- Historic Sites
A novelist turned compulsive traveler tracks a peculiar quarry all across America
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
“You could do the same thing with Springfields, but who’d want to?”
Tentatively, though, we’ve crossed it off our list. Same goes for Buffalo Gap, Texas, the one in Travis County. We’ve already been to Buffalo Gap south of Abilene. As a matter of fact, we’ve been there twice because we liked it so much the first time. We found a great restaurant there, Judy’s Gathering Place, run by Judy Laughter Nalda, and decided that either she or her restaurant alone would be worth a detour of several hundred miles. But that’s in Taylor County. In fact, it was once the seat of Taylor County, until the railroad (does a subtle pattern begin to emerge?) passed fourteen miles north of Buffalo Gap, to the great detriment of that town and the great advantage of the new town of Abilene. The County Commission had to vote to transfer the county records and all to the new county seat, Abilene, and the commissioners dead-locked, 2 to 2, and the chairman cast the deciding vote for Abilene. When he got home, he found that somebody had murdered all his chickens.
In Buffalo, Missouri, we opened a bank account. We might have done this earlier, but it’s a rare Buffalo that has a bank in it. Our eighth Buffalo had a perfectly nice bank, and a perfectly nice woman helped us open a savings account with an initial deposit of twenty dollars. When she found out about our Buffalo hunt, she got into the spirit of the thing right away and scurried around, presenting us with every promotional item the bank had handed out in the past dozen years. We drove off with two Buffalo Bank caps, a Buffalo Bank outdoor thermometer, several embossed pencils, and a Buffalo Bank plastic fly swatter.
Buffaloville, Indiana, is deep in southwest Indiana, midway between Santa Claus and Lincoln City, site of the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, maintained by the National Park Service. We spent a couple of hours at the memorial, then pushed on to Buffaloville. A highway marker pointed the way from three miles off, but when you got there it was hard to tell you were there. No signs, no business establishments, just a long-abandoned gas station and a dozen or so scattered houses. We took a picture in front of the gas station, not one of our choicer photo ops. Three girls, probably eleven or twelve years old, came to see what we were up to. We asked them what they could tell us about Buffaloville.
“This is it,” they said.
Did they like it here?
No, it was terrible, they said. They were all from elsewhere and would have preferred to be anywhere else. There was nothing to do and no one to do it with, they reported, and the local people were terribly prejudiced. Once a black kid had come to town for some sort of school athletic event, and they’d run him straight out of town.
Lynne gave each girl a Buffalo Bank pencil, and we got in the car and headed for Santa Claus.
Why were buffalo wallowing in Alabama? And what were others of their ilk doing in South and North Carolina, in Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Maryland and West Virginia? There are seven, possibly eight, Buffalos in Pennsylvania; we’ve been to two of them. There are ten of the beasts in Virginia. Ten! In Virginia! I always thought of the bison as a Western animal, thundering across the plains, supporting the whole culture of the Plains Indians. There are, to be sure, Buffalo place-names scattered throughout the plains states, but why are there just as many in the East?
“If the fool will persist in his folly,” Blake wrote, “he will become wise.” I don’t know about that, but if you persist in anything long enough, you wind up learning something. There were two strains or subspecies of the buffalo, or American bison: the plains buffalo and the wood or mountain buffalo. Thus, much of the East was full of the critters, and it didn’t take the organized slaughter of the plains buffalo hunters to root them out. There seems to have been a universal human response to the beast. When a man saw one, all he wanted to do was kill it.
The best civic motto I’ve ever read: “Buffalo, City of No Illusions.”
The Indians were no less savage. They’d doubtless have exterminated the species themselves if they’d had the technology. As it was, their hunting method in suitable terrain consisted of cornering a whole herd and stampeding them over an obliging cliff, slaughtering them to the last buffalo.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, I learned early on that the city was not named after the animal and that no bison had ever been anywhere near the area until the local zoo acquired a brace of them. The name of the city, I was given to understand, was a corruption of the French beau fleuve, “beautiful river.” Presumably some English settlers ran into some French trappers and asked them where they were, and the French thought the question related to the Niagara River and responded accordingly.