“The Toughest Town on Earth” Eastern Newspapers called Helena. The first county seat of Karnes County, Texas founded in 1852. The town named for the wife of a founder, Lewis Owen. Helena flourished until the railroad bypassed it in 1894. After the county seat moved to Karnes City, Helena became a Ghost Town. The population is about 30 now; if you don’t count the ghosts.
Other than the ghosts of the past, Helena is known for the “Helena Duel.” It was invented by some mean hombres. Men who had a score to settle were tied at the left wrist and each wielded a razor sharp knife. The blade short so no vital organs could be punctured. Shirtless, the fighters lashed at one another until the loser begged to stop or bled to death. The local cowboys bet on the Helena Duel, like it was a cock fight.
My Great Grandfather, Dan Brown, operated one of the Helena Saloons until 1894 when the town died. That had to be a tough job! John Ruckman built a home in Helena in 1878 that is on the National Registry of Historic Places. I met Paul Ruckman, the Great Grandson of John, in Dallas in 1989. It was years later that we realized our Great Grandfathers settled the town of Helena.
The “Indian Summer Heritage Festival” is held in Helena on the last Saturday in October. Lulubelle and I will be signing books and telling stories this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Helena Courthouse Museum located at Highway 80 and FM 81 NE of Karnes City, 5 miles E of Panna Maria, Texas.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago this week; President Mirabeau Lamar arrived in the Capitol City. The townspeople waited anxiously for their President at the “Hall of Congress.” The modest wooden structure sat on a hill; at the NW corner of what is now 8th and Colorado. The covered porch of the Capitol looked down on a large clearing of land; two blocks wide and fourteen blocks long. Tree stumps cluttered the muddy ground; that would become Congress Ave.
Lamar’s architect for his new center of government; Edwin Waller and a hand full of mounted dignitaries, met his Excellency’s entourage west of town. They were led to the unpainted capitol. As the citizens cheered; a twenty-one gun salute was fired from the town’s only cannon.
After a short public ceremony, the officials proceeded to Bullocks Hotel for the official dinner. President Lamar made a toast “there has sprung up, like the work of magic, a beautiful city, whose glory is destined to overshadow the ancient magnificence of Mexico.”
My next book, Two Trails to Taos, about the story of Fayette Smith’s capture in Austin, Texas in 1841. Why did the Comanche’s take a 9 year old boy to Taos? It was simple, it was the only place with an active slave trade. The going rate for a healthy white boy at that time was $60. I found a well-written article from Adam James Jones that I would like to share with anyone interested in this bit of southwest history.
Jacob M. Harrell, early settler, was born in Tennessee in 1804. He married Mary McCutcheon and they had four kids. Harrell came to Texas in 1833. In 1836, he was one of five pioneers living at the settlement of Reuben Hornsby on the Colorado River. The Harrell family was one of the first to move to Waterloo (later Austin) in 1838. Harrell was reported to have been living near Capitol Hill when Mirabeau B. Lamar first visited the Austin area on a hunting trip. A historical marker near the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin indicates the site of his home. About 1839, Harrell established a butcher pen in Austin. In 1840, he was a member of an Austin vigilance committee and in June 1843, he represented Austin in a convention at La Grange, Fayette County, called to express dissatisfaction with the republic’s policy in the west. In March 1844, Harrell was a commissioner to sell shares in the Colorado Navigation Company. He was elected mayor of Austin in January 1847. In 1848, he moved to Round Rock, where he was listed as a blacksmith on the 1850 census. He died on August 23, 1853, at his home on Brushy Creek.
This information was taken from the New Handbook of Texas, Volume 3, Page 469.
The following poem is something I found in a barn many years ago on a feed sack. I tore it off and have since found the poem in various places; sometimes it was signed anonymous. In 1954, it was published in Songs of the Saddlemen by S. Omar Barker.
They are still appropriate rules to live by.
It don’t take such a lot of laws
To keep the rangeland straight,
Nor books to write ‘em in, because
There’s only six or eight.
The first one is the welcome sign -
True brand of western hearts:
“My camp is yours an’ yours is mine,”
In all cow country parts.
Treat with respect all womankind,
Same as you would your sister.
Take care of neighbors’ strays you find,
And don’t call cowboys “mister.”
Shut pasture gates when passin’ through;
An’ takin’ all in all,
Be just as rough as pleases you,
But never mean nor small.
Talk straight, shoot straight, and never break
Your word to man nor boss.
Plumb always kill a rattlesnake.
Don’t ride a sorebacked hoss.
It don’t take law nor pedigree
To live the best you can!
These few is all it takes to be
A cowboy – and a man!