The Jones and Plummer Trail
As It Crossed Meade County, Kansas
by Nancy Ohnick
The Jones and Plummer Trail ran from Dodge City, Kansas in the north to the Texas Panhandle in the south. The rail served as a thoroughfare for pioneers and cattle drives but it was created by the freighters who hauled buffalo hides to Dodge City and goods back down the trail to serve the buffalo hunters and later the ranchers and settlers in the region. It was a civilian road created for commercial purposes.
The two former buffalo hunters turned merchants and freighters who marked the trail had a store on the Canadian River. Dodge City was the end of the railroad line at this time and the trail served as a route for transporting supplies from Dodge to their store and returning buffalo products to the railroad.
The life of the trail spanned two decades of the 1870s and 1880s, as a major freighting highway while the Cimarron valley region changed from a culture based on buffalo hunting to one founded on ranching and farming.
Ed Jones and Joe Plummer had both been buffalo hunters. Although they had known each other for some time, they did not become partners until 1874. The preceding year the government encouraged buffalo hunting south of the Arkansas River, totally disregarding the Medicine Lodge Treaty which had set aside a hunting round for the red man "as long as water runs and grass grows." The idea was to force the Indians off this land by destroying their food supply. Bloody raids were staged in retaliation by Chief Quanah Parker and his followers. In one such raid two partners of Joe Plummer were brutally murdered. Jones and Plummer fought the Indians along side other buffalo hunters and soldiers of the Sixth Cavalry and Fifth Infantry known as the Indian Territorial Expedition led by Colonel Nelson A. Miles. As the expedition finished the task it set out to do, Jones and Plummer were discharged for misconduct and left to shift for themselves some dozen miles west of the Antelope Hills in the Texas Panhandle.
In the fall of 1874, Jones and Plummer returned to the hunting range from Dodge City with a good stock of supplies. They built their store on the head of Wolf Creek out of cottonwood pickets. They had a dugout to keep their “store” in and they had a bar. They sold lots of whiskey, kept guns and ammunition for sale, and bought dried buffalo meat. Tongues and hides. Until the end of 1877 their store maintained a reputation as a place of refuge for a mane in need of whiskey, ammunition, or a rest from whatever cares beset him.
By this time it was clear to the two men that buffalo hunting was coming to an end. The partners, like other who had road ranches or trading posts, began looking for other opportunities. Jones and Plummer became cattle ranchers and their old store was converted into a ranch headquarters. The partnership dissolved in 1887, leaving only Jones to ranch for two more seasons before selling his holdings.
The following excerpt from Trails South by C. Robert Haywood, is a description of the Jones and Plummer Trail as it existed during the 1880s when Meade County was being settled and town were springing up everywhere.
The Jones and Plummer Trail was not heavily used, nor was the population along it static. There was always change as the trail shifted to meet the needs or whims of merchants, freighters, and stage owners. Jones was probably the architect, choosing the river and creek crossings marking the specific route. It started, or rather ended, at the partners' front door, connecting the Panhandle with Dodge City's Front Street. During its lifetime, four towns were organized close enough to it to cause it to be altered to accommodate the new main streets. After 1885 at its northern end the trail began to turn square corners, conforming to the granger's section lines. Even nature changed the details as it eroded crossings and in one dramatic instance dropped a fifty-foot section into a salt sinkhole near the Kansas line. Road ranches appeared and withered with the fortunes or interests of their owners. Although it was primarily a freighting trail, thousands of head of Texas cattle followed its ruts to the Dodge City stockyards. People then and now confused it with the Adobe Walls Trail, threatened to absorb it into other cattle trails, thought to extend it down into Texas, and accused it of wandering off to Wyoming. It remained alive and vibrant, changing and changeable, and unbearably dry and hot ribbon in summer and a life-threatening trap in the blizzards of winter.
At midpoint in the trail's history, say about 1879, a traveler journeying to the Jones and Plummer front door from Dodge City would cover some one hundred sixty eight miles, would cross six flowing streams and rivers, would observe at least four different textures of dust settling on his boots, and would wonder for hours whether he were the only traveler on the plains. If he had loaded his wagon with general merchandise at Wright, Beverly & Co. on Front Street he would start the trip by making a sharp turn down Bridge Street, heading south out of town. He would have experienced his first annoyance at having to pay the tollkeeper two dollars to take his six- or even four-team hookup across the wooden bridge; still, it was worth the price to make an easy crossing. The road out of town was flanked by cowboy camps, and the wheels of the wagon at first would have turned up fine sand as the sand hills rolled gently for a few miles and then gave over to the short grass and dark soil of the High Plains.
The first possible stop was just ten miles out at the Mulberry crossing, where A. H. Dugan ran a flea-bitten store and charged twenty-five cents a bucket for watering the team. The freighters might grumble but they paid the price, for it was another ten miles before water was again assured at a spring-fed stream that trickled into Crooked Creek. In later years road ranches would be available at various points along the way, but in 1879 the traveler's eye could sweep the horizon without detected any sign of habitation. The last tree he would have seen for many miles was the lone cottonwood on the south bank of the Arkansas River - a landmark dating back to early Santa Fe Trail days. In 1879, Carrie Schmoker traveled down the Jones and Plummer Trail to a new claim in Meade county. "In all that distance," she wrote, "from Dodge to about three miles from the site of Meade we saw not a single house, fence, field, or tree, nothing but the brown trail and on every side as far as the eye could reach, just grassy prairie land that was not green for there had been no rain for many months. On the high flats we saw a few prairie dog towns and we met a few freighting outfits going into town."
As the trail approached the Meade county line it skirted the east bank of Crooked Creek and kept to the edge of the sand hills until it turned west near the future site of Fowler, crossing rich, flat prairie lands. By the mid-1880s the traveler might have rested or eaten a meal at one of the road ranches. Certainly after 1885 he could have found an excellent dinner at the Wilburn House or by the next year at Fowler could have bought from Linn Frazier's store "goods, dirt cheap, on a dirt floor" or contested the flies at the Waco House for a skimpy supper.
After turning west, the trail user went five miles to George W. ("Hoodoo") Brown's road ranch. Here there was not only food and drink for the passengers and fodder for the horses but sleeping arrangements if desired. Hoodoo had located near a spring overlooking an artesian valley that lay to the north of the meandering Crooked Creek. His place was a welcome refuge for all who passed along the trail.
From Brown's ranch the trail turned almost straight south over what was to be called Irish Flats because a number of Irish families settled there. Approaching the crossing of Crooked Creek, the traveler would have been impressed with the high bluffs carved by a stream that seemed gentle, even placid, and frequently went dry in late July. As was true of any creek crossing, high water could create danger even here. A young freighter, the son of W. H. Currens of Dodge City, was killed when he fell into the creek and was run over by a wagon. At the confluence (a large word for such a small transaction) of Skunk Arroyo and Crooked Creek, C. ("Little") Pratt built a store, but his name was never associated with the crossing. O. D. Lemert, a rancher who lived nearby, later secured a post office under the name of Odee. That name stuck. The store, which came to be associated with Odee, passed into the hands of John Marts, who converted it into a road ranch. At first glance it might have appeared dull and mundane and certainly an unlikely setting for romance, but Dave Mackey, a cowboy working for the Crooked L, found that it had a special charm. The Marts had taken in Arabelle Sewell when her parents died, and she was working the day Dave passed through. Mrs. Tom A. Judy summarized the prairie romance as neat and natural as the real thing. "Belle liked his swash-buckling manner and he liked Belle. After a courtship they were married in 1884."
The land changed out of Odee. The dust picked up by the wagon wheels would be sandy red from the drifted sand hills, which were covered with buck sage and yucca. In places the mounts continued shifting, barren of vegetation. It was fifteen miles of wild hills, dry as a buffalo bone, before the next water was reached at the Cimarron. At least two town builders and possibly a third tried to capitalize on the Cimarron crossing of the Jones and Plummer Trail. J. M. Byers built a store and a blacksmith shop five miles north of the state line. Rose Bud, the local correspondent to the Fowler City Graphic, claimed a community of three hundred, which brought the following report from a neighboring-community reporter who visited the town and found two stores and three sod houses: "Gewhillikens! what awful families they do raise in that neck 'o woods; twenty-five to each family, and all formed in four months. Golly! what soil, and on sod too; and yet some tenderfoot will tell the innocents that nothing can be raised in southwestern Kansas." Byers did secure a post office that served the area off and on for twenty years, moving three times during its existence.
When the town of Nirwana was platted, Byers moved store and stamps to the new site. Nirwana came closer than the earlier efforts to being a river-crossing town on the order of Beaver, Oklahoma. Stimulated by the land boom of 1885-86, it prospered briefly, but the general exodus of settlers from Meade County in 1888 reduced it to open prairie once again. Its site was officially located well over a mile from the river, but the Meade editor described it somewhat closer. "Nerawana," he wrote, "is situated at the intersection of the Cimarron river and the Jones and Plummer Trail on a gentle southerly slope which terminates at the river bank." There was a post office, livery stable, two general stores, a schoolhouse (which blew down in a western Kansas gale), and a park.
Neither of these towns had much influence on the development of the area although they both served the trail and the settlers for a few months. The mysterious town of Ferguson probably lived only in the pages of the Fowler City Graphic, where it had a correspondent and its own column of news. The name first appeared in the July 16, 1885 issue announcing: "We are going to have a town on the banks of the classic Cimarron just where the Jones & Plummer Trail crosses the river. The soil is rich and water is easily gotten, but we don't want the county seat." The last statement makes it unique among western Kansas towns and undoubtedly accounts for its ghostly character. It did continue to send announcements to the Fowler paper but never gained any other recognition.
If none of these towns flourished, at least the Cimarron crossing could boast of a spectacular prairie dog town on the flats north of the river and two road ranches: Miles City on the south bank and Charles Heinz's (or Hines's) place on the north bank. Captain and Mrs. Henry A. Busing had a store and post office (borrowed from Byers City for a brief time) and some sheds and corrals, all made of sod or adobe, and the station was named Miles City. Part of the adobe walls of the store still stand. The old-timers used any of the three names - Miles, Heinz, and Busing - spelled whichever way they liked, to identify the crossing. All knew it as the Cimarron, the toughest passage the traveler had to make on his journey thus far. The river lay between hills, especially impressive to the north, marking the extent of a flat, even valley, lush with grass up to the very edge of the water. Under normal conditions it was a sandy, slightly briny stream; at other times it was a red, turbid flood. After such a flood it invariably became boggy in places, which tended to shift with each heavy rain, making a crossing somewhat of a gamble. Said Billy Dixon: "The Cimarron is commonly regarded as one of the most dangerous streams in the southwest. Its width often is three of four hundred yards. . . . It is filled to the brim with sand [that] . . . grips like a vise, and the river sucks down and buries all that it touches."
From Miles City to Beaver was forty miles and then another crossing at the Beaver River.
The trail then led through the Oklahoma Panhandle and into the big-ranch country of Texas ending at the Jones and Plummer Ranch on Wolf Creek just east of present-day US 83 highway.
For the freighter, the popularity of the Jones and Plummer trail was attributed to its well-marked route. The water places were spaced closer than those on many of the other trails; the terrain was smoother, or at least flatter, and as much sand as possible was avoided.
At the peak of its freighting days, 1880 to 1886, it was not unusual for 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of freight to pass over the trail in a given week. Besides the merchants, the trail was used by the big ranchers who bright in their own supplies. Traffic on the trail picked up considerable when homesteaders started to stream into Meade County creating a whole new market for goods.
In Cimarron Chronicles Carrie Schmoker Anshutz wrote of leaving Dodge City after arriving there by train and reaching their homestead in Meade County by way of the trail:
Two freighters with lead and trail wagons had been hired, their wagons and our own piled high above the sideboards with our goods. Each wagon bearing its quota of human freight disposed of to safest advantage, topping it all, we started south and west on the wide Jones Plumber Trail. Crossing the Arkansas River on the wooden toll bridge that had a wooden bar across it at the south end, where the toll house stood, each wagon was charged a toll of 50 cents for a single team, a six horse team was one dollar, horsemen were charged 25 cents. [The trail was very much a part of Carrie Anshutz’s life as she grew up in Meade County, and she describes it often in the book.]
The rapid increase in population brought more than four thousand new residents to Meade County between 1882 and 1888, increasing the traffic on the trail. Its popularity came to an end however, when the Rock Island Railroad came through the county with Meade and Fowler both on the line. Although local traffic continued for some time, the days of the wagon-road economy as a major economic impact ceased to exist.
Again, quoting from Trails South:
The trail was identified with that era on the Great Plains that spanned major transitions: from buffalo hunting to ranching to farming. As long as transportation was dependent upon beasts of burden, the Jones and Plummer Trail stimulated growth and progress. In the end, progress relegated the wagon trail to near oblivion. Its death knell was the sound of the train bell as a Santa Fe locomotive pulled into Panhandle City on New Year's Day 1888. Having served its purpose, the trail gradually slipped into the dust of history, and its mark upon the land was covered by the sod like a forgotten grave.
There are still traces of the Jones and Plummer Trail across Meade County. The ruts are only visible now in pastures and on hard, high ground where they are less apt to be washed away. There are some ruins of the Old Miles Post Office on the south bank of the Cimarron River, but all the other way stations and boom towns are long gone. Plowed under by the settler’s plow and blown away by the winds of time, the Jones and Plummer Trail became just another chapter in our history.