History of Hell: Cowboy Guitar

One of my biggest beefs with the corporate structure is its tendency to discount the creative process. It’s impossible to say why or when inspiration will strike—and it can’t be switched on like a spreadsheet on a computer. I try to be open to the things around me, but I rarely can predict when I’ll be inspired to act.

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An idea for a guitar came to me while reading books about the great cattle drives and the cowboys of the frontier.  I’d heard the term “Hell’s Half Acre” since I was a kid—there’s even a Robbie Robertson song by that name. Instinctively I knew it referred to a patch of town where society’s rules did not apply for those who chose to live life on their own terms. I envisioned a guitar that evoked the spirit of the era when cowboys were just working men, and the pistol was law.

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After the Texas revolution in 1835, Fort Worth was a single dusty street lined by a few dozen wooden shacks and a couple saloons. Named for a small military outpost, Fort Worth stood along the Chisholm Trail at the edge of the Indian Territories. Like frontier towns from Deadwood to Denver, Fort Worth was barely a watering hole on the plains of Texas. There was no hotel, no church, no town hall. There was no real plan to build the town or any kind of community.

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Then in 1866, the cattle drives came. Cattle had become the most lucrative business on the frontier. From 1866 to 1884 more than three million beeves were driven up the Chisholm Trail from King Ranch and San Antonio to railheads in Kansas; passing through Fort Worth along the way. Cowboys drove their herds up the main street and made camp to the north of town just past the Trinity River. Once settled in, the trail drivers rode back into Fort Worth for a bath, haircut and some entertainment. Industrious businessmen were only too happy to oblige, and Fort Worth began to expand and grow. By 1871 a section of the main street at the south end of town was lined with saloons offering all the vices that cowboys could ever want. The gambling, drinking and prostitution became so legendary that the district was referred to as “Hells Half Acre.”

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The whiskey flowed and the blood spilled as the cowboys indulged themselves like sailors on shore leave. The number of shootings and deaths was a result of lack of law enforcement combined with a town government that was more interested in commerce than any kind of morality. Indeed, a sheriff would be hard pressed to attempt any kind of intervention, and those who were arrested usually were released with not much more than a stern warning.

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Even after the decline of the trail drives in the late part of the century, the businesses of Rusk Street (as it had been named) continued on, albeit at a slower pace. Declining into a black ghetto by the middle of the 20th century, Hells’ Half Acre was finally razed wholesale for the construction of the Tarrant County Convention Center. Ironically, the street is now renamed Commerce Street.

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It’s a great piece of American history and I’ve got some ideas prompted by a conversation with a collector of my work. My recent meeting with some extremely gifted gun engravers has inspired me as well, so today I’m into the shop for some experimentation. I’m glad we had this meeting.