- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Louis Fairchild
Texas A&M; University Press, $29.95, 323 pages

The great Western films conveyed the loneliness of frontier life just about right. They did it by showing the illimitable spaces, the sparseness of population and the often great distances that separated homestead from homestead or one ranch from the next.
After a neighbor drops a letter by the home of a settler in John Ford's "The Searchers," the settler, who had received another one several months earlier, exclaims to his wife in utter amazement, "Two letters in one year, by golly!"
The scene provokes laughter, but it also gives pause. Would we be able to endure the isolation our ancestors experienced daily when they moved beyond settled areas and cut themselves off totally from family and friends and the life they'd known before?
Loneliness is the subject of Louis Fairchild's superb "The Lonesome Plains." Mr. Fairchild, who is a professor of psychology at West Texas A & M University, in this book uses none of the jargon of his specialty. Nor does he put the frontiersmen and their wives he writes about on the couch or spin idle theories about their mental makeup.
Rather, he wisely allows them to speak for themselves, making deft use of journals, letters, interviews, and much else to tell the story of the surpassing loneliness of plains life and how folks learned (or didn't learn) to cope with it.
Mr. Fairchild's sources come from West Texas and the Texas Panhandle and from everywhere the Great Plains stretched. They include regular ranchhands and hardworking women, but from time to time he springs on readers a name most everyone knows, quoting about how painfully lonely was the late, great Sam Rayburn, a colorful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the ablest of American politicians in the mid-20th century.
"Many a time when I was a child and lived 'way out' in the country," Rayburn told an interviewer in 1942, "I'd sit on the fence and wish to God that somebody would ride by on a horse or drive by in a buggy." Rayburn then warned: "Loneliness consumes people. It kills 'em eventually. God help the lonely."
Some people just gave up. On a board nailed to the front door of an abandoned log cabin in Blanco County, Tex., in 1886 a passerby noticed a sign that read:
250 miles to nearest post office
100 miles to wood
20 miles to water
6 inches to hell
God bless our home
Gone to live with the wife's folks.
Others found ways to cope. Texas frontierswoman Temple Ann Ellis, for instance, befriended the cows: "Believe it or not, I have found myself seeking the company of cattle," she wrote late in life. "I would go out to the watering places and stroll among them touching them, rubbing their hips, talking to them about their calves, asking questions which I knew they couldn't answer. Their contentment though served as balm to my tense nerves."
Ellis was lucky she had her herd. Other women suffered enormously from the isolation, more so that the average man, Mr. Fairchild shows. "Men like it out here and don't go crazy," but "women don't, and they go loco from pure lonesome," was an observation made by Paul Patterson, recalling a covered-wagon boyhood in early 20th century West Texas.
Cowboys weren't always happy, far from it. They grumbled that they had to work from "can't see to can't see," meaning from predawn to after dusk. Winters were cold and summers hot and dry. The work dangerous. The author cites several sad tales of the men being crushed beneath their fallen horses.
The loneliness, the hard work, the endlessness of the plains brought many to God. "The loneliness of the high sky makes men see God," observed the great Texas writer A.C. Greene. Ramon F. Adams, that great collector of cowboy and Western lore, observed that the average cowhand was no regular churchgoer, "but in his own way he knew God had something to do with nature … it was hard for 'im to disbelieve in some higher Bein' didn't have somethin' to do with the creation of things."
But loneliness and the big spaces could also have the opposition result. Mr. Fairchild quotes the eloquent A.C. Abbott who lost a beloved older brother in southeastern Nebraska in the early 1870s. Abbott claimed that death made him an infidel. He believed God should have prevented his brother's terrible death. He told family and friends, "I'll never go in one of your damn churches again."
"After you come into contact with nature you get all that stuff knocked out of you praying to God for aid, divine Providence and so on because it don't work," Abbott said to an interviewer. "Talk about trusting in Providence, hell, if I'd trusted in Providence I'd have starved to death."
Still, the one sure way to break the monotony of plains life was for people to get together and the best frontier get-togethers were camp meetings. Mr. Fairchild traces camp meetings back to an 1800 revival at Gasper River, Ky. By the late 19th century on the Great Plains they were "half revival and half vacation," a coming together most often of 25 or 50 settlers, but sometimes many more, who came from miles around and camped together for several days at a time.
The camp meetings were big social events, a way to diminish the loneliness. "They'd just visit all to pieces," before and after the preaching, recalled one participant. Food was devoured and friendships cemented among men and women unlikely to see one another until the next camp meeting.
Singing was a great event, with hymns such as "Blessed Assurance" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" among the most popular. Singers would get so caught up in their singing that they might not even be singing the same song as the person standing next to them.
Older men and women would keep a look out for "buggy-riding or skylarkin'" on the part of the young. But the most watchful eyes faltered and nine months later a crop of what were called "woods colts" made their appearances. "A common accusation was that as many souls were likely conceived or 'begotten' at a camp meeting as were saved," writes Mr. Fairchild, "and as late as 1946 the phrase 'camp-meeting babies' still persisted in East Texas."
But for most folks at the meetings, they were "Truly a siege of feasting for the soul," in the poetic words of one content and happy camper. There were also lone cowboy preachers on horseback who would make their appearances at isolated ranches. The preachers would stay a few days and neighboring ranchers would come over for a visit.
Sometimes the cowboy preacher would have books to sell the most common being Bunyon's "Pilgrim's Progress." The cowboys had their own special vision of heaven that included golden spurs and "green pastures and rolling hills where cattle graze untouched by adversity."
The cowboy preachers denounced men and women "tainted by the mange of sin." They likened the agonies of death to the milling and anxiousness of nervous cattle just before a stampede. Even more eloquently, they saw the human body divested of the soul as a "shriveled thing like a camp cook's curled bacon."
The cowboys spent their lives on the range, but sometimes they didn't want to spend eternity there. In the familiar, beautiful ballad asks, the singer pleads: "O bury me not on the lone prairie … . Where the buffalo paws o'er a prairie sea."
Perhaps they felt the loneliness of an earthly life didn't have to be followed by a lonely hereafter. But other cowboys welcomed the thought of their bones mixing with the land they knew so well.
"My home is the saddle/ My roof the sky; / The prairies I'll ride / Til the day that I die," ran another song. "I'll live on the prairie / Til life shall have passed / And lie down to sleep / In her bosom at last."
The Lonesome Plains is never flashy, but it's a powerful book that quietly and slowly penetrates deeply into the reader's soul and brings vividly to life a bit of American history that isn't so long gone.

Stephen Goode is a senior writer for Insight magazine.

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