Ashes of a Texas life: At 106, cowboy lost childhood home in wildfires

Jun 2 2011 - 9:46am

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Spurs with the AW-Bar brand, the brand of N.L. "Boss" Winter's father, Ander Floyd Winter, hang on a saddle belonging to N.L. "Boss" Winter at his home in Aspermont, Texas, May 10, 2011. Winter, 106, was born and raised in the West Texas town and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
Trophies, some of which are for being the oldest participant in rodeo parades, stand on top of the television set of N.L. "Boss" Winter's home in Aspermont, Texas, May 10, 2011. Winter, 106, was born and raised in the West Texas town and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
An undated photograph shows a young N.L. "Boss" Winter (left) with his late wife (and first wife, he's had more than one), Leta Hill. Winter, 106, was born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (Courtesy of Winter family via Dallas Morning News/MCT)
A photograph taken in 1968 shows N.L. "Boss" Winter (far right) with family and friends outside the home he built in 1926, which was destroyed last month by wildfires in West Texas. Winter, 106, was born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. The home that he was raised in, which was built in 1910, was also destroyed by the fires. (Courtesy of Winter family via Dallas Morning News/MCT)
N.L. "Boss" Winter stands, May 10, 2011, in front of the burnt remains of the Aspermont, Texas home he grew up in, which was damaged during wildfires in West Texas last month. Born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, the 106-year-old lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. An additional home owned by Winter, one in which he raised his family of two girls, was also destroyed by the wildfires. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
Spurs with the AW-Bar brand, the brand of N.L. "Boss" Winter's father, Ander Floyd Winter, hang on a saddle belonging to N.L. "Boss" Winter at his home in Aspermont, Texas, May 10, 2011. Winter, 106, was born and raised in the West Texas town and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
Trophies, some of which are for being the oldest participant in rodeo parades, stand on top of the television set of N.L. "Boss" Winter's home in Aspermont, Texas, May 10, 2011. Winter, 106, was born and raised in the West Texas town and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)
An undated photograph shows a young N.L. "Boss" Winter (left) with his late wife (and first wife, he's had more than one), Leta Hill. Winter, 106, was born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. (Courtesy of Winter family via Dallas Morning News/MCT)
A photograph taken in 1968 shows N.L. "Boss" Winter (far right) with family and friends outside the home he built in 1926, which was destroyed last month by wildfires in West Texas. Winter, 106, was born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, and lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. The home that he was raised in, which was built in 1910, was also destroyed by the fires. (Courtesy of Winter family via Dallas Morning News/MCT)
N.L. "Boss" Winter stands, May 10, 2011, in front of the burnt remains of the Aspermont, Texas home he grew up in, which was damaged during wildfires in West Texas last month. Born and raised in Aspermont, Texas, the 106-year-old lived a long life working ranches and farms in the area. An additional home owned by Winter, one in which he raised his family of two girls, was also destroyed by the wildfires. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

ASPERMONT, Texas -- When Boss Winter's childhood home was built in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt had just finished his second term as president and the Ford Model T was only two years old.

Texas was still horse country. Farmers plowed their fields with horses, and ranchers worked cattle on horseback. Boss was 5 and already riding a pony when his Pa, uncle and grandfather built the family home with field stones for the foundation and 1-by-12-inch planks to frame the three-room house. Boss can't remember a time when he wasn't on a horse.

Now at the age of 106, Boss doesn't have much left but memories.

April's wildfires that raced through this sparsely populated community 70 miles north of Abilene destroyed his childhood home, along with two others owned by his family for decades.

"You know, it stood there, right up there, and it was in good shape," Boss said. "But them wildfires come across there and burned it down."

The recent wildfires have charred more than 2.6 million acres of West Texas -- an area larger than Delaware. It's the latest assault on a way of life that endures more as myth than in reality. Most Texans now live in urban areas, but the state still identifies strongly with its cowboy roots and self-reliant people like Boss. Still, it's not the kind of life most Texans would willingly choose today.

"He grew up in a Texas without electricity, without paved roads, without any of the modern conveniences. Life was hard," said Dr. Light Cummins, a professor at Austin College in Sherman and an expert in Texas history. "And his life is a window into another era of the great cattle range industry that disappeared from Texas."

Boss has survived the state's worst droughts, including the terrible Dust Bowl of the 1930s that devastated the Great Plains. For decades, he eked out a living farming his plot, working cattle for other ranchers and earning a reputation as a reliable cowboy.

"You found a lot of people like him, who often had their own small plots of land, but they also hired out as cowboys on the big ranches," Cummins said. "It really created individuals who in many respects are passing from the scene. They lived on their own hard work, they lived on their own resilience, they lived on their own toughness, and they lived in a very hostile environment."

The wildfires that raced through here in April missed the house where Boss currently lives in Aspermont. But they completely burned his unoccupied childhood home and another unoccupied home where he raised his three children. His wife also lost the home where she'd grown up in the same community.

On a recent afternoon, Boss stopped by the site of his childhood home in the Shinery Lake community, an area of gently rolling hills in Stonewall County. Set back 30 yards from U.S. Highway 83, the house stood in a small clearing of mesquite and oak trees.

Boss' two daughters, Marie Hogue, 85, and Betty Rash Whigham, 81, were visiting from Abilene. They helped their father as he stepped carefully across the soft, loamy soil in his boots, leaning on two wooden canes -- his "horses," as he calls them.

He wore a blue striped shirt, gray pants with suspenders and his cowboy hat pulled down on his forehead. He stood a few minutes, silent and absorbed, contemplating the pile of charred wood, ashes and twisted metal.

Marie, his oldest child, pointed out where the cistern caught rainwater running off the wood-shingled roof. That was their drinking water. Betty recalled nights they'd spent in the yard listening to the baying of hounds chasing coyotes.

"That's where Pa played the fiddle," Boss said. The family's spotted hound, Keno, would sit next to Pa and howl along with the tune, Marie said.

Newton Lee "Boss" Winter was born on April 30, 1905, in his grandfather's half-dugout, a primitive, cavelike dwelling in Shinery Lake. "It was just dug down in the ground, and they put a shack on top of it," Boss said.

He lived in his father's half-dugout until he was 5, when they moved into the family's new home a half-mile to the east. Boss got his nickname early on. "Pa always said by the time I was 4 years old, I thought I was running the ranch."

At that young age, he started chewing tobacco -- a habit he still has today. Boss noticed that his father kept a plug of tobacco under his mattress to keep it moist. One day, Boss pinched off a bit to chew and he was hooked.

He had a knack for horses. By the time he was 13, he was breaking horses for others. For each horse he broke, he was paid "about 2 to 4 dollars," he said.

He attended the Shinery Lake schoolhouse, which also served as the Baptist church. At 13, he went on his first cattle drive after a severe drought forced him and his father to take their cattle and horses to the Panhandle to find water and greener pastures. The 1917-18 drought is considered one of Texas' worst.

Boss and his father grew cotton along with sugarcane and maize -- the latter as feed for cattle and horses. In 1924, he married Leta Hill, a girl he'd known from school. That same year, he bought a Ford Model T roadster for $425. "It cost a lot of money," he said, ruefully. "All the money I had."

The unpaved roads were either rutted by wagon wheels or ankle-deep in mud. It was an adventure to drive 10 miles to the next town. "When we first started getting cars, it'd take four to get one to Swenson. One to drive and three to push," Boss said.

Between 1926 and 1930, Boss and Leta had three children: Marie, Wad and Betty. Boss continued to farm, but his heart was in cowboying. He worked cattle for ranchers during the spring and fall roundups. Wad took after his dad and was soon cowboying alongside him.

When Boss' children were little, his father bought an old post office building from a nearby town and moved it to a spread of 80 acres he owned in Shinery Lake. That's where Boss and Leta raised their three children.

Marie and Betty remember riding to school, three to a horse -- Betty in the front, Marie holding the reins and Wad hanging on behind. "Daddy would tell us, 'Now you kids don't race,' " Betty said. One time, with Wad in the saddle, they did race some older boys and Marie fell off. Betty still gets a chuckle telling that story.

Boss quit farming in 1965 but continued going on cattle drives well into his 70s. A photo in the Abilene Reporter-News showed four generations of the Winter family on a trail drive: Boss and Wad, along with Boss' grandson and great-grandson.

Boss was a regular at the Texas Cowboy Reunion in Stamford, where his five grandchildren would ride horses in the parade. In addition to five grandchildren, he has 10 great-grandchildren, 20 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-granddaughter. "He's instilled in them all a love for the lifestyle he enjoyed," Marie said.

In 1986, he retired to take care of his wife, who was ill with heart trouble. She died in 1987 after 63 years of marriage. Boss remarried in 1991 to Gladys Jones, a childhood friend and a widow. She will turn 100 this year.

He still grieves for Wad, who died of cancer in 1994. He's outlived almost all his old cowboy friends and probably holds a record for times being a pallbearer, Marie said.

His home has cable TV, but mostly he likes to sit in his leather chair, surrounded by photos of his friends and family and talking to visitors about the old days.

Recently, he had a short hospital stay after tripping on his front step and cracking a couple of ribs. Up early, he had headed out to the porch to sit and wait for the sunrise, Marie said.

"He always said he loved seeing the sun come up."

(c) 2011, The Dallas Morning News.

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