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.

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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?

Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.

Town Beautiful

Is there such a thing as an “urban planning nerd?” Because if there is, then that’s what I am. I have not formally studied this kind of endeavor, so all of the information and conjecture I postulate is strictly founded on the predicate that “your mileage may vary.” But that won’t stop me from telling you exactly what I think. Lucky you.

When I drive around – which I do a lot, to a lot of different places, in hopes of discovering the history of the Red River Valley – I tend to notice what towns work, and which ones do not. By work, I don’t necessarily mean that I count how many manufacturing plants or how many businesses are located inside a town, though good urban planning will definitely help a town have both. I look to see if there are people walking, and under what circumstances. Are they having to use the street to get from point A to point B, or can they use sidewalks? Are the sidewalks actually maintained, or are they pitted by ruts and dirt? Is the grocery store far away from neighborhoods, or is it close by? Are houses well maintained, or do they look like perpetual yard sales? Are the town’s parks and other respite places in walking distance, or is a car to ferry the kids around mandatory?

shreveport peytons us 80 small

Before Texas Street ( US 80) in Shreveport was superseded by Interstate 20, this neighborhood epitomized compact and good urban design.

More than anything else, the environment in which we live has a profound impact on how we see and interact with the world. Neighborhoods that are walled and gated, for example, give the impression of fear and distrust. Strip malls that are half-empty and moated by huge parking lots (and sometimes, surrounded by ill-maintained car washes) look depressing and dangerous. Places with few or no sidewalks seem very discouraging, even suspicious, of normal human activity, such as walking and biking. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to enticing new enterprises to open shop, people taking success and schooling seriously, or citizens having confidence in their elected officials. While all of this may sound like common sense, I have to wonder, why is it that many towns and cities ignore these fairly basic tenets?

irving big state sign

Businesses should be at the street – not in the middle of a sea of empty parking lots – and neighborhoods should be compact. Well, I think so, anyway.

One reason I can deduce is that Southerners pretend not to like too much government interference. The opinion goes that no one – no neighbors, code enforcer, or some arbitrary rule – should preclude one from the enjoyment of one’s own property. And I can appreciate this, of course. But communally owned property, such as city sidewalks, business districts, parks, and streets, should be viewed not simply as necessities, but rather calling cards: “We live here and we love it here.” Compact streets in interconnected neighborhoods that are walkable, maintained, and close to what makes a place livable – such as parks, grocery stores, and libraries – give the impression of a working town. Not just working in the sense of people having jobs, but also in the ways that make life pleasant and beautiful.

Is beauty and harmony in the world a concept we should all strive for?  My little, unimportant opinion is that they’re the only things that make life worth living, and the most immediate way to achieve them starts in our own neighborhoods.

Published in: on June 8, 2015 at 7:58 pm  Comments (4)  
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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.

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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.

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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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It’s Here! The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Now available all over the place!

I am not one for bragging, but when I opened the box that contained my author’s copies of my newest book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest, I had to admit that the cover NAILED it. It is so, so pretty!

From the back cover:

“The Red River’s dramatic bend in southwestern Arkansas is the most distinctive characteristic along its 1,300 miles of eastern flow through plains, prairies and swamplands. This stretch of river valley has defined the culture, commerce and history of the region since the prehistoric days of Caddo inhabitants. Centuries later, as the plantation South gave way to westward expansion, people found refuge and adventure along the area’s trading paths, military roads, riverbanks, rail lines and highways. This rich heritage is why the Red River in Arkansas remains a true gateway to the Southwest. Author Robin Cole-Jett deftly navigates the history and legacy of one of the Natural State’s most precious resources.” I blush.

Check out my other books, too: Traveling History with Bonnie & Clyde, Traveling History up the Cattle Trails, and Images of America: Lewisville.

Oh, and while you’re clicking away, don’t forget to visit the origination of all of my explorations: www.redriverhistorian.com

I started my website WAY back in 2002 as a way to share my love of regional history with like-minded people. It’s become a really fun conduit to share information, photos, and discoveries. I now keep up with many readers through my Facebook page, too.

Happy Trails!

One for the Road

I love to drive, but I hate Interstates. I don’t drive just to get from A to B (well, okay, I think we all do that) – I drive to see what’s out there. Since you can’t do that with bland Interstates, I’ve made it a solitary mission to seek out the highways of old.

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

1918 road map (western half of US) shows the route names

Using a 1916 automobile route map certainly helps. Before the numbering of the highway system due to federal acts in the late 1920s, roads were not numbered but named. Along the way, colored posts denoted the routes, which often got their monikers from automobile clubs of the 19-teens. The automobile clubs consisted of well-to-do people who liked to drive the new-fangled machines but lamented the fact that they didn’t really have passable roads to drive them on, or places to go to. Some municipalities even forbade cars on their roads, worried that the noise would scare the horses.

1918 Road Map to the east

1918 Road Map to the east

So those who were wealthy and “modern” enough to have an automobile started “The Good Roads Movement,” a public campaign that advocated for better roads. The Good Roads Movement published highway guides and maps featuring the afore-mentioned named highways. Entrepreneurs built hotels, restaurants, and filling stations along the routes to make road travel not so much of an adventure as an excursion. The question of who’d maintain the roads – the automobile clubs? Cities or counties? – vexed auto advocates, who used their influence to lobby for road taxes that would pay for comprehensive state and federal highway systems. Within a decade, private toll roads and bridges slowly gave way to free thoroughfares, and the named highways were given a numeral designation. Some of the highways retained their descriptors – such as the Bankhead Highway (US 67/US 80), Lincoln Highway (US 50), or the Ozark Trail (portions of US 66 and US 67) – while other names faded from memory (like US 77).

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

Bankhead alignment in Arkansas (US 67)

History is not just made alongside a road… sometimes, it IS the road.

Published in: on July 2, 2013 at 4:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Another Red River Historian

When you take into the account the vast volumes of literature that American historians have produced over the last two centuries, what becomes clear is that the Red River hasn’t been discussed much. Like the Thames in England, the Nile in Egypt, the Ganges of India, and the Tigris in ancient Persia, rivers have defined the civilizations that grew around them, and the Mississippi River has been given that honor in the United States. And that’s pretty much how it should be… the Red River isn’t the grandest of streams, after all. Though it figured prominently in the boundary questions between the US, Spain, France, the Caddoan Confederacy, Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas, the Red River happened to become important just as river traffic was slowly giving way to the railroads, and what could have become a major river in American history was instead left to nature.

Red River bottoms by childress
Certain historians have recognized the Red River, however, and none has done such a good job of it than Dan Flores. Flores, who holds a PhD from Texas A&M and is a native of Natchitoches, has become one of the eminent historians of American West history. His research has focused on the “Old Southwest” (also called the Near Southwest) in many of his books, and what I like best about him is that he emphasizes the past through both geography and art, which allows the reader to obtain a “sense of place.” One of his first projects was as editor to the short but informative Journal of an Indian Trader: Anthony Glass and the Texas Trading Frontier, 1790-1810 (1985). Flores allows Glass to recount his explorations, adding geographic descriptions to create a valuable reference to early interactions between Native Americans and European capitalists. In Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest (1999), he again combined geography and history by explaining – very poetically – how the landscape of the Llano Estacado shaped human interaction. He was one of the first historians to offer a thorough treatment of the Louisiana Purchase expedition up the Red River in Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806 (2002). As best he could, he recreated portions of the journey himself, and filled gaps with a realistic imagination as so much of the original landscape had been altered over the years.

Carpenter Bluff bridge wide shot tx side
I highly recommend Dr. Flores’ studies on the Red River. Like John Graves did in his classic treatment of the wild Brazos of 1960, Goodbye to a River, Flores makes the Red River a central figure in his histories, and when you read his books, the river becomes as important a figure as any one man or woman. I truly hope that one day, my small contribution to the study of the Red River will be even a fraction as good as his.

Published in: on May 30, 2013 at 4:31 am  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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