Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Robert E. Howard House and Museum and REH Days

If you have never visited Cross Plains, Texas to see that tiny little home off of highway 36, you are missing out on a truly historic place. On the western edge of Cross Plains sits the small one bedroom house where the greatest pulp fiction writer of the 20th century lived and dreamed. If it were not for the neat picket fence and historical marker in the front yard, the house would inconspicuously sit there off the main highway.

My first visit to the Howard home was back around 1982 or '83. At that time someone was living in it, and it looked quite different than it does today. The paint was peeling, the fence drooped, and the yard needed to be cut. There was a large pecan tree in the front left corner of the yard that is no longer there today. But you know what? I was 16 or 17 years old and I was staring at one of my favorite author's house. For me that was all that mattered.

I didn't see the house again until around 2002. That was when I found out that a group of Howard fans met there every year for what was called REH Days. I was with my step-father, we stopped by the Cross Plains Public Library to see copies of REH's original manuscripts. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the person I spoke with, but she gave me some literature on the house and REH Days. I had promised myself I would attend. On this trip, we were unable to find the person who gave the tours, so I was not able to go into the house. But, seeing facsimiles of REH's manuscripts was awesome.

Another visit to the house included my sister. Shortly after my step-father died, we were in our hometown (Abilene) taking care of estate issues. The trip I took with him to Cross Plains came up in our conversation and we decided to stop off in Cross Plains on our way back to Dallas. It was fairly early in the morning when we arrived. On this trip, there was a new pavilion that had been built next to the house on the old Butler property. There were several people at the pavilion, so my sister and I walked up to greet them. A guy was taking camera equipment out of a large bag, so I chatted with him about what was going on. He told me they were about to film a documentary about REH Days. Realizing that REH days for that year began the next day, I turned to my sister and explained to her what it was and how the person at the CP Public Library had given me information on it.

The camera man asked if we were in Cross Plains to attend. I said we were just passing through. I had to get my sister back to Dallas so she could catch a flight to Minnesota (where she lived). But inside I was screaming at myself for having to miss it. We asked if there was someone around who could let us into the house. Several people made calls, found someone, but it would be a few hours. We could not wait that long and had to leave. I thanked the guy for helping us and wished them luck on their documentary. I found out a few years later that this was the documentary crew I had met that day.

Once again, in that "lost decade" from first finding out about REH Days (in 2002) to this year when I finally attended, I missed out on all the fun. I was so close to attending the year I visited with my sister.

Around 2008 or '09, and I cannot remember the exact year, I finally told my wife that I had missed out on simply trying to visit Cross Plains and see the inside of the Howard home. So I told her to pack her stuff. "We're going!" I said. "Going where?" she asked. "To Cross Plains!" You have to understand, my wife is not a "spur of the moment" kind of gal. She likes to plan things, be prepared. So this was out of her comfort zone. But she did it. We jumped in the car, drove to Cross Plains, and decided to stay the night while we were there. 

We arrived in Cross Plains and immediately booked a room in the tiny motel adjacent to the pavilion on the Butler property. The Motel was called 36 West Motel. We then visited the public library, found a person who could let us into the house and set up a time for us to visit: 9 a.m. the following morning. So, here we were in tiny Cross Plains, Texas trying to decide what we could do. We hung out in the library for a few hours then grabbed a bite to eat, and went back to our motel room. I might add that the rooms in the 36 West Motel are paper thin. Seriously, you can hear everything outside and in the next room. My wife got a kick out of the motel because it reminded her of her grandparent's motel in Waxahachie, TX called The Drifter's Inn.

The next day, we took a tour of the house. Finally, I actually got to see inside REH's home. Believe me when I say this, I was in awe. The house is set up complete with furniture, books, pictures in the hallway, memorabilia in the kitchen, etc. The person giving us the tour provided us with a nice history of the house, explained which items actually belonged to the Howard's, and then let me enter REH's small nook of a bedroom to see the area where he worked.

The first visit is difficult to explain. All kinds of emotions were coursing through my being. To actually be in the very room where Howard created his characters, hammered his prose on his Underwood No. 5, is an experience that, well, you can only experience for yourself. At this point, I'd been reading Howard's work for three decades, so seeing his work space was like seeing the holy grail of fiction.

I was so impressed with this visit, I talked it up to my best friend. So, the next visit I made to the house was with him. I cannot remember the date we went (I think it was sometime in 2010).  But, we did sync our work schedules, set up a tour with a guide and decided to take a one day road trip. We arrived at the designated time, met the guide at the house and took the tour. I had introduced my friend to Howard a few years before, so he had already read several of the Conan stories. He had also heard me talk about Howard for years before this visit. When we were there he bought a Del Rey copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. We stayed in the house for a couple of hours and talked to the tour guide about all the people from around the world who had visited the house over the years. Then she took our picture in the shop at the back of the house.

The tour guide also talked about REH Days. I explained to her that I had been meaning to attend the last few years but never made the time. She gave me a much needed lecture on why I ought to attend and I merely nodded my head in shame.

After this trip, I talked about the REH house and museum with my brother. He was so compelled by what I was telling him he wanted to see the place for himself. This visit was on 6/20/2011. Notice the date? It is just after the 2011 REH Days. My brother was in town for a weekend, I had just been laid off as a teacher/aide by the State of Texas and was looking for a new job. Because I needed to "get away," we planned this trip around our schedules. My father wanted to tag along, so he went with us; not an easy trip for him, he was 75 at the time. We set up another tour of the house and decided to stay for the day. We took several pictures while we were there. Below is one of the pictures taken just outside the Cross Plains Public Library and on the front porch of the house.

That same trip, we visited REH's grave site at the Greenleaf Cemetery, in Brownwod, TX (where C. M. Grady, the famous Texas Ranger is also buried). After this visit, my brother was so impressed, he talked about attending the REH days the following year. We did. So, in 2012, I finally attended my first REH Days—ten years after finding out about it. Being in the house with other serious Howard fans is a real treat. Hearing how they were introduced to Howard's work while standing in the very place Howard created that work is an experience I'm not able to put into words.

If you have wanted to visit the Howard House and Museum and/or attend REH Days in Cross Plains, TX, don't do like I did and put if off. I  regret having so many near misses, and not rearranging my schedule to attend REH Days. Seeing the house and attending REH Days is like no other experience. So, if you have a chance, utilize every effort to make it happen. You'll be so glad you did. I promise.

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