I flew into Dallas/Fort Worth Airport early Monday afternoon on a work trip. As I arrived fairly early in the day, with no work scheduled until Tuesday, I had made arrangements ahead of time to drive out to Cross Plains and visit the Robert E. Howard Museum there. For those who don’t know already, Robert E. Howard is the man who created the character Conan the Barbarian, a favorite of mine since I was young. He wrote much, much more than just Conan, though, which many people don’t realize. He was one of the giants of the Pulp Era of the late 20s and 30s, cranking out stories for the magazines of the day up until his death by suicide at the age of 30. The museum is actually a restoration of the house he lived in with his mother and father from 1919 until 1936.
After a couple hours of driving, I was finally able to get off the main highway.
Roads like this are so much more interesting than 4-lane interstates.
I passed the Cross Plains high school, Home of the Bison!
I’m sorry, but that’s kind of a sorry looking bison if you ask me.
My first stop was the library, which is right on the main street through town. I thought I took a couple pictures of Main Street, but I must be mistaken. It hasn’t changed much from Howard’s time. The library is what you would expect from a small town, but I’m thrilled they actually have one. These days, when tanks, missiles and no-bid contracts are more important to this country than education and public concerns, libraries seem to be a dying breed.
They sell photocopies of Howard’s actual manuscripts there, but I didn’t have time to look into that, as I was running a little behind schedule and the library was due to close. Instead I got directions to the Howard house, and in minutes I was there. This is what the front looks like from the street.
The driveway took me around back to park. Here’s a shot from the rear.
There I met a fine woman named Arlene, with whom I’d corresponded to arrange my visit. She was waiting there for me, and was my guide through the house. She is with an organization called Project Pride, which purchased the house in 1989 to preserve it as a memorial to an era as well as its history with the Howard family. It’s not a particularly large house, and they have done their best to preserve it in the state it is believed to have been when the Howards lived there. These photos from inside the house show a before and after of the house from when they bought it and after they restored it.
They don’t have many personal effects that actually belonged to the Howards’, but they do have some. In most cases, they have furnished the place with period pieces to represent what a house of the 20s and 30s would possibly look like. This is the dining room (which was unusual in itself, as most homes of that era did not have a separate dining room):
And this is the living room.
In the living room, there were several paintings on the walls that did actually belong to the Howards (as well as a case with some of Robert’s father’s books). They also were likely to have had a radio as in the following picture, as Robert was an avid radio listener. Arlene told me that he was instrumental in bringing radio to Cross Plains.
Robert’s father also upgraded the house to have plumbing and a bathroom, which was quite a luxury for those times.
This next picture is a bust of Cleopatra that Robert bought on a trip to New Orleans with his father. He was 14 at the time.
This next picture are photographs of his mother and father.
Robert’s father was a doctor. Early in Robert’s life, the family had moved around quite a bit, all over Texas, before settling in Cross Plains. His mother was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis, and Robert was much involved in caring for her. The house had only one bedroom (and only one closet in the entire house!), and that was his mother’s. The room had a window that looked into Howard’s room, which would be a little . . . weird.
When the family moved in, there was no separate room for Robert, so they walled in an outside porch and turned that into Robert’s room. The room is tiny.
The bed is little more than a cot. Robert grew to be a large man, tall and broad; about my size, though I’m sure I’m a little bigger since I have had regular access to Tower Pizza. This next one is me standing in the middle of the room, and with my arms outstretched I could touch both walls.
They don’t have the actual typewriter and desk that Robert used, though they know where both are — the collector who has them is not willing to donate them. However, the ones here are pretty much identical to Robert’s. These next couple pictures I feel speak for themselves.
In his letters, Robert talks about sitting up late into the night, hammering away at his typewriter, shouting aloud the words he’s writing, swept up in the heady elation of creativity. With the windows open against the stifling heat, the neighbor woman would hear him and holler for him to shut up because “I’m trying to sleep!” Robert’s mother would shout back, “You shut up, my son is working!”
The only thing in this room that actually belonged to Robert is this ink well, which was given to him by a Cross Plains citizen who had brought it back from Jerusalem for him.
These aren’t Robert’s books, but the represent editions from the time, as well as titles he mentioned in his letters as being books he read and enjoyed.
Elsewhere in the house they have a lot of photocopies of various documents, canceled checks, manuscripts, etc. They display the copies, with the originals kept in a vault at the bank in town. This particular one is an essay Robert wrote while in school.
The teacher has a note on the side margin that is very interesting; it says: “Robert, I believe that some day you will be one of our major writers. Develop your talent.”
There are many photographs throughout the house. Robert was a boxing fanatic, and actually fought amateur bouts himself.
There are also many photos of what Cross Plains was like in that era. It was actually a booming oil town for a short time.
This last photo is one of my favorites. The picket fence you see was actually destroyed by a storm that blew through town in the years after Project Pride bought the house. After they rebuilt the fence, they used the old pickets to make picture frames, and sold this picture framed with them. Of course they’re no longer available.
Robert E. Howard’s story is a sad one. The last hours of his life are documented as well as anyhere via Wikipedia:
In June 1936, as Hester Howard slipped into her final coma, her son maintained a death vigil with his father and friends of the family, getting little sleep, drinking huge amounts of coffee, and growing more despondent. On the morning of June 11, 1936, told by a nurse that his mother would never again regain consciousness, he walked out to his car in the driveway, took the pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head. His father and another doctor rushed out, but the wound was too grievous for anything to be done. Howard lived for another eight hours, dying at 4pm; his mother died the following day. The story occupied the entire of that week’s edition of the Cross Plains Review along with publication of Howard’s “A Man-Eating Leopard.” On June 14, 1936 in a double funeral, the sermon was held at Cross Plains First Baptist Church and they were both buried in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.
Why would a guy, whose career was just beginning to take off, kill himself so young? Some blame an Oedipus Complex. Others blame clinical depression, or just an overwhelming amount of stress related to everything that was going on in his life at the time (including his love life, as documented in the movie Whole Wide World). Some just think he was loony. We’ll never know of course. It makes me sad to think what else he might have written if he’d stuck it out.
My only disappointment is that I didn’t have the extra couple hours it would have taken to visit his grave site. Maybe next time. I’m thankful that a small group of people have done so much to make sure this piece of an important writer’s life is not just shoved aside and forgotten. It was quite an experience for me to stand in that room, walking the floor boards he’d walked, and know that I was in the very space where all those stories I’ve loved for more years than he even lived were born right there.