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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

THIS is OUR History! The COOLEST Stinkin' Badges!

Navasota, Texas is especially blessed with interesting history, and was at one time the home of an impressive array of Texans. And there are no more celebrated Texans than the members of the Texas Rangers, both real and artistically interpreted. Most towns the size of Navasota might be able to boast that they were the residence of a Ranger sometime in history, but Navasota can boast of at least five... and three of which we actually know of the exact badges they wore. This is unheard of. History yes... legends sure, in the books maybe.. but the actual stinkin' badges? Hardly ever!

Perhaps one of the oldest authenticated badges known in Texas Ranger history belongs to Dr David Fruchtman, an Arizona forensic scientist and criminal justice professor, who has recently shared a badge in his collection... with provenance, which was the Ranger badge belonging to the legendary western lawman,  Jeff Milton...

Milton was the adventurous son of the Florida Governor who came to Texas after the Civil War to live with his sister, who had married a Navasota merchant. He did not stay in Navasota long, and became a Texas Ranger when just 18, with the endorsement of Navasota attorney and former Attorney General of Texas, H. H. Boone. Milton's career with the Rangers was cut short after some tragic gunplay, and subsequent legal embarrassment to the Ranger organization... but he went on to become one of the most noted lawmen of the Old West. J. Evetts Haley wrote his biography in A Good Man With A Gun. You can read all about this Ranger's career at my blog below... just click on the LINK, after your read this!).

But you will not see his badge in the book... in fact you will not see it anywhere but right here!

There are several exciting things we learn from this badge. And some of what we learn challenges the conventional wisdom concerning these beloved icons of Western lore. First of all, we learn that at least some of them, HAD BADGES. The common belief is that they rarely had badges, and few Rangers ever wore them, as they were considered invitations to be murdered. Only on the force for a couple of years, Private Jeff Milton had this handmade star, with his company designation. This badge is crude, cut out of a disc of nickel, yet the lettering has been fairly masterfully done, with a popular zigzag technique, which is seen on many old badges. Unfortunately, the finding has been lost. On this badge, the wearer chose to inscribe RANGER, (singular)... not Ranger Force or State Rangers (plural). These details may seem insignificant, but they help establish what I have suspected... that is a total LACK of a pattern in the early badges. And just as importantly, it is not cut out of a Mexican Peso.

The exclusive use of etching on the badge suggests several things. Out west where the Rangers were ranging, and where they were most likely to try to scrounge up a badge of some sort... they had to settle for homemade badges, or ones made by frontier jewelers, who had very limited tools and materials. The right metal was scarce, and the tools necessary to work metals were usually not available. If a mistake was made in the cutting of it... like the chopped-up star in this badge, that was just too bad! There were few or no stamps available to hammer pretty letters into sheet metal.

So an engraver might have been the closest thing to a badge maker available. My guess is that another Ranger of Company B had this one made, and had a better one made when he could, and passed this faulty one on to the young Ranger... who did not need it long. It was soon just a keepsake for the young Floridian who wandered the west for years as he tried to grow up and get the respect he craved. Now the badge is a direct link to his life and times... and another intriguing link in our study of Texas Ranger badges.

Texas Ranger badges are rare. Let's just say so rare that I went most of my life collecting antiques and seeing hundreds if not thousands of fake Ranger badges being passed off and nobody ever expected to really find one... You would find diamonds in a diamond field faster than you would find a real OLD Texas Ranger badge in an antique market. Yet my neighbor dug one up in his yard, right here in Navasota. You can read that story (later!) here at this LINK:

The significance of this badge is hard to fully appreciate. It belonged to the Navasota City Marshal around 1911-1915. M. E. Bailey was a Ranger buddy of Frank Hamer's out in Alpine and came to help him in Navasota as his Deputy City Marshal. He took over as marshal when Hamer left Navasota. Hamer was a devoted fan of Bailey's and when interviewed after his death, claimed Bailey had once single-handedly arrested a handful of Mexican generals who were in Texas recruiting for Pancho Villa. What Captain Bailey could not have fully appreciated were the number of Texans who supported Villa and his revolution, and who made money off of the gun trade. This arrest made him a huge target, with enemies on both sides of the border, and this event may be why he left the Rangers and migrated around 1910 to civilization on the Brazos. Some way, some how this badge got dropped, thrown and buried in the flower bed of his residence in Navasota, to be dug up nearly a hundred years later, from dirt a foot deep.

The Bailey badge also teaches us several things about Texas Ranger badges. By 1910, some were being ordered and made by real honest-to-goodness badge manufacturers. Some were brass or bronze, thin, pressed by machine, and featured the ranger's name and rank and company. These were official but fairly cheap badges. This captain's badge suggests that even a ranking officer would have no more fancy a badge than any regular city lawman. But it also may be one-of-a-kind.

The only common denominator between most early ranger badges is the star inside of a circle. Several companies out west could have been contracted to do such work as shown in Bailey's badge... But my pick would be Anson Mills, who had a large operation with big money government contracts in El Paso. They manufactured a wide array of military issue belts and beautifully ornate, brass belt buckles... for several governments. Mills was a former Civil War Union General who came out west to make his fortune and did so. With his fame and connections and his handy geography, it is easy to imagine T. C. Orndorff, his brother-in-law who did much of the “heavy lifting” doing business with many regional law enforcement agencies. In fact there are photographs of Texas Rangers wearing his famous Anson Mills woven cartridge belts... sporting those beautiful buckles. Understanding the Mills'/Orndorff interest in the socio-political situation along the Texas border, it is easy to imagine that Mills made this badge (had his people make it) and gave it to the young Ranger for his daring-do... but probably the fancy brass badge only got to him after he left the force.

Bailey had moved on, probably despising the regime that forced him out because of divided loyalties... I can easily imagine it arriving in the mail one day while he was working in Navasota, and as he unwrapped it, cussing it and chunking it in disgust into the shrubbery outside his home... where it laid for a century.

The Texas Ranger badge worn by Ranger Frank Hamer.

Because of various auctions in the past decades, we have also gotten blurry peeks at the badges worn by Ranger Frank Hamer, before and after he served in Navasota. I have written extensively about Hamer on this blog, but we do not know what his City Marshal badge looked like, and in fact he might not have had one. He might easily have chosen to wear his Texas Ranger badge, which by then was a symbol of deadly authority. 

Recently I acquired a fantastic facsimile of Hamer's earliest Ranger badge, thought by his son and the auctioneers to have been made of brass or bronze. Few people have studied metals enough to know that really old silver, when not allowed to blacken from constant rubbing, will take on a deep yellow appearance. I have seen this most often on spurs, where the patina said brass but the polish revealed SILVER! Anyway I purchased this silver badge, which is the spitting image of Hamer's badge down to the scars. Possibly made by Langenbacher, the legendary badge copyist, it is unlike any other Ranger badge I have seen, replica or real. The design of this badge is unmistakably related to the Mills Texas Ranger buckle design, assumed by many to be fakes.

Later around 1915 Ranger Frank Hamer had one of the first classic “Peso Badges” which have become the Ranger standard we all recognize today. They were literally cut out of silver Mexican pesos. On the back one could easily observe the Phrygian cap in a sunburst, and dates up until 1910 when the silver was discontinued. Later “Cinco Peso” badges were made in the 1960's which were reminiscent of these early badges, with (on the back) a Mexican eagle perched on a cactus, tormenting a rattlesnake.

This Peso badge must have been the badge he wore for around seven years until he became the Senior Captain over the whole organization in 1922. His captain badge is truly magnificent. It was a manufactured catalog standard, custom made, gold plated, and no name, it had only his rank stamped in the badge.

For a LINK to a WONDERFUL short video about Frank Hamer and his service here in Navasota, go to the You Tube address below:

You might be wondering what these badges are worth. After watching real Ranger badges sell at auction, I would say that because of identification, fame, and provenance, all of these would fetch in the thousands of dollars. Anything can happen at an auction, but I would be totally amazed if they did not bring $4,000.00 - $7,500.00 each. Maybe more.

These are just a few examples of the Treasures of Navasota. I will share more of them in the future. These things testify to an exciting and legendary era in human history, when men had to kill or be killed in a struggle between good and evil. And when a lawman's badge was a sign of lethal authority, and outlaws were pursued, captured and eliminated with prejudice. Let's hope and pray we never need those kind of lawmen again. But whether we do or not, this is what we come from, this is our history. And history almost always repeats itself.

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