A Western Kind of Place
There’s an old conundrum as to whether Texas, as a southwestern state, is predominantly southern or western in its cultural orientation. Former Texas state historian Light Cummins has pointed out that while Anglo Texan history is predominantly southern in its origins, the state has identified itself culturally with a western “brand” since the 1930s. Any region has historical and cultural complexity, of course, but I want to argue here that the Panhandle is a western place historically and that it would do well to embrace this identity for its future good.
Geographically, we are high and dry. Over 3,000 feet above sea level, we ride a plateau lashed by winds. West of the 100th meridian, we struggle to maintain an average of 20 inches of rain per year, relying on fossil groundwater for drinking as well as agriculture. Historically, we are a place of Comanches and Kiowas, great bison herds, Hispano pioneers out of Nuevo Mexico, US cavalry wars, great ranching empires. While economically we are all agribusiness, culturally our icons are cattlemen and cowboys, mainly. The literature of the region is anchored by classics like J. Evetts Haley’s 1936 pioneer biography Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman and contemporary popular works like John Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series—reinforcing western themes.
On the other hand, many Panhandlers would deny or downplay their status as westerners. Some seem embarrassed or apologetic about their place. In general, panhandle people identify as “Texan” in a myriad of ways, from Texas-edition pickup trucks and Dallas Cowboys fanaticism to plastering their walls, bumpers, and bodies with the shape of Texas and the lonestar symbol. Others downplay western-ness by embracing all signs and evidence that we are pretty much like everywhere else, which is not hard to do in the age of the internet, mass media, and Walmart. There are those who project a more regional persona, but these are nonspecific and typecast (for the most part). Of these cases, my casual observation has been that often men cultivate a John Wayne western persona while women cultivate a southern accent and sensibility.
It’s a pity that we do not celebrate our regional specificity in its richness and difference.
Putting the pernicious John Wayne problem aside, our frontier history is iconically western and our contemporary reality remains that of the frontier West. By this I mean that the “New West” of population growth, urbanization, economic prosperity, and outdoor recreation has in a sense passed us by. The intermountain West, from Tucson to Missoula, has seen such growth—water shortages notwithstanding. However, the Texas panhandle, which was a “late frontier” in the days of the Comancheria, is a frontier once again, its problems of water drawdown portending economic decline. This is to some degree because this is a place that is in many ways not easy—not everyone is drawn to the elements of the expanse. West Texas and the Great Plains more generally partake in this problem—grassland rustbelt.
To claim a western frontier ethos is, in a way, a tired and clichéd old saw. But I wish to reclaim it in a manner that is both old and new. It’s an old story in the sense that we can and must capitalize on our geography, the great expanse of the southern high plains, in various forms of heritage tourism. But it’s a new frontier spirit in the sense of facing our future, confronting our challenges, and employing our creativity, diversity, and regional resources in innovative ways.
In this sense we need to celebrate those who embody frontier traits of “bootstrap” individualism, “can-do” ability, and a willingness—often born of necessity—to innovate and invent. This frontiersperson is paradoxically also one who can recognize the need for collaboration and cooperation.
Alex Hunt is Director for the Center for the Study of the American West (CSAW)