Louisiana Respect

Texas is a big state. It’s also my birthplace and the birthplace of my dad, so of course I feel affinity for it… sometimes. It’s also a place with a LOT OF hot air circulating around – or rather, hot airbags. But you know I love you, Texas.

With that being said (and bracing for the pounding I might receive in written form later on), I am going to go on a limb to claim that if you want to visit a whole ‘nother country, it really isn’t Texas – it’s Louisiana.

Ouch! Don’t hit.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana - near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he's not willing to sell.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana – near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he’s not willing to sell.

I mean, just look at Louisianan diversity. They don’t have counties, they have parishes. Their Mardi-Gras is a unique blend of Catholicism, Carnival, Fasching, and Santeria. The mighty Mississippi forms its delta here, for gosh’s sakes.

And check out those who’ve made their homes in LA. The original inhabitants were the Caddos, Natchez, Coushattas, Chickasaws and Choctaws, all of whom built large tiered cities and a sophisticated farming and trading system. Later, the creoles emerged, people of mixed Spanish, French, Native, Caribbean, and African descent who, to this day, populate the Red River. Then there are beautiful places like Natchitoches and the French Quarter, whose buildings mirror Spanish architectural styles in a New World colonial layout (it’s mostly not French construction – after the French Quarter burned down, the Spanish, who controlled New France from 1763 until 1798, rebuilt it using brick and stone). The Cajuns stem from displaced French Canadians (Acadians), who were kicked out of said colony by the British and found their way to southwestern Louisianne, with their unique brand of French and their willingness to adapt their cuisine to native flora and fauna. People of African descent, mostly former slaves, built thriving towns, churches, schools, and businesses under strained circumstances, as it was Plessy v. Ferguson – which established the “separate but equal” doctrine – that began in Louisiana courts. The Germans brought their industry and Christmas customs with them, as did the English with their protestant and free-market ways. The Italians introduced some wonderful foods to Louisiana’s palate – Shreveport once had Italian delis and bakeries all over downtown. Today, large immigrant groups from Mexico, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and India have made this state into a true melting pot of world cultures.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantation, but haunted towers, too.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantations, but haunted towers, too.

And where else can you take a picture of a bridge in downtown Shreveport, right next to gaudy casinos, and realize that it was not an old bicycle seat sticking out from the bayou muck, but an alligator’s head?

I know that Texas compares just as much. After all, SIX flags flew over Texas (although I still don’t buy the French claim to Texas, as La Salle’s colony was pretty much a failed usurpation and New Spain never recognized French claims south of the Red River west of the Great Bend). But Texas doesn’t have Natchitoches meat pies. Or beignets. Or Civil War battle sites.

Vive la Louisianne! Okay, okay, and viva Tejas.

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

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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!

An Arkansas Traveler

The old story of the “Arkansas Traveler” tells of a person coming through the backwoods of Arkansas and happening upon a house. The traveler is lost or maybe just curious, and the house’s inhabitants answer his questions  – such as “Where is the nearest town?” or “What do you do here for fun?” – in a roundabout manner… “It’s closest to the nearest signpost” or “Spit upwind and see on who it lands.” The conversation then devolves from there. Depending on the person telling the tale, it either makes fun of the foreign nube or the Arkansas dude.

"Arkansas Traveler" sheet music cover, 1937, Library of Congress."

“Arkansas Traveler” by Herb Block, 1937, Library of Congress.

 

I’ve been traveling through Arkansas on and off for the last six months to complete my newest book, The Red River in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest (The History Press, forthcoming February 2014), and all I can say is that I’ve never met nicer folks or a more interesting section of the Red River Valley.

The Red River makes a big bend right alongside the old steamboat port of Fulton. All rivers have their bends, some more than others (the Red River exhibits several, actually). What makes the Great Bend so important to the Red is that it changes the nature of the river, as it falls from a west -to-east stream  to a north-to-south stream. This also means that it changes from a sandy, broad, and not-very-navigable river to a narrower, deeper, and navigable channel. And not just that; the culture of the river changes, too. The American West, with its nomadic native tribes and its reliance on range animals, gives way to the Old South, with its reliance on cotton economy, race, and the plantation system. Yeah, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but history bears me out.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

The railroad bridge above the Red River at Fulton.

Maybe that’s why I’ve developed a real affection for Fulton. During the mid-19th century, this city was THE place for cotton shipments. I was also able to find several accounts of a booming slave trade based on the region’s many plantations, both big and small. It was also a genuine frontier town, situated directly across Old Mexican Texas (until 1836) and then the Republic of Texas before the border lines shifted in favor of the Lone Star State. Sam Williams, who grew up in Fulton during the 1830s where his father ran a tavern, reminisced about the town’s propensity as an emigrant gateway, with several inns, bars, restaurants and gambling halls to cater to their needs. He also said – and I can picture a twinkle in his eye – that there weren’t many churches around as Fulton’s inhabitants weren’t exactly “religiously inclined.”

Fulton, like the rest of the Old Southwest before the Civil War, succumbed to the modern age of the railroads and automobiles. There’s not much left to indicate what the area used to look like, or how busy it once was. Floods and new cities, such as Texarkana and Hope, replaced the older settlements in economics and location, just like the older Anglo settlements replaced the Caddoan villages that dotted the Red River before the Louisiana Purchase. Progress, whether good or bad, has made its mark on this small but incredibly diverse portion of the Red River. It fascinates me to no end, and provides me with ample opportunity to try to discover remnants of what used-to-be.

A great place to begin this historical exploration is Washington State Historic Park, located along the Southwest Trail (the Old Chihuahua Trail, now State Road 195) a few miles northeast of Fulton. There, the traveler can discover the importance of Hempstead County’s first seat and the temporary capital of Arkansas during the Civil War, with two courthouses, plenty of vintage houses, a recreation of the blacksmith shop where James Bowie supposedly had his famous knife designed, and the largest magnolia tree in the state. The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives are there as well, with tons of information – including maps and photographs – about the area.

A scene from Old Washington

A scene from Old Washington

Washington and Fulton are both on this Southwest Trail, the main road that led people like Stephen F. Austin and his original 300 settlers into Texas. What I found interesting is that the trail is well-marked between Washington and Fulton, but north of Washington, the road becomes indistinguishable amid a plethora of dirt roads. I tried to follow the old trail, but got lost.

I reckon the tale of the Arkansas Traveler is still pretty pertinent.

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

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

Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm  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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Three Things I love about Fort Worth

Fort Worth Camp Bowie Landmark Lodge small

A while back, I posited three of Dallas’ greatest places to visit… according to my biased, unasked-for opinion, anyway. Woe is me if I didn’t give Fort Worth its fair share of my enthusiasm. Fort Worth is, by anyone’s account, a city that knows its identity – pure western – and knows its value, as evidenced by the way citizens and benefactors care for it. Fort Worth is full of architectural gems, vibrant city life, and cultural mainstays, and I feel the need to give it its Red River Historian due. Therefore, in no particular order,  my top Fort Worth-y places are:

Camp Bowie Boulevard
I love roads – so much, in fact, that I’ve made it a habit of learning the history of highways. While Fort Worth has long been a crossroads of many different overland pathways, I have a special affinity for Camp Bowie Boulevard. The Camp Bowie Historical District  has fought hard to keep its original, brick-lined integrity intact. Fort Worth’s modern history is centered around this road, with locally-owned restaurants, small florist shops, traffic circles, and old-fashioned motor courts along the west end. At the other end of the boulevard (nearest downtown) sits the famous Kimball Art Museum. A large Picasso statue welcomes visitors (special exhibits require entrance fees, but the permanent collection is free).

Fort Worth Camp Bowie with Lucilles

Surrounding the Kimball are the Museum of Modern Art, with its contemplative exterior and expansive interior, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Nearby are the Cattle Raisers Museum, National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the Fort Worth Museum of Natural History.

Believe me, you can spend DAYS here. So when you’re all museumed-out, come on over to my next-favorite place in Fort Worth:

The Texas & Pacific Station
Of all 20th-century design styles, the most decadent and identifiable is art deco, and the Texas & Pacific Station along Lancaster Avenue (the original US 80) sits as a holy grail to this style. While the upstairs portions are now lofts, the lower portion is still accessible. To take the Trinity Railway Express to Dallas, you’ll have to enter the station to get to the platform. From there, you can witness the many freight and Amtrak trains that come in and out of Fort Worth as well as fabled Tower 55, one of the last, fully functioning railway control towers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The T&P Station used to be sit forlorn and empty after Interstate 30 was built on its north side, which separated it from its historic place at the south end of downtown. Luckily, the interstate was reconfigured to the south of the station, and now this wonderful building is, once again, a true Fort Worth icon.

Pictures can't do the T&P Station justice, but I'll try.

Apparently, the love I have for Fort Worth centers around transportation, and my last entry lets you use your own power:

The Trinity Trail passes the Swift ruins.

Trinity River Trail
To get a real feel for what my ex-coworker used to affectionately call “Funky Town,” I take bike rides between the Trinity River levees along the Trinity River Trail network. The trails stretch several miles to the east, south, and west, and they take me to downtown, towards the zoo, and into the Stockyards. I love this ride, as I get to pass under multiple railroad bridges – as someone who really loves trains, it’s always a bonus to get a little closer to them (and even on a quiet Sunday, I counted at least ten freight trains). But I especially like the scenery on the trail. The Trinity River Trail system provides a complete picture of Fort Worth, and I urge anyone who can to bike, walk, ride a horse, or mosey on a scooter to take it and see the city from such a historic and serene vantage point.

So these are my favorite places, but I could point out quite a few more: the Old Southern Pancake House! Miss Molly’s Burgers! Lucille’s! (Huh, all of these are food places, so I must be hungry). Okay, non-eateries: the Davidson and Centennial Yards! The old KATY bridge on East Morningside Drive! What used to be Hell’s Half Acre!

fort worth katy bridge
I just count myself darn lucky that I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro-mess, because I’m in awe of these fascinating cities. And that I consider them a part of the Red River Valley region, of course!

Who’s the Enemy?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Southern Moon, a bestseller that traces the history of the Comanches, particularly Quanah Parker. It’s a great read, with lots of detailed information and well-rounded research (well, except for some glaring geographical mistakes).

Empire of the Summer Moon describes the Comencheria, which consisted of most of northwest and western Texas.

What I admire about Gwynne is that he doesn’t pull any punches. In academia, not many historians are willing to admit to the atrocities and terror perpetrated by the Comanches against white, black, and Mexican settlers; academics tend to portray the attacks as stemming from an aggressor/defender kind of relationship, with the Old World invading the New World. And of course, when one gets down to brass tacks, that’s exactly from where the animosity generated. Still, Gwynne does not shy away from noting the unprovoked brutality of the Comanches (and other Southern Plains tribes), and provides gruesome details of what happened to people taken captive as well as the fates of the hapless soldiers and warriors on the losing side.

Harper’s Weekly examines Geronimo and the Apaches in 1886. Harpers’ editors tended to view Indians as “noble savages” who only needed understanding and helpful guidance to adopt the ways of the whites.

This is where I find the history of Native Americans in the Red River Valley very sketchy. Tribes like the Caddos, Tonkawas, Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches all engaged in a very brutal warrior culture that included some severe tortures. European accounts explain how tribes roasted and/ or buried their enemy warriors alive, raped and mutilated women, and, in some instances, cannibalized their conquests. Of course, the Europeans could be just as horrendous – one just has to cite the inquisition and the entire institution of slavery for evidence, and that doesn’t even begin to recount the European inclination for gruesome public executions. Throughout the years, though, historians have tried to minimize the more “uncomfortable” aspects of Native American cultures. Many historians have painted them as “noble” or “innocent,” negating very integral parts of their society. This, of course, does Native American groups a grave disservice, as it treats them as pure victims. Instead, Indians were formidable adversaries of the whites, blacks, and Mexican settlers: pretty much every major American conflict until the Spanish-American War at least partially focused on the hostile interactions between non-Indians and Indians.

That’s what I really like about Empire of the Summer Moon: Gwynne treats the Southern Plains tribes as real adversaries, not simple roadblocks to progress. His ability to be frank and non-flinching is a refreshing way to view the American West.

Published in: on June 18, 2012 at 3:46 am  Comments (1)  
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History in Ghost Towns

I think I mentioned this before, but if I haven’t, well… I hunt ghost towns. I’d like to do that for a living, but there’s not much money to be made in just driving around and collecting images from abandoned places. If I could make tracking ghost towns a job, I would.

Odell, Texas

But what is a ghost town, exactly? Is it a settlement that’s been completely abandoned? Or is it a place that used to be bigger than it is now? Should towns that have lost their post offices be considered ghost towns, or does the loss of a school signify a dying town as well? Are ghost towns only legitimate if they have remains, or can an old cemetery be considered a town’s remnant?

I’ve learned that the definition of “ghost town” reflects the person who’s documenting them. Some people are very precise in their criteria, while others, like me, just rely on the idea that we know one when we see one.

Goodlett, Texas

While I have always prided myself on my fortune to live in a state littered with failed cities, I’ve learned through the years that ghost towns are EVERYWHERE. You can find them in Japan, in India, in Germany, in Massachusetts, in the Dakotas, in Brazil, and in Australia. Heck, even the Antarctic has an abandoned station. I guess that’s just the nature of the human beast, to pick up the stakes and wander to the next place where one supposes the grass may be greener.

Banty, Oklahoma

What’s neat about our “new world” ghost towns is that, well, they’re relatively new. That means we know much more of their history, and can even track why the towns were founded and how they met their demise. The towns I’ve encountered are almost like living history books. They tell of opportunities met and lost, like Thurber, Texas, a coal mining town that was shuttered by the Texas & Pacific Railroad when they started using oil in their locomotives. You can “read” about neglect, like what happened in Picher, Oklahoma, where the prairie winds let lead-laden chat piles blow dust blow into children’s lungs. And you can trace changing economies, like Doan’s Crossing, Texas, which faded away when the cattle drives stopped coming through town.

I’m going back on the road this weekend to find some more ghost towns. Every time I discover something a new site, I feel like a secret has just been revealed to me. To me, ghost towns really make the past come alive.

Bonita, Texas

Relic gardening

“Oh no,” says the lone reader of my blog, “not a darn gardening post! They are SOOO boring!”

Well, stupor ain’t my middle name, so I’ll make this short… I just wanted to point out what great things can happen when an appreciation of history, a knowledge of native flora, and a historian who likes to play in the dirt collide.

Methinks that tiller's not going anywhere.

A looong time ago, I picked up several pieces of Thurber brick and made a walkway out of them. Alas, I dismantled the walkway because we moved. At the new-ish house (still an antique, but new to me), I made three garden beds with them instead. In the garden beds, I placed several native species of grasses, many culled from the sides of a dirt road in Montague County (psst, don’t tell!). I surrounded the plants with rock to create a southwestern feel. Then, I took a good look at my antique collection, which really consists of a bunch of rusty items that we’ve found at flea markets, along railroad tracks, or at Goodwill Stores over the years. I set them around the garden and, Bob’s your uncle, I created a pretty decent-looking garden!

A stop sign, old coca-cola ad, and broken insulators bring some ambience

But I’m no green thumb, so who knows how good this garden will hold up a year from now. I do know that I won’t need to water it much, so there’s that. Also, I wanted to “embrace the ranch” – we bought a ranch-style house, which is long but not wide, with a small front porch and large patio. I’ve always been partial to cottage and prairie houses, but this house was just a much better fit for the family. So, what better way to appreciate a housing style than to dress it up like I think it should be?

Old shovels lend themselves to garden relics.

Let me know what you think! As long as you’re kind.

Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 8:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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In Defense of Automobiles

I love a good road trip, and I believe that I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. I’d wager to guess that the majority of people from all over the world like to move about and see what they haven’t  seen yet, and experience things they haven’t yet come across. To want to get up and go is probably simple human nature.

But I’m also very environmentally conscious. I like my world green and clean. I recycle, plant only native shrubs, grasses, and trees, eat hand-gathered eggs, insulate my house properly, ride my bike to shopping, never litter, and pick up after my dogs.

Thus, many of my travels always come with twangs of guilt. Just last week, I once again took a road trip. This time, I retraced the old route of US Highway 77. Having been bypassed in many places by Interstate 35, it often proved a hard road to follow, but I lucked out and found both official and forgotten remnants along the way. I also discovered right-of-ways of long-abandoned railroad lines (mainly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad). That, of course, made me think about the environmental impact of all the ways I could travel – by plane, train, or the automobile.

The Southern Pacific Sunbeam and the Sam Houston Zephyr at Dallas Union Station.

The oldest kind of major traveling option are trains, but here in Texas, they are also the most neglected. It used to be that daily trains from Dallas to Houston to Austin to San Antonio to Oklahoma City to Shreveport, et. al., were common sights. Now, those routes have been torn up, to either be used as bike paths or to simply exist as forgotten berms on the side of the road. Today, only three long-distance trains serve Texas (the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer), and only one is in Oklahoma (Heartland Flyer). Hopefully, that will change soon, as talks are giving way to action in installing a high-speed rail line.

High-speed railroads are supposed to be THE answer to transportation problems like pollution and congestion. I’m all for them, because locomotives (whether at 60 mph or at 160 mph) use hybrid technology that use less diesel the faster they go, and carry more people per gallon than any other passenger carrier. So, yea for trains.

Planes offer a different experience, of course. They are far from efficient in their carbon footprint, but their speed makes up for their lack of environmental friendliness. I hate flying, though.

Remains of a gas station along US 77

Then, there’s the scourge of the earth – the personal car. When taking into account the gas used per miles driven, and the number of each needed to equal the capacity of one airplane or one train, then environmentally speaking, the car is a MAJOR loser. And I hear about it all the time, too: automobiles are major polluters, co-commuting and less driving will save the earth, etc.

And that’s all true. But I tell you what, cars have also been VERY beneficial in many ways. While I can’t dispute their negative environmental impact, I can say that of all the long-distance traveling options, cars are by far the most democratic. When I was driving along and around US 77, I saw many small mom & pop store, cafes, gas stations, and auto part stores (many still in operation) that crowd the sides of the roads. Airplanes don’t allow for that kind of infrastructure at all, of course, and train stations have limited space to accommodate small businesses. Cars are also quite affordable. Yes, I know they cost money (insurance, payments, taxes, repairs) but these costs can be stretched out over a period of time, whereas plane and train ticket costs cannot. Further, their affordability comes from their accessibility – cars can take you practically anywhere, whereas trains and planes bring you only to certain pre-designated spots. Besides, cars can be used (or not) as needs arise, meaning one can have a “beater car” and still get by.

Taking bikes rock, but driving rocks, too.

It’s not that I don’t favor alternate modes of transport… I definitely do! I take the train as much as I can. I voted for a commuter rail line that by June of this year will come through my town. I also walk to the grocery store and ride my bike to run errands. But, I have to admit – I LOVE my car, too. I love that I can drive around the Red River Valley and discover places I’ve never been to; that I can pick a place on a map and be able to visit it; that I can eat, read, and even sleep inside my car (which I’ve done on occasion, after visiting a ghost town in the middle of nowhere).  The car has provided me with more freedom than any other mode of transportation. I think everyone should feel this kind of freedom, too. Cars should become more affordable, more efficient, smaller, and more reliable. It may not be the “in” thing to say among my fellow tree-hugging friends, but I’ll say it, anyway: cars are cool.

I wouldn't mind road tripping in this.

Cool Schools

I have to admit that I absolutely HATED school, back when I was forced to go. I honestly believed that the worst invention in history had to have been high school. My bias changed once I went to college. Although I never set foot on any ivy-covered campus, the experiences and eye-opening views I discovered in junior colleges and a small, public, regional university helped me to really appreciate the benefits of an education. I liked the college experience so much, in fact, that I now teach at a community college.

That’s why I decided that I’d give a presentation on the history of schools for an adult extension class. I’ve been driving all around the area – particularly through Oklahoma – to catch some old schools with my camera. So many of the schools sit as ruined hulks on the side of the road, or stand abandoned in the middle of towns… which tells a lot about how shabbily we treat history.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.

Unlike the Old World, where cathedrals and mosques sit prominently in the hearts of their cities and villages, schools were the centers of communities in the United States.  Contrary to popular opinion today, the U.S. has always valued education, and towns had real stakes in the achievements of their young. One might be Baptist, or Methodist, or Jewish, an atheist or a Quaker, but most people had a child or a niece or a nephew or a favorite neighborhood kid that they wanted to see succeed, and so schools became the great equalizers.

Of course, that’s a rosy view (pun intended, which you’ll understand here in a minute). African Americans, particularly in the South, didn’t enjoy the equalizing effects that education was supposed to provide. At one point, Texas even had a segregated taxing system for schools! Black children were helped through efforts of local citizens as well as by progressive reformers like the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (get the pun?), which distributed funds to help black communities build better school houses and hire qualified teachers.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freeman's town established after the Civil War.

What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freedman's town established after the Civil War.

Education was important for Native Americans as well. While Plains Indians were forced into boarding schools (sometimes far removed from their homes), other tribes, like the Choctaws and Chickasaws, decided on pre-emptive strikes and opened up their own schools, or academies. By the late 1840s, several of these academies served both boys and girls – and even adults, during Saturday classes – all around southeastern Oklahoma.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.

Until the 1940s, many students attended schools inside one room school houses. During bad weather – or after the harvest or planting periods – teachers could have up to 50 students in their classrooms, all squeezed together in a drafty, clap-board covered room. Teachers would have to arrive at least an hour before their students in order to get the stove going,  and would leave only after the school house was clean (naughty kids would help with that chore if need be). Especially for women, teaching could be hard going. Prior to the Second World War, female teachers were expected to be unmarried, and they made about a third of what a male teacher earned.  The efforts of the teacher’s unions helped to bring pay equity throughout the country.

The progressive era (turn of the 20th century) helped to foster the idea of high schools. Until that time, high school diplomas were quite rare – most schooling stopped at the 8th grade. However, reform movements, the push towards standardization of education, the proliferation of colleges and universities, and child labor laws created demand for further education. By the 1940s, attending high school had become the norm, which in turn made them true community centers. An entire youth culture developed around them… homecoming dances, proms, yearbooks, football games, “cruising,” and teen movies and novels created memories and lasting impressions.

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!

Today, our high schools tend to be built outside of the city center. I may not be a sociologist, but I have to wonder…

**** soap box alert ****

… if the reason kids aren’t doing too well in school, including having discipline problems, high pregnancy rates, and lacking in higher learning, may have to do with the removal of schools from the middle of town. New schools tend to be built on cheap land away from business and neighborhoods. Most lack windows, and instead of students seeing their communities when they leave the building, they see the vast gray of parking lots. Some schools – like my high school in Paris, Texas – look almost like warehouses. When kids feel marginalized, might they tend to act out?

Then again, the high school in Lewisville (where I live) sits smack-dab in the center of town, even though it was initially built away from town in the 1960s. Suburban growth will do that to a building. The school is a part of life in this city now, and it’s quite nice, seeing students walk to the drug store, Burger King, library, the grocery store, Sonic – it’s as if my town is anchored to the school. In the Fall, I can hear the football games from my bedroom window, and that’s kid of neat (although I have never watched an entire football game in my life).

While I never did care much for compulsory education, I sure do like its history.