Barrel Springs Once a Butterfield Stage Watering

                         Barrel Springs, once a Butterfield Stage Watering 


                                                 Rusty Fleming 


As told my good compadre associate and amigo Mike Capron, a lot of history aligns itself with the Butterfield Stage saga(s). The Butterfield stagecoach line’s route(s), was / were officially known as the Butterfield Overland Mail. The stage route(s) ran from Missouri to California and existed where they were by having “waters” available along the way for the necessity and benefit of the horsepower that kept the coaches motivating and progressing along their routes. One of these watering stops was Barrel Springs, located in what is now known as Jeff Davis County, Texas, some 14 to 18 miles south and west of Ft. Davis, mas o menos. Saying ‘Texas’ here is almost redundant repetitive and saying it too many times as there’s only one other Jeff Davis County and it’s in Georgia. To my knowledge, the Butterfield Stage Lines did NOT go thru Georgia nor is there a Barrel Springs in Georgia neither,,,at least none that amount to much,,,, THERE ! To make myself as clear as possible there is another Barrel Springs, but it’s all the way across the state in Montague County and the Butterfield Stages Lines didn’t go there nether, close but not quite, as the route did go through Bridgeport, in Wise County, near Montague County. AND there’s another Barrel Springs in Upton County, northeast of McCamey,,, but that ain’t part of this deal.

Now that THAT is out of the way, our Barrel Springs is located on what is known as Scenic Loop 166, on the southern route, west of Ft. Davis (there’s also a northern route) but for this exercise, let it be known OUR route meanders thru the southern mountains of Jeff Davis County, and there’s one of those historical markers noting Barrel Springs as a Butterfield stage stop and watering spot, at the site of OUR Barrel Springs. Back in the day of stagecoaches, Barrel Springs ran water but in dry times the flow was reduced to a trickle, BUT the Butterfield Stage people knowing this watering was vital to the stage line, took some pipes, yes they had “pipe” of a sort back then,,,and drove the pipes back into the rocks and placed barrels at the end of the pipe(s) so as to keep the barrels full for the stage horses, stage drivers and stage passengers,,, really important in dry times. Thus the name, Barrel Springs. The water retaining barrels are long gone and the springs flow only during really really wet weather, the flow of water reduced not by any means due to questionable falsehood of climate change, but that of man-made alteration of a natural resource.

When I first got to Barrel Springs, early mid1970’s thereabouts, Homer Ferguson was leading the charge,,,grand older guy that had a wealth of cow-smarts, and experience in multitudes of countrysides and cow-country exposure. After hiring on, Homer was driving me around showing me the ranch and I told him I remember when the Barrel Springs flowed and ran thru the culvert under the highway. The headquarters was about a half mile south of the road,,,being Scenic Loop 166, and the springs drained into the draw, with the headquarters buildings setting picturesque on the high bank of this draw surrounded with large pecans and majestic oaks,,,,, Homer explained to me the owner, a wealthy guy from Baton Rouge, had  spent chingas the money on a huge water storage tank on top of the high hill, about 5,500 ft. in elevation,  across the draw from the headquarters. Water was pumped from a well down the draw from THE Barrel Spings UP to this big water storage reservoir, to be the main water distribution point for the purpose of providing waterings all over the ranch. He, the ranch owner, had laid LOTS of water line, having erected and poured LOTS of cement water troughs, water delivered through 2” black (steel) pipe all the way to Hiway 90, about 4,400 ft. in elevation,,,resulting in an excess of 1,100 ft. drop in elevation, mas o menos,,,5 miles or better, as a buzzard might fly. AND waters in the higher pastures,,,and all over the lower flatter parts, over 30,000 acres, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 plus miles of pipe, several truck loads. I missed all this fun stuff, fortunately all this activity happened pre-me. Also included in the ranch inventory, was a pipe rack near the barn with a bunch of joints of this same brand new “line” pipe. I soon learned this pipe stash was to be used for pipeline repair and replacement needs only, NOT for any other ranchy purpose. One day the ranch owner, well, he drives up on  a bunch of his cows lounging around THE Barrel Springs,,,having watered out and all comfy like contented cows are prone to do.  Scenic Hiway 166 was not fenced off, as it divided the upper mountain pasture, not much vehicular traffic. Absentee boss man/owner sees cows and calves lounging and loafing around the spring and not being real “cow-minded”, ranch owner grows angry toward HIS cows not appreciating HIS newly installed watering system(s) way up on top of steep rock strewn hillsides, and must have thought “I have to put a stop to these shenanigans”. Be aware, this wealthy ranch owner is from a much damper climate (Baton Rouge, located just east of the Atchafalaya Swamp/River/Rain Forest of Lousiana, and does not, cannot  phathom nor appreciate the value or treasures such as natural waterings in the desert.

In his fit of anger over the cows rejecting his beautiful new concrete waterings, even though those freshly poured and filled water troughs were all w-a-y up higher and farther away than the location of Barrel Springs,,,, he drives to the lumberyard/ranch supply store in Marfa, acquires a case of dynamite and fuses,,,,this was in the day when all you had to do to qualify to purchase high explosives was be over the age of 12 or 13, be able to walk, chew gum and pay for purchases unassisted AND he had a ranch charge account there, AND he was the one that paid the bills. 

So the ranch owner, armed with a case, a case containing 40 sticks of paper shuck 1.1 Lb., approximately 1 inch in diameter and 10 inch long sticks of Hercules Powder Company’s best, and a 100 ft. coil of “match light” fuse, never mentions what he’s about to do,,,and rapidly heads back to Barrel Springs. He’s either seen dynamite shot or maybe even knows how to shoot it, he inserts the fuses and crams as many sticks of powder as can fit in the tight cracks that are seeping really nice, mother earth filtered water, lights the fuses, jumps in his Suburban and rapidly drives down the road towards Valentine, around and behind the shielding protective point of a sheltering hillside,,, and a few seconds later there results a KABOOM,,,BOOM BOOM BOOM,,, so said the neighboring ranch family later.

After the blasts are over, ranch owner returns to the scene and notices several rocks scattered across the pavement, but nothing really bad enough to impeded traffic. Ranch owner feels his efforts a success as no flowing water is in evidence from THE Barrel Spring(s). Ranch owner drives down the canyon the one-half mile to his ranch headquarters house as it is lunchtime. He being from Baton Rouge, his house having had been decorated in the very finest of “southern style” by his very southern wife,,,, who is out in the front yard under the shade of a tree, shaking and crying and on the verge of being in a really bad, mad deeply disturbed mood. She hysterically screams “It was horrible !!!”. Ranch owner soon discovers there is no need to open the windows on the northside of the dwelling to ventilate the house as all the window glass is scattered shattered and splattered across the very southern decorated floor. Other damage incurred included all the windows on the east side and south side of the house, both downstairs and upstairs. The only consolation here was the southside windows were blown OUTSIDE the house as the blast wave from several 1.1 Lb sticks of nitro glycerin laden explosive had traversed thru the house also disturbing and rearranging the pristine order of 2 china and trinket cabinets and antique expensive hand cut glassware on the kitchen table. 

I was later informed the mood didn’t improve much when realizing that those specific windows, custom ordered windows, had to be imported from San Francisco or Portland or Phoenix to El Paso, Odessa and or Midland,,,,,, installation, materials, labor etc and mileage to be paid both ways to repair the result of a “fixed” problem. I think the ranch owner died and never considered a southwestern Texas desert ranch beyond his realm of comprehension. But by GADS, them cows were going to have figure out other places to water because Barrel Spring had literally been blasted to smithereens and reduced to a memory and a roadside marker.


1 comment

Richard Dunham

The ranch owner in this story was my Grandfather and I never heard anything about this event. I do remember Homer Ferguson pretty well and he was quite the huckster. I wouldn’t be surprised if this entire saga is from Homer’s very fertile imagination and an attempt to garner attention which as I recall he craved…Also, the Barrel Spring was about a mile from the ranch house and maybe more…with elevation changes, hills and outlying ranch structures and a barn between the springs and the house. That blast would have had to be a Hiroshima level explosion to have blown ranch house windows out….My Grandfather, who I loved, also had significant asthma and I never even saw him walk to the front gate of the ranch compound about 30 yards away. In a million years he wouldn’t have gone to the springs with multiple sticks of dynamite. He would have told Homer to dynamite the springs and probably would have gone for a ride on his mule “Killer.” The veracity of this story should probably be taken with a grain of salt or possibly a stick of dynamite…

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