In 1884, John Zach Means and his wife Exa acquired a ranch just outside the tiny town of Valentine, Texas. The spread was called the Y6, after a cattle brand he had designed, and the couple’s move there was the happy culmination of several years of despair and hard work.
Four years earlier, the young couple had left their home in Central Texas for what he considered to be the more open spaces of the West, traveling by ox-drawn wagon with their baby daughter Elma, along with 50 Hereford cows and two bulls. It had taken John Zach four years of working on his uncle’s ranch, earning room and board and a monthly salary paid in cattle, to build up that herd. And he was excited about the new life that awaited him and his new wife, who was only 16.
But one morning during the journey, he woke up surrounded by Comanches—and they gave him a simple option: Ride away and leave the livestock, or stay and fight. As he clutched his rifle and glared at the Indians, John Zach knew he had no choice. He and Exa turned their wagon around and slunk back to where they had started.
Three years later, they made the move westward again, with a new herd and a newborn boy named Sam. And this time they got through, settling in the rugged Davis Mountains. In addition to tending to his own cows, John Zach worked for other ranchers in the area to earn extra money. Water was scarce, and he had to move camp whenever creeks dried up. One day, John Zach heard there was a spread in Valentine for sale, and he rode off to meet the owner. It was an arduous trek through the hills, but it turned out to be worth the trip: When John Zach was able to cut a deal for the land, he and Exa finally had a place of their own.
They both quickly settled into life at the Y6, with John Zach tending to his herd and Exa taking care of their growing brood of children. She read the Bible to them each night and looked forward to the days when Reverend William Benjamin Bloys stopped by. He was a Presbyterian minister who served as pastor of a church in nearby Fort Davis, which had been named for Jefferson Davis when Davis served as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce. Bloys often called on families in the area, riding his horse from ranch to ranch to offer counsel to cattlemen who were too busy and spread-out to make frequent trips to town—even for church.
Much as Exa relished those visits, she missed being able to worship with other ranch families. She suggested to Bloys that they find a way to bring everyone together once a year. Bloys liked the idea so much that he organized a meeting that fall, picking a time after branding was over and before the cows needed to be shipped to market. On October 10, 1890, 47 people (including Exa, John Zach, and their four children) gathered at a place some 40 miles from the Y6 called Skillman’s Grove.
For three days, the families camped at that spot, some 6,000 feet high in the Davis Mountains. Bloys preached from under a mammoth live oak, an Arbuckle’s coffee box serving as his pulpit.
More than a century later, people are still congregating at Skillman’s Grove, and this year I was once again among the 3,000 men, women, and children attending what has come to be known as Bloys Camp Meeting. The conclave lasts a week, and it is a time to catch up with friends and family and attend services in the tin-roofed, open-sided tabernacle that was built in 1912. Some participants sleep in tents, but the majority stay in austere cabins on the grounds. Meals are still prepared in cook sheds over open fires and consist mostly of beef and beans, cobbler, and biscuits. Beef brisket and legs of lamb are slow-cooked in smokehouses and chilies are roasted on grills.
Children run around with lassos, flinging loops at imaginary calves, and wander the scrubby hills. Cowboys whittle during sermons, and every afternoon at five, men meet at a prayer tree to read passages from the Bible and talk. When church is not in session, people “visit” on the concrete porches of cabins, sharing cookies from tins and pouring iced tea.
Exa and John Zach Means are my great-grandparents, which is a big reason why I make the journey to Bloys Camp Meeting each year. It is a place where I can reconnect with my pioneer roots and spend time with my cowboy kin, some of whom still toil on the land John Zach once worked. The gathering also serves as an important source of spiritual sustenance, which is exactly what Reverend Bloys and Exa Means wanted it to be.
It’s a long trip each year from my Connecticut home to the campgrounds. But the trek is not nearly as trying as the one John Zach and Exa Means made across Texas a century ago, and I am always glad to have made the journey.
John Steinbreder is a senior correspondent for Global Golf Post and a visiting professor at Franklin College, Switzerland.