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Curiously Canadian There’s something special about this refuge on the Great Plains

Story by Matt Joyce // Photographs by Sean Fitzgerald

Not far from the banks of the Canadian River,

tucked among the River Valley Pioneer Museum’s artifacts of Panhandle ranching and railroad history, black-and-white portraits gaze from the gallery wall as if they’ve been waiting patiently for a century to look you in the eye.

The display depicts scores of ordinary people—country families in their Sunday finest, uniformed World War I soldiers, teenage sisters in lacy party gowns, roustabouts in ill-fitting overalls, mothers coddling babies …

The River Valley Pioneer Museum has about 5,000 glass-plate negatives taken by shopkeeper Julius Born, who captured the people and places of Canadian in the early 1900s. Julius Born. Photos courtesy River Valley Pioneer Museum via University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.

Captured in the early 1900s by shopkeeper Julius C. Born, the glass-plate negatives crackle with life and curiosity. With expressions ranging from sincerity to mischief and deliberation to daring, Canadian’s ancestors seem to quietly suggest they’ve found something special in this Panhandle outpost. It’s a feeling that persists today in Canadian, where the Canadian River valley bisects the northern reaches of the Caprock Escarpment, rumpling the Great Plains into a riverside refuge of rolling hills, meandering streams, and trees.

“You don’t have to drive much through the Panhandle to see that Canadian is different than other small towns up here.”

“You don’t have to drive much through the Panhandle to see that Canadian is different than other small towns up here,” says Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor and publisher of The Canadian Record, the 125-year-old newspaper her parents bought in 1948. “The topography is different, and the architecture is different, too. Many of the ranching families, the pioneer families that started this community, have stayed here. That thread holds things together, I think, and makes us more aware of that heritage. It’s a beautiful place and a very progressive town, but also very conservative—it’s an interesting mix.”

Seasonal Show

A cottonwood tree in the Canadian River valley.

Canadian schedules events year-round to capitalize on its heritage and scenery, including the outdoor Canadian River Music Festival each May (the Turnpike Troubadours and Mark Chesnutt headlined this year) and the Canadian Fourth of July Rodeo, which commemorated its 130th year this summer. But fall may be the best time to visit—and not only because football season is underway for the revered Canadian High School Wildcats.

As the nights cool and days shorten, Canadian’s trees—some of the town’s greatest assets in these windswept plains—take on the burgundy, gold, and orange of the season. Cottonwood, American elm, shinnery oak, red oak, honey locust, Chinese pistache, Bartlett pear, black locust, and flameleaf sumac all contribute to the display. Canadian fêtes autumn annually on the third weekend of October with its Fall Foliage Festival, when shops and galleries open their doors for special events and guided walks introduce visitors to surrounding natural areas.

The walking bridge over the Canadian River, which is the town’s namesake. The origin of the river’s name is unknown. Theories hold that it may have been named for the Spanish cañada, meaning ravine, or for an indigenous word for the river.

The Canadian River starts in Colorado and runs about 760 miles to its confluence with the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. Before it was dammed in the mid-20th century, the Canadian was notorious for raging floods and treacherous quicksand, which is why in 1915 Hemphill County built a bridge—16 feet wide and more than a half-mile long. Locals tell of old-timers who recall seeing horse-drawn buggies forced to back up a thousand feet when two wide loads met on the narrow truss span.

The same wagon bridge still crosses the Canadian today. Enterprising locals restored the structure for pedestrians in 2000, but the experience of walking across the span as it stretches over the floodplain leading to the river hasn’t changed much since it was constructed. On an autumn evening, brisk winds rattle the abundant cottonwoods, the rustle of their paper-dry leaves overcome only when a flock of Canada geese honks overhead or a train chugs by on the BNSF railroad.

As the nights cool and days shorten, Canadian’s trees—some of the town’s greatest assets in these windswept plains—take on the burgundy, gold, and orange of the season. Oct. 20-21, Canadian celebrates with Fall Foliage Festival.

One of Canadian’s most prominent cottonwood trees stands near Lake Marvin, a fishing lake on Boggy Creek about a 20-minute drive east of town. Part of the Black Kettle National Grassland, Lake Marvin has a campground, picnic tables, and hiking trails, including one that navigates a thicket of soapberry, persimmon, and woolybucket to a massive cottonwood. According to a historical marker, this tree was a landmark for Army scouts and wagon trains in the 1870s and ’80s. With a craggy trunk measuring 21 feet around, the tree is clearly in its twilight after centuries of enduring the Panhandle weather, but it still towers above the surrounding woods.

Next door to Lake Marvin, the 5,394-acre Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area offers the chance to walk or drive dirt roads in two distinctive Panhandle habitats separated by Lake Marvin Road (FM 2266). To the south, riverine habitat of cottonwoods and prairie meadow descends to the Canadian River; to the north, sandhills carpeted in grasses, sagebrush, and skunkbush roll as far as the eye can see. Both combine to make terrific bird habitat, and sightings of Rio Grande wild turkeys, broad-winged hawks, and warblers are common.

The Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area

What you probably won’t see are lesser prairie chickens, an elusive Plains grouse famous for its showy courtship rituals. As development has destroyed much of the chickens’ historic range, birders from around the world visit Canadian in the spring for outings with wildlife photographer Dick Wilberforce, who knows where to find the surviving birds on remote ranches. The chickens’ numbers have dropped from millions before the settling of the West to about 38,000 today across five Plains states, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Worried the Panhandle wildfires of March 2017 had taken a heavy toll on the birds, Wilberforce says he was heartened to observe roosters and hens on their mating grounds this spring.

“To me, the prairie chicken helped win the West for sure,” he says. “The wagon trains, the cattle drives, the rail workers, and the homesteaders all relied on the prairie chicken. The rail workers on the Santa Fe and the cowboys with Charlie Goodnight both had contracts stipulating they would not be fed prairie chicken over three nights a week. That’s how plentiful they were.”

Back in Town

Main Street Canadian and the Palace Theatre

Before Lake Marvin was dammed in the 1930s, the area was home to the Texas Panhandle’s first cattle ranch, established in 1875 by A.G. Springer. Ranching flourished in the grasslands, which spurred the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to build a line through the Panhandle, leading to Canadian’s founding in 1887. Flush with new wealth, ranchers and merchants built numerous red-brick homes, churches, and institutions, many of which survive to this day—among them the 1910 First Baptist Church.

You won’t find pews or preaching in the old First Baptist, however. The renovated building now houses the Citadelle Art Foundation and the eye-popping art collection of Malouf and Therese Abraham. Two years after the church was vacated in 1975, the Abrahams bought it for $15,000 and undertook a massive renovation to make the 8,000-square-foot building their home. They lived there for 30 years, raising their three sons as Malouf practiced medicine and Therese served as mayor. They moved out in 2008 and converted the Citadelle into a nonprofit art museum.

“I think you ought to make a big deal out of everything,” says Malouf, whose Lebanese grandfather opened a general store in Canadian in 1913. “Like if you fall in a mud puddle, you should splash around and invite everybody in. We could have a two- or three-day auction in New York or London and just scatter all this stuff to the four corners where it came from, or we could keep it all together. And we thought we should keep it all together—and right here. I know it will change the future of the town and the kind of people who want to live here.”

Clockwise from top left: Rockwell’s First Day of School at the Citadelle; Brown Bag Roasters; the Palace Theatre; a car show on Main Street; The Cattle Exchange.

Among the neatly kept bedrooms, kitchen, and bathrooms of the former residence, the Citadelle displays incredible artworks and objects from the Abrahams’ lifetime of collecting. They acquired the rosewood piano—made in 1823 by John Broadwood and Sons of England—after Van Cliburn performed on it in Chicago. They purchased the 1950s olive green leather chair with chrome arm rests—a design collaboration between Rolls Royce and Schwinn—from Sylvester Stallone. The original Norman Rockwell oil painting, First Day of School, was thought to have been lost before Malouf stumbled across it in a New York City gallery in 1972. A handwritten note from the late artist accompanies the work. And the stories go on.

Given the Abrahams’ influence on Canadian—Malouf’s dad, Malouf “Oofie” Abraham Sr., was an oilman, mayor, and state legislator; and his son Salem Abraham has restored much of Main Street, including the historic Palace Theatre, a popular cinema—you’ll find mention of the family among the exhibits at the River Valley Pioneer Museum. The museum takes a decidedly personal approach to chronicling the history of Hemphill County with artifacts like the monogrammed 1920s plates and songbooks from the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Near the museum’s entrance, a sculpture comprised of two metal fence posts and a charred wooden post memorializes the devastating wildfire of March 6, 2017, which burned more than 300,000 acres in Hemphill and Lipscomb counties. The fires gut-punched a community already struggling with a downturn in the oil and gas economy. Despite the hardship, locals say the disaster also brought the community together as neighbors worked side by side toward recovery.

For its part, the museum has recorded interviews and collected pictures and artifacts about the disaster for future exhibits. Someday, the faces of 21st-century Canadian will find their place in the galleries alongside their ancestors in those black-and-white portraits, telling their own tales about this special slice of the Texas Panhandle.

DINING & LODGING IN CANADIAN

Dining

Named for the 5-gallon buckets where the sourdough rises, The Bucket serves hearty breakfasts of eggs, biscuits, and sausage, ham, or bacon, along with a menu of sandwiches, hamburgers, and salads. It’s the kind of place where everyone turns to see who just came in the front door.

Down the road, the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon offers bar fare like burgers, chicken wings, and pizzas. Hemphill County is dry, but you can show your ID to get a club membership and order alcohol.

The same system is in place at the Cattle Exchange, set in the historic Moody Hotel building on Main Street. The Cattle Exchange serves steaks, barbecue, and sandwiches in a refined Western dining hall with big bay windows. One of the oil paintings on the wall depicts the Buffalo Wallow Fight, an 1874 battle of the Red River War in which six U.S. soldiers fought off 125 Comanche and Kiowa warriors by taking cover in a buffalo wallow.

Also on Main Street, Brown Bag Roasters keeps Canadian caffeinated with rich and dark small-batch coffee in a historic yet contemporary space.

Lodging

For a night in the countryside, book the guest house at Prairie Haven Bed & Breakfast. Diana and John McGarr have outfitted the comfy one-bedroom space with conveniences including a minifridge and coffee maker, but the real draw here is Diana’s self-described “grandmother-style cooking.”

Combining seasonal ingredients from their garden, a neighbor’s fresh eggs, homemade sourdough biscuits and preserves (don’t miss the wild plum and jalapeño-peach), home-cured Canadian bacon, and homemade sausage, Prairie Haven’s breakfast spread will make you wonder how Michael Landon maintained his boyish figure.

Also on the prairie outside of town, Arrington Ranch House Lodge accommodates up to 10 guests in five bedrooms. Texas Ranger George Washington Arrington ordered the kit home from a magazine and built it in 1918. Arrington descendants still operate the ranch and the house, which cinephiles might recognize for its role in the 2000 Tom Hanks movie Cast Away.

Visit texashighways.com for more Canadian travel essentials.

Credits:

Sean Fitzgerald

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