by Pete Kendall
Hood County News – December 15, 2004
PART I – STAGE PLAYS
We’ve talked about Belle Starr. You know pretty much everything we know…about Belle Starr, that is. So let’s talk about another upstanding member of the double-dealing, four-flushing 19th century confederation of crooks.
Let’s talk about Fleming Ferris (Slim) Doggett.
Stumped you, didn’t we?
According to truly fascinating data compiled by his ancestors, who have affixed it to a web site, Slim was born about Sept. 11 of 1846 and died about Oct. 28 of 1878. In between, he traveled a twisted road.
It has been fairly well substantiated that he was in cahoots with the Sam Bass Gang, which eschewed earnest labor in favor of organized thuggery. Mostly, they held up trains and stagecoaches.
They were dedicated to their craft. They pulled off seven stage heists in 1876 and four train robberies in the spring of 1878.
Sam expired on his 27th birthday, July 21 of 1878, after being ambushed by the law.
Slim made it into the fall of the same year. Before passing, he carved out a historical niche for himself by robbing the Granbury to Fort Worth stage between Benbrook and Whiskey Flats. The Texas Rangers hunted down and killed him shortly thereafter on farm property belonging to one H.C. Stephens.
You probably knew all that.
You probably knew that three members of the Bass gang, aka “The Bold Banditti,” robbed the Cleburne-Fort Worth stage four miles north of Joshua in December of 1877. The take was a cool $11.25. One of the gang members, apparently shot during the stickup, was left by Bass to die. And did.
What you probably didn’t know is this: If you lived in the sticks in days of yore and didn’t want to ride your horse, you were fairly well obligated to travel by stage. The Iron Horse didn’t come along in Central Texas till the 1880s. Neither did Trailways.
We are heartened to report there is no evidence that S. Bass, Inc., detained stagecoaches in the present southwestern Hood County. Could be they were reluctant to pillage their back yard.
We approve of this theory. There’s even a remote possibility that it’s true.
For reasons that were purely practical, The Bold Banditti hung out in the Palo Pinto Mountains roughly 10 miles from Lipan. Because of the badlands topography, they were invisible to the law.
Because of their anonymity, they came and went as they pleased, robbing when and where they liked.
Lipan was the terminus of a stagecoach line that began in the Tolar area, snaked through the present Starr Hollow Ranch near Antioch Cemetery, and crossed the great expanse of the old Black Ranch to Morgan Mill on the way to Lipan.
Part of that line is allegedly still in place…a rock structure that served as a stage stop and a marker that defined the stage trail. We don’t know this for sure, as both are on private property where we were unable to snoop.
We do have the verbal verification of Beverly Liles, and that’s more than good enough for us. Her father, John Hudson Moore, was Starr Hollow Ranch manager under Pinky Talbert and Marvin Leonard. Beverly lived there from 1958 to 1972.
“I remember going down to the creek one day and picking up some purple pottery,” she said. “I had a history teacher later on who wanted to know if any of us had found different things. I took the pottery to school, and the teacher said it was from Old Mexico.
“He said somebody had to have traded it for it to be in this area. It possibly belonged to somebody on the stagecoach. Some of our neighbors came over one Sunday afternoon, and we walked down to the waterfall. A woman said, ‘I’ll show you where that stagecoach building used to sit.’ It was near the waterfall.
“One day, I went down there with a shovel and raked in that area and dug up a piece of chain and some pottery and a button. The chain was rusty. I took the button back to the house to show my grandmother. I said, ‘This is the strangest looking button.’ She said, ‘I can tell you what that button was on, long john underwear.’”
There was visible evidence of stagecoach wheels, she said.
“There were ruts that went up by the waterfall,” she said. “The ruts were in the ground. When we lived there, the grass didn’t grow where the ruts were.”
The site must have been breathtaking…hauntingly so.
“Before I found the pottery, I turned and looked on the hillside, and there were five to eight rocks standing on end where the stage line would have come around. It gave me an eerie feeling, like they were headstones. It didn’t look natural for all those rocks to be sitting up, kind of looking at you.”
One Starr Hollow stagecoach rock, shaped like a medicine ball but about twice the size, migrated down the road at some point in the last century to Tolar. It’s lodged in grass on the Head estate. It would take a mighty strong wind to move it.
Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr
Belle Starr, 1848 – 1889, The Bandit Queen
PART II – BELLE’S HIDEOUT
If the Tolar-Lipan stage line ever had a name, it’s gone with the wind…like the stage itself. We know where it went, through Starr Hollow and Morgan Mill. We don’t know much else, and we’d certainly like to…so please call or write.
Thank goodness for John and Beverly Liles and folklore passed down by Beverly’s father, John Hudson Moore.
“The only thing I ever heard Beverly’s daddy call it was Antioch Stage Road,” John, Beverly’s husband, said. “Starr Hollow must have been the Antioch stop. Starr Hollow wasn’t far from Antioch.”
What does this have to do with short-lived stagecoach robbers Fleming Ferris (Slim) Doggett and Sam Bass?
It links them, however tenuously, to the lady for whom Starr Hollow was presumably named, a horse-trading swindler named Belle. She dwelled part-time in the Palo Pinto Mountains near Lipan. And she apparently spent considerable time in western Hood County, very near Starr Hollow.
We printed that rumor previously. Thankfully, Beverly and John Liles confirmed it.
“My father said he was building a fence one summer with an older Spanish gentleman from the Black Ranch,” Beverly said. “They were building fence between the two ranches. When they got to a particular area, the Spanish gentleman told my father, ‘I want to show you something.’
“And he took my dad over to the Black Ranch side and showed him a little hideout, dug out of a hill. He told dad, ‘That’s where Belle Starr hid out and was supposed to have lived.’ Dad said the Spanish gentleman had worked on the Black Ranch for a long time.”
John Liles said Beverly’s father guided him to the hideout in the mid ’70s.
“We were out checking cattle in a pasture on the borderline of the Black Ranch, and he told me, ‘I want to show you something.’ We crawled across the fence and walked about 100 feet. He showed me the site. He said, ‘This was one of Belle Starr’s hideouts when she was in this part of the country.’
“It was maybe 10 x 14 feet, dug out of the side of the hill, with a lot of rotted wood that looked like it might have been sideboards of a house. It might have been some split mesquite or cedar logs. There had probably been a lean-to on the front.
“The dugout faced south. There wasn’t anything elaborate about it. It was maybe three feet at its deepest. It could have been deeper than that at one time and just washed back in off the hill. You could tell it had been there for quite some time.
“To dig out that hill, someone would have needed a pick and shovel and a lot of sweat. It could have been there before Belle Starr got there. It’s north of Starr Creek and east of the Antioch Stage Road. I would think it’s still there if they haven’t done any bulldozer work on that hill.”
John Hudson Moore placed Belle within shouting distance of Starr Hollow. He also placed her in metropolitan Tolar.
“Dad said she robbed a lot of chicken houses to survive,” Beverly said. “The people in the Tolar area knew that she lived around there and robbed the chicken houses. And if she didn’t, she got the blame for it.”
The Tolar-Starr Hollow neighborhood grew relatively sedate after the chicken thieves moved on.
History thrives, of course.
“Dad was raised around Abilene and came to work at Starr Hollow Ranch when Mr. Talbert bought it,” Beverly said.
“Mr. Talbert fell in love with Starr Hollow ranch as a boy and hoped one day he could buy it. That was his dream. He hired Dad to manage it in 1958. We moved there when I was six.
“I was a freshman in high school when Mr. Leonard bought it (1966). The very next summer, he built the golf course. We raked it and swept it and picked up every piece of trash on it. We thought we were really in high cotton because he paid us minimum wage. Kids back then didn’t make minimum wage.”
Beverly and sisters Pearl, Gayle and Mary usually had an opportunity to quench a thirst when Mr. Marvin, as he was known, drove down from Fort Worth.
“Mr. Leonard was very nice to us. He would pull up to the house and say, ‘Girls, I’ve got Coca-Cola in the backseat.’ We’d get Coca-Colas. He told Dad when he bought the ranch that it was just a big toy for him. He said he’d never had a ranch or anything like that. He was a golf course man.
“He and Dad had several discussions about the ranch. Mr. Leonard wanted to put cows in the barn when it snowed. Dad told him, ‘No, the feed is in the barn, and the cows stay in the pasture.’ Mr. Leonard was concerned about the animals.
“About every two weeks, he would come out to the house he’d built at Starr Hollow. When the golf course was being built, he came out very often. He took an active role in that. He was there to see if it was going the way he wanted it to, but he was a laid-back guy. I don’t think he was ever demanding.
“He talked to Dad one time about the store (Leonard Brothers) and how he and his brother started out with tubs of nails and buckets of hardware supplies and started selling them out on the sidewalk.”
Fishing was among the Moore family’s favorite Starr Hollow pursuits.
“My mother (Virginia Moore) loved to fish,” Beverly said. “If we got everything done early in the morning, she might say, ‘Girls, we’re going fishing today.’ And we’d go to the tanks and fish.
“On Sunday afternoons, we might bring some kids home from church with us and then go hiking. We would hike up and down the creeks. Mom would go with us. We couldn’t get away from her, because there might be a rattlesnake. And there were several out there.”
To a youth, Starr Hollow must have seemed a million miles from nowhere.
“The thing that fascinated me most was being out away from everybody and nobody realizing how far out in the country we lived,” Beverly said. “You always knew when somebody was coming at night. You could hear them coming down the gravel road from the time they drove in the front gate.
“The first thing you’d do was look for the lights to see if they were coming to the house.”
Her mother looked searched for artifacts, Beverly said.
“She was always looking for something when we walked those creeks. She said she never found anything. But there was one piece she picked up out of our garden one year. It was silverish. It looked like a concho off a U.S. Cavalry saddlebag. The emblem was an eagle with an arrow in the claw.
“Every time we’d go to a museum, I’d look for that emblem. I finally found a saddlebag with the same emblem at Fort Belknap.”
What creatures lurk at Starr Hollow?
Big fish. Critters big and small. Perhaps a ghost.
Anyone seen Belle Starr?