This year’s centennial edition of the annual Robert E. Howard Days was a big success. Pick up a copy of the July 2006 (V3n7) issue of The Cimmerian for full coverage. An AP reporter wrote an article about the event which was picked up by CNN, USA Today, and other national venues:
Fire-ravaged town rebuilds, proceeds with celebration of Conan creator
Updated 6/10/2006 9:02 PM ET
By Angela K. Brown, The Associated Press
CROSS PLAINS, Texas — Along Main Street near a feed store and senior citizens’ center emerges Conan the Barbarian, his dark hair flowing past his broad shoulders and his muscular arms clutching a sword dripping with blood.
It’s certainly an unexpected sight in a rural West Texas community, but the library building mural symbolizes the town’s claim to fame: native son Robert E. Howard, the character’s creator.
Every June for the past 20 years or so, people from around the world have trekked here to attend lectures about Howard. They also tour the white clapboard house where he sat at a small wooden desk, peered out of the window at the peaceful West Texas prairie and on his Underwood typewriter spun tales of sword-wielding heroes in faraway places and centuries.
For this year, what would have been Howard’s 100th birthday, organizers had been planning to expand the celebration to three days in hopes of attracting up to 300 fans, triple the attendance of recent years.
But nearly six months ago a wildfire ravaged this rural community, killing two women and destroying a church, 90 homes and thousands of acres. The flames also came within 3 feet of the Howard home’s front steps.
As Cross Plains started rebuilding, folks decided to forge ahead with the festival plans — not only to help the town get back to normal but also to give it a much-needed financial boost.
“I had no doubt that the Howard Days would go on,” said Rusty Burke, a member of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, which studies the author’s life and works. “I knew people would want to come, and thought, ‘We need to do what we can to keep the money in Cross Plains.'”
The event helps the local economy, although some Howard fans spend the night elsewhere because the town doesn’t have many hotel rooms. Still, Burke said, he nixed plans for a banquet in a nearby city with bigger facilities because he wanted all activities in Cross Plains.
Now, green grass and new houses have sprouted up all over town. The only reminders of the Dec. 27 tragedy are a few empty parcels, neat and void of debris, and the First United Methodist Church brick sign on a large vacant lot.
Although the Howard house was spared in the blaze, a fire truck plowed through part of its white picket fence as firefighters rushed to help a neighbor douse the building to protect it. The fence was repaired in time for Robert E. Howard Days, which started Thursday, and fresh grass has grown over the once-blackened lawn.
Cross Plains hasn’t always embraced its most famous native son, who some called “crazy” for his wild tales, talking to himself and sometimes pretending to box while walking down the street. Those negative feelings intensified for some after he committed suicide at age 30 after learning that his ailing mother would not awaken from her coma.
Although many assume Howard was distraught because he was too close to his mother, signs indicate he had been considering suicide — although he had several close friends — and shot himself in the head when he no longer had to tend to his mother, Burke said. She died the next day.
But his popularity grew as his works were reprinted in magazines and subsequently published in paperbacks in the 1960s Then his Conan character — a thief, mercenary and pirate who slayed dragons, winged apes and savage tribes on his way to becoming a king thousands of years before recorded history — was featured in comic books in the 1970s.
Howard’s work inspired the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game and later led to a series of movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While the plot of the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian differed from Howard’s tales — which, like his stories about other characters, had been published only in Weird Tales and other magazines before his death — it widened the audience and made Conan part of pop culture.
Through the years fans went to Cross Plains expecting to tour Howard’s house, and when they were turned away by the annoyed homeowners, a few visitors tore off pieces of the fence as souvenirs.
Seeing an opportunity for historic preservation and tourism, a newly formed community group called Project Pride bought Howard’s rundown former house in 1989. The volunteer members pooled their money for the down payment, then held bake and garage sales and sought donations from out-of-town Howard fans.
But the $10,000 mortgage wasn’t the only expense. Much work — including removing the carpet and paneling installed by latter residents — was involved in restoring the house to its 1930s appearance.
The first Howard Days was in 1986, the 50th anniversary of Howard’s death, a year after Burke and some friends first visited Cross Plains. The next event was in 1989 and has been held every year since with help from Project Pride, and attendance has grown from a dozen to nearly 100 people.
At first, the farming community mostly of retirees didn’t know what to make of the self-proclaimed “sci-fi geeks and fantasy fans,” some with long hair and tattoos. But the town realized how much the event helped the economy and now welcomes the guests — who include teachers, doctors and businessmen.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” said Susan McNeel, a lifelong Cross Plains resident and Project Pride secretary. “It’s fun for the local people to see people they haven’t seen in a year or a few years.”
Organizers and fans say they are glad Cross Plains, about 115 miles west of Fort Worth, has recovered and the celebration was able to proceed this year.
“Howard was a very prolific, vivid writer, and people who like adventure get into his writing,” said Burke, an aptitude testing organization director in Washington, D.C. “Fans like to see where a writer worked. The first time I came here, there were no exotic jungles, and I thought how little he had to work with, but now I’ve come to see how he took certain things and used his imagination.”Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.