Playing a tune on his Native American flute, retired teacher Clifton Fifer now spends his time sharing both Texas history and his personal stories. Photo by Phil Houseal
Clifton Fifer: Pied Piper of history
by Phil Houseal
He is a Buffalo Soldier, Native American, slave, cowboy poet, blues singer, mountain man, storyteller, black cowboy, and Frederick Douglas.
And if you’ve been to any heritage event in Gillespie or Kerr counties, you’ve probably met Clifton Fifer. But it takes more than one meeting to know the real man.
The “just retired” middle school teacher not only loves history; history is woven into his family.
“I got my passion for history from my mother,” Fifer said. “She was very smart. She wanted to go to Grambling, but her mother wanted her to go somewhere else. So she ended up working and not going to school at all. But she kept her passion for learning and history and transferred it to us.”
“Us” includes Clifton, brothers Macio and William, sister Bessie, and an extended family that goes back to the Hill Country of the 1870s.
The boys were outstanding athletes. “I wasn’t as fat as I am now,” Fifer said. Sister Bessie was named for their grandmother and “can make a peach cobbler just like our grandmother.”
Fifer’s great great uncle, John, was a circuit rider in the 1890s. John Fifer rode his horse from Hondo to Bandera to Kerrville to Fredericksburg, preaching and singing the gospel, often leading his flocks under a convenient oak tree.
“A circuit rider was the carrier of the good news of Christ,” Fifer explained. “He carried the gospel message to those communities–areas pretty remote in those times–and preached to whoever would listen.”
Fifer’s heritage is a mix of Mescalero Apache and black. But those facts don’t tell the whole tale.
“The story is that my great great grandmother was born of a slave owner,” he said. “So she had a white father and a slave mother. She married my great great grandfather who was German and black.”
“On my mother’s side, my great grandmother had straight dark hair, blue eyes, and coal black skin,” he said. “Her husband was an Irish black man, with red hair and green eyes.”
That rainbow inheritance colors Fifer’s outlook on the world.
“The way I was taught is that people are people,” he said. “You treat them as you want to be treated. You just go on.”
The history of the Fifer family even spills over into Gillespie County.
“My dad played semi-pro baseball back in 1948, the era of Jackie Robinson,” Fifer said. Clifton Fifer, Sr., traveled to play with an integrated team in Sioux City and was offered a position, but he instead decided to come back to the Hill Country and manage the Kerrville All-Stars. One of Kerrville’s biggest rivals happened to be the Fredericksburg Giants. “Often the teams from Kerrville and Fredericksburg would join together and go play other teams,” Clifton the younger said. “We always had a good relationship with them.”
Fifer also has become good friends with another icon in Fredericksburg history–Esther Lehmann, last living relative the German settlers taken captive by the Apache and Comanche. He met her about five years ago through a fellow teacher, Paula Reynolds.
“I thought Miss Esther was a fascinating lady,” Fifer said. “Paula and I would take her to lunch about once a month, and visit her, and we still do that today.”
Now retired, Fifer can work full time sharing his passion for history. He is a popular figure at reenactments and history days around the state. His show includes playing Native American flute, harmonica, hambone, and washtub bass (“Don’t forget the washtub bass!”). He does interpretive work as a chaplain for the Buffalo Soldiers, and teaches country-western and line dance. Watching him tell his stories, surrounded by wide-eyed children, letting them handle artifacts, playing a flute or showing them a jig, he continues to be what he was for 33 years–a teacher of Texas history.
“Anytime you enjoy what you are doing, people pick up on that and take joy from it,” he said. “It’s just being able to see and hear your passion. I don’t have any explanation for it–I just enjoy what I do and hope other folks enjoy it, too.”