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!

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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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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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We Built This City… Well, Not Really

Two interests tend to consume my mind. One is history, of course. The other, oddly, is urban planning. I’m by no means an expert on this topic, and I tend to focus on theory rather than action. Recently, I read “Geography of Nowhere” by James Howard Kunstler. He’s a bit of a whiner, but overall, he made some good (if obvious) observations that reaffirmed my opinion that there should be a growing movement to change the nature of our cities.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the cities within the Red River Valley… naturally.

fort worth stockyards downtown trinity best

(That’s the Trinity River, but still).

The “Old Southwest” was built by roads. Only in the southern parts (Louisiana, Arkansas) did rivers serve as a transportation route; otherwise, people traveled by foot, horse, stagecoach, buggy, railroads, streetcars, and automobiles. Naturally, our cities grew to accommodate these modes. Kunstler posits that this is the reason many American cities are built horizontally, with wide swaths of vacant land and acres of parking lots. While he has a point, I think the real culprits are the politicians who run the cities. It seems that the primary goal for council meetings is not to advocate for ideas that would create better communities, but rather what will make the most money. I once sat at a council meeting in my hometown and I swear, there were more “developers” in the meeting than there were media, citizens, and city employees. Not that construction is necessarily bad; it’s just that the kind of construction that tends to get the “go-ahead” by elected officials, many of whom don’t have any backgrounds in planning, repeats itself in every town. The big box stores made of pre-fabricated cement walls, large steel sheds, low roofed stripmalls, and bland suburban tracts that are approved by councils do not appeal to the aesthetics or the needs of those who have to live and work in the spaces. Literally, they create pockets of space that only suit their purposes but have no real connection to the city that surrounds them. The developers mostly don’t even live in the cities that they are developing, and without having a stake in the community, they have little interest in boosting the city’s appeal. While the council people do live in the cities, they usually have no way to not approve projects that meet the city code without protracted fights. And then we have to live in places that are depressing, ugly, and unwalkable.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

Downtown Ardmore is really nice.

One prime example is Texarkana. Up until the 1940s, this city had a vibrant downtown, filled with street cars, theaters, and home-grown businesses.For the majority of city-dwellers, department stores, grocers, and hardware stores were either a simple walk or a short trolley ride away. But then the interstate was built. The city approved new projects along this behemoth, neglecting its core in favor of  cheap land, hastily-imagined building codes, and the promise of future tax revenue (usually an unlikely source of potential revenue, as abatements often outlived the businesses they were supposed to help). The very leaders who were charged with advocating  for citizens’ welfare instead sold off the future of the city, and didn’t give themselves any recourse to stop this strangulation of its core.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

The interstate put a damper on downtown Texarkana.

I love to daydream about how to re-imagine our cities. I wish I could push for the end of strip malls in the middle of nowhere, and instead have businesses line the streets around downtowns. I’d make front lawns obsolete – seriously, what are they good for? – and make homes and businesses vertical to compact the space. I’d maintain all sidewalks and bike lanes, and rid cities of one way streets.

The nerd has spoken.

Published in: on April 17, 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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An Ode to New Orleans

ship on mississippi

New Orleans awakened a creative hunger in me. I just felt like sharing this feeling. Ignore as you wish!

I gained an idea
in a town I visited
Back in the month
Of soft autumn light.
The sidewalks were carved
by millions of footsteps
and the balconies filled
with the inkiness of night.

The houses, all worn
gleamed in the sun
and shadows were cast
softly, if at all.
In the flits of history
of the public square
along the river banks
I heard the idea call.

I listened intently
as I drank the absinthe
and watched as souls
stumbled about.
Saw an old staircase
climbed to its end
and laughed absurdly
as I called them out.

The tugs of voices
some ancient, some new
others quiet or poor
I strained to remember.
The cause of my longing
that found throughout
those streets, those buildings
on that day in November.

I leaned in closely
as I sighed, understood
that to live in my head
was a worn-out cause.
I had to reach into
the city, the sounds
the art of being alive –
the gained idea I had once lost.

Robin Cole-Jett, 2012

Published in: on March 10, 2013 at 5:41 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!

Imagining History

In graduate school, I was begrudgingly introduced to renowned American colonial historian Bernard Bailyn. I say begrudgingly because my professor wasn’t exactly a fan. He believed Bailyn furthered the idea of American exceptionalism to the detriment of impartial, objective criticism, blah blah blah. He had a point, of course. But one thing Bailyn proposed, which has stayed with me throughout the years that I’ve been practicing history, is the idea of the historical imagination.

Rosser grocery store small

Imagine what used to be.

( Bailyn was influenced by Robin George Collingwood, but it was from Bailyn that I first learned of the concept).

Anyway, “historical imagination” refers to the practice of putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and it tends to be the simple shoes of a run-of-the-mill person from the past, not a great or infamous leader… the decisions of Presidents, judges, and scions of the Gilded Age tend to be unique and a little convoluted. But the opinions and reactions of a pioneer, or a Comanche woman, or an enslaved man, or an Italian immigrant, would appeal to anyone who’s studied the past, even cursorily. Their motivations tend not be that very different from our modern inclinations, even if their political and social backgrounds are not as similar.

History, I’ve learned, is all about the imagination. That old building I like to take pictures of? I have to imagine it being used, with people walking in and out, with horses tied up to the the rings and posts. That historical school building or courthouse square? I think about the kids and citizens who beat a path to the doors. And that raid on a settlers family in Forestburg? I imagine their fear, their fatigue, and their uncertainty.

We can make walls talk.

We can make walls talk.

I’ve always encouraged my students to imagine things like being a soldier in a Civil War battle, being an enslaved woman whose child was sold, or being a tenant farmer who lost his livelihood to a big corporation. What I try to do is to get them to understand that not only are people, even over time, not that dissimilar from us today, but that history is itself the study of time, and how we’ve used it. To draw conclusions about the past, one must first be able to view it through the eyes of those who lived it… from those people who didn’t have a lot of power, but were a large part of the force that made the present into history.

Imagining history gives me a moving picture. I can deduct from my suppositions the actions and policies that came about after an event. It helps me to understand that no history is black and white, but rather shades of gray, but it also allows me to judge injustices and empathize with those who lived through them.

Published in: on February 20, 2013 at 3:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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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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