By Kim Steele
Harker Heights Herald
The exhibits dotting the landscape around the picnic area on Bill Alford's Comanche Gap property have remained the same for years.
A wooden wall features a rusty hanging display of metal cowbells and cooking utensils, including an old coffeepot. Nearby, a well-worn antique saddle, complete with leather-encased stirrups to protect its rider's feet from sharp bramble and brush, hangs over a tree stump.
Farther down, the open door of a large white teepee invites visitors to sit in a tight semi-circle of chairs inside the tall cone decorated with tribal art, including colorful arrows, bearprints, deer and turtles. A bust of a Native American brave rests in the center of the chairs.
The exhibits signify the spirit and history of the Comanche Gap Medicine Man, an invitation-only group that will meet Saturday to name its 33rd Medicine Man. The longstanding annual tradition began by Alford, who nursed a lifelong love for Native American and Western cultures and wanted to share it with others.
Each Medicine Man receives a hat and feather at the initial ceremony, and another feather is added to the hat each year afterward.
"Being chosen as a Medicine Man is like being named an all-star player on a football team," said Dave Haley, a member of the group's tribal council. "These are people who help others because they want to, not to get recognition. But being recognized by their peers here does mean a lot to them."
Haley, a member for seven years, said former Medicine Man recipients come from all walks of life, from business owners to teachers and members of the military. All have five things in common: They aren't afraid of making mistakes or being challenged, love nature, give wise counsel to others and "make good medicine."
"They've all been involved with making the community better, and that's what Bill wanted when he founded this," said Haley. "I got involved because it gave me connections to people in this area who are doing good things. We're not a bunch of old guys coming out here once a year to drink. We have good fellowship."
Comanche Gap's history
Alford purchased the land in the early 1960s where the group still meets because of its historical background. According to Bell County and the group's history, Comanche Gap, long known as the camping ground of the Comanche tribe, was the site of numerous raids on early settlements in the area.
One of the most famous was the Riggs Massacre at Sugar Loaf on March 15, 1859, when a small band of Native Americans killed settlers John and Jane Riggs and captured their two young daughters as they ran through a field. The couple's two sons escaped.
The raiding group fled on horseback to Comanche Gap, stopping there to eat and to scalp a local resident who wandered into their midst. A war dance after the scalping caught the ears of a posse hot on their trail, and the group decided to abandon the two girls to lighten their load and hasten their escape.
With this history in mind, Alford opened up his land to the public, offering a zoo, museum, trading post, bunkhouse, jail, an outdoor stage and picnic park. Special events included a variety show, Native American dances, outdoor melodramas, staged gunfights, animal shows, cookouts, campouts, history talks and nature walks.
In the 1960s, Comanche Gap hosted Frontier Days, with carnival rides, a fiddler's contest, special exhibits, crafts, concerts and other events. But as the economy tightened in the 1970s and the area's taste in entertainment changed, Alford downsized and finally closed the property to the public, using it for private events.
Alford continued to host picnics, barbecues and family get-togethers for friends, groups and organizations. In 1980, he hosted the first Comanche Gap Medicine Man meeting, at which he recognized Daily Herald sportswriter Herb Gormley as the first Medicine Man.
The event, which took place the first Saturday of May, continues to this day. Alford died in January 2011, and the land passed to his sons, Steve, Tom and David Alford, who own Alford Media in Fort Worth.
Tradition lives on
John Odom Jr., who was named Medicine Man in 1998, said it always was Alford's dream to use the land for cultural activities. Odom worked for Alford in the mid-1960s, cutting brush and clearing land, as well as catching rattlesnakes for the pit. Odom said the zoo included an alligator, a mountain lion, a bobcat, birds and a black bear.
Odom, 69, said he attended his first Comanche Gap Medicine Man meeting in 1984, and his father, John Odom Sr., was named Medicine Man in 1986. Odom said the group back then, as now, was composed of good people who knew each other and helped out in the community.
"The group wanted people who were the salt of the earth," said Odom. "They wanted - and still do - those who work hard, are civic-minded, take care of their families and mind their own business. They work quietly behind the scenes and contribute time, talent and money to those in our society who need help."
Odom described Haley, community services officer for the Harker Heights Police Department, as the perfect example of a Medicine Man, even though he hasn't been named to the position.
Odom said Haley "makes good medicine" by being a positive influence in the community and gathering bicycles for needy youth as part of the Blue Santa program.
Comanche Gap Medicine Man is an important part of Odom's life, he said, especially with his transient job with the government. Odom said it is vital to have solid ties to a place and a group, and that's what Comanche Gap and Medicine Man provide for him.
"It's like a family," said Odom, of Harker Heights. "It's my anchor. Our parents pass away, and our siblings move away. But this place and group reminds me of why I'm so proud to be from this part of the country. It's just special."
Joe Maines, president and CEO of Greater Central Texas Federal Credit Union in Killeen, said he got involved with Alford in 1973, when he was invited to one of his barbecues, and returned every year. When it turned into Comanche Gap Medicine Man gatherings, Maines remained involved. He was named Medicine Man in 1996.
"I was really surprised when I was chosen," said Maines, a former principal in the Killeen Independent School District. "It's quite an honor, almost beyond belief, to have your friends and acquaintances draw you out of the crowd and say you are worthy of being a Medicine Man."
Contact Kim Steele at email@example.com or (254) 501-7567.
Past recipients of the Comanche Gap Medicine Man award:
1980 - Herb Gormley
1981 - Elmer Womack
1982 - Bob Debolt
1983 - Fain Worton
1984 - C.W. Duncan Jr.
1985 - Gene Parker
1986 - John Odom Sr.
1987 - L.A. Jean
1988 - John Carter
1989 - Raymond Lansdale
1990 - Don Harris
1991 - R.S. Fogle
1992 - Chester Critchfield
1993 - J.E. Carlisle
1994 - Gerald Farris
1995 - Bob Daniel
1996 - Joe Maines
1997 - R.J. Whitten
1998 - John Odom Jr.
1999 - Ken Watts
2000 - Randy Curtis
2001 - Jimmie Don Aycock
2002 - Harvey Bacon Jr.
2003 - L.H. "Bud" Gower
2004 - Bob Gordon
2005 - John W. "Jack" Oliver
2006 - Al Wilson
2007 - Jack Vernon
2008 - F.N. Hood
2009 - Henry Mayer
2010 - Charlie Watts
2011 - Tribute to Bill Alford