The Last Buffalo

NOTE: This story is somewhat of a continuation of The Day the Mules Went Crazy. To read that story first, click on the name of the story.

As I had mentioned before, my dad made a living as much from buying, selling and trading cattle as he did from raising them. After all, one cow produces only one calf each year and with the going price of no more than about five dollars per head being paid for beef on the hoof during the depression, it left most ranchers with a lot of time and reasons to look elsewhere for income.

The oil boom was over but it had left in its wake dozens of small company camps scattered all over the Panhandle. Only the people who worked for oil companies lived in these company-owned towns. While many of these refinery towns were large enough to qualify as small cities, due to fact that the oil company owned both the land and buildings, few people were willing take the risk of investing their hard-earned money in a business there. Occasionally, one would find a small store selling basic needs, but finding a butcher shop with fresh meat was almost impossible. About the only time that people in those camps could buy fresh beef was when they came to town. With people being able to get to town only once every week or two and so few of them owning refrigerators, fresh beef was seldom found on their tables.

In a day when the expression, "Turning handsprings for hotcakes" had a real meaning, my dad and uncle decided that what was needed to serve all these camps was a traveling butcher shop. There should be a sure market for anyone willing to sell fresh beef door to door in these towns. Besides, it would be a way to get rid of yearling calves which were almost worthless.

They bought an old ice truck, bolted a butcher block to the floor in the back and started the only traveling butcher shop in the Panhandle. It didn't take long before the housewives in those camps knew their schedule and were always waiting for the traveling butcher shop to arrive. They soon found that they could leave home in the morning with a whole beef and return with an empty truck that afternoon. With steaks selling for about fifteen cents a pound and roasts a dime, a fair size yearling worth only five or six dollars on the hoof would bring in thirty to forty when butchered and sold over the chopping block. It wasn't long before they had used up all of the butchering-size cattle on the ranch and my dad had to spend a lot of time out buying yearlings from other small ranchers.

It was along about this time when my dad learned that the Army had decided to close Fort Reno near Oklahoma City and was going to sell the last herd of government-owned buffalo at an auction at Arnette, Oklahoma. How the government came to own the last remaining buffalo is typical of most of the things that the Army did when it was trying to drive all the Indians back to reservations that had been established for them in the Oklahoma Territory. The Indians didn't really like the idea of the white man telling them where to live so a large number of them headed for the Texas Panhandle where the few remaining buffalo still roamed across the grassy plains. The Army figured that instead of hunting down the Indians, if they killed off all the remaining buffalo, the Indians would starve and have to go back to the reservation where the government would feed them. Between the bounty that the Army put on the buffalo and the demand for buffalo hides, perhaps a million of the beasts were gunned down and their carcasses left to rot on the plains.

Also, as is usual with military thinking, they decided to keep a few buffalo around so they could show what a great job they had done in eliminating an entire species of animals. They sent most of the men at the fort out to round up any remaining buffalo and drive them to Fort Reno. Besides, they certainly didn't want to leave any buffalo roaming across the Texas Panhandle in case the Indians tried to return. They were able to find only a couple dozen animals still alive. With no one shooting at them and plenty grass to eat, the herd increased slowly until sixty years later, they numbered more than three hundred. Few people realize that every American buffalo alive today came from those few animals that the Army rounded up and moved to Fort Reno.

With the depression bearing down on military budgets, the Army decided that they needed to spend their money on guns, tanks and other equally efficient methods of breaking things and killing people more than taking care of a few shaggy old buffalo. As a cost-cutting measure, some General decided to auction off the critters to people who seemed willing to buy most anything at a government auction.

On the appointed day of the sale, my dad, my uncle and I left well before sunrise in order to get there before the bidding began. For the life of me, I will never understand why they wanted to drive all the way to Oklahoma and spend good money to buy something as worthless as a buffalo. Even at my youthful age, I could fathom no reason why any normal person would want to buy something that even the government considered to be worthless.

When the sale was over, my dad was the proud owner of a seven hundred pound buffalo bull for which he had bid twenty-five dollars. This was at least five times what a cow of the same weight would bring at auction. The only remaining task was to get the thing back home. We were in our pickup truck which had sideboards on it for hauling cattle, but it seems that while buffalo and cattle might appear similar in many ways, there is a considerable difference in temperament. As soon as they loaded the critter into the back of the pickup, it leaped right out over the front, onto the cab and back on the ground. Fortunately, the loading chute was inside of the cattle pens and it didn't escape.

They tied a bunch of boards on top of the sideboards and backed up to the chute once again. They jumped the buffalo back into the pickup and when it found that there was no escape, it began to try to turn the pickup over by crashing against first one side and then the other. About the only thing which saved a total disaster was the fact that there was not enough room for the buffalo to get up a good head of steam before he hit the sideboards. After about an hour of thrashing, snorting and pawing, it finally settled down a bit and we left for home. Every now and then it would decide to throw another fit which would nearly turn us over, so we had to drive about twenty miles an hour all the way back to Stinnett.

It was along about midnight when we finally got home and they very wisely decided that the safest thing to do was leave the buffalo in the pickup until morning. When daylight came, the beast seemed to have calmed down considerably because it just stood there and glared at us. Convinced that the buffalo was now more or less tame, they backed up to the loading chute, opened the back gate and turned it loose in the corral. It hit the ground, lowered its head, gave a snort and crashed right through the corral fence which in the past, had been strong enough to stop any number of charging bulls.

Then the buffalo went totally berserk. First, it charged after my dad and uncle who took refuge in the cab of the pickup. I don't know if it knew that they were inside or could see its reflection in the paint on the door, but it began attacking the pickup from all sides, putting dents in just about every piece of sheet metal on it. Unable to vent its pent-up anger on them, it turned its attention to whatever was closest. It knocked the door off the barn and chased our saddle horse out of the corral. It leveled the chicken house and sent a couple dozen old hens flying and squawking. It scared the milk cow so bad that she jumped into the water tank and didn't give a drop of milk for the next four days. With nothing else left standing for it to attack, the buffalo lowered its head and charged toward the house. It was obvious that the buffalo's intention was to turn the house into kindling, so my dad grabbed his Winchester and pumped four 30-30 slugs into it. The buffalo dropped dead with its head only inches from our back door. Now, they had a dead, twenty-five dollar buffalo on their hands.

Always being one to recognize and seize an opportunity, they butchered the buffalo, hung its head on the front of the old ice truck and set out on their meat route the next morning. Even though most people would say that buffalo meat is not nearly as good as a tender steak, they priced it at twenty-five cents a pound. They sold out of buffalo meat before they were out of town and other people who had heard about it were waving them down to buy some.

Faced with such a monumental success, they couldn't give up on a good thing simply because they had sold all of the meat from that one buffalo. Since they had killed the last buffalo in the Panhandle and there were no more to be found, they did the next best thing. Under the assumption that the average person couldn't tell the difference between buffalo meat and mule meat, they butchered those two bronc mules and sold them as buffalo. By the time that they had satisfied the demand of the citizens of the Panhandle for buffalo meat, they had sold nearly a ton of it, all from one seven hundred pound buffalo.


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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman