A complaint about access

Indulge me for a moment while I vent a consistent frustration of mine… and probably one experienced by historians (professional and lay alike) everywhere.

This past weekend, I took a trip up to Oklahoma to see if I could spot the remains of historically significant sites. Specifically, I was seeking the Oklahoma historical marker, placed in 1958, for Nail’s Crossing, a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stagecoach route. I was also seeking the possible remains of the Wapanucka Academy, a boarding school established for Chickasaw girls before the Civil War. During the war, the school acted as a temporary hospital.

Wapanucka academy possible ruin

I’m not saying this aerial image (from Google Maps) depicts the old Wapanucka Aademy site; I’m just saying I’d like to have the opportunity to find out.

I was thwarted in my endeavors on both accounts. For one, there were no posted indications at all that anything historic was in their respective vicinities. Not only that, but when attempted to access the places after my careful research to pinpoint their locations, I was met with “no trespassing” signs. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like getting shot, so I heeded the warnings and left the road trip “empty handed.” I was disappointed, to say the least – especially because Google Maps indicated that these sites were, in fact, close to country lanes. These roads no doubt have been taken over by land owners and are now considered private.

Nails Crossing possible site

Notice how Google Maps has Nail’s Crossing Road going all the way to the Blue River? Well, access is restricted past the last driveways on both the southeast and northwest sides. The red circle is where, I surmise, the crossing took place. A bridge was erected there before the Civil War.

It bothers me greatly that important historic are tucked away for only a select few to access. For example  rivers (and their shorelines) and cemeteries are both considered public lands. Yet consistently, I find my access to both restricted. I cannot access the Nail family cemetery at the Blue River, nor the Colbert family cemetery near the old ferry crossing and toll bridge on the Red River. Just getting down to the Red River beyond the obvious access points is a feat in itself.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The old Nail’s Crossing road can no longer be traversed.

While I love Oklahoma, I must point out that this state is particularly bad about historic site preservation and access. Although mid-century historical committees urged restoration and upkeep of historical sites and continued placement of historical markers, often their advice was not heeded. Instead, the intrepid explorer continually finds herself having to use historical maps and anecdotes to find sites that have been already surveyed and documented previously. The land owners that allowed access to one group may restrict further attempts at visitation, or the descendants/new owners are simply not interested. While I do not mind the research I invest in finding the sites, I do mind that I cannot visit their physical remains.

Nails crossing what the committee wanted to do

http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v036/v036p446.pdf

Here’s a description of what the historical committee recommended for Nail’s Crossing in 1958. Nothing came to fruition, however. To read more about the 1958 effort to document the Butterfield Overland Mail & Stagecoach route in Oklahoma, read this.

History should be as readily accessible and as much documented as possible. It helps the academic, the genealogist, and the community, as historic properties can bring tourist dollars and lend prestige to an area.

And, it helps me. Who wouldn’t want that?

Hobby for nosy people

I took up a new hobby last year – estate sale shopping. Like my “hobby” of ghost town collecting, this new pastime does not require amassing a large collection of finds that I have to find storage for, however. Going to estate sales is, for me, simply another way to satiate my nosiness.

But I have to make myself clear; I’m not nosy about other people’s possessions. Rather, I like to go inside houses to savor, comment, critique, enjoy, and marvel at their architecture. And the older the house, the better. At the Dallas-area estate sales I frequent, I have the opportunity to visit early and mid-century homes that had been owned by one family for decades. After the last of the parental generation dies off, their possessions go on sale and the house itself is also up for grabs. Often, that means that the house will no doubt become bulldozer fodder as the new homeowners wish to transform geographically desirable addresses into fashionably designer homes with the latest accouterments. I could pretend to be understanding in their desire to tear down the older homes to build more modern ones. It’s their money, right? And everyone wants the latest conveniences, right?

lamar county log house front.jpg

Not a modern house.

But I’d be lying. I LIKE the older homes. I think pink, tiled bathrooms, with built-in toothbrush holders, are awesome. I cannot contain my enthusiasm when I encounter a vintage metal kitchen, often painted in a cheery yellow. Massive brick fireplaces with wooden mantles, built-in corner china cabinets, transoms, stained-glass windows, arched doorways, crystal door knobs, telephone nooks, linoleum, shag carpeting, scuffed wooden floors, decorative plaster… I’m a big fan.

Estate sales offer the rare opportunity for me to see these hidden gems before they’ve been demolished, and without having to employ a real estate agent, either. Visiting these sales is like capturing a small moment in time, before the future obliterates the past.

Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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An historic Death

In the US, death of history is frequent.

I’m not talking about historical events today, even though they have their own share of death and destruction. I’m referencing historic preservation, or to put it more bluntly, the complete and utter lack thereof.

I found myself driving through southwestern Arkansas just this past week, filled with the peculiar anxiety always reserved for the things I hold most dear – old, abandoned buildings that have historical significance but have been neglected and forgotten for new and shinier places. Each time I re-visit a ghost town or some abandoned place that I’ve previously chronicled, my nerves get edgy, as I am scared to discover that another piece of history may have been destroyed.

My fears were confirmed in Fulton, Hempstead County, Arkansas. I have a major soft spot for this little town, which has so much history behind it. It sits right alongside the Great Bend of the Red River, and its levees are still tall and sturdy. Since its inception, Fulton served as a major crossroads. First, it was the river crossing for people headed to Mexican Texas. Then, it was mentioned as the terminus of the first proposed transcontinental railroad (Cairo & Fulton RR). By the 1920s, the Bankhead Highway cut a path right alongside this once very important town.

The lone commercial building that still stood in Fulton, Arkansas…

There are only a handful of reminders that point to this hamlet’s history. There’s the railroad bridge, rebuilt after the flood of 1927. Then there’s the water well, now ensconced in a derelict wooden building. You can still see the steamboat docks and moorings on the eastern bank of the Red River, too. And lastly, a lone commercial building, probably built around the turn of the 20th century, stood in a dilapidated state across from the post office.

When I visited Fulton in August of 2015, I discovered that this beautiful old building had been razed. The facade, with its tin cornice, was nowhere to be seen. All foundations, bricks, wood, shingles… everything had been bulldozed. All that sits there now is an empty, gaping maw.

… is now gone.

I don’t know if anyone in Fulton cried when it went away, this last vestige of a once-important town that the interstate unceremoniously bypassed. But I did. I cried bitter, bitter tears over this death.

The building was in a horrible state, for sure. The back had caved in, and its crumbling walls – whatever was left of its walls – exposed the interior to the elements. But the front part of the building was in good order. It could have been sheered off and then braced. It could have been simply a gateway that stood to frame the levee… anything rather than just some other damned hole in the ground.

You may wonder, what if the property owner didn’t have the money to do all this? The building was a hazard and could have well exposed the owner to lawsuits if someone trespassed. These are all good arguments. But, here’s the thing – we cannot keep letting private property rights and obligations get in the way of historic preservation. This country, these states, this town need programs that allow for the reclamation of history. Let eminent domain take over, if it has to. Compensate the owner and then preserve the building, through federal and state grants. Don’t tell me this country doesn’t have the money, either. We’re the richest country on earth. We just allow our wealth – oil wealth, coal wealth, manufactured wealth – to remain in the hands of the oligarchy who provide mere snippets to the rest of us plebeians,and that’s why we think our country is bankrupt. Believe me, we’re not. If we were, we wouldn’t be able to fight all these wars over which our plebeian sons and daughters get killed.

We’re a nation that loves private property. I get that. I also get that it has been, historically, a detriment for most put-upon people. Native American tribes understand that all too well. So do African Americans, whose ancestors were forced into perpetual slavery and were not even considered fully human. Women get it, too – for centuries, they were their husband’s property and as married women, could not rightfully claim property of their own unless it was specifically bequeathed to them.

And you know what else is put upon? Our heritage. That little building in Fulton was a fantastic link to the past – our shared past, warts and all. And we simply have to stand back and watch our history get destroyed, one building at a time, because we’re not allowed to own that past. And then we scrape up all the money we can to visit Europe, so that we can marvel at their old buildings. Am I missing something here?

Published in: on August 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Antebellum Ghost Towns and the Railroads that did them in

I’ve been making several trips around the Red River Valley to discover forgotten towns for my book project this summer. However, I don’t just look for cemeteries, even though they’re the best way to find old settlements. I want to find actual ruins! I think that remains speak much louder than anything can, so I look for towns with remains.

The other day, I took a trip around Louisiana and found the antebellum town of Allen’s Settlement, which was built around intersecting roads. Because nothing remains of Allen’s Settlement,  I don’t consider it necessarily a “ghost town” that needs to be visited.

Allens Settlement

Allen’s Settlement in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 1863.

But it makes me wonder – why did some towns thrive and others falter? I guess it’s because most antebellum towns west of the Mississippi River did not survive the railroad boom. It’s not necessarily just because the existing towns didn’t provide enough incentive for the companies to lay tracks, though. These corporations – the original “corporate personhoods”- often had settlement, or rather town building, subsidiaries that speculated on selling land plots. They didn’t want to (or need to) compete with established towns as the state granted them charters, like the land grant companies of old, to entice settlers. They simply built new towns, and the profits of both freight hauling and land sales could be gained by the railroads exclusively.

Examples of the railroad land schemes can be found all over the Red River Valley: Hope (Hempstead County, Arkansas) and Texarkana (Miller County, Arkansas and Bowie County, Texas) were founded by the railroads, as was Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Hope UP train

Trains made Hope, Arkansas what it is today – including the Hempstead County seat.

Luckily, some antebellum cities along the Red River still exist – Dallas, Sherman, Alexandria, Shreveport, Natchitoches, and Marksville, for example. Being a county seat helped them to survive, of course – however, Hope wrestled the county seat status away from Washington, as did Ashdown from Richmond (Little River County, Arkansas) – so political status was no guarantee. The take-away is that in the American capitalist system, money talks. Cities that were able to incentivize railroads enough for them to lay tracks were able to “weather” the corporate land take-overs.

Railroads might be romantic and all, but above all, they were corporations that changed the very nature of human settlement patterns, at least in the US. They are the true Goliaths.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ruins Tell Stories

Lots of the pictures I post on my website, www.redriverhistorian.com, tend to be of ruins – disused buildings and such – and sometimes, I’ve been accused of worshipping “ruin porn,” as if I am some voyeuristic pervert.  I find that such an obnoxious term, and wonder if the same people who tell me this also insult people who visit and take pictures of the pyramids in Egypt, Mexico, or Guatemala.

Before I get accused of comparing cultural icons like the Sphinx to a disused gas station in Italy, Texas, hear me out.

Image

Modern American culture and history are built on commercialism, not ancestor worship (note I wrote “modern American culture” – that means I’m not talking about Cahokia or Spiro). The first European settlements in North America consisted of trading posts and plantations. Religious and governmental structures, like the missions and presidios in San Antonio, were erected to support the colonial exploitation of the continent. And while American children have been taught that the pilgrims came to Massachusetts to found a religious settlement, that intention was secondary; they were part of the Plymouth Colony, the primary goal of which was to send beaver pelts, copper, and timber back to Mother England. (** Please note that Pilgrims and Puritans are both from the Anglican Separatist tradition and only became distinctive as American history was documented in latter years).

Therefore, I argue, the demise of American capitalism is well worthy of documentation. Detroit, as well as the thousands of ghost towns dotting the United States, are all prime examples of the disintegration of a culture based on economic gains. Think about it – the eerie beauty of the abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit is directly related to the city’s demise as an industrial center. The same goes for the derelict storefronts in small towns like Gotebo, Oklahoma, because they serve as a very tangible reminder of how corporations have come to dominate and homogenize the cultural landscape.

ImageImage

Michigan Central Station, Detroit and Gotebo, Oklahoma

What can I say? People who derisively label photographs of American abandonments as “ruin porn” are historically illiterate.

Published in: on June 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mapping the Red River Valley

Google Maps have been my constant companion since they were introduced back in the stone ages (okay, a few years ago). I can’t believe I ever did research without them, and I seriously pity the historians who came before me who didn’t have this kind of tool at their disposal.

I should mention that I’ve been a map fiend from way back, and have always used them extensively… but! The satellite pictures on Google Maps (and Google Earth) truly help me understand the geographical context of what I’m researching.

CaptureSpanishBluff

A snapshot of Spanish Bluff, the place where the Custis/Freeman Expedition was halted by Spanish troops in the early part of the 19th century.

History cannot exist without a grasp of the geography where events took place. The location, time, and space are all important factors in understanding why and how things happened. Sometimes, it’s not the easiest thing to picture… landscapes change, after all.

Let’s take at a photo I found on the Texas & Pacific Railway Historical Archive website:

denison tp tunnel

Denison, where this photo was taken, doesn’t look at all like it did back in its railroading hey-day. So I checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to make sure that I am seeing the intersection of tracks correctly, as it seems the T&P tracks are passing underneath the MKT tracks:

CaptureSanborndenison

Using descriptions from the T&P site (behind Crockett and Hull Streets) and discerning the railroad bed from up in the air, I found the disused right-of-way on Google Maps. I made sure it was the right one when I traced it back to Bells.

CaptureDenisonKatylinemod

And, if you look closer, you can even spot a section of the stone wall from the old tunnel:

CaptureDenisonwall

Which is what I photographed when I visited Denison the other day:

Denison wall on old katy right of way

 

Looking at the photograph and the current condition of where the railroad used to be gives me a sense of how much Denison has changed over the years.

Then, there’s the question I had about something I saw from the air in Sherman, between Mulberry and Pacific Streets (south/north) and Willow and Lee Streets (west/east):

CaptureShermangoogle

It looked industrial (that wasn’t too far-fetched) so I decided to see what I could from old maps. First, I checked out the Bird’s eye map:

CaptureShermanbirdseyeCaptureSherman13

And then checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map:

CaptureShermansanborn

So, the bases I’m seeing are peanut and cotton oil tanks. Not earth-shattering, but at least I know what I’m looking at when I check out the ruins.

Another way to do this is to check city directories from the time periods, but since I don’t have them handy, I’ll use the maps to figure things out.

This kind of research is what goes on all the time inside museums, archives, libraries, bored people’s laptops at Starbucks, etc. Hey, it’s something to do!

Published in: on March 17, 2013 at 1:45 am  Comments (2)  
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Simply, a Vexing Question

Every time I give a presentation on ghost towns, invariably I’m asked this question: “What exactly is a Ghost Town? And why are you wearing that shirt with those pants?”

While I usually just shrug off the latter question, the first one is one of my favorites, because the answer is actually fairly obvious.

Dundee school close up

Ghost Towns come in a variety of different ways: they might have several paved roads, or they only exist as a cemetery, or they are surrounded by people’s well-kept homes, or they have a post office, or they have a city hall, or they are inside a state park. Whatever and however they represent, the constant in a ghost towns is that it no longer has a school.

Believe it or not, the United States has always been a big believer in education. A mere 30 years after the Puritans came ashore, they formed Harvard. In quick succession, several other schools opened, with an emphasis on literacy and reason… the idea being that men and women both should be able to read the bible and conduct trade in a free market economy. Their zeal to be educated led the colonists to read treasonous philosophies, print banned books, and question authority. After all, Thomas Paine would not have been well received by a people who could not exhibit critical thinking skills.

Thus, often the first public building erected by a fledgling community was not a courthouse or a church, but a school (in Texas & Oklahoma, I’ve discovered that many towns’ first building was the Masonic Lodge, which doubled as a school during the week). Having a school meant the town believed it had a future. Schools embodied optimism.

Dougherty school door
As modern economies of scale encroached on communities, centers of trade began to shift (when you want to visualize “economies of scale,” just think about a local hardware store versus Home Depot, or the small grocer versus Wal-Mart). Kids who might have stayed in their towns after graduation discovered that they had to move to larger cities to take advantage of opportunities there. Their progeny went to the larger schools, which became ever larger, and so on – until the small town schools had to close their doors.

There’s nothing sadder than a shuttered school. It’s as if the locks on the doors murdered the very soul of the community. No longer are school events like football season, the big dance, or the open house the focal point. Everyone in a town – regardless if one had a kid in school or not – invested in the school in some way. Without it, the citizens of those towns lose their commonality.

Bucher School-side

Little towns like Ravenna (Fannin County, Texas) or Dougherty (Carter County, Oklahoma) might not like having me denote them as “ghost towns.” After all, they still have town halls and post office, and maybe a gas station or two. But, without their schools, they only exist as an outpost of the bigger cities in their midst.

And that is the simple answer to a seemingly complex question.

Published in: on February 15, 2013 at 10:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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Moving and Changing in America

My family hails from the South… I mean from way back. They came from the slums of Middlesex, London, and after a generation in Ireland, they boarded a boat to Virginia, whether voluntarily or not. The next generation then squatted in the Bladen swamps of North Carolina, and the next generation after that moved further southwest to the foothills in upcountry Alabama. From there, the next generation dove south to Natchez, Mississippi, then 30 years later north to Shreveport, then 30 years after that my father was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

I’m mentioning this not because I’m a genealogist (I gleaned all this information from other family historians who are far more interested than I am), but because I’m fascinated by what makes America tick. And that tick seems to be movement and change.

This motel was once a busy stop when US 80 still hummed through Ranger, Texas.

Aboriginal Americans moved around, often for trade purposes or, in the case of Plains tribes, to follow food sources. African Americans, once freed from the bounds of slavery, sought freedom through courage by traveling to northern cities, joining cattle drives and the army, or simply by traveling to the southern schools under hostile conditions. Poor whites, like my family, constantly searched for better economic conditions.

Americans are a people with itchy feet. It doesn’t matter where their families originate, or how they got here… each generation is on the go, looking for greener  pastures and better opportunities. Living in a country that was founded and shaped by these restless people makes me see how much the US culture invokes this spirit of moving.

Abandoned cotton gin along LA 1

Often, it’s the physical landscape that reflects this quest for finding something better “just around the corner.” Think of the many abandoned cemeteries that scatter around haphazardly. In Europe, cemeteries tend to be associated with a long-standing church, and the congregation takes care of them. Not so in the US… families buried their dead on their own plots of land and then, when the next generation moved on, those graves stood forgotten and overgrown. Entire towns lived and died with the tide and ebb of economy and location. Certain cities grow, while others are barely holding on. Some schools are bursting at the seams, and others sport boards over their windows and doors. Buildings that once defined a community are torn down for newer construction that can be renamed by current movers and shakers. Big factories sit shuttered. Rail lines and roads become weed-strewn scars on the landscape as newer commercial byways change how towns function – think of industrial loops and interstates.

Our cultural legacy is constantly changing, too. Our history has had many wrongs – slavery, forced Indian removal, segregation and racism – and on the whole, Americans address these issues bit by bit so that my son sees people in various shades of brown, not black or white. My grandmother canned her fruits and vegetables, but I need to look up how to do that on the internet, and “foodies” are “rediscovering” recipes that thirty years ago were considered everyday fare. We fill our homes – in which most of us will not grow old  – with things that are cheap and easy, not necessarily long-lasting. Shoot, we think a phone or computer is obsolete when they’re over a year old…

Even churches aren’t safe from a changing and moving population, like this one in Atoka, OK.

I’m not writing from the perspective of a high horse here, either. I’m part of this legacy of change. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, my grandmother, who lived in San Angelo, saved enough money to buy 12 acres and a grocery store in Red River County, Texas. Years later, my mom and step-dad built a cottage on the land, the store having been abandoned long ago. Now, my mother has to sell the house and land that’s been in our family for three generations because my sister and I live and work in big cities, and we’re not willing to move back.

While the United States is a young country, relatively speaking, and is still defining itself, the definition seems to be one of transience. Our geography and culture reflect that. Maybe this perspective will lessen as the nation grows older, with fewer opportunities to start anew. Or maybe we’ll just continue to blaze new trails and leave our old worlds behind, whether that is in a new location, or in the fact that we forget how to bake a pie from scratch, or just because we’re always searching for who we are – when in fact, change is who we are.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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