A complaint about access

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

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

Wapanucka academy possible ruin

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

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

Nails Crossing possible site

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

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

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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

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

Nails crossing what the committee wanted to do

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

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

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

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

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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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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A Curious Life

I turned yet another year older this month (just a decade past 29), and, like I do every birthday, I did some soul searching.

I’m re-visiting Bromide (in my head & for real) because I recently came in contact with a Chickasaw Elder who is providing me with all sorts of information. If I didn’t follow my passions, I would have never known him or learned so much.

My soul apparently has ADHD, because my mind tends to wander when I genuflect. It meanders towards places I’ve been, sights I’ve seen, and old buildings I’ve discovered. I don’t really think, but simply recall pictures, and add new details to the locations in my imagination until I suddenly find myself daydreaming in a far off place. Trying to tap into my soul is like thumbing through a large photo album, actually.

Over the years, I’ve finally learned (allowed myself?) not to fight these kinds of thoughts. Instead, I’m letting the pictures in my head guide me. My “what I am a doing with my life” questions become more like “where do I want to go” and “what can I still explore.” The answers, while not earth-shaking, help me to understand that I am on the right path – for me.

I’ve learned from just listening to how I think that I don’t want a big career, a big house, or exotic travels. I shrug off luxury. I don’t need a fancy car, or be “fulfilled” by living a simple life or a spiritual life or a philosophical life or a religious life.  I simply want to see what’s around the next bend. Living a life “filled with curiosity” has become my guiding principal. Everything else (family, work, chores) either just kind of falls into place, or gets discarded onto the growing pile of chores and wasted energy that prevent me from doing what I love to do, and being who I like to be.

The open road beckons, I don’t wanna wait.

That’s why every once in a while, I have to de-clutter my life. I take a good look at the obligations that keep me curious, and check on the other obligations that hinder me.  So I renew my commitment to my fabulous family and friends (to me, they’re all the same!) and I renew my commitment to my website, readers, blog, presentations, books, and art work. Lately, other obligations- such as my full time job –  have crept into my world, and I have to see if they prevent me from following my curiosity.

I guess I’m rambling, but the point I’m trying to make is that, in the near 40 years I’ve been on this planet, I’m finally allowing myself to be defined by what I love to do. My younger self always tended to belittle my passions. I’d tell myself that taking road trips, writing stories, and learning history were silly, superfluous time wasters that didn’t make money, were impractical, etc (typical German protestant upbringing!). Now, I’m giving permission to tell that young whipper snapper to shut.the.hell.up.

Curiosity has brought me to some astounding places and allowed me to meet fabulous people.

I want to remain curious until I’m old and gray (okay, old-er and gray-er, har har). What about you? Are you finding it harder to ignore and suppress your true desires? Has turning older allowed you to accept who you are?

I hope so.

Published in: on February 11, 2012 at 10:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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Insulator-ing

I consider myself very lucky because my son likes to take road trips with me. Sometimes, I feel as though I need to justify my trips, and what better way to do that than to just blame all the traveling on my son. Well, not really – I just like to get up and go, and ever since he was a small baby, he got up and went with me.

Now, he’s 12, and he discovered a hobby that combines my love of road tripping with a purpose: to find insulators. Glass (also ceramic and plastic) insulators were used to hold up and protect telegraph and telephone wires that were strung next to railroad lines. David likes to discover old right-of-ways that still have telegraph poles next to them and hunt for these utilitarian pieces of art. Currently, he has over 100 glass insulators in a variety of colors. He usually finds simple Hemingray 45s that are clear or aqua,  but sometimes he’s lucky enough to find blue and green ones, too.

A sandblasted Hemingray

While I’ve never been much of a collector, I must say these insulators are growing on me. They’re just so pretty, and some of them have interesting stories to tell. For example, I especially like the ones that still have a ring of soot on them – remnants of the days of steam locomotives.

If your curiosity has been piqued, here are a few websites that can tell you a lot more about this rather interesting hobby: http://www.insulators.info/ , http://www.nia.org/, and http://insulatorstore.com/

Published in: on December 3, 2011 at 3:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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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

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.