Longform

Howard's End

Page 7 of 8

"For years," the retired librarian says, "people would come to Cross Plains, wanting to know about Robert E. Howard, wanting to see where he grew up. We had a particularly large number of visitors back in 1986, on the 50th anniversary of his death. It was as if some kind of pilgrimage had been organized. But the truth is, we didn't have much to show them."

All that was before a local organization calling itself Project Pride set its mind to finding some way to put Cross Plains back on the map. Neighboring Cisco had done well by promoting the fact that its old Mobley Hotel was the first ever owned and operated by Conrad Hilton. Why, then, couldn't Cross Plains draw attention and new traffic to itself as the home of Robert E. Howard? Maybe even call itself the "Home of Conan the Barbarian."

Which is exactly what it would eventually do.

The old house where the Howards had lived was purchased by the library (with funds donated by the heirs to the Howard estate), then turned over to Project Pride for refurbishing. Loving, charged with the job of returning it to the look of the '20s and '30s, made numerous trips to nearby Abilene for the purchase of paint and wallpaper and to search antique shops for furniture and appliances that had been in vogue more than a half century earlier. Hardwood floors were polished, and the outside received a spit-and-polish facelift. A local carpenter provided a new white picket fence. A Howard fan in Missouri volunteered to write the application that ultimately resulted in the house's being included in the prestigious National Registry of Homes.

Learning of the ambitious venture, Howard revivalist-author de Camp, a collector of memorabilia himself, visited Cross Plains and donated a few things he'd obtained from former neighbors to whom Dr. Howard had given a number of household items before moving away: a small porcelain pitcher that had belonged to Hester Howard and a gaily painted plaster bust of Cleopatra that a teenage Robert Howard had brought home from a family vacation in New Orleans. The items went into place in the house along with several old black-and-white photographs of the Howard family. An acquaintance of Mrs. Howard's returned her old foot-pedal sewing machine so that it might be displayed in the room it originally occupied.

In the tiny room where Howard lived and worked is a facsimile of the old typewriter, a piece of paper spooled into it where the last lines of dark verse he typed are replicated. On a nearby shelf are copies of several books that were part of his personal library.

Visiting the house, roaming from bedroom to kitchen, through its lengthy hallway to the sleeping porch and back to the front room, I was reminded of bygone visits to the home of elderly grandparents.

"We didn't want to turn it into a traditional museum," Loving explains. "We wanted only to try and restore it to what it was like when Howard lived here."

And so there is finally a local attraction for the devotees who continue to come. In the second week of June 1991, coinciding with the date of his untimely death, the inaugural Cross Plains Howard Festival, complete with guided tours, barbecue dinners, and guest lecturers, was held. And it's been done annually since.

On June 9 and 10, the community will again open its doors. There will be tours of the Howard home, visits to his gravesite 30 miles away in Brownwood, a showing of the movie The Whole Wide World, and an exhibition of 38 original Robert E. Howard manuscripts at the Cross Plains library. Artist Gary Gianni, illustrator of the recently published Solomon Kane book, will be the keynote speaker at a Saturday-evening dinner.

"The devotion some of these people feel toward Robert Howard is amazing," says Loving. "They come from all over the United States and Europe. A couple of years ago, there was this sweet little French girl who spent every penny she had getting here, then had no money to get home. She wound up staying in my home for a couple of weeks before her family sent her a ticket. And there was this young man from somewhere in England who must have stayed a month or more. He'd get up every morning and sit for hours on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. I finally asked him one day what he was doing, and he explained to me that he was just trying to 'feel the place' where Robert Howard lived."

It occurred to me as I followed her through the old frame house, listening to the stories she has told countless times, that I was simply following in the footsteps of the curious who had come before me. I tried to imagine Robert Howard seated at the typewriter I knew wasn't his; to visualize him at the kitchen table, waiting as his mother prepared dinner on the old gas stove; or standing at the front door, looking out onto the front porch to invite Novalyne Price to come in and sit with him in the living room with its laced curtains and doily-draped sofa.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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