Liberty Hill once a stage for real-life Westerns

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John Hughes at the head of the Sunbowl Parade in El Paso sometime in the 1930s. Rangers were a lauded figure in popular media at the time. Hughes retired years earlier in 1915. (Courtesy Photo)

John Hughes at the head of the Sunbowl Parade in El Paso sometime in the 1930s. Rangers were a lauded figure in popular media at the time. Hughes retired years earlier in 1915. (Courtesy Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Liberty Hill, 1887.

Escaped murderer Wesley Collier has taken a nearby ranch house as his hide-out. He’d been wounded in a six-shooter scrap with a Texas Ranger, and needed time to lick his wounds. This morning, he wakes up shortly before dawn. He’s putting his clothes on when there’s a sudden shout from the open front door — “Hands up, Collier!”

It’s the Ranger. Collier turns but already at the back door, the famous bandit-hunter John Hughes had stepped in with a gun of his own. Collier lunges for his gun, but the Ranger squeezes off a single shot— and there was no need for a second.

It might be hard to imagine today, but living in Liberty Hill over a century ago would’ve meant a front row seat to a real life Western. Only not as fun since the outlaws were actually stealing and killing.

At the time of the incident described above, the Ohio native John Hughes, lived in Liberty Hill and was not only a famous lawbringer in his own right, but some say was one of many inspirations for Zane Grey’s 1915 book, The Lone Star Ranger.

In fact, it was that morning with Collier that helped prove to the Rangers that they needed Hughes among their ranks. He was sworn in later that year to begin a nearly 30-year career as a Texas Ranger, during which he became one of the most famous and influential men to wear the star.

The horse ranch he and his brother owned in Liberty Hill was known as the Long Hollow Ranch. Hughes and his brother started it in 1878, and only five years later, in 1883, a gang of thieves making their way through Williamson and Burnet counties stole 16 of Hughes’ horses, along with dozens of others in the area.

“To John, this would’ve have been a blow financially, but it was also just the idea,” said Chuck Parsons, a historical expert on Hughes and other Texas Rangers from the period. “He vowed to everyone who’d had their horse stolen that he would get them back or die trying.”

Hughes spoke to his neighbors, who agreed to look over his ranch while he hunted the bandits. Using the tracking techniques taught to him by Comanches when he lived in the American Indian Territories, Hughes followed the bandits across the Panhandle and into New Mexico. What happened when he found them is a matter of dispute, but all agree that there was a vicious gunfight. Hughes returned the horses back to Liberty Hill a little over a year later.

Just a few years later in 1887, a Texas Ranger asks him to help capture another outlaw, and deputizes him in the task. After they successfully do so, Hughes swears in as a Texas Ranger.

“That starts him on the road to fame,” Parsons said. And over the next 30 years, until 1915, Parsons estimates that Hughes must have performed “it’s safe to say over 100 operations”– chasing down train robbers and cattle rustlers, rescuing hostages, settling disputes—all the usual duties of a lawbringer in that period.

Hughes rises through the ranks by a combination of unsurpassed merit and unheard of luck, as his superiors keep dying in gunfights or are dismissed. He eventually became a senior captain, leading a large group of Rangers.

“They all realized Hughes was the perfect man to lead a company of rangers,” Parsons said.

In 1915, Hughes retired.

“I think it was a matter of Pa Ferguson [Governor of Texas 1915-1917]. The Fergusons almost did away with all the Rangers. They fired so many and hired so many political friends. I never was able to find a document officially that said Hughes was fired. But I think he was just disgusted with the whole Ferguson outfit and quit,” Parsons said.

At the time, Hughes would have been 60 years old, but still in good health.

“He was never a ‘sit on the front porch and watch the world go by’ sort,” Parsons said.

This is also the year that Zane Grey writes The Lone Star Ranger, about an unwilling outlaw who transitions into a role as a Texas Ranger in order to secure a pardon from the governor. Grey dedicates the fictional novel to John Hughes, who by that time was a major figure in the romantic imagining of the Wild West as a war won by lawmen. Hughes is in parades and frequently interviewed. His stories frequently appear in pulpy retellings.

Though the popular radio series “The Lone Ranger” is unrelated, and only linked to Grey’s novel by speculated inspiration, Grey’s novel on its own did receive several major film adaptations in the 1930s.

“I’m sure Zane Grey did see Hughes as an inspiration, among other persons. But this idea of the Lone Ranger as we probably know him from the radio series, or later as Clayton Moore with his silver bullets, was unrelated. The author of the radio series might have read Zane Grey’s novel, and he might have been aware of John Hughes, but I’m not sure there’s any connection between Hughes and the masked Lone Ranger,” Parsons said.

Hughes would have been alive for all of this “ranger-mania” that pervaded the radio waves and movie screens at the time. He died in 1947 in Austin, while visiting some nieces and nephews there. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“He was in his nineties, his health was failing, and his Ranger companions for the most part were all gone,” Parsons said. “All the gunfights had come to an end.”

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