Plains Cottonwood, Populus deltoids var. occidentalis
Written by Ann Bagley
A huge Cottonwood tree stands near the entrance to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. This tree stands as a tribute to a colorful lady who played a part in the history of the Old West. The story of the tree is also Frenchie McCormick’s story. With her mysterious past, Frenchie personifies the fascinating history of the Texas Panhandle.
Allegedly born in Louisiana, she arrived in Old Tascosa after stops in St. Louis, Fort Dodge, and Fort Elliot near Mobeetie. At Fort Elliott, she met the love of her life, Mickey “Mack” McCormick, a livery stable owner from Tascosa. At that time in the 1880s, Tascosa was an active place. It was near a major crossing on the Canadian River and became an important city during the cattle drives. Tascosa declined after the county seat of Oldham County was moved to Vega in 1915. The courthouse became a summer home and ranch office for the Bivins’ family ranch.
Eventually, Frenchie was the last permanent resident of Tascosa where she lived in her house without electricity or running water for over 50 years. After Mack died, neighbors and friends cared enough to make sure that she always had food and firewood. Frenchie died in 1941 and is buried next to Mack in the private Casimero Romero Cemetery not far from her home and this tree.
In 1938, Mr. Bivins who was a local rancher donated 120 acres for the location of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch 38 miles north of Amarillo. Mr. Farley, a semi-professional ball player and wrestler in Amarillo recognized the need for boys to learn the value of integrity and an honest day’s work to become responsible citizens. Established in 1939, the Boys Ranch continues today to provide the same guidance to both boys and girls.
Although you can’t find Frenchie’s house or very much of Old Tascosa, the stories of the town and its past residents are reminders of how the west was settled and evolved in the mid to late 19th Century and then on into the 20th Century.
This tree is located on the McCormick homestead near where Frenchie’s adobe house once stood. The tree is a Plains Cottonwood, Populus deltoids var. occidentalis, a smaller tree than the Eastern Cottonwood. The Plains Cottonwood grows slowly and better tolerates the drier West Texas soils. This tree reaches a height of over 69 feet, and it has a crown spread of 54 feet by 64 feet. The age is estimated to be between 170 and 210 years old. The age indicates that the tree was there when Frenchie and Mack built their home, although legend has it that Mack planted the tree for Frenchie to hang her well rope on it. Perhaps it was a branch that supported the rope.
In 2018, Ada Lester, an active historian in nearby Wheeler County, nominated Frenchie’s tree as a historic tree. Research on the tree and the area led to the recognition of Frenchie’s Tree by the Texas Historic Tree Coalition (TXHTC) in 2019.
It should be noted that there are two spellings of Frenchie’s name- Frenchy and Frenchie. The marker and the documentation use “Frenchie” because that is how she autographed her picture (above) that hangs in the courthouse museum.
A stone marker was installed on Saturday, May 31, 2019 at the tree site. A ceremony was held to recognize Ada Lester as the nominator. A proclamation and certificate were presented to the stewards of the tree, Danyel Parkhurst, Manager, Boy’s Ranch Visitor Center and Campus Public Relations, and Mike Pacino, Vice President of Operations of the Boys Ranch. Included in the presentation was a discussion of the local history by Mr. Pacino. Members of the West Texas Historical Association joined friends and members of TXHTC in celebrating the recognition of Frenchie’s Tree as a historic tree.
Written By Mike Pacino, Vice President of Operations at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch
Part One- The Early Years
Frenchie McCormick will go down in history as a wayward girl, a soiled dove, the most romantic lady of the west, the last of the old west ghost town inhabitants, and The Mystery Woman of Old Tascosa. She was all of these.
Frenchie was born August 11, 1852 as Elizabeth McGraw (or Josephine Charlton, which will be explained in part three), in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was Irish and a Catholic. She ran away from a convent at the age of 14 and went to St. Louis. There she earned her living dancing on the burlesque stage and in bars, among them the old Benedict Bar, which was popular with cowboys east of Kansas.
Fort Dodge in Kansas (Dodge City) was booming. Trail herd outfits poured in. Tales of adventure in the Wild West appealed to the runaway girl, so off she went to Dodge. Frenchie, who supposedly knew how to speak French, was in the dance hall one night when a Texas cowboy yelled, “I want to dance with Frenchie!” He grabbed the runaway girl from the arms of another man and from then on the girl was known only as Frenchie.
To the south in the Texas Plains country, there was Indian trouble. There were hordes of buffalo hunters and cowboys. Frenchie went to Fort Elliott in Texas (now Mobeetie). It was a good soldier town. In Fort Elliott, she met a witty Irishman, Mickey McCormick, who had hauled a lawyer from Tascosa to the fort, which was the seat of government for the wild Panhandle country. Mickey operated a livery stable in Tascosa and had a little gambling business on the side. Frenchie went back to Tascosa with Mickey. This was 1880. The next year, when the county was organized, they were married.
Now, we are not sure about the morals of the time, for very few couples in Tascosa and the surrounding area were legally married. Justice of the Peace, Scotty Wilson, upon receiving the first book of marriage licenses in the county, and needing money, convinced the dance hall girls, cowboys, and gamblers that living together without a legal license was detrimental to the reputation and organization of the new county. Licenses were purchased and Scotty held a mass wedding for all.
Probably not many of the marriages held up, as cowboys, gamblers, and dance hall girls were very transient. Mickey and Frenchie later had their marriage blessed by a Catholic priest. Frenchie’s maiden name on the license was Elizabeth McGraw, the same name she used when filing for old-age pension from the state of Texas.
Mickey and Frenchie knew they both had lived life on the seamy side. They were convinced that their wedding and the blessing of the priest atoned for their past indiscretions. They were devoted to each other and to their home in Tascosa.
Part Two– Tascosa
Mickey, or Mack as Frenchie called him, operated a livery stable a few blocks west of where the new courthouse would be built in 1884. He built for Frenchie a two-room adobe home three blocks and across the creek from his livery. He dug a well in front of the house and planted a cottonwood switch next to it to hang the water bucket on. This distorted the tree with a “Z” shape that it retains to this day.
Frenchie said she knew Billy the Kid while he was in Tascosa. There was an incident she claimed to have witnessed in one of the saloons during the Kid’s visit. Charlie Bowdre (Billy’s sidekick) got drunk, then leapt on top of the bar with a six-shooter in each hand and he sang a song…
“I can take the toughest bronco in the wild and woolly west
I can ride him I can break him let him do his level best
I can handle any cattle ever wore a coat of hair
And I’ve had a lively tussle with a tarnel grizzly bear
I can rope and throw the longhorn of the wildest Texas brand
And in Indian disagreements, I can play a leading hand
Come a ti yi youpy youpy ya youpy ya
Come a ti yi youpy youpy ya”
There was a whole string of verses of that same order with the “Come a ti yi youpa” chorus after everyone. Frenchie exclaimed, “We didn’t think anything of that in those days. We were used to seeing drunken men and they’d swing their hats and pull their guns and shoot and play tough. It’s a wonder more weren’t killed.”
Frenchie didn’t come to Tascosa until 1880, which would have been a couple years after Billy and his gang had left, so she most likely was repeating a story that she had heard, or that Mickey had told her.
Frenchie and Mickey lived throughout Tascosa’s amazing growth and turbulent demise. They were there during the birth and sale of the 3,000,000 acre XIT Ranch (1885 -1912). Then on October 7, 1912, Mickey was feeling ill just prior to going hunting. He sprawled across their bed. He looked at Frenchie and said “I wonder what you will do” and died a few minutes later. Casandra Firman wrote of their love in “One Christmas in Old Tascosa”. People fall in love all the time, but not all love is created equal. Frenchie and Mickey’s love was the kind of love that we all hope to find, but not all of us are so lucky. They breathed only because it allowed them one more day to be together. Mickey was buried at the Casimero Romero Cemetery about ½ mile east of Tascosa.
Frenchie was 60 years old at the time of Mickey’s death. After she was widowed, friends and county officials made sure that she had coal for her stove, kerosene for her lamps, and food for her table.
Then in 1915, the county seat was moved to Vega. The courthouse was abandoned until the early 1920s when Julian Bivins and his family remodeled it and made it their summer home. Even after the family quit coming out to Tascosa, it was used as the western headquarters for the Bivins Ranch. Other than a few old-timers who moved out by the late 1920s, Frenchie was alone.
Part Three- After Mickey’s Death
Below, Frenchie, still living in Tascosa, is pictured in the late 1930s with one of her few guests, John Lang.
She did have friends who would check on her weekly, including Roy Turner who lived four miles west of Tascosa, and Lona Blackwell from Channing. The Bivins family did summer at the remodeled courthouse in the early 1920s but they didn’t write about visiting Frenchie.
The Great Depression did not change Frenchie’s life. She had no electricity, running water, or transportation prior to it or after. The heat, cold, and poverty were her daily life.
In Casandra Firman’s “One Christmas in Old Tascosa” from 1931, she tells of her mother, Quintille Speck, having been a child who lived in the Tascosa area and attending the Tascosa one-room school. It was the last day of school, prior to the Christmas break. The children had been decorating the schoolhouse in preparation for the Christmas Pageant. It began to snow, which excited the children, that is until they realized it was a blizzard that would strand them and keep their families from being able to attend the Pageant.
While attempting to entertain themselves during the isolation in the schoolhouse, Quintille and her friend, Jimmy Balfour, made ghost handprints on a frosty windowpane. Jimmy noticed through one handprint, a figure out in the blowing snow. Their teacher, Mrs. Talley, said it was definitely someone, but who could be out in this weather? The figure held a cane in one hand and a package in the other. The misery that had descended on their classroom vanished! Who’s coming? Upon entering, she lifted her head. What they saw were eyes the color of the sky in deepest summer. “I’m sorry to be late,” Frenchie said with the slightest French accent merged with a Texas drawl. “There’s a bit of snow out, and I don’t walk as fast as I once did.” Frenchie was 79 years old at the time. “I brought some little cakes for you,” she said. Quintille stated, “The Pageant was a success and beautiful snow dressed the earth. And I sang for the Belle of Old Tascosa.”
In his book, The Angels Sing, journalist Lewis Nordyke wrote of the times he visited Frenchie in her home in the early 1930s. Frenchie was still hushed about her past, only talking of daily challenges and her Mack, who she was to be buried beside at the Casimero Romero Cemetery.
Lewis wrote of a terrifying experience that Frenchie had told him. Several friends had gone to see her on a Sunday afternoon. When they drove up two men walked out of her adobe house and drove away. The friends, upon entering the house, found Frenchie standing backed into a corner. She was quivering all over. She was breathing rapidly and in her hands was a torn piece of paper. The lid of her trunk was open, and its contents were tumbled and scattered. Frenchie’s dress was disarranged, and perspiration beaded her forehead.
“Thank God I have friends!” she cried. Then she dropped into her rocking chair.
In a shaky voice, she told the story. The men they had seen leaving Frenchie’s had told her they were from a college in Tennessee and that they were compiling a history of ghost towns. They asked to see her papers. She refused and ordered them out of the house. One of the men grabbed her. The other went to work and broke the lock on the trunk.
One man started ransacking the trunk. Frenchie jerked away from the man who was trying to hold her. She ran across the room and struck the man at the trunk. She grabbed a paper from his hand. He grappled with her, trying desperately to get the paper. He tore off a corner. Frenchie screamed but held fast.
One of the men glanced out the door and saw a car coming. The men fled after threatening to kill the old woman.
The paper in her hands was her marriage license. “It’s my dearest possession,” she told me. “If I’d let them take it I couldn’t have faced Mickey. He’d have understood, of course, but he thought so much of the license. He told me we must always keep it.”
Sometimes historical trees can mark places known for the people who made them famous. Such is the twisted tree with the distinctive trunk that marks the spot at Boys Ranch where Frenchy McCormick lived for almost sixty years and died in 1941, as the last person in the deserted town of Tascosa. She was given a beautiful funeral attended by many prominent people from Amarillo and elsewhere. Her story was a western classic in that it embodied the spirit of the wild and rugged early Texas Panhandle. She came to booming Tascosa when it was only four years old with Mickey McCormick from Mobeetie, the first town in the Panhandle.
She was young and vivacious with a mysterious past and vowed, “No one will ever know where I came from.” Later, meager facts revealed she was born around 1852, came from the vicinity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and ran away from home when she was 14 or 16 years of age.
One story is that she caught a stage to Dodge City, Kansas when it was a booming trail herd center. Another was that she went first to Saint Louis and entered a convent. Her reasons for leaving home have been the speculation of many writers over the years- take your choice.
In Dodge City, Kansas she worked in dance halls and bars and became known for her elaborate wardrobe and spirited character. Once she was grabbed on the arm by a Texas cowboy who shouted, “I want to dance with Frenchy.” She thereafter was known as Frenchy.
As the cattle drives died away and the buffalo hunters headed south to the Texas plains, she packed several trunks with her wardrobe of beautiful elaborate dresses, feather plumes, satin slippers, and smart floor-length ensembles and caught the stage to Mobeetie. Mobeetie was in the early stages of growth near the new military establishment of Fort Elliott and was a wild, unruly frontier town of hundreds of ambitious men and a handful of adventurous women.
So it was that Frenchy was in Mobeetie when Mickey McCormick, a witty and dapper Irish gambler, hunter, and livery stable operator from Tascosa more than 100 miles up the Canadian River, drove a buggy into town. In the course of his livery business, Mickey was hauling a lawyer to the fort, which was the county seat of government for the wild Panhandle. There at the gaming tables, Mickey always won when Frenchy was by his side. He called her his luck. When he left to return to Tascosa he took Frenchy with him.
In that year of 1880, four-year-old Tascosa was booming, and his livery business was good, but Mickey continued his sideline, gambling rooms behind a saloon. During the evening, Frenchy dealt monte while Mickey played at the gaming tables. Frenchy told friends she had taken in as much as $1,800 in one night dealing monte. When she was old and deaf, she could still deal cards better than anyone in the room and would even show them a few dance steps.
Soon after Mickey and Frenchy arrived in Tascosa in 1880, he built Elizabeth (he never called her Frenchy) a two-room adobe house under a cottonwood tree with a distinctive, twisted trunk west of Atascosa Creek from which the town derived its name. The house was about a block from his livery stable on Main Street.
In the year 1881, Oldham County was organized with Tascosa as the county seat. When bartender “Scotty” Wilson was elected Justice of the Peace he implemented a strict new “law and order” that all cowboys and dance hall girls who had been living together were required by code to have a marriage license costing a sizeable fee. Mr. Wilson pocketed the money for his personal use. Mickey and Frenchy’s names show up in his marriage record book in 1881. The marriages were blessed by a Catholic priest a few years later. The name Frenchy used for the marriage record was Elizabeth McGraw and she also used that name when answering questions for her old age pension 56 years later. The marriage license was never recorded in Oldham County records, but she had a license certificate from JP “Scotty” Wilson which was a prized possession until her death.
She never spoke of her religion but shortly before she died, she gave a friend her rosary and said that she was a Catholic. When some friends took her to church in Channing, she declined to go in saying, “It might be out of place for me to go into the Lord’s house.”
When Frenchy died the papers and newscasters reported that the Girl of the Golden West had died. She was buried beside Mickey in the Casimiro Romero Cemetery at old Hogtown a few blocks distance from the notorious Boot Hill where the gunfighters and outlaws are buried.
The boys at Boys Ranch raised money to erect a marble headstone reading “(Frenchy) Elizabeth McCormick-August 11, 1852 to January 12, 1941.”
To learn a bit more about the recent history of Frenchie’s Tree and a bit more about Frenchie’s story, visit Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch website to read an article written for the June 6, 2019 Boys Ranch newsletter. (Select the button below to open the article in a new tab.)