Two Days in Albany: Goodbye to A Cowboy

One of the more memorable events in my life began in 1989 when I heard about Watt Matthews of Lambshead by Laura Wilson. David McCullough (before he won the Pulitzer and became world famous), wrote the introduction to the book.

Watt was ninety when the book was published, but still stood at the branding chutes and applied his iron to 2000 calves during spring roundup. But what really struck me was that this wealthy man still lived in a small bunkhouse on the ranch with a concrete floor and no central A/C and only a fireplace for heat; slept on an iron bed; took noontime naps on a wooden bench without benefit of a pillow; and ran his 45,000 acres from an open corner in the cook shack.

Though Watt’s father feared that Princeton would be bad for his character, his mother insisted that he attend. He graduated in 1921. The four years he spent there were the only four years he did not live on Lambshead Ranch. The Princeton class directory listed him as “Rancher, Box 636, Albany, Texas”. And Princeton did not harm his character. Bill Cauble, a Lambshead cowboy, said, “To me, that’s the real character of a man, when he could have anything he wanted, but didn’t want anything.”

I made an entry on my goals list: “Meet Watt Matthews.” I couldn’t really see how that would come about, but I wanted it to. After writing that goal, Watt seemed to show up in about half the magazines and newspapers I picked up—two time winner of Golden Spur Award, Charles Goodnight Award from National Cutting Horse Association, and many others. He was invited to be inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, but asked that his mother be inducted instead. She was, but he was inducted later.

Two years after setting my goal to meet Watt, I made a career change that took me in a direction I never imagined. I co-founded a small financial services firm. Our niche was in training CPA’s to be financial planners. Four years later, one of our CPA’s invited me to San Angelo, fairly close to Watt. I put him off. A family friend invited me to Ranger. Too busy. A Sweetwater CPA invited me out. All close to Albany, but the head-slapping moment came when an Albany CPA that I did not know called me. A deep voice said, “How many hints do you need?”

I made business stops in Abilene, San Angelo, Sweetwater, and spent the night in little Albany, a town of about two thousand. The CPA I came to visit sent me to the First National Bank, where Watt had been a director for over sixty years. A pair of his old boots and spurs and a hat were in a glass display in the lobby. A teller gave me directions and I drove thirteen miles to the ranch, then fifteen more on a ranch road until I found headquarters. I checked the outbuildings and all seemed deserted. I just couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door to a small cottage in the middle of headquarters.  What would I say to a man now ninety-six? “Hi, I’m a tourist. Would you sign my books?”

Tail between my legs, I returned to town. I visited the Matthews room in the Old Jail Art Museum. In the local bookstore, I bought Interwoven, a book written in 1936 by Sally Reynolds Matthews, Watt’s mother. Watt was the youngest of her nine children. The bookstore owner laughed when I told her about my hapless trip to the ranch. She called and got Watt’s caregiver on the phone. She invited me to come back out.

Watt and his caregiver and about ten cowboys were in the cook shack when I arrived. “Get a plate,” he said. I politely declined, apologized for bothering the great man. When he repeated the invitation more firmly, I got in line behind the last ranch hand, heaven for this wannabe cowboy. The meal was great ranch fare, tasty and hearty. After an hour of conversation, I presented my books. He asked the nurse for a pad and pen. He wrote on the yellow pad and handed it to me.

Thanks to Jim Ainsworth for bringing this book to Lambshead for me to sign. Sincerely, a new friend. Watt Matthews, 9-6-95.  I nodded humbly in appreciation and he wrote the same thing in my books. How I wish I had asked for that yellow sheet of paper. I saw his open journal and his bench in the corner that he called his office and asked if I could take a look. Found this entry:

Beautiful starlit morning. Hope the wind doesn’t come up with the sun. We got the cows in, separated, vaccinated and dipped in time to get started with the branding at ten.

Later, I got to see some of the buildings he had restored, the civic work he led and funded. Watt died a year later. There was a car wreck on the ranch, followed by a stroke and pneumonia. He asked to be brought home from the hospital and died the next morning.

They put him in a plain pine box dressed in jeans and boots and denim jacket, put the box in the bed of a faded yellow buckboard, and surrounded it with bales of hay. Two cowboys in white shirts and black hats sat in the seat and handled the horses. More walked behind and alongside to the family cemetery on the ranch. They laid him to rest on the ranch he loved. Over 700 mourners attended and the burial was covered by news outlets nationwide.

They sang “America the Beautiful” and Watt’s favorite song, “Prairie Land”. A prairie plain, a bright blue sky, A now white cloud a sailin’ high, A wanton wind, a blowin’ free, This is the land for men like me.

Yes it is.

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