Sixteen miles north of the Shackelford County Courthouse a thin band of water, the Clear Fork of the Brazos River running along the northern county boundary, cuts through the dry prairie. Although a scarcity of fresh water is common, the Clear Fork was responsible not only for the Native American presence of Athabascan Apaches and the Comanches who later supplanted them, but also for bringing settlers here and transforming the country into prime ranch land. Documentation suggests that even prehistoric man appreciated the wide abundance of wildlife. Rumors of Spanish artifacts have not been documented to the extent that we can say with certainty that early Spanish explorers came through the county area. If they didn’t, they missed a special region of Northwest Texas.
The first known explorer, Captain Randolph B. Marcy, passed just north of Clear Fork Country while laying out a road for the army from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Dona Ana, New Mexico in 1849. On his third trip to the area in 1854, with Robert S. Neighbors, they visited the Jesse Stem Indian Agency and farm and selected a reservation site on the north side of the Clear Fork for the Comanche Tribe.
To protect the Indians, Capt. W. I. Hardee and the army founded Camp Cooper near the reservation on January 2, 1856. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee arrived there on April 9, 1856 to his first field command — 4 companies of the Second Cavalry.
Shackelford County, named for Texas Revolutionary War hero at Goliad, Dr. Jack Shackelford, was created by the Texas Legislature in 1858 along with Throckmorton County encouraging pioneers to the area. George Greer, J. B. Matthews, W. H. Ledbetter, T. E. Jackson, C. K. Stribling, the Jacobs brothers Henry and John, J. C. Lynch and others soon arrived.
After the Civil War ended, the army returned in 1867 and set up Fort Griffin to protect the influx of settlers from Indian threat. A town called the “Flat” or “Griffin” grew up as “The wildest town on the prairie.” Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp first met here, and ladies named Lottie Deno, Big Nose Kate, and Swayback Mag hung out at the Beehive and other saloons. The blend of humanity, including Tonkawa Indians, buffalo hunters, cowboys from the trail, soldiers from foreign countries mixed with Buffalo Soldiers and regulars, drummers, ranchers, rascals, and vigilantes masked and mysterious, made up a town to rival Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone, though Hollywood doesn’t know our story.
Seven years later, in 1874, Shackelford County organized and chose the thriving town of Griffin as a temporary county seat with frontier lawyer C. K. Stribling as County Judge. Sheriff Henry Jacobs urged county founders to pull influences south away from the wildness of Griffin and promoted a location more to the center of the county. A November election gave Jacobs’ location the majority. It was named Albany. In return, Jacobs gave land to the county for a courthouse, streets, alleys, and enough lots for businesses and houses to provide money in the county till. Longhorn herds from central and southern parts of Texas heading north to Dodge City, Kansas and Ogallala, Nebraska began to pass on the Western Cattle Trail just to the east of Albany while using historic Fort Griffin as a supply point. The new county seat first built a permanent stone jail and then a picket courthouse with county offices tacked on.
The army abandoned Fort Griffin and Griffin melted away while Albany slowly took root. The Texas Central Railroad arrived and with it the birth of a new county town, Hulltown, which later was renamed Moran, 15 miles to the southeast. A native limestone courthouse designed by James Flanders of Dallas replaced the rickety picket structure in 1883.
Shackelford County endured a severe drought in 1886-87, and with help from a local Presbyterian minister, John Brown, brought Clara Barton to Texas for the first time using Albany as her headquarters. She came to check on the suffering and lack of resources for small farming families who had been lured to the area in large numbers by zealous railroad promoters and newspaper editors.
Albany endured the droughts and remained a ranching and farming center until 1910, when the oil man arrived and discovered the first commercial gas well in this vast area of West Texas near Moran. Successful exploration continued with the shallow but prolific Cook Field in 1926. Monies from the field were given by W. I. and Dude Nail Cook (in memory of their daughter Jessie Cook Head who died in childbirth) for the creation of Cook Children’s Hospital in Ft. Worth.
The county’s population peaked in 1930 at 6,695. The county area is 887 square miles of rolling prairie land covered with mesquite, pecan, elm, and hackberry trees and intersected by ravines and creeks. It supports an abundance of white-tailed deer, rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, and other small mammals. Quail, white-winged and turtle doves, turkeys and roadrunners make their home amongst the songbirds, hawks and owls. Shallow layers of Permian limestone are overlain with 2 to 14 inches of “loamy clay topsoil” and provide excellent building stone. Temperatures range from 31 to 97 degrees with a mean temperature of 64, while normal rainfall averages 22-24 inches per year.
Although county officials are predominately conservative Democrats, since the 1980′s the county has consistently voted Republican in state-wide and presidential elections. Known and recognized for its restoration cachet, Albany boasts a nationally accredited art museum with archives located in the Old Jail, the original permanent county jail built in 1877-78.
Additionally, the county shares this history at the Prairie Theater in Albany by putting on an outdoor production the last two weekends in June every year called the Fort Griffin Fandangle. Having celebrated it for over 70 years proves the county appreciates and loves the unique heritage bequeathed to us by others and saved for future generations to see and enjoy.
Written in February, 2009 by Shirley W. Caldwell, Heritage Vice Chairman for the Albany Chamber of Commerce.