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“The Darling of the Plains”

The “darling” in this instance refers to a lady who lived in a grand “castle on the prairie”. If you travel along U.S. Highway 287 through the Texas Panhandle, plan a pit stop at the Charles Goodnight Historical Center in Goodnight, Texas. Located in northeast Armstrong County near Clarendon, it became the ranch headquarters for Charles Goodnight and his wife, Mary Ann Dyer.

The ranch cowboys called her “darling of the plains” and Mollie Goodnight did live up to that reputation as being an influential presence in the people’s lives who knew her and in the community of the staked plains.

Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch Texas State Historical Site

A young Mary Ann moved with her family from Tennessee to Fort Belknap in 1854, but the unfortunate deaths of her parents left her in charge of five brothers. It was during a military escort to a new teaching position at Black Springs on the Keechie Creek, that she met ranger scout and plainsman Charles Goodnight. It wasn’t until `1869 that they became engaged, exchanging vows a year after that in her uncle’s parlor in Hickman, Kentucky. Charles brought his new bride to his ranch in Pueblo, Colorado, with three of her brothers in tow.

Along with Irishman John Adair and his wife Cornelia, the Goodnight’s established a partnership and the first cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle was developed. With Adair’s death in 1885, the famed JA Ranch was then divided and the Goodnights established their own ranch headquarters on the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon.

While her contribution is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life presence of her husband, she was an independent survivor of the frontier as well. The JA grew to 1,325,000 acres that spread across parts of six counties, and Mollie was often seen riding along sidesaddle with the cowboys throughout the vast cattle operation. After Cornelia and the Goodnights split their partnership, Charles built a home worthy of the wife he adored.

Located on its original site and referred to as the “castle on the prairie”, this gabled ranch house also includes an office and an upstairs sleeping porch for Charles. Since his days as plainsman, ranger, and Indian scout, he preferred to sleep outside.  The second-floor sleeping porch offers spectacular views of the countryside and his precious canyon lands.

Although there are few furnishings original to the house, great pains were taken with the wallpapers and room arrangements based on extensive research. 

A settee in the master bedroom, probably Mollie’s room.

Colonel Goodnight’s office is located at the very back of the house on the first floor underneath the open porch. There is a definite reverence and calm  presence in the room. As the tour group entered, we all became silent. To think about the history and people who stepped through that door, gave me chills.  Through that very leaded glass door,  which opens from a covered porch, stepped the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, among others. He and Goodnight held a great respect for each other A separate entrance leads into a clerk’s office where the cowboys came for their weekly pay.

Leaded glass door leading from a covered porch into Charles Goodnight’s office, Goodnight, Texas.

Located inside the front entryway and behind the stairs is the receiving room where Mary Ann Goodnight welcomed friends and neighbors. The upstairs has a quilting room and a bedroom reserved for the visiting minister and his wife.

The parlor where Mrs. Goodnight entertained her guests.

Goodnight never allowed any alcohol on his ranch. Cowboys maintained a strict code of conduct and work ethic. Often heard was the saying, “That’s a Goodnight fence.” He had no patience for foolish card games or for men who lost their head in drink. He even petitioned the cattleman’s association to outlaw mumbley peg on area ranches, a game of dare played with a pocket knife.

You know the saying, “behind every successful man.” In one first-hand account I read, a cowboy stated, “Aunt Mollie sewed my button on today.” and she reportedly had a cure for every ailment or illness. Goodnight College was founded in 1898 where farm and ranch kids could pay their tuition with beef or hides to study junior-college level courses.

Veryl Goodnight, a great niece, designed the statue of Mary Ann feeding a tiny buffalo calf located in the yard of the mansion. Titled “Back from the Brink”, it is a striking tribute of her efforts to save a herd from slaughter.

Photos by N. Bright

Natalie Bright is a blogger, author and speaker. She writes two western romance series with co-author Denise McAllister for CKN Christian Publishing/Wolfpack Publishing. Her fun, historical western TROUBLE IN TEXAS series for middle grades, is a wild west adventure for the entire family, and the RESCUE ANIMAL series features true stories about rescue horses.  She published a cookbook, KEEP ‘EM FULL AND KEEP ‘EM ROLLIN’, featuring history of the cattle trails and food from the chuck wagon, an invention of Charles Goodnight. Find Natalie out and about by clicking the EVENTS tab at the top.