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NORFLEET, JAMES FRANKLIN

NORFLEET, JAMES FRANKLIN (1865–1967). J. Frank Norfleet, rancher and self-appointed detective, the first of six children of Jasper Holmes Benton and Mary Ann (Shaw) Norfleet, was born on February 23, 1865, in Lampasas County, while his father, a Texas Ranger, was fighting Indians on the frontier during the closing months of the Civil War. Frank spent part of his youth on his father's free cattle range north of San Angelo and in 1879 joined a buffalo hunt to the Llano Estacado. Subsequently he worked as a cowboy and drover for various outfits. In 1886 Dudley H. and John W. Snyderqqv hired him to help drive 5,000 cattle from Central Texas to the High Plains in the vicinity of present Muleshoe. Since Norfleet was the only one who volunteered to look after this herd, the Snyders cut out a mount of some fourteen horses for him and he was left alone with the cattle on June 22, 1886. Norfleet remained under the Snyders' employ until 1889, when Isaac L. Ellwood hired him as foreman of the newly acquired Spade Ranch in Lamb and Hockley counties. For two years Norfleet neither visited a post office nor saw a woman, but during that time he built the Spade's main headquarters and supervised the fencing. Frank's younger brother, William Robert (Bob), joined him at the Spade in 1890 and began working as a windmill man at a line camp. In 1894, while on a visit to Plainview, Frank Norfleet met and fell in love with Mattie Eliza Hudgins. Following their marriage on June 23, 1894, they became the first couple to reside on the Spade Ranch. Four children were subsequently born to them; Mary, the oldest, died of diphtheria at age seven, and a son, Robert Lee, drowned when he was three. The others, Frank Ellwood (Pete) and Ruth Elise, survived to adulthood. Eliza Norfleet often acted as a nurse for sick or injured cowboys. Norfleet remained with the Spade until 1904, when he started his own ranching operation on a 2,000-acre tract on which he had filed in western Hale County. He settled his family in a homestead on Catfish Draw near the site of future Cotton Center. When the Panhandle Short Railroad line surveyed a proposed route between Vega and Lubbock through his property in 1907, he platted the town of Norfleet ten miles west of Hale Center. While the nationwide financial panic that fall curtailed those plans, Norfleet constructed a new frame ranch house on the draw that soon became a showplace, harboring wild game and exotic bird species. There he developed the famous "Five Dollar Strain" of race horses from a scraggly pony he had bought for that amount.

Norfleet's legendary stint as an amateur sleuth began as a result of a business venture to Fort Worth in 1919. There he encountered a man posing as a mule buyer who introduced the rancher to another stranger offering a "sure fire" bet in the cotton market. They goaded him into producing $45,000 in cash, with which they promptly absconded. Norfleet thus began a solo manhunt which took him throughout most of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, often donning a disguise to make contacts. After several weeks of such pursuit he finally apprehended three members of the swindling ring in Los Angeles, one in Salt Lake City, and two in Georgia. Norfleet's fame as a detective rapidly spread, and he was soon besieged with requests nationwide for his services. Although quick on the draw and a dead shot with a pistol, he never killed a man but instead always sought to "bring 'em in alive for the courts to handle." In all, between 1919 and 1935, Norfleet brought in over 100 confidence men and other lawbreakers to justice. His diminutive height, plus his uncanny ability to stalk a criminal and stay on a fugitive's fresh trail, earned him the sobriquet "Little Tiger." Among other honors, he was awarded a special certificate from the FBI for his services. His exploits became the subject of several magazine articles and a full-length book, Norfleet (published in two editions in 1924 and 1927), and actor Wallace Berry once portrayed him in a radio drama. In the meantime, by 1926 mounting debts eventually caused Norfleet to sell his ranch on Catfish Draw and move to a farm south of Hale Center. His brother Bob, who married twice and had eight children, also settled in Hale County as a stock farmer. Frank Norfleet and his wife spent their later years quietly at their home in Hale Center. He died on October 15, 1967, and was buried in Lubbock Resthaven Mausoleum.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Lillian Brasher, Hockley County (2 vols., Canyon, Texas: Staked Plains, 1976). Tanner Laine, Cow Country (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1969). J. Frank Norfleet, Norfleet (Fort Worth: White, 1924; rev. ed., Sugar Land, Texas: Imperial, 1927). Vera D. Wofford, ed., Hale County Facts and Folklore (Lubbock, 1978).

H. Allen Anderson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

H. Allen Anderson, "NORFLEET, JAMES FRANKLIN," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fno16), accessed October 02, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.