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XIT Marks the Spot

Destination: Dalhart

Travel time from:
Austin – 10 hours
Brownsville – 15 hours
Dallas – 7.55 hours
Houston – 11.5 hours
San Antonio – 10 hours
Lubbock – 3.5 hours
El Paso – 8 hours

Brave the cold to discover cowboy history and a legendary ranch at the top of Texas.

By Mike Cox

Dalhart’s just about as far north in Texas as you can get. Folks in the rest of the state don’t hear much about it unless they happen to pay particularly close attention to TV weather forecasts.

“Up in Dalhart,” some meteorologist will invariably note, “the high was only 19 degrees and the overnight low will get down to around 7 with a wind chill factor of minus 7.” Numbers will vary, but for most of the winter, the mercury won’t be very high in Dalhart.

Residents in Dallam and Hartley counties (Dalhart straddles the boundary between the two political subdivisions) take the weather in stride and see “downstaters” as a bunch of babies for grousing about Panhandle weather. The remedy is easy enough: If you don’t like the cold, and the ice and snow that often accompany it, don’t go to Dalhart in the winter. If you do, pack warm clothes.

The XIT Reunion’s rodeo has been a Panhandle tradition for decades.

Of course, in the spring or summer, when much of the rest of the state is sweltering in heat and high humidity, Dalhart is often nice and dry and pleasantly cool in the evenings. Sometimes blankets at night are in order.

No matter the time of the year, Dalhart makes for an interesting and enjoyable travel destination, even if it takes a good part of your three days in the field just getting there and back. When I figuratively saddled up and drifted north for the High Plains, it was February, Dalhart’s second-coldest month. Fortunately, I timed my trip just right and arrived between cold fronts to weather that was downright temperate.

What attracted me to Dalhart was its history, but the area is also a popular destination for birders, hikers and rodeo fans.

To understand Dalhart’s history, all you really have to know about are two X’s.

The first X is the XIT, once the largest spread in the world. Encompassing 3 million acres, 30 miles wide and stretching nearly 200 miles from Hockley County on the south all the way to the Oklahoma border on the north, the ranch covered parts of 10 High Plains counties, including present-day Dalhart. The state conveyed that huge chunk of land in 1882 to a group of Chicago investors to pay for construction of a new capitol in Austin. By the numbers, during its peak years of operation, with eight divisions enclosed by 6,000 miles of barbed-wire fence, the XIT ran 150,000 head of cattle and watered 1,000 horses with 325 windmills. In addition, the owners kept 150 cowboys on the payroll. In the early 1900s, the owners started breaking up the ranch and selling real estate to developers or individuals.

The second X represents the meeting of two railroads in 1901, when the Rock Island Line crossed the existing trackage of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway on former XIT land in Dallam County. W.J. Blair and a partner developed a town that became Dalhart, the name a composite of the two counties it crossed. In the same vein, the town’s main drag is Denrock Avenue, named for the two railroad lines that created the town.

Arriving late in the evening, I opted for the comforts of a new motel room over sleeping cowboy-like under the stars. Besides that, I much prefer my morning coffee coming from an electric pot rather than boiled over a cow-chip cook fire, which is the way the old XIT waddies did it back when this country was nothing but grassland crisscrossed by barbed wire.

My first stop in the morning was the XIT Ranch Museum. I’ve been to a lot of museums in Texas, and this is one of the best, especially for one operated privately. Opened at its present location in 1975, and now curated by Nicky Olson, it covers 15,000 square feet and does a thorough job of telling the XIT story with vintage photos, enlarged newspaper stories and artifacts such as branding irons and saddles.

The Empty Saddle Monument honors XIT cowhands.

Located not far from the museum at the U.S. Highway 87 underpass is a work of public art called the Empty Saddle Monument. Unveiled on Aug. 5, 1940, “in memory of the departed riders of our plains,” the monument commemorates the former cowhands of the XIT. Designed by local artist Bobby Dycke, the first version was destroyed when an out-of-control vehicle crashed into it in 1966. The monument was rebuilt, only to be struck by another vehicle in 1974. The current version has survived without incident since then.

For lunch on my first day in town I had a chicken-fried steak at Martha’s Home Cooking. The popular café is owned by Martha Adee, who definitely wasn’t at home cooking when I dropped in. She was back in the kitchen, overseeing the preparation of the noon meals her cook was rustling up.

The steaks are hand-breaded with Martha’s own seasoning mixture, and the meat comes only from Texas cattle. In addition to standard menu items, she also sells homemade jam. After finishing off my steak and visiting with Martha, I sampled a piece of her coconut cream pie, the café’s best-selling dessert. Martha’s other specialty is what she calls her breakfast sandwich, a grilled cheese-and-egg sandwich with bacon, ham or sausage.

Lake Rita Blanca attracts waterfowl in winter.

Back in Old Paint, I drove out to Lake Rita Blanca on the edge of town. On a weekday, I had the place pretty much to myself — just me and a lake full of ducks and geese. Especially in the fall and winter, this 150-acre lake draws thousands of ducks and geese following the central flyway from farther north in the U.S., where it’s really cold, even compared with Dalhart.

The lake dates to 1938 when the Depression-era Works Progress Administration began building an earthen dam across Rita Blanca Creek, a tributary of the Canadian River. The dam was completed in 1941, and while a flood damaged it later that year, it was repaired and has stood firm ever since. While a small lake by downstate standards, on the High Plains, it is an oasis that attracts wildlife and people.

Operated for a time by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a state park, the lake and surrounding 1,668 acres have been overseen by the City of Dalhart since 2002. With a $97,500 grant from TPWD matched in kind by labor and equipment furnished by the city, the park has a recently improved 8.2-mile system of walking or riding trails. Campsites also are available.

North of Dalhart is the Rita Blanca National Grassland, an area taking in 77,463 acres across the upper third of the county. On designated tracts, visitors can hike, bird watch, ride horses, ride ATVs and hunt. The area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. You can find picnic tables near Texline at Thompson Grove.

While Dalhart can no longer claim the biggest ranch in the world, it does have the biggest cheese producer in Texas, the Hilmar Cheese Company. Opened in 2007, the California-based company employees some 330 people at its Dalhart plant and buys milk from 30 dairies. Though most of the cheese is sold wholesale in 40-pound and 640-pound blocks, the locally made cheese can be purchased at the United Supermarket in Dalhart.

Hungry for more than cheese, I had a brisket plate that night at Hodie’s BBQ, owned by Richard and Sheila Gallegos. Frankly, having access to so much good barbecue in Central Texas, I didn’t have high expectations. When I think brisket, the Panhandle does not normally come to mind. I was pleasantly surprised by the taste and cowboy-sized portions.

The restored La Rita Performing Arts Theater is Dalhart’s showplace.

Dalhart’s showplace is the La Rita Performing Arts Theater. Built in the 1920s during the era of the grand movie house and remodeled in 1942, the La Rita eventually went the way of other smaller town theaters and shut down in the 1970s.

But in 1989, a group called Dalhart Community Theater took over the building and restored it to its once-elegant self. In the process, it added professional-quality stage lighting and a powerful sound system. With seating for 224, the La Rita has a year-round schedule of both amateur and professional performances.

Dalhart’s biggest month for visitors is August. That’s when the town comes close to doubling in population during the annual XIT Reunion, an event this cow town has hosted since 1937.

The most-honored guest at that first gathering was 83-year-old Ab Blocker, who had come up from Bigwells in South Texas. As a trail driver for his brother, who had a ranch in Tom Green County, Blocker brought the first herd of cattle to the XIT in 1885. Not only did he deliver the ranch’s first cattle, he gave the ranch its famous brand.

At the time, the ranch had no brand. After figuring on the matter for a while, Blocker drew “XIT” in the dirt with his boot heel. That configuration could be burned with a straight iron, and if done carefully, could not be altered by rustlers. (That XIT stood for “Ten in Texas,” since the ranch sprawled over parts of 10 counties, has since been written off as legend.)

The reunion starts on the first Thursday of August each year and continues through Saturday. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association puts on a world-class rodeo every evening. And as soon as the rodeo ends and everyone gets the dust washed off, there’s a dance each evening.

For those who don’t feel like rattling their hocks on the dance floor, there’s a Western melodrama at the La Rita Theater each night of the reunion. Last year a packed house enjoyed The Villain Wore a Dirty Shirt or Always Wash Your Long Johns ’Cause It Makes a Lotta Cents, but there’s a new cornpone play each season.

While you have to buy tickets for the rodeo, the dances and the melodrama, count on some kind of free food from 4 to 6 p.m. at what’s fittingly called BBQ Park, just south of the rodeo grounds. Thursday offers free watermelon, Friday’s fare is free pork chops, and on Saturday, it’s free barbecue. A tradition since 1937, the Saturday event has become the world’s largest free barbecue. Each year, an estimated 20,000 folks tie on the feedbag for brisket, beans, breads, pickles and a traditional dessert of homemade applesauce.

As the years passed, the number of reunion attendees who had ridden for the brand began to wane, though the popularity of the event remained high. Of the original reunion organizers, Cordia Sloan Duke, widow of former longtime XIT manager Robert Duke, lived the longest. Late in her life, she collaborated with historian Joe B. Frantz on Six Thousand Miles of Fence, a book about the XIT published in 1961. Five years later, she died in Dalhart, where she had lived since her husband’s death in 1933. The last old XIT hand, Ira L. Taylor, died in an Amarillo nursing home in 1999 at 103.



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