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As a Texas Ranger, Brooks ...
As a Texas Ranger, Brooks participated in the high profile events of his day, from the fence-cutting wars to the El Paso prizefight, from the Conner Fight-where he lost three fingers from his left hand-to the Temple rail strike, all with a resolute demeanor and a fast gun. A shoot-out in Indian Territory nearly cost him his life and then jeopardized his career, and a lifelong bout with old Kentucky bourbon did the same. With three other distinguished Ranger captains, Brooks witnessed and helped promote the transformation of the elite Frontier Battalion into the Ranger Force. As a state legislator, he brokered the creation of a South Texas county that bears his name today, and where he served for twenty-eight years as county judge. He was the quintessential enforcer of frontier justice, scars and all.
OLD KENTUCKY HOME
My father having gone to his final rest, my mother was left in the midst of that great struggle with six daughters and two little boys.
John Strode Brooks stood at the corner post of his new property, surveying a portion of the 247 acres of Kentucky bluegrass he had recently purchased. A tributary of Houston Creek flowed easily along its rocky bed through the eastern acreage. A stand of maple trees promised maple syrup the next season, a rolling field just past the grove looked favorable for summer corn, and an apple orchard would complete the annual harvest.
The pike road that connected tiny Paris to the growing town of Lexington drew one line for his land, a small road that wound northward along the Fayette- Bourbon county border marked another. New neighbors included Aaron and Mary Smedley, John Giltner just across the pike road, Frank and Nancy Willmott, Joshua and Rachel Corbin to the north, and the James Baggs family on the southern boundary. The main house would go there, he pointed up the pike, and the slave quarters in the hollow not far from the corral and barns.
The main house would need plenty of bedrooms: his five girls could share part of the upstairs, and the child now on the way and expected in the fall would inherit the crib three-year-old Fannie had just vacated. Annie would turn sixteen soon; Jennie, Addie, and Sallie rounded out the bunch. Dr. Brooks's wife Mary Jane had her hands full even with Annie's help and the slave Old Mary at her side.
The small village of Hutchinson stood less than a mile north on the pike road, where a smithy and a general store complemented the Presbyterian Church and two schools. A seven-mile carriage ride beyond took the family into Paris and over to Uncle Samuel Brooks's estate, and it was not much farther south into Lexington. The move over from Winchester in Clark County, the old homestead where John Brooks had grown up, would be well worth the effort: Bourbon County in 1855 needed another physician and Doc Brooks looked forward to opening his practice here.
The doctor's sixth child and first son, James Abijah, was born on November 20, 1855, in the new home on the Lexington Pike Road. "Being the sixth child and the first boy to arrive in that family," Brooks recalled later, "I believe that I was a little bit spoiled. Later there was another girl (Lillie Belle) and then my little brother came named John Jr. I was christened James Abijah, but called Bud for short."
Bud's first six years were filled with the delights of living in the rolling splendor of the Inner Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky. Eight slaves handled the chores around the estate, and "Old Ned" was generally assigned the duty of keeping up with the rambunctious eldest son. "There was [also] Old Mary and Little Mary, a boy [Adam] my age who was my playmate, Henry (Hen for short), Big Ben and his wife and daughter," Brooks remembered. "There was another Negro slave, Bad Charley, but he ran away and we were glad about that." Life was carefree, food was plentiful, and the joys of wandering the rolling hills or riding the thoroughbred horses kept young James outdoors even through the bitter winter months.
The family regularly attended the Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hutchinson, and Dr. Brooks maintained a high degree of respectability throughout the community. The U.S. Census in 1860 recorded the eight-member family on the pike road near Morelands Post Office, the estate and property valued at $33,000, considerable for that area. Daughter Addie married Charles Throckmorton on October 24, 1861, and the eldest, Annie, married James Henry Kerr on January 16, 1862. It was a joyous time for the Brooks family.
A 1938 interview with James Brooks reveals more of his childhood story. "When eight years of age, Jim would take old Red and Buck, two oxen, hitched to a sled and haul fodder in over snow-covered fields. In the spring, when the sap began to flow, he would press old Red and Buck into service again, bringing the sap in from the maple trees, where it then went through the various stages of cooking necessary for the finished product."
That world changed forever with the coming of the Civil War. Kentucky wrestled with its decision whether to leave the Union, and President Lincoln fought to hold on to the border state. On December 10, 1861, a rebel government formed in Kentucky to join the Confederacy, but Union troops came in the spring and the Bluegrass State remained under tight control throughout the war.
Confederate General John Hunt Morgan's Raiders rolled through Kentucky in July and September of 1862, but the South's defeat at Perryville in October forced Gen. Braxton Bragg's troops back into Tennessee. Morgan made two more entries into the state, including the famous Christmas Raid of 1862, but the Union's Home Guard First and Second Kentucky Brigades kept Kentucky in the fold for the remainder of the war.
And the tragedy of war came to the very doorstep of the Brooks estate. Dr. Brooks worked at the hospitals established in and around Lexington from the first days that some of the 4,900 casualties arrived from a battle fought around Richmond, Kentucky, in August 1862. As the Perryville wounded replaced those, and the Christmas Raid sent more ambulances their way, the exhausted physicians and their staffs worked around the clock and into the new year. The sixty-year- old Brooks rarely saw his home or family, and wore himself to the point of being hospitalized himself in the spring. On April 3, 1863, John Strode Brooks succumbed to the deadly pace that had been set before him months earlier by the war. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery the next day, his pregnant widow and the older children there to bid him goodbye.
"My father having gone to his final rest," James Brooks wrote years later, "my mother was left in the midst of that great struggle with six daughters and two little boys [John Clarence was born in October], and a number of Negro slaves to provide for. Harsh and wild was living in those trying days.
"Some days even parched corn was pretty good. Then when the old Negro slaves found a fat possum and could by foraging bring in a few yellow yams, we had a feast fit for a king.
"Our clothes were about gone when we found the old spinning wheel and loom our grandparents had brought to old Kentucky. I can see my old grandmother [Elizabeth Strode Kerr, Mary Jane's widowed mother and related through the Strodes and the Kerrs by marriage] sitting by the fireside carding thread into clothes. And the slaves in their homespun as the wolf was howling at our door."
Brooks recalled how the good times quickly disappeared and then the Yankees came to the Pike Road homestead. "We could always depend on the old Negro Mary, to my mind she was a Queen, now with her planning and canning our larders were soon full again, cellars too with apples and apple cider. We had livestock, too, sheep, horses, and cattle, and we hoped not to be molested, but being near the dead line, Masons and Dixons, our first great trouble was soon upon us.
"John Morgan was a rebel captain, a dare devil, too, who dared to cross into Ohio, a Union state. But he did not stay long and retreated back through Kentucky." This was most likely Morgan's raid in June 1864, which went up through Cynthiana and then was driven back south by Union Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge's Ohio and Kentucky troops. Morgan escaped but suffered nearly 1,000 casualties in his fighting retreat through the Bluegrass region. The Yankees chased the remnants of the rebel raiders right down the pike road from Paris and through Lexington.
Here is how Brooks described it in his memoirs: "It was after Midnight [June 12, 1864], when among the Negroes there was a great commotion. Old Negro Ned came to my bed, watchful over me because he loved me, in my night gown he took me down towards the old turnpike. We then learned of Capt. Morgan's skedaddling. Back to bed he took me, but the excitement was too great, I could not sleep. Justbefore sunrise the Yankees were there close on the heels of our Kentucky Rebel Captain. On the front gate post Ned sat me—'twas my first view of the Union soldiers.
"A little later one of the Yankees left the line and said, 'Here is one damned little Rebel I will capture.' I fell from the post which left several bruises, and I have hated the blue coat ever since. As Ned took me back to hide behind the corral we saw the flames and smoke go up from [Jacoby's] bridge to the south, and we all knew that Capt. Morgan's retreat was a success, that the Union artillery could not cross the river and its quicksand bottom.
"The Union soldiers looking for a place to camp until such time they could resume their march, there being a large fish pond on our farm, and the Yankees learning that there was a well of cool freestone water in our yard, they established camp and the officers were guests for some days. Our larders were full and a large two story brick house for the officers' quarters, and Negro slaves to look after their wants, that tired and famished hoard of Union soldiers seemed content, but watchful. For they knew that the wily daredevil rebel Captain was not far away.
"I will say that every courtesy and consideration possible was extended to my mother and sisters, even though they had played havoc with our larders, pig stys [sic], ham roasts, ducks and geese. They foraged for miles around. When they were preparing to resume their march, it was anguish almost unbearable for us to watch one of those officers mounted on our favorite thoroughbred horse, his horse having gone lame.
"Well, there were the old oxen Buck and Red and two old brood mares left, which was some consolation, for with them the good old Negroes could continue to sow and reap such crops as were grown at that time." The slaves remained with the family after the war ended, and the young boy Adam who had grown up with Brooks later became a famous race horse jockey in Kentucky. "When the Yankees came through they killed and ate all of our sheep. But they couldn't eat the wool, so some of the slaves took the wool, carded it, spun it into thread, and wove the cloth for my first pair of long pants."
The war left the Brooks estate behind by the end of the summer of 1864, and by the following spring the contest had given way to the pangs of Reconstruction. James Kerr aided the widow Mary Jane Brooks in the efforts to file the estate records after her husband's death; in February 1864, the first of several extracts was filed dividing the homestead in sections and selling off a number of parcels in order to pay for the restoration of the family's war-ravaged possessions. The slaves were distributed among the heirs, and several of them stayed with their respective family members after they had been freed in 1865.
The 1870 census shows the reduced homestead valued at $9,600. Still, Brooks remembered, "I will say that our family and many others that I knew were fully compensated for the destruction and havoc wrought [by the war]."
But Reconstruction proved harsh and dangerous still. "Then came Reconstruction days, with the advent of the carpetbaggers, the renegades, there was still something to fear. Then the Ku Klux Klan mounted on their fiery chargers, robed and masked in pure white, a sight to behold, for riding in the moonlight they struck terror to the minds of men."
In the midst of war and its ravages, young James managed to attend school at least part time, though he admitted it was never his choice compared to being outdoors hunting and fishing. "My schooling began during my seventh year  in a little red brick schoolhouse [Hutchinson Academy] about a mile away from home. Miss Julia Davenport was my first teacher, God bless her, for to me that first day she was great, and her name through my long life never forgotten."
But much more interesting was his world outside the schoolhouse. "In my early teens I was a great lover of fishing and hunting, and our Christmas visits to my old grand mother's mountain home in the hills on the banks of the Kentucky River were always wonderful trips. I killed my first pheasant there, and bob whites and gray squirrels and other game were in abundance, all the sport that a boy in his teens could stand."
In fact, the desire for a shotgun of his own led James Brooks down an interesting path in a deal cut with his mother the year he turned fourteen. "The Christmas holidays were over and my good Presbyterian Mother said to me, 'My dear boy, I want you to read the Bible through this year: three chapters a day and five on Sunday, and a $65 shotgun is yours when you finish.' The trade was made and the next Christmas the double barreled shotgun was mine, for I read more than five chapters on Sundays as an excuse to stay at home."
James continued his schooling until he was seventeen, taking more responsibility for the family still there on the pike road. Everyone in the immediate clan survived the cholera epidemic in 1873, but many in Paris and across Bourbon County lost their lives. Sister Jennie married Matthew Kenney, a wealthy landowner and neighbor, in 1867, and Fannie, three years older than James and his closest sibling, married Will Morgan in 1874 and also left the household, leaving only Sallie and the two younger ones to watch over. "Hunting and fishing in those mountain streams was all that a boy could desire, with the chestnuts, walnut and hickory trees in spring bloom, the pawpaw, persimmon and other wild fruits in abundance: why should a boy's mind not be satisfied?
"But I longed for the wide open spaces," Brooks answered his own question. "Having heard tales of the great cattle hands and cattle trails of Texas, my mind was made up when I was twenty-one. At a Christmas meal with the gathered family, I bid all good-bye. Even my boyhood sweetheart could not hold me back." With only a single suitcase in hand, James Brooks boarded a train out of Lexington, made his way to Chicago and then south to Texas, arriving in the Lone Star State on January 1, 1877.
"I stepped off the train at a little backwoods town, McKinney. I had at last landed away out in the great west, renowned for its open spaces, where every young man could have a chance, and a square deal, too: Texas at that time was renowned for greatness far and wide.
"I stopped in Collin County to see a cousin in law, Joseph Darnall, and his family. Cousin Joe was not only a successful farmer but arenowned backwoods preacher of the Christian faith, a Campbellite. He was a graduate of the University of Virginia who had courted and married my cousin Mollie Thomas."
Mary Elizabeth "Mollie" Kerr Thomas's mother was sister to James's mother. Mollie's father, John W. Thomas, was a prominent tobacco farmer and justice of the peace in Bourbon County.
The Darnalls settled in Collin County after the Civil War, establishing the community of Cottage Hill northwest of McKinney, raising seven children of their own in addition to bringing in the homeless on many occasions, and organizing several Christian congregations and schools in that area. They brought two young ex-slaves to Texas with them, only to have the Ku Klux Klan appear at their door one night and escort the couple away to Dallas; the couple eventually fled to California.
"I was again ushered into a hunter's paradise. The bobwhite and the prairie chicken were in abundance, and it was a great treat for my relatives to have a real hunter as their guest, for I brought in all the game needed by them and many of their neighbors."
The young boarder stayed with the Darnalls into the spring, attending the Corinth Presbyterian Church nearby where his cousin preached. There he met families, and men and women his own age, whom he would befriend for the next two years, including the Mason Webster family from Kentucky who lived on the Darnall spread, the Hubbards, and the large Fox family. He met Joe Case and his daughter Ida, Jim Knighton and John Ousley, and Ben Wills.
Excerpted from Captain J. A. Brooks by Paul N. Spellman. Copyright © 2007 Paul N. Spellman. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Historical facts told in an excellent story that makes putting the book down impossible. This and his book about Captain John H. Rogers, Texas Ranger are must reads for anyone wanting the true feel of this great period in Texas history.
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