My recent research on three of my main family lines, carried out with the help of cousins, has been a lot of fun. In addition to the usual “names, facts, and figures,” we have uncovered some family rifts and scandals.
But amidst all of these peccadilloes, alienations, and transgressions, and among all the rapscallions, scapegraces, and criminals, I would like to take a break and just enjoy some lovely characters: people who were loved by and left a positive mark on those around them, in their own unusual way.
It’s time to write about the Brinlee brothers: Guy Leon Brinlee and Vernon Argos Brinlee, aka “Square” and “Bun” Brinlee.
Fortunately, quite a bit has been written about the Brinlee brothers (you can see the list of sources at the bottom of this post), especially in newspaper columns and the like; a book was even written about them. Unfortunately, a lot of this material is contradictory from one source to the next. That seems to be a natural result of being a local legend: everyone seems to have his or her own idealized, larger-than-life image of the two men. And, it must be admitted, the brothers do not seem to have been averse to engage in a little bit of “leg-pulling” with their interviewers. I tend to give the most credence, however, to a couple of gentlemen who were boys and young men when they got to know and visited the brothers: Richard Van Dyke, with whom I have corresponded, and Joseph Faulds, the author of the book about them, Conversations with Kid Cougar and Lim Hang High. While both idolized the Brinlees, they seem to have been careful in correspondence to sort out the exaggerations and hooey from the way the brothers actually were.
But instead of trying to distinguish truth from fiction, perhaps a better way to get acquainted with the Brinlee brothers would be to imagine a visit to their ranch. This visit would have taken place in the 1970s, when the brothers were in their 70s and retired from all occupations except taking care of the farm. (Square was born on October 17, 1899, and Bun was born November 9, 1903.)
First we have to get there, and that isn’t always easy, especially in bad weather.
A 1976 article (by Holly McCray in The Times of Blue Ridge, cited below) describes the route to their house:
“Guests must turn off a gravel road northeast of Blue Ridge and drive a mile and a half along a dirt road which steadily becomes narrower and more overgrown with brush and trees. They cross two rickety wooden bridges and make a sharp S-turn [which curved, Van Dyke points out, in order to get through the trees] before reaching the home. When it rains, the dirt road is impossible to travel, and those who do attempt to drive it become hopelessly bogged down in black mud. But the Brinlees are always glad to see people when they do arrive.”
Dallas Morning News columnist Frank Tolbert describes their farm, located northeast of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, Texas:
“They live happily on their 457 acres, inherited from their pa, the late Hoss Brinlee, off in the back roads of Fannin County, between the hamlets of Nobility (population 21) and Frog Not (population 6).
“The house is served by no utilities and with no plumbing and an old-fashioned well over a spring for their water supply.”
The newspaper writers loved to emphasize the fact that the brothers had no utility bills to pay. McCray reports that the brothers made the decision not to wire the house for electricity when their elderly parents were still alive:
“The brothers bought the wire and meter box many years ago to wire the house for electricity. Bun said, ‘Mother and Daddy were invalids and we were gone working a lot. I told Square, what if the house was to catch fire and they were to burn up. You know, that’d be pretty hard to take. So I just never wired it up.’”
Tolbert recalls the old house and the adventures one could encounter in getting there:
“I drove through some of the Brinlee boys’ woods the other day and entered the clearing around the old bachelors’ 1857 dwelling, a mauve-colored frame which seems to ‘grow’ out of the wintery landscape. Those 457 acres have a lot of varmints in residence, especially in the timber of Indian and Pot Rock Creeks, for the Brinlees don’t ‘bother’ the coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and other wild creatures.
“When I honked, the Brinlees’ pack of savage dogs set up a harsh, yet somehow harmonious orchestration." Tolbert and others speculated that some of the dogs were products of interbreeding with local wolves and coyotes: “… when I came down the final quarter mile of spongy-looking roadway in the creek bottom I saw a large, orange-colored wolf or half-breed coyote trotting casually in a pasture about 10 yards off the lane. He didn’t increase his pace at the sight of me.”
Van Dyke recalls their pack of feral dogs: “When we [teenage boys] would walk up, the dogs would hardly look up. Lord help an adult come up.”
Memories of the pleasant atmosphere of the farm and house seem to coincide. McCray describes it thus:
“The Brinlees burn wood [allegedly only from dead trees around the farm or scrap lumber brought by friends] in a sheet iron heater and cook on a wood-burning stove. The rich smell of wood smoke permeates the air around their home. Kerosene lamps provide their light, and a well off the side of the porch furnishes their water. ‘Well water is just as wet as it can be,’ Square joked.” Van Dyke also remembers the well water as the “coolest and best tasting drinking water anyone ever had.”
Contrary to Bessie Sims Sheppard and some of the newspaper accounts, the farm wasn’t quite a “no-kill zone.” The Brinlees allowed young visitors to fish in the “The Falls” with its giant catfish and also to hunt, mostly for food to bring back home to their families. However, the laissez-faire attitude with regard to the wildlife of the area was apparently true. The brothers had a great respect for and rapport with animals; Faulds noted that they shared his high regard for horses as “just four-legged people.”
Visiting took place mostly on the famously rickety front porch or in the main room (one of three rooms in the house) around a pot-bellied stove which gave out a hickory-scented fragrance. One of the questions jokingly asked of the brothers was: “Who has fallen through your front porch lately?”
Inside the house were mementoes from the brother’s varied former professions: cowboy gear including chaps, ropes, and bridles, as well as sombreros and rodeo posters. Though in later years Bun was slowed down by old injuries and Square had arthritis, they had been very active in their younger days. Bun spent 16 years on the rodeo circuit (according to some visitors, both brothers did); his rodeo name was “Kid Cougar.” Both brothers shod horses for a number of years and played music at square dances. One of many explanations for Square’s nickname was that he had been a square-dance caller. In addition to working as a barber, Square was a vaudeville dancer who went under the stage name “Lim Hang High.” He claimed that at one time he could do “35 different professional dancing steps.”
In addition to their respect for animals, abstention from cutting live trees, and life in a house with no running water or electricity, a couple of eccentricities were ascribed to Square in McCray’s article:
“’I eat raw eggs,’ he said. ‘ Three or six at a time, right out of the shell. They’re good for you.’
“Besides unusual eating habits, Square has a unique handwriting style which he developed himself. ‘We’re original-minded men. We don’t copy nobody,’ he said. Individual letters of the alphabet are drawn and shaded in with meticulous care, and Square draws pictures to illustrate various events, such as a wild animal’s head to show what animal he saw by their home one day, or a log to record that they chopped wood. He keeps a record of what the brothers do each day, who visits them and what the weather was in his special writing style on a wall calendar.” [These entries in the squares of the calendar dates are another explanation for his nickname.]
There were numerous rumors and legends in circulation about the brothers when they were alive. Van Dyke respected the brothers’ honesty and Faulds praised their values and spirituality, and both tend to believe the stories of the brothers scaring off visitors who were not honest and did not have honorable motives for their visits.
As one family story I have heard goes, Bun allegedly married a girl in secret, then was too afraid to tell his parents, so he just came home and pretended that he had never married. Bessie Sims Sheppard did write in her article that he married a Mary Josephine MacDonald on 17 September 1928, and I did find a person named Mary Argos Brinlee on Ancestry who theoretically could have been a daughter (Argos was Bun’s middle name), but Bun appears on the 1930 census with his parents as single. This is one mystery that I’d definitely like to find the answer to!
More than one guest noted that visiting the Brinlee brothers was like visiting another century, more like 1876 than 1976. And visitors were keenly aware that the brothers were a connection to a world, time, and way of life that was fast disappearing.
William L. Brinlee household, 1900 U.S. Census, Collin County, Texas, population schedule, Justice Precinct 8, dwelling 40, family 40; National Archives Microfilm Publication, Roll T623_1621; Page 2B; Enumeration District 24. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
W. L. Brinlee household, 1930 U.S. Census, Fannin County, Texas, population schedule, Justice Precinct 3; dwelling 217, family 224; National Archives Microfilm Publication, Roll 2331; Page 11A; Enumeration District: 18. Image: 151.0. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
- From The Times, a Blue Ridge, Texas newspaper:
“For the Brinlee Brothers of Blue Ridge: Water and Light Bills Zero!” by Holly McCray, 7 March 1976.
- From “Tolbert’s Texas,” a column written by Frank Tolbert for the Dallas Morning News:
“Styx town named for river in hell,” 21 March 1976.
“About the lifestyle of Bun and Square,” 23 March 1976.
“An Indian poet’s book on two old palefaces,” 15 July 1976.
“Around the wood stove with the Brinlee boys,” 6 January 1977.
“A low, soggy Indian visits Brinlee ranch,” 27 October 1977.
- From Alice Ellison Pitts and Minnie Pitts Champ, eds., Collin County, Texas, Families, two volumes (Hurst, Texas: Curtis Media, 1994):
“Brinlee, William Leon (Hoss),” by Bessie Sims Sheppard, p. 49, Volume I.
“Bun and Square,” e-mail exchange between Richard Van Dyke and author, 16-17 May 2010.
“More information about Bun and Square,” e-mail exchange between the author and Richard Van Dyke, 17 May 2010
“Brinlee cousins,” e-mail exchange between the author and Richard Van Dyke, 21-22 May 2010
“Bun and Square Brinlee,” e-mail exchange between the author and Richard Van Dyke, 29-30 May 2010
World War I Draft Registration Card of Guy Leon Brinlee, National Archives Microfilm roll 1953353. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
Guy Leon (Square) Brinlee obituary, Farmersville Times, 17 November 1978.
Submitted for the 100th (!!!) Carnival of Genealogy, fabulously hosted by the inimitable Jasia, whom I thank for all the encouragement she has given and continues to give to her fellow genea-bloggers. Speaking of people who give encouragement, thanks also to the one and only footnoteMaven for the really neat poster for this COG!