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Ever wondered what it was like to be in Cross Plains during Robert E. Howard’s time? There are a few glimpses in his fiction and letters, but for the most part Howard is pretty quite about life in that Central Texas town. When he does comment, we only see what he wants us to see, and I think we can agree that sometimes his observations were a tad shy of objective.
One of my favorite things about Howard Days is getting the chance to talk to the old-timers in Cross Plains about life in the 1930s and ‘40s, and even the ‘50s. Before they passed away, Alton and Joan McCowan provided a wealth of local color. Norris Chambers, too, is a hoot to talk to, and full of stories about Cross Plains and Doc Howard. And once you get Jack Baum going, he’s got plenty of interesting tales to tell. Listening to them all talk is like eating a large pizza with everything on it: you never know what taste you’re going to get with each bite. Their stories ramble around from this person’s home to that person’s business and back and forth in time. One minute you’re hearing about Joe Smith’s meat-packing business in the ‘50s and the next you’re hearing about someone’s grandma churning butter in the ‘30s.
James W. Nichols has managed to capture the feel of those conversations in his 2003 book On the Banks of Turkey Creek. Nichols’ book recounts his childhood years in Cross Plains, and all the stories he heard while growing up. There’s lots of Cross Plains history and yarns from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Born in 1945, Nichols doesn’t have a lot to say about Howard or his family (and when he does mention Howard he gets some of the facts wrong), but he has plenty of local color for Howard and Cross Plains enthusiasts. Howard’s friends, Lindsey Tyson and Dave Lee, are mentioned a few times.
Besides the stories, Nichols gives readers a tour of Cross Plains in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. He notes the names of businesses, what they used to be and what they are today, as well as what they were before his time. And he rambles all over the place from Cross Plains to Pioneer and Cottonwood to Rising Star: it’s just like listening to an old-timer in front of the Howard House.
Nichols’ prose is not polished, it sounds just like he’s talking to readers. And there are many typos in the text, at least in my copy, which is “1stBooks – rev. 02/28/03,” so maybe there are cleaned up “revisions” out there. But for Howard fans who are interested in Cross Plains, the book is well worth the read.
Copies are available on Amazon and at the Cross Plains Public Library.