American history is not a subject just taught in schools. Learning about Western heritage and American traditions is passed down from generation to generation. Growing up in the agricultural industry, Monica and Farris Hightower have always been exposed to American agricultural legacies. Through their exposure to these legacies, the Hightowers are a couple dedicated to keeping traditions alive.
Their stories started out very similar. Monica and Farris both showed and raised livestock throughout their childhood. In 1978, they both started their college career at Texas Tech University.
Farris obtained a degree in agricultural education in 1981, and Monica graduated with a degree in animal science in 1983. They met at Texas Tech, but more importantly, the university impacted their future forever. Because of great experiences, the Hightowers keep a special place in their heart for the Red Raiders.
At a Collegiate FFA meeting, Monica and Farris met for the first time and hit it off from the beginning. They had mutual friends and similar interests. As Monica said, fate would have gotten its way.
Farris said he remembers the first time he saw Monica walk into the meeting room; he knew she would be different than all the other girls. They dated and married while attending Texas Tech. They both were involved throughout their departments and colleges and gained many valuable experiences and relationships.
“The university gave a lot to me and to our family,” Farris said. “We are following the example that people before us gave back and hope to do the same.”
It’s this mindset that seems to motivate the Hightowers to keep traditions alive for future generations.
A few years ago, Monica inherited an authentic chuck wagon from her great uncle. With a small interest in Western heritage, the wagon pushed her to study the traditions of this country. Before long, both Farris and Monica were actively involved in the chuck wagon industry.
“It was just a wagon at the time,” Farris said. “Some years later, Monica’s cousin, who was a renowned wagon restorer, restored it and outfitted it with a chuck box and boot so we could cook off of it and participate in wagon authenticity contests.”
There are two components to every wagon competition: the authenticity of the wagon and the food you cook in it. The Hightowers compete in both events.
“The wagons are to be authentic to the 1870-1890 time period for trail competitions and through 1920 for ranch wagon competitions,” Farris said. “The difference is primarily in the equipment the wagon would carry, whether it was used to take cattle to market or one that would set up on the ranches.”
A competition involves dressing appropriately for the period, cooking a traditional, homemade meal, and incorporating the culture into the event. Monica said as much as she enjoys the competitions, Farris is the one who dresses head-to-toe in the time appropriate clothing.
A day event or competition requires more than 12 hours of work. Setting up the wagon and cooking stations takes about two hours. Cooking and preparation time can take up to four times that. The Hightowers make all of the food for competition and events from scratch. No preservatives, pre-prepared or frozen product or boxed food is used. The number of attendees differs for each event, but the timing and preparation is still about the same.
“At a normal event, we feed about 80 or 100,” Farris said. “It’s a full-time job just wrangling the Dutch ovens.”
Farris said he realizes the importance of providing a timely, decent meal when they are hired to cater. However, they also want to show attendees a true western meal experience.
“It’s fun to do. There is a ton of skill involved to get things done correctly,” Farris said. “When you get done, you want them to have enjoyed being around the wagon, but also to say that it was a great meal.”
Monica’s favorite part of the wagon experience is the history that comes along with the time period and culture. With the wagon being a family heirloom, she has taken pride in learning their genealogy and history.
“We aren’t going to be here forever. We have got to get people interested, so they can keep the western heritage going,” Monica said.
“We do a lot of genealogy on our own families,” Farris said. “But the fun part to me is the cooking. Once an individual eats with us, they are hooked. They want to eat this food over again. The most popular is chicken fried steak with all the fixings.”
In order to bring a new tradition to their university, Monica and Farris have incorporated their wagon style cooking into their involvement with alumni associations at Texas Tech. Keeping the tradition of excellence alive, they were key figures in the history of the Meats Science Association (MSA).
They have helped the MSA raise funds, assist with department events, and have even catered the Reciprocal Meats Conwference in 1984 for the MSA and Animal and Food Sciences Department.
In October 2011, they hosted the first Agricultural Education and Communications Alumni Homecoming dinner. They cooked a home style, chicken fried steak meal in order to raise money for the alumni department and scholarship funds. They have also provided their wagon for the AFS Homecoming events.
Monica and Farris said they treasure the time spent as students at Texas Tech. Now that they are alumni, they are actively involved in the Animal Science and Agricultural Education and Communication alumni associations. Their involvement is directly related to the great experiences they had as students. They want current students to have just as positive as an experience as they did.
Monica was a member of the Meats Judging Team in 1981. Monica and her classmates started the MSA at Texas Tech and the endowment fund for judging members. The main goal of the association is to support the Meats Judging Team and assist students with financial tuition and traveling costs. Monica remembers the reason for starting the MSA many years ago: to financially help future students in the judging programs.
“It’s gratifying to realize that many years later, what you started does make a difference to the students today,” Monica said.
Monica said she knows the MSA and judging endowment are crucial to the students who participate. She is confident this will be a program that continues to help students for years to come.
“Meats team students get a scholarship, have vans to travel in, and have a support group. It’s important to support these students, financially and personally.” Monica said.
Even in 1981, Monica and Farris knew they would be Red Raiders for life. Their love and dedication for the school is unfaltering. And it’s the alumni association and their friends who keep the Hightowers connected with the school.
Through alumni involvement and wagon cook-offs, the Hightowers are truly dedicated to helping others and working to build legacies for future generations.
“If there is one hope for the folks who will graduate from Tech,” Farris said, “they will recognize the fact that it is a great opportunity to help future generations in any way you can.”