One chilly morning, just before spring, more than a decade ago, two yellow dozers were unloaded inside heavy wire gates with metal posts the size of forty-gallon water heaters. Diesel smoke belched from their stacks as they launched a relentless attack on dozens of fragile structures scattered across the pasture. The scream of splintering wood and the thud of crumbling concrete disturbed the jack rabbits and quail as machines ran over buildings where more than a hundred residents had once gathered together for meals and prayers. The big dirt movers backed up and ran over the debris again while all the ghosts sleeping there continued to protest.
The place had been vacant of humans for several years, but once there had been scores of young people living together in the little painted houses, living together in an unmarried state long before such a practice became commonly accepted; longer than that since devoted feet had climbed the wooden steps to the Prayer Tower. Even longer when all the children, Bibles in hand, climbed on board a yellow school bus in the very early morning for that long ride to school.
First came whole families to the Soul Clinic, as it called itself, and the residents set out to save souls. Adults in the camp, with Bibles in hand, drove up the winding dirt road at sundown, and headed to Mingus, a place they must have considered to be particularly in need of their help. Albert Abraham, a retired Mingus businessman, once told me about “that Soul Clinic bunch.” He owned the Trio Club at the time and he tried to get “those religious nuts” out of his place and to leave his customers alone.
“Their habit was to try to pull folks out of the bars while preaching to them all the time,” Abraham said. “They would come in, adults and some teen-agers with them, unplug the juke box and start handing out literature. We had to call the sheriff to stop the riot.”
Stephenville citizens were familiar with groups from the Soul Clinic who came into town, generally on Saturdays, to stand on street corners around the square and preach. When conversions were made, the person was told to sell everything he had, give the money to the leader and come join the group back at the ranch.
Sometime in the 1960s that group moved out, and it was said they broke up and scattered to other places. A few years later, another group moved into the compound. Like the children in the first group, these boys and girls attended school at Huckabay but this second “cult” was a big change from the first. They were products of the ‘70s and their lifestyle didn’t seem to have much to do with what is normally considered Christian behavior. They called themselves “The Children of God” and were led by an older man at first and later by his son. Both men were called, David. These were not whole families like the first group but instead pre-teen and teen-agers, most of whom ran away from home or were otherwise on their own.
“They spent a lot of time at the back doors of grocery stores asking for food,” one businessman said. “Besides begging in Stephenville, they would go to Fort Worth looking for hand-outs. Nobody up there ever worked that I know about.”
Other than looking for handouts of food and clothing, the group didn’t cause much trouble. They were mostly looked on as hippies; marijuana-smoking, flower children. Sheriffs of both Palo Pinto and Erath Counties appeared at the gates of the compound frequently with parents in tow, or papers in hand, searching for the runaway children who became lost in sandals, beads, long hair and an endless search for that blissful life with no responsibility and no work. Eventually their religious practices came into question especially something they called, “flirty-fishing.” Young girls were instructed to bring souls to Christ by actively pursing men and boys.
In early fall, with a chilly promise of early winter, the boys and girls in the compound began to leave their little heatless houses and walk up to the Interstate where lots of traffic constantly moved in the direction of the left coast. They drifted off, singly and in groups, thumbing rides, it was said, looking for the golden promise of California. Their ghosts stayed behind, hanging around the empty dinning hall, seated in the grass down by the lake, blowing in the wind crying through the prayer tower or standing at the edges of the Meeting Place with its rotted benches.