Joe Bowers arrived in the Panhandle in 1897 with one goal in mind: to become a cowboy. He was 25 years old and tired of walking behind a plow on his family’s cotton farm in Bell County, so he took a job breaking horses for his cousins, Burl and Frank Jackson, who had a ranch near Miami, in Roberts County. Bowers cowboyed on various ranches and managed to lose his left arm while trying to fix a windmill. Then he met Lizzie Martin, a friend of Frank’s wife, and they were married on Christmas Eve 1898.
With Lizzie to support, Bowers became a responsible family man. He got himself elected tax collector of Roberts County, which also included responsibility for the unorganized counties of Gray and Hutchinson, and he opened a wagon yard in Miami. Bowers put his earnings into land. In 1906 he bought one section, 640 acres, in Gray County, at the head of the North Fork of the Red River. By that time he and his wife had two sons, Aurbra and John Thomas. Bowers built a dugout for his family to live in, and he started raising wheat. A third son, Joe Jr., was born in that dugout. Around 1908 Bowers bought another 640 acres of land from the White Deer Land Company, a syndicate of New York and British capitalists that controlled about 631,000 acres in the Panhandle. The White Deer Land Company’s terms were generous: Bowers bought his property on credit at $3.50 an acre, and White Deer charged 10 percent interest on the loan.
By 1920 the family was “doing all right,” as Bowers’s grandson Tommy says today. In addition to growing wheat, they were also running a small herd of cattle on their land. They built a larger home, part dugout and part house, and they drove a horse-drawn Studebaker wagon into Pampa every Sunday to attend First Christian Church. The Bowerses were what the big ranchers of the Panhandle called grangers, farmers with fenced crops and a few head of cattle.
The oil boom years hit the Panhandle in the twenties, and in 1921 Bowers signed a lease with the Texas Company. It took the Texas Company five years to drill on his land, but that first well, Bowers No. 1, came in as a gusher. Joe Jr. and John were harvesting wheat when it blew in, and John, who hated farming and loved ranching, was bitterly disappointed that it happened in a pasture and not in the wheat fields. Over the next 25 years, that well would produce more than two million barrels of crude oil. Other wells followed. One quarter-section lease earned the family $80,000 a month. The Bowerses were no longer grangers but millionaires.
Joe Bowers had never owned an automobile, so he decided to use his new wealth to buy the best: a 1930 Cadillac Series 452 V-16 Town Sedan, a huge sixteen-cylinder automobile weighing nearly three tons with wire wheels, side-mounted spare tires, and enormous headlights. The car is now in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon. It is the perfect symbol for the sudden riches generated by Texas oil booms.
At $5,950, Bowers’s Town Sedan was by no means the most expensive Cadillac V-16 available in 1930. The Town Brougham, a seven-passenger car with an open front seat for the chauffeur and cane-work appliqué on the side and back panels of the passenger compartment, sold for $9,700. Cadillac V-16 customers had nearly fifty body styles to choose from at that time, starting with the two-passenger Roadster, at $5,350, on up to models with names like the Imperial Landau Sedan and the Collapsible Transformable Town Cabriolet.
Bowers’s Town Sedan is a no-nonsense family car, meant to be driven by the owner, but like all Cadillac V-16’s, it is beautifully designed. The long hood sweeps back to an undivided windshield framed by slender, slightly curving pillars that support a perky little overhang that shades the driver’s eyes. The running boards are nearly a foot wide, and a fitted toolbox is above the one on the driver’s side, set flush below the door. The doors are hung in what Cadillac described as the continental style, meaning that the front doors are hinged at the front and the rear doors at the rear, so that the door handles are paired side by side in the middle of the body. The body is painted glossy black, and black metal wheel covers encase the spare tires. The radiator, headlights, bumpers, and door handles are shining chrome, and the upholstery is dove gray. It is a majestic, graceful, and dignified automobile.
The engine is essentially two straight eight-cylinder engines angled above a common crankcase and crankshaft. It too is designed to appeal to the eye, with chrome-plated parts and a porcelain shell covering part of the engine block. The theory behind sixteen-cylinder engines was that they not only produced more power than eight- or twelve-cylinder engines but also provided a smoother ride.
The car is in nearly pristine condition. Bowers drove it for only a year and a half before he died, in September 1931. His sons put the car on blocks in a barn, and it stayed there for thirty years until they donated it to the museum. The upholstery had been badly damaged by mice and moths, but the only blemish to the exterior was that the flowing scarf of the female figure on the radiator ornament had been broken off.
Considering that the gearshift is located on the floor, just to the right of the steering wheel, it must have been an adventure to drive with Bowers, who would have had to remove his remaining hand from the wheel to shift gears. Of course, the long, straight roads of the Panhandle did not require much shifting once the car was in high gear and at its normal cruising speed of 70 miles per hour.
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2503 Fourth Ave, Canyon (806-651-2244). Open Tue–Sat 9–5 from Sept to May; Mon–Sat 9–6 from Jun to Aug.