By Heather Frey Blanton Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
The Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas is 10 miles wide, 1500 feet deep and almost 100 miles long. And in the 1870’s, it was about as remote as the moon. At least for a white gal from TN.
Yet, Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer Goodnight willingly followed her husband from their ranch in CO to the harsh, unforgiving frontier. Neither she nor Charles could conceive of the fame and legend their JA Ranch would build. Molly Goodnight was a force of nature, as tough as a Texas twister, as indomitable as the landscape, and Charles was all the better for her tenacity.
An orphan who had spent years raising her siblings, Molly met Charles in Fort Belknap, Texas, in 1864 where she was working as a school teacher. After they married, they ran a ranch together in Colorado, but a combination of unstable economics and bad weather drove them out of business. Returning to Texas, Goodnight struck up a friendship with the wealthy Irishman John Adair. Adair agreed to back Goodnight in a new ranch and in 1877 the JA Ranch was born.
At its peak in 1883, the operation encompassed over a million acres and ran 100,000+ head of cattle. While the ranch provided very little in the way of neighbors (much less female neighbors), Molly was not an idle woman. She was the JA’s doctor, tailor, letter writer, teacher, and even spiritual adviser. She had a soft heart for animals as well and kept three chickens as pets.
Even when the money rolled in and life could have been easier, Molly never stopped looking for challenges or caring about others. She rode the high plains rescuing buffalo calves left behind by hunters. Goodnight indulged his wife and let her start her own herd for their preservation. She even crossed some of the buffalo with cattle and coined the phrase “cattalo.” A pretty savvy cattlewoman in her own right, Molly ran a herd separate from her husband’s under the Flying T brand. Somehow, amongst all this, she found time to run a real school in the bunkhouse for the ranch hands’ children.
In the late 1880’s, the couple moved to northeast Armstrong County to start a new ranch, but they discovered other interests as well. Both were active church members, generous philanthropists, and had quite the passion for educating children. In 1898 they established Goodnight College, a school for boys.
The Goodnights never had any children of their own. Perhaps that’s why Molly felt the need to adopt her community. She believed Texas had given her a beautiful life, it was, therefore, only right to give something back.
A true Texas Lady, she was.
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