Carolyn E. Cook
Texas: Myths, Legends, and The Real Deal
Texas is one huge state, second only to Alaska. It boasts 254 counties and 268, 597 square miles. Indigenous peoples lived here for at least a few thousand years. Add to that early pioneers from Spain, the United States, immigrants from various parts of Europe and Asia, slaves from Africa, friendships, battles, and more, and local stories naturally abound. Some are provably factual. Some are obvious fabrications. But either way --- What heroes and heroines! What villains! What crimes! What crazy endings! What tremendous starting points for innumerable historical fictions!
For Part 1 in this blog series, I’m focusing on the town of Waxahachie, about 45 minutes south of Dallas. For non-Texans, the name is pronounced Walks-uh-hatch-ee. And where it originated would take a completely different blog to explore. It’s complicated.
The town was founded in 1850, fourteen years after Texas became a republic, on land that was donated by Emory W. Rogers, a native of Alabama who came to Texas in 1839. (This was a dangerous place for Rogers to settle, as Texas was sparsely populated and subject to violent raids by Native American tribes.) At any rate, the legislature designated Waxahachie as seat of the just-established Ellis County. A site was chosen for the courthouse and over the years, three simple and inexpensive ones came and went. But the fourth courthouse proved to be a crowning glory, finished in 1897 at an enormous cost of $130,000. Today, it stands as a Texas Historical Landmark and is still in use.
The design is called Romanesque, with pillars, spires, and turrets. The building rises to nine stories and has a clock tower at the top. The whole effect is rather like a fairy tale castle you might see in some deep forest in Germany and not on the north Texas prairie. A good number of other counties also built extravagant courthouses, but here’s where the one in Waxahachie gets interesting.
Around the second story are pink stone pillars. At the top of twelve are sculptures of faces, some beautiful and some rather frightening. A sightseer might ask, “What’s up with those?”
The story goes that the faces were sculpted by a fellow named Harry Herley. He was an itinerant craftsman hired by the Dallas construction company, specifically to create the faces as another facet of the Romanesque style. While Harry worked this job, he stayed in a Waxahachie boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Frame. She had a sixteen-year-old daughter named Mabel, reputed to be quite pretty. Harry was in his late 30’s. Nevertheless, he was smitten with the lovely Mabel and therefore, the first faces he sculpted depicted her beautiful image. When Harry collected enough nerve, he attempted to pay court. Mabel would have nothing of it. There was a large age gap, after all.
Harry wasn’t dissuaded and continued his pursuit. Mabel rebuffed his attentions and ignored him. At least, she was consistent. As time went on and Harry didn’t gain even the smallest of success with her, he grew irritated, then angry, then embittered. With each change in his feelings toward Mabel, the sculptures he executed changed, too. The faces started as smiling, then frowned, glowered, and eventually looked almost demonic. When Harry finished his part of the project, he left Waxahachie, never to return.
This brings us to the big question. Harry’s story --- true or false?
Historians in recent years have sleuthed the details. What’s true? Harry Herley and Mabel Frame were real people. Harry did design the faces and probably did some of the sculpting, although much was completed by underlings.
What’s false? Harry and his subordinates didn’t do the work in Waxahachie. It was performed in the company’s stoneyard in Dallas and sent to the construction site on the train. A year after the faces were done and packed off, Harry traveled to Waxahachie because he’d been hired by a businessman for a different job. He never stayed in Mrs. Frame’s boardinghouse and likely never met Mabel. On this trip, he was introduced to a woman named Minnie Hodges. They married several months later, in August 1896, and the two moved to Dallas.
The 1900 Dallas City Directory lists Minnie Herley as “wid Harry.” No record of his death has been found, though the 1920 census shows a Harry Herley in Stillwater, Oklahoma, living with a farm family as a laborer. My imagination questions, Was Harry a terrible husband and Minnie threw him out? Or did Harry leave of his own accord and Minnie was relieved to have him gone? Or, was Minnie a constant scold and Harry'd had enought of her? Either way, the woman could have referred to herself as "widow" to look respectable.
And what about that girl Mabel Frame? The 1900 census shows that she was employed as a telephone operator. So, if the story about her refusing Harry and sparking the strange sculptures was all made up, was she aware of this gossip traveling the rounds in town? Was it intended to ruin her reputation? Or was it invented by someone many years later, perhaps after Mabel was long dead?
This could be the beginning of an intriguing historical novel.
As for those faces, no records attest to their meaning or the progression from smiling to diabolical. Some historians explain that the faces are simply common characters in European folklore. Maybe. Maybe not. What do you think?