Cullen Montgomery Baker, Confederate deserter, murderer, and lawless Reconstruction era ruffian is, arguably, the most well-known personality to hail from the highways and hollows that lie between Bloomburg, Texas, and Bright Star, Arkansas. In fact, Baker’s life is such a prominent feature on the community’s historical landscape that, in 1974, when the citizens of these two communities set about to establish an annual fair to benefit their respective volunteer fire departments, the name for the event seemed obvious to the organizers. Others, however, thought the name was inappropriate. But, despite a common misconception and the resulting controversy regarding its name, The Cullen Baker Country Fair has, from its inception, been devoted to ideals and principles that stand in stark contrast to those that governed the life of the Civil War era outlaw whose name is associated with the event.
Plans for the first Cullen Baker Country Fair began to take shape not long after the creation of Bloomburg’s volunteer fire department. In an interview with long-time fair supporters Tommy and Sharon Cash at their Bloomburg home on March 29, 2008, Mr. Cash detailed the origins of both the fire department and the fair, and explained the connection between the two. According to Cash, Bloomburg was unable to provide its residents with the kind of fire protection that they needed. As a result, rates for homeowner’s insurance policies in the community were quite high. To solve the problem, the community decided to equip and train volunteer firemen and to establish the Bloomburg Volunteer Fire Department. The Cullen Baker Country Fair was conceived as a means of raising funds to help support the new fire department.
In 2007, the Cullen Baker Country Fair netted over $15,000.00 for Bloomburg’s fire department – more than enough to ensure another year of protection for the community. But money aside, Tommy and Sharon Cash say that perhaps the greatest contribution made by the annual fair to the community is that it affords an opportunity for friends and family to come together – a sort of homecoming.1 Former residents from as far away as Kansas City and Washington D.C., for example, are regularly involved in the fair.
It was primarily the ladies of the community that came together in 1974 to lay the groundwork for the Cullen Baker Country Fair. Volunteers like Mrs. Noreen Schumann, Becky Davis, and Lilly Mae Endsley, to name a few, formed the core of what was to become Bloomburg’s Fire Department Committee. These were also the ladies who gave the fair its name. In Response to questions concerning the naming of the fair, Sharon Cash explained that the ladies of the committee settled on the name in an attempt to capture the flavor of the local area, knowing that the territory between Bloomburg, Texas and Bright Star, Arkansas, was the country once roamed by the notorious outlaw, Cullen Baker – in other words, The Fair in the Country roamed by Cullen Baker.2
In recent years, the fair’s name has been the focus of some controversy.3 In 2007, Staley Cash, son of Tommy and Sharon Cash addressed local concerns about the fair’s name in an article published in the local newspaper. Regarding the fair, Cash explains that, “The name was never meant to ‘honor’ Cullen Baker, who was a ruthless, yet infamous outlaw of his time.” 4 The article goes on to briefly explain that the purpose of the fair is to benefit the local fire department.
Over the years, the Cullen Baker Country Fair has seen many changes. For a few years, fair organizers included a drama depicting the final days of Cullen Baker’s life. Due mainly to a lack of volunteers, that play, a 10K run, and a turkey shoot are now all part of the fair’s past. In 1993 the labor shortage was made worse when The Bright Star community pulled out of the program.
Inspired by the activities surrounding the fair and desiring to learn more about the notorious Cullen Baker, Bloomburg resident, and retired public school teacher and author, Yvonne Vestal set out, in 1978, to write a history of the outlaw and of the Cass County, Texas and Miller County, Arkansas areas that he called home. Born and raised near Sand Hill, Arkansas, an area that lies just five miles east of Bloomburg, and near the spot where Baker is said to have died, Vestal began her research by interviewing as many of the, “old timers,”5 as she could find willing to give her their stories. Vestal’s work, entitled, The Borderlands and Cullen Baker, is a compilation of both first-hand accounts and accounts of those who knew, or knew of Baker during the 1870’s.
In an interview in her home on March 29, 2008, Vestal related stories told to her by her grandmother who lived within sight of the spot where Baker is reported to have died. Vestal said that her interest in Baker was sparked by the, “memories of [her] elders.” 6 Vestal also stated that she wanted to record the history of the, “land of [her] birth.”7 To this end, Vestal included hand-drawn maps and numerous photographs of historically significant landmarks in the surrounding countryside.
Vestal indicated that while she initially sought to write about Baker partially as a result of an interest in the folklore of the character, she found many things about the life of the man that made her uncomfortable. 8 In addition, Vestal spoke of encountering people who challenged her because they believed that through her writing, she was promoting the outlaw.
It seems ironic that an annual event like the Cullen Baker Country Fair should suffer from its name being associated with a nineteenth-century criminal. While, over the years, organizers of the fair have had to deal with questions regarding the event’s name, recent years have seen an increase in awareness of the dubious connection between the fair and Cullen Baker – perhaps due, in no small part, to works by such historians as Barry A. Couch and Donaly E. Brice.
Crouch and Brice, co-authors of the book, Cullen Montgomery Baker: Reconstruction Desperado, are to be commended for the scholarly nature of their work. Little fault can be found with their account of the outlaw’s life and times and they provide a significant and insightful perspective on their subject. Unfortunately, however, the authors present an analysis of the attitudes and motives of locals today that is grossly oversimplified. Crouch and Brice lament the lack of appreciation in the Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas area for Cullen Baker’s true nature. The two even go so far as to accuse local residents of idolizing the outlaw, writing, “In brief, Baker’s local reputation far exceeds anything that he deserves.”9
Relatively few scholarly works exist that deal with Cullen Baker. Besides the book by Crouch and Brice, one other is worthy of note. In 1990, The University Press of Kentucky published James Marten’s book, Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State 1856 – 1874. Like Crouch and Brice, Marten’s work is well documented and of a scholarly nature. And, just as Crouch and Brice suggested that a contingent of Northeast Texas residents continue to hold Baker in high esteem, so does Marten. “Despite his years of criminal activity, some residents of the region terrorized by Baker remembered him rather fondly,”10 writes Marten. Writing about their experiences while conducting research for their book, Crouch and Brice say of the residents of Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas, “They frequently cast Texas Reconstruction as a time of repression, oppression, and shame. In fact, the newer perceptions about Reconstruction continue to have little influence upon county and local history writing, and the same ideas that first emerged at the turn of the twentieth century are almost endlessly repeated.”11
Perhaps the perception that those living in and around Bloomburg, Texas and Bright Star, Arkansas idealize Cullen Baker is due, in part, to works by such authors as Ed Bartholomew who, in the early 1950’s glamorized Baker’s exploits in his book entitled, Cullen Baker: Premier Texas Gunfighter. Hardly a credible historical work, Bartholomew’s book is more significant for its sensational style and the lavishness of its praise for Baker than for any substantive analysis of the outlaw’s life and times. Regarding an incident at Lynn Ferry, near Baker’s home, and claiming that Baker was the first of the gunfighters, Bartholomew writes, “With his Colts Dragoon Cullen Baker came to be known as the crack dead-shot with percussion pistols; he led all the gun-wise lead slingers of the frontiers, in accuracy and speed, from then on out.”12
While the debate rages over whether Cullen Baker was a ruthless ruffian or a Reconstruction Robin Hood, relatively few people in the Bloomburg area appear to be aware of the controversy – let alone of its historical significance. But, for life-long residents of Bloomburg, Texas and Bright Star, Arkansas, oral histories of their area resonate with accounts the life and times of the criminal. Many area landmarks, for example, derive their significance solely from having been the scene of a specific episode form Baker’s life. As has already been stated, local historian and author Yvonne Vestal recalls being told by her grandmother of how Baker died within a few hundred yards of her Sand Hill, Arkansas home – and how Baker’s first wife and child are buried just down the road from the Sand Hill Church.
In spite of their best efforts, well-meaning researchers have failed to acknowledge and consider the importance of local oral histories regarding Cullen Baker in the areas he once frequented. At first glance, the act of linking Baker’s name with a community event might seem to support the unflattering conclusions of writers like Crouch, Brice, and others. But, when considered in light of local oral history, Baker is the natural choice of historical figure with whom to link an area festival. Simply put, the life of Cullen Montgomery Baker is the most prominent aspect of the histories of Bloomburg, Texas and Bright Star, Arkansas.
Based on the research for this writing, the decision by the Bloomburg Fire Department Committee to associate the name of Cullen Montgomery Baker with its annual fundraiser appears to have had nothing whatsoever to do with any deeply entrenched beliefs about the Reconstruction era, or the plight of Southern whites, as alluded to by Crouch and Brice. Further, the research indicates that Cullen Baker’s name was used in connection with the fair because Baker was, by far, the most prominent character in local history and not for any desire to honor the outlaw. But, while the desire of Bloomburg area residents to is noble; the legacy of Cullen Montgomery Baker is not, thus making the image of the Cullen Baker Country Fair inescapably tied to controversy.
Bartholomew, Ed. 1954. Cullen Baker: Premier Texas Gunfighter. Houston: The Frontier Press of Texas.
Cash, Sharon. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
Cash, Staley. 2007. Cullen Baker County Fair: Proceeds benefit volunteer fire department. Citizens Journal, September 2, 2007
Cash, Tommy. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
Crouch, Barry A., and Brice, Donaly E. 1997. Cullen Montgomery Baker: Reconstruction Desperado. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Marten, James. 1990. Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State 1856 – 1874. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Vestal, Yvonne. 1978. The Borderlands and Cullen Baker. Atlanta: Journal Publishers.
Vestal, Yvonne. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
1 Cash, Tommy. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
2 Cash, Sharon. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
3 Cash, Sharon. Interview.
4 Cash, Staley. 2007. Cullen Baker County Fair: Proceeds benefit volunteer fire department. Citizens Journal, September 2.
5 Vestal, Yvonne. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
6 Vestal, Yvonne. Interviewed by author, 29 Mar 2008, Bloomburg, TX. Audio recording.
7 Vestal, Yvonne. Interview.
8 Vestal, Yvonne. Interview.
9 Crouch, Barry A., and Brice, Donaly E. 1997. Cullen Montgomery Baker: Reconstruction Desperado. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 17
10 Marten, James. 1990. Texas Divided: Loyalty and Dissent in the Lone Star State 1856 – 1874. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. 102
11 Crouch, Barry A., and Brice, Donaly E. 1997. Cullen Montgomery Baker: Reconstruction Desperado. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 17
12 Bartholomew, Ed. 1954. Cullen Baker: Premier Texas Gunfighter. Houston: The Frontier Press of Texas. 15