NewsChannel 10 is introducing a new feature called 'Roadside Attractions.' Each week, NewsChannel 10's John Kanelis will feature a piece of panhandle history that's worth a second - or, third - look.
Texas covers roughly 260,000 square miles and within that vast expanse, there's a lot of history that's been written including about the windswept High Plains.
Each Texas Historical Commission marker - at least 11 in Amarillo and approaching 200 in the Panhandle - tells a story, and NewsChannel 10 is ready to share the triumphs, drama and just offbeat stories scattered throughout our own backyard.
One bit of history has fascinated me for as long as I've lived here. It's noted with a marker near the gate at Palo Duro Canyon State Park and tells the story of the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon that occurred in September 1874. Picture in your mind's eye the idea of an Army officer destroying an Indian camp and then ordering the destruction of 1,000 horses captured from the Indians by driving them over the cliffs of the canyon.
Michael Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of art for the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, is a fan.
"I am a stopper and reader of historical markers," Grauer said
The markers aren't just an exercise in storytelling.
"In our fast-paced world, we need places for quiet reflection," Grauer said. "These markers provide a place to stop and think, to eat a bologna-and-cheese sandwich and be in that spot."
Grauer said that "we did stop and see these places as kids." And, yes, he said, he would eat bologna and cheese sandwiches.
He added, "If we can stop the kids for five minutes and get their faces out of their cell phones, then we can we make them think" about the history that brought us to the present day.
It's important for students to understand their history, Grauer said, and the markers often can provide a serious teachable lesson for them. He recalled taking some students to a historical marker in Wheeler County that noted the location of Fort Elliott.
"The only law enforcement in Wheeler County was the Army," Grauer said of the period immediately after the Civil War. The fort, which has been gone for a long time, was manned by African-American soldiers who were commanded by white officers. "Many of the farmers and ranchers in the area either were former Confederate soldiers or were, quite obviously, southerners," Grauer said.
"The soldiers' main responsibility was to police the cattle rustlers," he said, "but how do you think the farmers and ranchers of that era liked taking orders from black soldiers?"
Many of the students he has taken to the Wheeler County marker are African-American, Grauer said, "and it's important for them to understand their heritage. The kids are impacted by the sight of these markers."
Grauer considers the markers a way for those who love history – as he does – to grasp a part of their "spirituality in the world. I want to touch the ground where these markers are located."
"I am not just an art guy," said Grauer, who's worked at the PPHM for nearly 30 years specializing in art. He added that he loves "to study anything involving cowboys and Indians."
So, too, does Bill Green, a retired history professor and former curator of history at PPHM.
The markers were first installed in their present form in 1962, said Green, a Canyon resident. "Texas has a long history of marking things like battlefields," Green said, explaining that the San Jacinto battlefield – for example – was marked initially in the 1840s.
Green noted that the markers aren't an "absolute protection" for a building with historical significance. "If you have a building that has a historical marker in front of it," Green said, "you're supposed to contact the state and let them know if you want to make any changes to the outside appearance of the building." He said the state has been lax in the past about enforcing those restrictions.
He also said that people are able to write their own text that would be inscribed on the markers, but the text must pass muster with the state Historical Commission. "You can arm-wrestle with the state," he said.
"I like the plaques," Green said. "They help me understand what happened at a particular location." Sometimes, though, the plaques cannot be placed at precise locations, he said. "If you have a plaque commemorating the Red River wars, and the battle is on someone's ranch, the rancher doesn't want someone trespassing on his property to look at the site," Green said. So, Green explained, the marker might be on a roadway and will "tell you that the battle site is two miles away."
Grauer called the historical markers scattered throughout the Panhandle and the rest of the state "oases where we can reflect on our past."
He said he has had a long-standing "love affair with American history, especially the history of the American West. And I love studying the Civil War. I've got a Confederate belt buckle on my desk … right next to my Fit Bit.
"Heck," he said, "I read history books for fun."