On the southern portion of what was known as the Sibley’s Pezuna del Caballo (Horse’s Hoof) Ranch in West Texas’ Culberson County are two mountains that nearly meet, forming a gap that frames a salt flat where Indians and later, pioneers came to gather salt to preserve foodstuffs. According to the US Geological Survey, the gap that provides this breathtaking and historic view is named “Jane’s Window.”
In Jane’s Window: My Spirited Life in West Texas and Austin, Jane Dunn Sibley, the inimitable namesake of that mountain gap, gives readers a similarly enchanting view: she tells the story of a small-town West Texas girl coming into her own in Texas’ capital city, where her commitment to philanthropy and the arts and her flair for fashion—epitomized by her signature buzzard feather—have made her name a society staple.
Growing up during the Depression in Fort Stockton, Jane Sibley learned first-hand the value of hard work and determination. In what she describes as “a more innocent age,” she experienced the “pleasant life” of a rural community with good schools, friends and neighbors, and daily dips in the Comanche Springs swimming pool. She arrived as a student at the University of Texas only ninety days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and studied art under such luminaries as sculptor Charles Umlauf. Her enchanting stories of returning to Fort Stockton, working in the oil industry, marrying local doctor D. J. Sibley, and rearing a family evoke both her love for her origins and her clear-eyed aspirations.
The Sibleys never discussed the details of their good fortune, and, to their gratitude, no one ever asked. In Jane’s Window, Sibley narrates travel adventures, shares vignettes of famous visitors, and tells of her favorite causes, among which the Austin Symphony and the preservation of lower Pecos prehistoric rock art are especially prominent.
Peopled with vivid characters and told in Sibley’s uniquely down-to-earth and humorous manner, Jane’s Window paints a portrait of a life filled to the brim with events both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
About the Author
JIM COMER is also the author of When Roles Reverse: A Guide to Parenting Your Parents, which was a finalist for the Texas Writers’ League Best Non-Fiction Book of 2007.
Read an Excerpt
My Spirited Life in West Texas and Austin
By Jane Dunn Sibley
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2013 Jane Dunn Sibley
All rights reserved.
Gifts from the Past
I have been blessed with good genes, a strong, independent family, and the legacy of my great-great-grandmother Mahala. She was among the early settlers in Central Texas during a time when Indians often attacked those who had "Gone to Texas" to find land and start new lives.
After marauding Indians killed her husband, she faced the challenge of rearing five children by herself on a farm without electricity, running water, or indoor toilets. There was no help from the state in those days, and within a few months of her husband's death, Texas seceded from the United States. Mason County had been largely settled by Germans, most of whom supported the Union, so the area was deeply divided by the war. But Mahala had little time for politics as she plowed the fields, ran cattle, and made a living for her family. She had strength of character and determination that I have always admired.
One of her daughters, Mary Jane, married George Washington Byrd of the renowned Byrd family of Virginia. Their daughter, Alice, was my grandmother. She married Bill Walker, who was foreman for the Schreiner Brothers, a prominent ranching family with vast land holdings in Central Texas. Bill ran the Schreiners' James River Ranch and each year he was in charge of driving as many as 3,000 head of cattle seven hundred miles to market in Kansas City.
My grandfather was a real cowman at heart. There is a substantial difference between "cowboy" and "cowman": a cowman owns cattle and a cowboy works for the cowman. Bill had at least twenty cowboys under him on one of the Schreiner ranches. "Cowboying" was never the glamorous job portrayed in movies, where the men were handsome and wore clean shirts. In reality, cowboys worked exhausting twelve- to fourteen-hour days, often in blazing heat or numbing cold. As foreman, Bill worked as hard as the cowboys, but his real aspiration was to own his own operation, an ambition that motivated him for many years.
Walker was a natural leader who knew how to handle his cowboys. Along with that more famous cowman, Charles Goodnight, he never allowed them to drink on the drive north. The cowboys needed all their wits about them to deal with the cattle, Indians, and unpredictable weather. Lightning was a special danger, for a sudden strike could stampede the herd, and then the cattle would run for miles in every direction. Having a good lead steer that the other cattle instinctively followed was a key positive element on cattle drives.
Cowboying was such demanding labor that Walker did not allow them even one drop of whiskey until they had safely delivered the cattle to Kansas. Then they could drink all they wanted, and many of them made up for lost time—hence the wild reputation of the Kansas cow-towns. In fact, getting the cowboys home was sometimes more difficult than driving the cattle north to Kansas.
Although the Indian wars with the Comanches and Kiowas ended around 1875, even after the US government forced them onto reservations, they still had a reputation for being sullen and dangerous. For many years after that, trail drivers were wary of them. My grandfather did not have trouble with the Indians he encountered along the trail, unlike other trail drivers. Many of the Indians were starving after the demise of the buffalo. They deeply resented the white man for taking their land, so it is hardly surprising that they disliked the settlers and the cattle drovers.
This was their country until we arrived and made it ours. I suppose some would say we "Christianized" it, but I doubt that the impulse was ever religious. Knowing that, Bill went out of his way to show his respect to the tribal leaders. Whenever a group of Indians approached Bill's men on the trail, he would ride over to meet their leader, usually the chief, and let him go through the herd and cut out the few cattle he wanted to feed his people. By showing respect and giving the tribes some tribute, Bill gained good rapport with the Indians. Word of his generosity moved ahead of him like a prairie wildfire. As a result of his diplomatic gestures, Bill never had a problem with the tribes along the trail.
During these cattle drives Bill saw the beautiful country of North Texas and Oklahoma, and he liked it. When the federal government opened the last available Indian lands in Oklahoma to settlers, Bill wanted to get some of that land for himself. Soon, the government announced a land lottery for 13,000 sections of Kiowa territory in southern Oklahoma. Bill Walker put in his name for 160 acres of free land.
He had lots of company; more than 165,000 people registered for the drawing to be held at Lawton, Oklahoma, on August 6, 1901. Bill headed for Oklahoma in a covered wagon and buggy. He brought along his wife, Alice, and their four children: my mother, Minnie, her sister, Bird, a younger brother, Johnny, and a baby boy, Seth Bird Walker.
One night, while they were camping near a pond full of water moccasins, Bill decided to teach young Minnie how to shoot. He handed her a rifle and told her to shoot the snakes as their heads popped out of the water to catch bugs. She had quite a time killing water moccasins and remained a good shot for the rest of her life.
The odds of winning that land lottery were about fifteen to one; Bill Walker was not among the lucky winners whose names were drawn. His family must have been terribly disappointed, but they had little time to feel sorry for themselves. They were in a strange, barely civilized land. They had to find shelter and figure out some way to make a living. Instead of indulging in self-pity, they played the hand they were dealt. The whole family worked together to create their new home.
At first, Bill housed his family in a dugout, a dwelling literally dug into the side of a low bluff or hillside for protection from the elements, especially the cold north wind that blew across the Oklahoma prairie every winter. Across the front of their dugout they hung tarps. They had settled close to water, so each day someone in the family had to carry a full bucket from the nearest stream for cooking, washing, and occasional bathing. The family had settled on land near Elk City, Oklahoma, a "city" in name only. At the time, it was hardly even a spot on the map. Bill bought some cattle and soon began ranching, but missed out on his dream of having a spread of his own.
The nearby Indian reservation was not fenced and the Kiowas came and went as they wanted. They often wandered by the Walker dugout to observe their white neighbors. My grandmother had lost her grandfather to the Comanches, who were close affiliates of the Kiowas, and she was terrified of them—with good reason.
They would creep up silently behind her while she cleaned the dugout and she never heard them coming. When she turned around they would be standing two feet away. According to her, the myth of the "silent" Indians was a fact. She said they could slip up on anybody or anything.
My mama was an object of great fascination to the Indians; they loved her hair, which was naturally curly, while theirs was straight. Soon after the Walkers arrived in Oklahoma, their baby boy—my uncle Seth—became terribly sick and they had no idea what was wrong with him. His head was thrust back and was rigid, as if he was paralyzed. His mother knew he was close to dying. There was no physician within many miles and, given the frontier conditions, a doctor could probably have done nothing for the boy anyway.
When the Indians saw the child, they knew he was gravely ill. They communicated with my grandmother and explained to her that they could take the baby to their healer in order to make the child well. Despite her deep fear of Indians, she was so desperate to save her child that she agreed to let the Indians take the baby. She had little choice, because she knew she could not save him herself.
I can only imagine how hard it was for her to let her baby go, but she took the Indians at their word and handed over the child. In a few weeks, they brought him back to her completely healthy. She had no idea what they did or how, but their cure worked. Grandmother's baby was well.
When the chief brought him back, he announced, "He is a blood brother and shall be named for me, Kiowa Bill." My grandmother agreed, so they changed his name legally from Seth Bird Walker to Kiowa Bill Walker.
The family stayed in Oklahoma for three years and made a living from ranching, although my grandfather still longed to have his own land. In 1904, he attended the famous St. Louis World's Fair along with twelve million other Americans—one out of every eight people in the country—but did not take his family with him. I feel sure that my grandmother had some words with him about that. It was the largest world's fair in history up to that time, and introduced to America the hot dog and the ice cream cone.
When he returned home from the fair, my grandfather brought my mother a commemorative locket that she treasured. Not long after she received it, though, her best friend, a little Kiowa girl, died suddenly. At the funeral, Mama placed her locket in the casket with her friend.
After the grave was covered, the Indians brought the child's pony to the grave and slashed its throat. While that may seem cruel to us, it was the Kiowa mourning custom and made perfect sense to the Indians. It was that child's pony so it must never belong to anyone else.
My family moved back to Central Texas in the early nineteen hundreds and continued ranching. Bill had a long-time business partner in a Texas cattle operation that had expanded during his absence. The partner sold the herd for the substantial sum of $4,000 (which equals at least $400,000 in today's money), moved to Alpine in West Texas, and bought land. However, he neglected to pay my grandfather his share of the sale.
Bill contacted his partner, who amiably offered him a ranch in West Texas as payment if Bill would come to Alpine. That was fine with the family, as they would finally have their own land. They packed up once again and headed west. It was a four-hundred-mile trip in a horse-drawn wagon and a surrey over primitive roads, and I use the term "roads" loosely.
In those early days, West Texas was sparsely populated. There were probably more rattlesnakes than ranchers. As the family approached Sheffield Hill, which descended to the Pecos River and had a dangerously steep slope, Bill tied the back wheels of the wagon. He did that so the wheels would not turn too fast and cause the wagon to gain speed, topple over, and crush the horses.
Having grown up on a ranch, my mama, Minnie, was a fine rider who handled horses beautifully. Although she was only sixteen, her father told her to drive the wagon. He trusted her with that important job, while he drove the surrey carrying his wife and three younger children.
Mama had never seen a mountain that high before and was terrified of making the descent. As she drove down the narrow road, tears were streaming from her eyes so she could just barely see. Despite her fears, she came through safely, although she was hollering at the top of her lungs all the way to the bottom of that steep hill.
When my grandfather got to Alpine, he discovered that his former partner had suffered a terrible tragedy. He had lost his only daughter when her husband found her in bed with an army officer from Camp Marfa and shot them both dead on the spot.
My grandfather felt so bad for his old partner that he just walked away from the entire situation. He said, "That man has too much trouble to handle. I can't give him any more." Bill had every right to ask for the land but did not have the heart to press his old friend for the promised ranch. The man never offered it to him again.
My grandfather never recovered from losing that cattle money and he started drinking heavily. However, he was an excellent tracker, a skill he had perfected with knowledge gained from the Indians. After Bill was hired to track a murderer into New Mexico, he never came back. My grandmother divorced him, almost unheard of in that day. Hers was one of the first divorces in Pecos County, and many in the community considered her divorce scandalous.
She had to find work to feed her family, so she refused to let the gossip bother her. Once Bill Walker left my grandmother and his children, no one in the family heard another word from him until forty years later, when he made a surprise visit to Fort Stockton to see my mother for a few hours. They had a tearful reunion, then he left town and disappeared again. Eventually, the family learned that he and my grandmother had died on the same day.
My grandmother demonstrated the same grit her own grandmother had shown after losing her husband to the Indians. She was stuck in a frontier town in West Texas, hundreds of miles from her family, with no husband and four children. There was no unemployment office or "Bureau of Deserted Wives," so she took a job at the Kohler Hotel in Fort Stockton.
The hotel building was F-shaped. There were ten rooms available in the Kohler. The dining room and kitchen were in the center of the building, along with a parlor and entrance hall. The price for "half a bed" was fifty cents a night. Normally, two men slept in the same bed and thought nothing about it.
The patrons never knew who was going to crawl in beside them. It might be a drunk or a killer, but somehow that arrangement worked. Every room had a double bed and each man slept on his own side. They slept with their clothes on and would probably never again see the person they shared the bed with. If you wanted to rent a room all to yourself, a private room cost a dollar, but few cowboys ever had an extra dollar to spend on a hotel room.
The manager back then, Annie Riggs, was a most formidable woman. My grandmother, Alice Walker, had much in common with Annie Riggs, who also owned the hotel. They had both suffered from husband trouble. Annie Riggs was successful in business, but not with men.
Her first marriage to James Johnson ended in divorce, leaving her with four children to rear. In 1891, she made the mistake of marrying Barney Riggs, with whom she had four more children. Unfortunately, Barney turned violent when he drank—and he drank a lot.
Barney was a hired killer with a quick pistol. In fact, Barney Riggs is the only man in Texas history who killed one man, which landed him in a federal penitentiary, then killed another one for whose death he got out of prison, a free man. While Barney was in the Arizona Territorial Penitentiary serving a life term, there was a riot and a prisoner was holding the warden hostage. Somehow, Barney got the warden's gun and shot the prisoner dead. The warden was so grateful that he arranged for Barney to receive a full pardon from the governor. With luck like that, you might think Barney would have reformed.
He got lucky, all right, but he did not get smart. Barney went to work for "Judge" Roy Bean, a self-appointed Justice of the Peace for Pecos County. Bean owned a saloon in Langtry, Texas, called the "Jersey Lilly," named, but misspelled, after Lillie Langtry, a famous actress of the day. Bean was as mean as a polecat, but he kept order.
The officials in Fort Stockton, the county seat, let him keep the job since no one else could survive it. At the time, chaos reigned along the Pecos River at its juncture with the Rio Grande. When the Southern Pacific Railroad was under construction, the Chinese coolies laid track from the west and the Irish laid track from the east. When they met, they drank, and after that they fought. Bean usually managed to keep them from killing each other.
While Annie looked after her guests, her boys ran the ranch and some of them helped their mother at the hotel. Young Barney, Annie's son, regularly got up at 4 a.m. After finishing his ranch chores, he rode to town on horseback, still wearing his dusty clothes, to serve breakfast at the hotel.
One day, a judge who was riding circuit had spent the night in Annie's hotel. As he sat down to order his breakfast, he said to a cranky Young Barney, "I want my eggs over easy."
The surly boy grabbed the judge's plate and flipped it over, eggs on the bottom, right onto the table in front of the judge. Not one more word was said; none needed to be. That judge knew better than to complain, because the son had obviously inherited his father's temperament and most likely was carrying a pistol.
My friend Mary McComb's mother, Theodora, was about five years old, attending the first school in Fort Stockton. She asked the teacher if she could go to the restroom, which meant a trip to the outhouse. While she was in the privy, she heard a lot of noise outside. Looking between the cracks in the wall, she saw Barney Riggs staggering past the school, mortally wounded.
Excerpted from Jane's Window by Jane Dunn Sibley. Copyright © 2013 Jane Dunn Sibley. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by T. R. Fehrenbach,
Introduction by James L. Haley,
Prologue: Mahala Milligan,
1. Gifts from the Past,
2. Growing Up in Fort Stockton,
3. The University in Wartime,
4. D. J. Sibley,
5. On My Own,
6. An Unconventional Romance,
7. An "Old Maid" No More,
9. Preserving History and Moving a Church,
10. Our World Explodes while I'm Washing Sheets,
11. Laguna Gloria,
12. The Castle,
13. The Symphony,
14. Symphony Square,
15. People I Have Been Privileged to Meet and to Know,
16. Buzzard Feathers and Movie Stars,
17. Rock Art: Not All Masterpieces Are in Museums,
18. Lifetime Friendships,
19. Around the World,
20. The Long Center,
21. Jake: 1950–1991,
22. Mahala: 1952–2003,
23. Hiram: 1957–,
24. D. J.: The Great Survivor,
25. The Joys of Unsolicited Advice,
Appendix: Chronology—Jane Horton Dunn Sibley,
What People are Saying About This
I have known Jane Sibley and her family for several years and they are all true Texans. She is a Beautiful Texas Lady and I know everything she says in her book is true Texacana.—Joaquin Jackson, retired Texas Ranger
From West Texas to Central Texas, Jane has led an extraordinary life. She is a woman with a passion for the arts, history and preservation of historical sites. The book reveals an era of rural West Texas to present Central Texas.Mrs. Joe Long, PhD, Philanthropist
Jane Sibley chronicles her wonderful journey through a life of loving relationships, artistic appreciation and managerial accomplishments, shared with her husband D.J. Sibley. It is the highly readable account of a talented, wise and stalwart person, filled with wit and happiness.—Hans Mark, PhD, Professor of Aerospace Engineering, The University of Texas, Austin, and Bun Mark, PhD, Professor and Educator
Jane Sibley is indeed like no other. Nor is this memoir..."T.R. Fehrenbach
Jane Sibley has the force of a Texas tornado and the determination of some earthly power greater than that. For decades this soft-spoken but tenacious guardian of the arts in Texas has used her superhuman talents to support all that is good in cultural pursuits in Austin and environs. Hers is a story that mirrors the growth not only of the State but of the forces that move its people to appreciate great music, art, literature, and architecture. The story of such a rich life needs be told, and now finally Ms. Sibley’s has arrived. Seeing the world through her eyes is a unique and rewarding experience.—Peter Bay, Music Director, Austin Symphony Orchestra
Jane Sibley is a straight shooter who rarely misses her mark and has no shortage of targets. Jane’s Window is a lesson from the “greatest generation” to us Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers and Y-ers. No one is going to solve our problems for us so grab your boot straps and get the job done. Build a water ballet on the West Texas frontier, a symphony orchestra among lobbyists and politicians, a concert hall in a capital “keeping it weird.” Hers has been a life of civilizing influence. But don’t underestimate her refinement: best not to trifle with gals who carry rifles.Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at University of Texas at Austin
Jane's Window is as vibrant, artistic, and eloquent as the author herself. Dear, sweet Jane, and her late husband D.J., have created an incredible legacy of service, and leave an indelible, positive impression on Austin and Texas. Jane’s trademark feather in her hair, to me, represents the soaring of her passions and dreams, which are grounded in a great heart, and the good will to help her fellow Texans.—Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Preservationists across the United States have worked tirelessly to protect and preserve historical artifacts of local and national significance. These protectors brought about an awareness of the threat of losing the significant remnants of our past and through their efforts the Preservation Act of 1966 was adopted to coordinate the protection of these precious historical sites. Jane Dunn Sibley, working in concert with her late husband Dr. D. J. Sibley, is one of those preservation warriors. This book is not just a reminiscence of one person's passion; it is a testament of accomplishment that follows dedicated purpose and organization. It should be a guide to young warriors as they continue the work that has gone before them and that is so essential to guarantee the remembrance of our past and the purpose of our future.M. Wayne Bell, FAIA, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas
My wife and I share happy memories of the warm hospitality of Jane and D. J. Sibley, in Austin and at their ranch in West Texas. When writing about the night sky and the Milky Way I found I couldn’t do better than to summon up a cherished memory of the four of us at the ranch, sitting outside after dinner in the incredibly starry night on the Glass Mountains.Dr. Steven Weinberg, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Texas at Austin