FORT WORTH (AP) – Don Frazier fondly remembers how his father would brake for historical markers dotting Texas highways and byways.
Standing alongside the road with the sun and wind in his face, the Arlington kid could squint and envision history unfurling across the Texas plains.
Turns out, when Frazier was imagining that bygone “by-God Indian fight,” he was looking back into his future as an author of numerous Texas history books.
“The markers are one of the contributing factors for my life in history. It was accessible history; I had never seen anything like it. I was learning little snippets, little sound bites on topics that weren’t the Alamo or San Jacinto,” said Frazier, now a history professor at McMurry University.
“All of a sudden this was history that engaged all of my senses, and it was awesome,” he said.
This year, the markers themselves will be eligible for a plaque: The Texas Historical Commission is commemorating 50 years of placing those familiar metal markers — 15,740 and counting — where momentous and sometimes minuscule slices of the state’s past played out.
Before the commission’s roadside program started in 1962, Texas had just a few thousand historical markers, most of them in cemeteries, said Bob Brinkman, coordinator of the program.
“That was the change. They saw the need to interpret history at a place where it really happened and as a way to engage the traveling public with a reason to go from A to B,” he said.
Texas has way more markers than any other state, but what makes the self-funded program unique is that it’s a bottom-up process, said T. Lindsay Baker, a history professor at Tarleton State University.
“The really significant thing is that this is truly grassroots history that local people think is of sufficient importance that they go through the bureaucratic process and raise the money to have these markers placed,” he said.
“In most states, bureaucrats do it.”
Baker “ramrodded” a marker in Strawn to honor Mary Jane Gentry, a historian and educator who wrote the seventh-grade Texas history textbook that he once studied.
“I’m an example of one of those local people who gets really enthusiastic about an admittedly narrow topic but thought enough about it to make the nomination and rustle up the $1,000 to pay for it,” he said.
For sure, the big events and famous names — Sam Houston, San Jacinto, Stephen F. Austin and the Alamo — get their due in 300 words or fewer.
Houston almost has markers by the mile tracing his trail, including where he first stepped into Texas, as well as homes, campsites, battlegrounds and even where he bathed in the spa waters at Sour Lake.
The lure is that people like to go where history happened, said Dan Utley, the former chief historian for the Texas Historical Commission who also did two stints directing the marker program.
“They could read it in the books, but it’s not the same as standing on the ground,” he said.
Sometimes it’s mighty bloody ground.
Take Baby Head Cemetery, alongside Texas 16 in the rugged country north of Llano, which was named by locals in the 1850s after a small child was killed by Indians and the remains were left on the mountain.
There’s also a veritable grove of markers for hanging trees as well as plenty of macabre sites like Dead Man’s Hole in Marble Falls, where up to 17 bodies were dumped during the Civil War, and Deadman’s Hill in Maverick County, where three traders were killed by Indians and their bodies left hanging from the wheels of their carts.
Not to mention a roadside roll call of mostly forgotten massacres that would be global sensations if they happened today.
Among them are the 1838 Killough Massacre in East Texas, where 18 were killed or carried away by Mexicans and Indians; the 1840 Comanche Village Massacre in Colorado City, where 128 Indians were killed by 90 citizen volunteers; and the 1839 Webster Massacre near Leander, where Comanches wiped out a party of 30 settlers.
Outlaws and hell-raisers along with the lawmen who corralled them also get their five minutes of roadside acclaim.
Jesse and Frank James, Sam Bass, John Wesley Hardin and Pat Garrett as well as Texas Rangers and tough sheriffs have plaques.
Rowdy Texans raised Cain in historic watering holes like the Elm, Stonewall and Snake saloons as well as in Fort Worth’s notorious Hell’s Half Acre, which sports the only marker that refers to bordellos.
The ordinary people
All that wickedness is colorful, but on the marker roster, sinners are far outnumbered by churches and burial grounds for common folks.
More than a quarter of the historic signposts are connected to churches (2,159) and cemeteries (2,174), Brinkman said.
The marker process begins when an applicant researches a topic, writes the history, and gathers maps and photos. Those five to 50 pages of documentation are submitted to a county historical commission for review and approval. The Texas Historical Commission then reviews it before giving the final OK.
The applicant pays $1,000 for a new marker before the state commission’s staff boils the story down into an inscription.
All 254 Texas counties have markers, including Loving, where a dozen plaques represent 1 for every 6.9 residents. The top marker counties are Travis (440), Harris (433), Tarrant (379), Dallas (365) and Galveston (298).
An initiative started in 2008 aims to fill in the historical gaps, Brinkman said.
Among the 17 new untold stories is a marker for Tim Cole, who was wrongly convicted of a sexual assault and posthumously exonerated by DNA evidence. The marker was unveiled Feb. 6 at Fort Worth’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.
That’s the sort of story that makes the markers special, said retired teacher Betty Dooley Awbrey of Boerne.
“They represent not-so-famous, ordinary people who made our state what it became,” said Awbrey, who is working on the sixth edition of Why Stop?: A Guide to Texas Historical Roadside Markers.
The book, which focuses on the 2,300 or so markers found on state highways, was first published by her father, Claude Dooley, in 1978.
Awbrey has a family connection to her favorite marker, the 1870 Battle of the Little Wichita near Archer City, in which 56 men of the 6th U.S. Cavalry had a running scrape with 250 Kiowa Indians. Only two soldiers were killed in the two-day affair, but an astounding 13 Medals of Honor were bestowed, including one to Awbrey’s great-grandfather.
An app for that
The Texas Historical Commission’s online atlas of markers allows searching by county, city, keyword or address. Each entry includes the marker text as well as coordinates. Most include a map with a zoom-out feature that can include other nearby sites.
For drive-by historians, there’s even an iPhone app that allows searching by city or county.
Utley and Cynthia Beeman put 19 of the markers into a wider context in their book History Ahead, Stories Beyond the Texas Historical Markers.
“That’s what interests me, not the trivia but that it plugs into broader history,” he said.
“But the fun of the markers is the discovery. When you pull off, you don’t know what you are going to find.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)