had left her and realized it was the new carbine, a repeating rifle, and not the muzzle-loaders with which she was familiar and accurate. She and her husband had not yet taken the time to teach her the new weapon, and she could not fire the gun. Though she thrust the muzzle through a loophole and the raiders scattered, it wasn’t too long before they realized that she never fired, and they pressed close to the house and began to send arrows through the loopholes.
Eventually they worked through a broken shutter and could send arrows and lances through with impunity. Sarah stayed between them and the children until she collapsed, pierced 17 times. Mrs. Bowlin took the useless gun and was immediately killed with an arrow to the heart.
The two Kickapoo broke in and briefly ransacked the house, apparently looking for money and ignoring the children. They took the carbine and a few household items but found little of value; the sheep money had been deposited at a bank. The children came from under the bed as soon as they had gone, and Sarah’s eldest Johnny (age 8) rode for help. Riders were went to collect Mr. Bowlin and and Mr. Robert Kincheloe, and also Mrs. Binnion, the woman doctor.
Sarah’s sister, upon seeing her, declared, “She is shot all to pieces! She is bound to die!”
“No, she won’t,” someone answered. “She is a Ware, and you can’t kill a Ware.”
And that seemed to be true. Sarah lingered near death for days, with frequent episodes of anxiety, until the doctor Mrs. Binnion said the site itself was troubling her and advised new surroundings. Sarah was removed to her sister’s home, and there made full recovery.
The Kickapoo and fake shepherd were never found. Some of the things stolen from the houses, however, traveled south to a Kickapoo village in northern Mexico, where a captive called Frank Buckalew recognized clothing from the Binlow and Kincheloe children he’d known.
The Kincheloes moved to a new site and built a two-story rock building for a store and house, the first edifice of the town eventually called Utopia. Sarah Kincheloe lived until 1917, a mother of ten, and the writer of the document I’ve taken this from knew her personally and attested to her scarring.
There’s little left of the raid site now; when we first saw it, the outline of the house and hearth could still be barely made out, but flash floods (common in the Hill Country) have disturbed it further. I remember seeing bits of crockery and other artifacts there long ago, but frequent visitors and school groups (my aunt Margie is very open) have fairly plundered it.
Trust sharp-eyed Alena, who credits the ranch at least partially for her interest in archeology, to find one left, though.
There’s another old house on the ranch, but no one is quite certain who built it.
It has been said, though without much support, that it was built by a man for his family but that local Native Americans burnt it out before they could move in. He then decided to build on the other side of the creek, which would slow incoming riders. I’m not sure how true this is, but there is a second old house directly opposite.
The wooden porch was added later; this was a little two-story rock house typical of the area. This is where we usually stay; it’s a cozy little place, if you watch for scorpions, and it has the best-drawing fireplace of any I’ve found. My great-aunt also swears it’s haunted, but she swears everything is haunted, so take that for what it’s worth.
If it is haunted, it’s by this guy:
The Hill Country
The ranch has a spring-fed creek which is one of the most reliable water sources in the county. During times of drought, they let down their fences to let neighbors’ cattle come to water. This deep spot with a little natural waterfall is known as the Swimmin’ Hole and is where most of the locals learned to swim.
Even in drought, the ranch is full of wildlife. Indigo snakes eat rattlesnakes (perhaps one reason so few have been found there?), deer and wild turkey are everywhere, and wild boar come out at night.
But the big question — what was I doing there? Why, putting together Margie’s book, of course.
Margie’s a studio artist who started her career in an advertising agency alongside Haddon Sundblom. (Does that name sound familiar? Well, does the Coca-Cola Santa look familiar?)
She has a popular series of postcards depicting Utopia and the surrounding Hill Country, and we collected some of them into a picture book, Scenes from Utopia. Included are depictions of historic homes, such as the original rock store built by Robert Kincheloe, and moments captured from life, such as the daily domino game at the former barber shop.
You can find it here.
Thanks for touring with me!