As the Texas Panhandle began to open its frontier to settlement, Reverend Lewis Carhart, a Methodist minister and land agent, brought a small following to the banks of the Salt Fork of the Red River. In 1878, this group founded the town of Clarendon which they envisioned as a Christian colony.
Only nine years later, the entire town moved five miles south to its present site. The Fort Worth and Denver Railroad by-passing the original town caused the mass exodus. This move assured Clarendon’s place as the oldest surviving town in the Panhandle since the other earlier towns faded away when they too were by-passed by railroads.
The new Clarendon was far less serene than the Methodist colony along the riverbank. At first it was a tent city but developed into a center of commerce and government for a wide area. Rambunctious cowboys, rowdy railroad workers and traders of all kinds came to town. These folks gave Clarendon the nickname of “Saints’ Roost” in response to the less than enthusiastic reception given to them by the original more religious settlers.
Clarendon remained a center for large ranches such as the RO and JA. The founder of the RO, Sir Alfred Rowe, went down with the Titanic but the ranch grew even larger under the ownership of Will Lewis. Legendary frontiersman Col. Charles Goodnight helped establish the JA, the first ranch in the Panhandle that stretches across the rugged Palo Duro Canyon.
Yet, Clarendon was more than a cow town. It became known at the “Athens of the Panhandle” thanks to Clarendon College (founded in 1898) and early churches in addition to the Methodist. St. John the Baptist Church and St. Mary’s Catholic Church are the oldest of their denominations in the Panhandle. Today, 14 churches serve the town and Clarendon College attracts students from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and several foreign countries. While text books and biographies are filled with historical accounts that may seem abstract, the lives and loves of a few of the people from the early days of this region have been made personal and even eternal. The novels of Larry McMurtry put a light back in their darkened eyes and make them charter members of “The West of the Heart.” Perhaps the best-known example of this metamorphosis is Col. Charles Goodnight who rides again in McMurtry’s most popular novel, Lonesome Dove. Historical facts about Goodnight contribute to the character of Captain Call. But more importantly, they help illuminate a character who represents part of the universal image of the American West.
Outdoor recreation near Clarendon includes Greenbelt Lake. It is located on the site of Old Clarendon and offers birding, camping, fishing, boating and shore lined sandy beaches and towering cottonwood trees.
For the visitor, Clarendon boasts a fine museum housing historical artifacts from around the area. The science of Paleontology has had a long and exciting history in Donley County. Beginning in 1855 when an adventurer named Jules Marcu crossed the plains, several noted scientists discovered fossils here. Dr. Jules Marcu published a description of his findings that came to the attention of a Professor E.D. Cope, a prominent Paleontologist in Philadelphia, who came to Clarendon in 1895 and visited fossil beds in the area. Paleontologist Will Chamberlain recovered previously unknown and scientifically significant fossils from a dig near Clarendon. The find was so monumental it resulted in an archeological age being classified as the Clarendonian Age, and it is so listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica
If you stop in on July 4th weekend, you will see Clarendon in a celebrating mood. That is the time when the town hosts its “Saints’ Roost Celebration” that started over one hundred years ago. The All-American festivities with a western flair include rodeos, dances, reunions, music, a craft show and a Bar B Q lunch on the historical Donley County Courthouse lawn followed by a parade. Anytime you visit Clarendon, a short walk down our red-bricked main street will be a comfortable get away from today’s hectic pace. Antique stores and boutiques abound, housed in buildings dating back as far as the turn of the century and staffed with friendly, small town folks. The most famous business might be the James Owens Boot Shop, so full of atmosphere it has been featured in national and international magazine advertisements.