Bison Fest in Quitaque
The seventh annual Bison Fest takes place September 23rd in Quitaque, Texas. An entire block of downtown will be closed-off for a street dance featuring art, food, historical re-enactors, and five of the hottest country bands in the Lone Star state. This year’s headlining act is the Randy Rogers Band. The all-day music festival serves as a celebration of the Official Bison Herd of Texas, the last remaining example of the Great Southern herd. All proceeds go toward funding restoration of their natural habitat at Caprock Canyons State Park.
Bison Fest 2017 will feature Frontier Days re-enactors as well as a wide variety of arts and crafts vendors, including leather workers and silversmiths. The festival kicks off at 10:00 a.m. when vendors open for business. Musicians start playing at 3:00 p.m. and continue throughout the afternoon and evening. The Randy Rogers Band takes the stage at 8:30. VIP tickets, limited to only two hundred, allow access to the coolest honkytonk in West Texas where the musicians, including the headliner, will play additional private concerts.
“Caprock Canyons State Park is over 15,000 acres,” Park Superintendent Donald Beard said. “And it’s historic bison grounds.” Before the 1970s, much of the area was ranchland. Overgrazing drastically altered the original appearance of the landscape. “The mesquites and junipers became invasive and took over a lot of the prairie and rolling plains. We’re trying to restore it to what it would’ve looked like prior to European settlement, about three hundred years ago when the bison and Native Americans would roam all over this land.”
The project is intent on transforming the park back to its historic natural state. With that goal in mind, the park has reintroduced keystone species of wildlife and continues to work at keeping invasive plants at bay. Mesquite and juniper are particularly over-abundant, choking out native prairie grasses and impeding views of the canyon and star-flung night sky.
With about 2,000 acres currently restored, progress has been slow and hard-fought. “We’ve got a long way to go,” Beard said. “Because this is a rich archeological site, we can’t use traditional means like grubbing.” Soil disturbance is prohibited, so alternative methods have to be used, such as aerial application, prescribed fire, and cut and spray.
Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Kevin Deal takes the stage at 3:00 p.m. Deal is a craftsman who never forgets that true country music belongs to the working man.
Bison Fest is proud to announce their first female artist, Sarah Hobbs, will be performing at 4:00. Hobbs’ music is best described as traditional country with a modern twist. Her songwriting and vocals always come straight from the heart.
Roots rocker Zac Wilkerson performs at 5:00. Based out of Amarillo, Wilkerson is a past winner of the Blue Light Live Singer/Songwriter Contest. He exhibits strong country, soul, and folk influences.
Award-winning country musician Mark Powell plays for fans at 6:30. An artist who brings new life to old traditions, Powell has been praised as carrying the torch for Texas music.
At 8:30 the Randy Rogers Band delivers a powerful live show. From Rogers’ earnest, authentic vocals to the band’s incomparable musicianship, they leave audiences thunderstruck. The much-loved band remains dedicated to their craft. In their hands, country songs are elevated from simple entertainment to rousing works of art.
West Texas Honkytonk
The exclusive VIP concerts are held in the air-conditioned coolness of the Quitaque Country Club. Teri Gibson owns the historic downtown building, but the country club is a family affair, with his wife Alexa and daughter Brooke serving as full partners. “During bison fest,” Gibson said, “we have the VIP guests come in and there’s entertainment while we provide food and drinks—soft drinks and hard drinks, whatever they want.”
The country club usually functions as a private gathering place for the Gibson family and friends. Bison Fest is the perfect opportunity for the public to experience the fully-restored, historic structure. Decorated in a classic gas station style, the walls are adorned with vintage advertising signs from Gibson’s large personal collection. “It’s got a tin ceiling that’s in really good shape, hardwood floors, and a bar I installed.”
The building is a childhood dream come true for Gibson. “It’s just a place I always wanted. My dad wanted it as well—he just didn’t live long enough to get it.” The structure was originally a dry goods store, which opened in 1927. “It was still a dry goods store when I was a little kid in the early ‘60’s,” Gibson said. Over the decades, various businesses came and went before the building stood empty. “It had become kind of dilapidated and was just sitting there. So I inquired about it and bought it.” Gibson’s restoration transformed the building into what Park Superintendent Donald Beard called, “The coolest honkytonk in West Texas.”
Teri Gibson is dedicated to supporting the community and park. “If you were to look up Mr. Quitaque in the encyclopedia,” he said, “you’d probably see me. Anything we can do to bring in outside people and money, I’m for it one hundred percent. I’m always interested in helping promote Quitaque and Caprock Canyons State Park.”
Where the Buffalo Roam
Bison wander free-range throughout Caprock Canyons State Park, drifting around campsites or down to the lake for a drink of water. Visitors can enjoy an up-close experience of the shaggy, lumbering creatures, a kind of Yellowstone-in-Texas.
Caprock Canyons is an unforgettable educational and recreational getaway. Located between the High Plains to the west and the Rolling Plains to the east, the park contains thousands of acres of natural beauty, stunning wildlife, and unique archeological features. The rugged splendor of the Caprock Escarpment, which gives the park its name, is a stunning sight. The wind- and water-carved canyons are home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and—of course—bison. The animals can be seen along the park’s 90 miles of hiking trails. Horses and bicycles are allowed on many of the trails. Hikers can watch a colony of bats fly from their roosts in the darkness of Clarity Tunnel, a 582-foot long abandoned railroad tunnel. Fishing, swimming, and no-wake boating are available on Lake Theo. The park is also a great geocaching location. Check tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caprock-canyons for more info and a full schedule of park events.
Caprock Partners Foundation
Without the invaluable help of Caprock Partners Foundation, Bison Fest and the restoration effort would be impossible. The non-profit organization works to benefit the park, preserving it for the enjoyment of future generations of Texans. In addition to funding much of the restoration, they secure specially needed items for the park, acting as a financial support group. “Anything extra the park needs, we buy it for them,” Secretary Treasurer Jana Carpenter said. “Then once a year we have Bison Fest and, if we hopefully make money, those funds go into the park as well.”
For Carpenter, the fundraising is a labor of love. “I think the bison are incredible, but of course, I might be a little biased. They’re beautiful animals and mean so much to Texas. It’s unbelievable, the number of people that come to see them. Visitation has increased dramatically. It’s so good for families to experience the great outdoors, especially these days, and the park is a beautiful place. I go out there several times a week myself, just to look around and walk.”
You can help the cause by becoming a member at caprockpartnersfoundation.com/. A $25 membership entitles you to a free gift and discounts in the park’s giftshop.
“Any donation at all is appreciated,” Carpenter added.
Death and Resurrection
Historically, between 30-60 million bison ranged North America. For Plains tribes like the Comanches, bison represented a way of life and served as their main food source. Their hides provided leather for clothing and tipi coverings and their sinew was used for bow strings. Nomadic Comanches lived in utter freedom, following the migrations of the sacred buffalo. In those bygone days, great herds spanned the horizon like the shadow of a passing cloud.
In the 1870s, new tanning processes made buffalo hides a valuable source of leather. A single hide was worth $3.50, a tidy amount at that time. From 1868 to 1881, hunters armed with long-range rifles, such as the Sharps .50, killed 31 million bison. Because a buffalo would react only if it could see the source of danger, a lone shooter could easily take down a huge number of animals. When one buffalo fell over dead from a rifle-shot, the others would simply remain standing, rather than flee from the unseen killer. Hunter Tom Nixon once dropped 3,200 bison in thirty-five short days. Skinners followed after the riflemen and stripped the carcasses of hides and tongues. The filthy, reeking men stacked the hides in covered wagons for shipment to the railhead at Dodge City, Kansas. The buffalo carcasses were abandoned to rot. Soon the plains were pale with acres of sun-bleached bones, marking the end of an era.
The U.S. Army endorsed this policy of exterminating the bison as a means of pressuring the starving native tribes onto reservations. General Phil Sheridan noted, “These men (buffalo hunters) have done in the last two years… more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.” By the close of the 19th century, hunters had brought the species to near extinction, with only 541 animals still living in 1895.
The only surviving example of the southern herd were the bison saved by legendary rancher Charles Goodnight. In 1878, at the urging of his wife Mary Ann, Goodnight trapped a number of bison in the Palo Duro Canyon. “These animals at Caprock Canyons Park,” Beard explained, “are the direct descendants of those he captured in the wild.” Southern bison differ from their northern counterparts in their unique genetic markers. The herd is significant not only culturally, but—thanks to their genetics—scientifically as well. Beard has attended numerous bison conservation workshops across the country and noted, “Anytime you start talking about bison genetics, these animals are brought into the conversation. Their genetics are vital to what we’re doing as a nation in regard to conservation of the bison.”
In 1996, the last thirty-two members of the herd were once again trapped in Palo Duro Canyon. They were given a new home at Caprock Canyons State Park and cared for by park staff. Since then, the herd has grown to 150 head, with a hundred of those animals born in just the last eight years.
“The herd is really starting to multiple now,” Beard said. “Things are really going well for them.” With bison numbers continuing to grow, the restoration project is more important than ever, in order to accommodate as many animals as possible on park grounds without destroying natural resources.
Bring your family and friends to Bison Fest 2017, listen to your favorite bands, and celebrate a living symbol of Texas history. The event will be held September 23rd, rain or shine. Advance tickets are $30, general admission at the gate will be $35, and VIP passes are $125. BYOB with $10 cooler charge. Lodging is available in nearby Turkey, Texas, and at hotels in Plainview and Childress, both 45-minute drives. To stay at a tent or RV campsite in Caprock Canyons State Park, make a reservation as soon as possible. Visit www.bisonfest.com to purchase tickets.