- Historic Sites
A novelist turned compulsive traveler tracks a peculiar quarry all across America
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
We didn’t ask Jack Tomlinson about the private club— maybe it was a secret society, maybe you’re not supposed to talk about these things—but we did learn something about the town. It had originally been called Buffalo Wallow, he advised us, because there was a place over yonder where you couldn’t get anything to grow, and the conjecture was that this was because buffalo used to wallow there. The town itself had dwindled when the railroad stopped providing service north of Lafayette.
We put on our Buffalo shirts. We took pictures—with Jack in front of his store, and by ourselves in front of the Buffalo sign.
Our first Buffalo!
Buffalo, Mississippi, was almost as much of a surprise as Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma. It did not just fall into our laps, however, or we into it. It, too, was given to us, but we had to do a little work for it.
We were in Mobile, to visit Lynne’s mother, but it turned out she had gone off on her own to visit friends in Lucedale, Mississippi. There was something on television that evening that I found irresistible, or at any rate less resistible than a visit to my mother-in-law. Lynne felt restless enough to go to Lucedale alone. I wished her Godspeed and turned on the TV and put my feet up.
She came back the next morning bursting with news. Alone in the car on the way back and starved for companionship, she’d put on the CB radio. In among the bursts of static she’d heard two truckers jawing about something or other, and one of them mentioned Buffalo, Mississippi. She cut in with a breaker asking for information on that very place, and before their signal faded altogether, one of them managed to say that he wasn’t actually sure, but he thought there was a place called Buffalo near McLean or McLain or McClayne or something, she wasn’t sure just what.
In Alabama, the sign looked like subway graffiti, only not as neat.
McLain, Mississippi, is on the road from Mobile to Hattiesburg and wasn’t much out of our way, since I’d been planning to drive up to Meridian so that we could check out the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. (It’s housed in an old railway building, a fitting memorial to the Singing Brakeman, and I’d have to say it’s well worth a visit: pictures of Jimmie, drafts of songs, and tapes for sale you can’t get elsewhere.)
A lady at a gas station in McLain directed us to Buffalo. We didn’t have to go more than a few miles. There were no official signs, but we could tell when we were there. The woods were posted against trespass by the Buffalo Hunt Club, and there was also the Buffalo Baptist Church and a vast graveyard that called itself the Buffalo Cemetery, Inc.
‘This one’s not on any of the maps,” I told Lynne after I’d taken her picture in front of the big old boneyard. “Or in any of the atlases.”
“Well, I can see why,” she said. “Our first Buffalo isn’t a town any more, and our second Buffalo has a negative population. The only people who live here are dead.”
Some people, informed of our pursuit of the wily Buffalo, just don’t get it. If they’re not nonplussed, neither are they plussed.
When pressed, I am apt to explain that the Buffalo hunt is a matchless vehicle for serendipity. Chasing a Buffalo, one finds something unsought but by no means unappreciated.
In June 1988, for example, we were heading east after having spent a month in Sedona, Arizona. We drove through Colorado and into Kansas, passed a night in Garden City, then headed south, detouring to have a run at Buffalo, Oklahoma—the large one, in Harper County, at the eastern end of the Oklahoma panhandle. En route to it, we stopped for a look at a private museum in the house where the Dalton Boys holed up. There’s an underground tunnel from the house to the barn. Once a posse surrounded the house, and the Daltons scuttled through the tunnel, emerged in the barn, got on their horses, hooted at the lawmen, and rode off.
After logging our sixth Buffalo, we proceeded eastward across northern Oklahoma. We were going to be very near Bartlesville, so we stopped at Woolaroc, the museum and wild-animal preserve established by the founder of Phillips Petroleum. We could have spent several days looking at his collections of Western art and Plains Indian artifacts—they’re that good and that well displayed—but we wanted to get to Buffalo, Kansas, before nightfall.
We had time, though, for a stop at Coffeyville, Kansas, where there was a second Dalton Boys museum. This one was housed in one of the banks that they’d tried to rob and where they met their Waterloo. Emmett Dalton, youngest of the gang, was the sole survivor of the raid. He took a load of buckshot in the back and was not expected to live, but he pulled through, got out of prison in 1907, went to Hollywood, wrote his memoirs, appeared in films, became a screenwriter, and then made his fortune in Los Angeles real estate. (I’m not making this up.)
Now if you were to set out to visit the two Dalton museums, or even Woolaroc, you’d very likely have a good time. But it’s just not the same as coming upon them while looking for something else altogether. You have to take time to smell the flowers, certainly, but the whole point of your life can’t be sniffing around flower beds. The time you take to smell the flowers has to be taken from something else.