When settlers began pushing into the Texas Panhandle in the late 1870s, the town of Clarendon was not like most Western frontier villages. It had no saloons, gambling dens, or bawdy houses, but rather, was populated by farmers and businessmen recruited by a Methodist minister. The county seat of Donley County was nicknamed “Saints’ Roost” by the cowboys and frontiersmen who passed through. These days, the moniker remains a source of pride to many of the area residents.
So does the stately 117-year-old Donley County Courthouse, with its Romanesque-Revival style, red-brick exterior accented by carved white-limestone trim. The interior walls, painted a forest green, highlight the natural longleaf pine of the staircases and molding. A conical turret with a “witch’s hat” roof tops the building. “No two outside walls are the same,” says County Judge Jack Hall. “We’ve never been able to find a plan or architectural drawing of the building.”
The landmark wasn’t always so grand. Prior to renovations that began in 2000, the courthouse had fallen into disrepair. “We had bats nesting in the building and water leaks in the roof,” says Jack. The conditions got so bad that by 1999, the remaining county offices were moved, and a chain-link fence surrounded the building. What was once “The Jewel of the Plains” waited silently for either the wrecking ball or a knight in shining armor. Fortunately, the Texas Historical Commission stepped in with the help of private donors, and the rural county raised $2.8 million to rescue the Panhandle’s oldest hall of justice.
One of the county commissioners at the time work originally began on the courthouse was Col. Charles Goodnight, the managing partner of the fabled JA Ranch. In partnership with John G. Adair, Goodnight built their cattle operation to ultimately cover approximately a million acres of grassland with its eastern fence coming nearly to Clarendon. Goodnight, Adair, and other area ranchers appreciated a supply station that didn’t contribute to drunken gunfights and hangovers.
To this day, Clarendon still doesn’t have a single saloon and the phonebook lists more than a dozen churches, several of which trace their roots to the colony. The Church of St. John the Baptist (Episcopal), built in 1893, is one of the oldest church buildings in the region.
Although he was not much of a churchgoer, Goodnight generally supported the establishment of the Christian colony. For many years, Clarendon benefited from its location as the closest railroad depot to the JA Ranch headquarters. In 1910, Cornelia Wadsworth Adair, John Adair’s widow, built a hospital for her cowhands and the town overlooking the rolling hills. The hospital operated for 61 years, closing in 1971.
“In its day, it was the most advanced medical facility west of Fort Worth,” says Jan Altman, a tour guide at the Saints’ Roost Museum, which acquired the former hospital building in 1981. Current exhibits focus on local culture, ranch life, early businesses, Native Americans, and the legendary Goodnight. A bunkhouse, the Clarendon railroad depot, and an iron jail cell also sit on the grounds.
Goodnight would be proud that Clarendon is still in cattle country, both on the range and on the dinner plate. The town has two steakhouses: J.D.’s Steakout and Clarendon Steakhouse, both of which serve a good sirloin. J.D.’s is popular with the local supper crowd, while many favor Clarendon Steakhouse for its lunch specials.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Clarendon in the morning, don’t miss out on a Panhandle treat at Our Donuts. Once bakery owners Mickey and Patty Dipprey open the doors at 5 a.m., it doesn’t take long for their cinnamon rolls, croissants, and breakfast burritos to sell out. And once the goods are gone, so are the proprietors.
Another popular spot is the Sandell Drive-In movie theater. Named for the original owner’s daughters, Sandra and Adele Barnhill, the theater first flickered to life in 1955. When Gary Barnhill retired after nearly 30 years, the silver screen sat dark for almost two decades until John Earl Morrow, who had frequented the theater as a boy, reopened it in 2002. The snack bar serves tasty hamburgers made of locally raised beef.
Another survivor from a bygone era is James Owens Leather Goods, a custom-boot shop. Jim Owens inherited the business from his dad. During World War II, a saddle maker and two boot makers labored under the pressed-tin ceiling making leather goods for the area’s cowboys.
These days, Jim works alone in back of the leather shop, crafting 30 to 50 pairs of custom boots annually and repairing store-bought footwear. A collection of old boots, ranch tools, hats, and cowboy art covers the walls. You might even recognize the place as the backdrop for advertisements for GUESS jeans, Chevrolet, and several other national outfits.
Besides good boots, cowboys need a reliable water source, because rain is scarce on the High Plains. In the 1960s, the community dammed the Red River, creating the approximately 2,000-acre Greenbelt Lake, a good place for catching bass, catfish, and walleye. On summer weekends, locals gather at Sandy Beach Park on the dam’s north side.
Before using the lake’s RV hookups, boat ramps, and campsites, visitors must check in at the marina. The lake is on a major migratory flyway, so the tree-shaded area offers excellent bird watching.
Another good birding spot is the Bar H Dude Ranch on the outskirts of town. Trail riders at the 5,500-acre ranch will also see bison, prairie dogs, and other wildlife. Bar H has been in Frank Hommel’s family since his grandfather arrived in the Panhandle in the 1930s.
The ranch is a popular place for family reunions, with some clans returning year after year. Guests can stay in a one-room cabin, a bunkhouse, or in the foreman’s house on the hill. The ranch offers a wide variety of activities, from lazing around the swimming pool to helping with ranch work.
Like the rolling plains in the southwestern corner of the Panhandle, there is more to Clarendon than meets the eye. For the traveler, the town serves as a welcome respite for food, lodging, and supplies. For the explorer, plenty of treasures await discovery.
Clarendon is 60 miles southeast of Amarillo at the intersection of US 287 and Texas 70, and 17 miles south of Interstate 40. Contact the Clarendon Chamber of Commerce at 318 S. Kearney St., 806/874-2421; www.clarendonedc.org.
No Beer Here
The vast prairies of North Texas were the domain of the Comanches and buffalo until 1874, when the Red River Indian War sent the Native American tribes to reservations. Travelers on horseback or in wagons had to journey long, empty miles to reach Tascosa or Mobeetie, the only settlements in the Panhandle at the time. Frequented by outlaws, drifters, and gamblers, both towns were the kind of places that gave the Wild West its name.
In 1878, the Rev. Lewis H. Carhart and his brother-in-law, W.A. Allen, envisioned establishing a “Christian Temperance Colony” that would become the “Athens of the Panhandle.” They sold the idea from the pulpits of northern churches.
It’s believed the town was either named after Clara Carhart (Rev. Carhart’s wife), or for the Clarendon Land Investment and Agency Company of Clarendon, England, a venture-capital firm and Carhart’s partner in what he called his “sobriety settlement,” for it would contain no saloons.
It didn’t take long for the settlement to attract Methodist farmers looking for a new start and inexpensive land. Within several years, the colony contained nearly 200 homes and organized six churches. The town’s prospects changed in 1887, when the railroad passed six miles south. In response, the town picked up and moved closer to the tracks. The railroad brought great opportunity; an opera house, bank, college, and courthouse soon appeared, helping Clarendon move toward becoming the cultural center that its founders envisioned.
When in Clarendon
The area code is 806, unless otherwise noted.
Donley County Courthouse, 300 S. Sully St.; 874-3625.
Saints’ Roost Museum, 610 E. Harrington St.; 874-2746; www.saintsroost.org. On the 4th Sat. in Sep., the museum pays tribute to Col. Charles Goodnight during its Col. Charles Goodnight Chuckwagon Cookoff. Cooks are judged for their steaks, biscuits, and fruit cobblers, as well as chuckwagon authenticity.
Church of St. John the Baptist, W. 3rd and Park streets; 874-2348.
Greenbelt Lake, 4 miles north of Clarendon on Texas 70; 874-3650 for general information, 874-5111 for the marina.
Sandell Drive-in, US 287 and Texas 70 N.; 874-0685. Open Fridays and Saturdays.
James Owens Leather Goods, 112 S. Kearney St.; 874-9812.
Clarendon Steakhouse, 118 S. Kearney St.; 874-0565.
J.D.’s Steakout, 210 W. 2nd St.; 874-7777.
Our Donuts, 401 E. 2nd St.; 874-1704.
Bar H Dude Ranch, 3 miles west of Clarendon off of US 287; 800/627-9871; www.barhduderanch.com.