Moseying: History of the Southern Llano Estacado
Ghost towns of Howard and Martin County
December 3, 2003
Ever so often I just have to get out of the office, away from duties and responsibilities, so I go moseying about to recharge my batteries. I never know where I am going when I point my truck's nose out of the Sibley parking lot. I just wander, turning this way and that until something "strikes my fancy." I recently found myself wandering the country roads north of Interstate 20 between Stanton and Big Spring.
My late friend Aubrey Reid's family moved to the Valley View and Brownlea on the Prairie areas north of Stanton in 1924. When people came to the Llano Estacado at the time his family did, they brought with them a sense of hope that extended beyond hopes of making a good living. They also hoped to create a civilized society, establishing ways of life for the long run -- taking pride in the hard work that comes from being a pioneer. Growing up on the farm was not all work, however. Aubrey and his brothers roamed up and down Sulphur Springs Draw on horseback, watching the majestic evening and morning flights of sandhill cranes, and doing a little hunting for the supper table. He saw the beauty in the place, and learned to love the landscape.
With some of his stories replaying in my head, I drove about for a while, trying to locate the exact place where Brownlea on the Prairie might have been. Brownlea on the Prairie was in the general area of the junction of FM 137 and CR 846 north of Stanton. All I could find were cotton fields, until I got to the bottomlands of the western fork of Sulphur Springs Draw with its alkali sacaton grass, salt cedar, and some black willow. Until 1940 west Texas was "a developing country." Small communities formed, built schools, and applied for post offices. Sometimes a drought would cause a town to wither away -- for example, the little town of Morita ( the word means a small grove of mulberries, but the native Texas mulberry does not grow within 15 miles.)
On Interstate 20, several miles east of the junction with FM 818 just east of the salt lakes, is a roadside park. Between there and the railroad in 1907 the small town of Morita had 75 people. It had livestock shipping pens, a railroad maintenance office, a post office, a couple of stores and a church or two. In 1910 only 4.7 inches of rain fell. Vegetable gardens dried up, and grass withered and died. The drought continued in 1911, and people began moving away, and in September of that year, the post office closed. I amused myself walking along the railroad right of way for a little ways, beyond the where the Interstate curves away from the railroad, looking for some evidence of Morita (old rusting metal, or a collection of weathered lumber, or a pile of rusting cans and broken bottles.)
North of Big Spring is a maze of section line roads in between miles and miles of what is mostly plowed land. Some of the area is pastureland, full of mesquite. Some of the area is now in CRP (conservation reserve program). CRP lands are planted to native grasses and left ungrazed for at least 10 years. The landowner gets a small stipend for taking lands out of production, and has to follow USDA management guidelines -- shredding brush, replanting grass and forb seeds until the ground is "haired over with vegetation."
I wandered up and down the roads, looking for evidence of places named Auto, Light, Bisco, Wakefield, Luther, Morris, and Earl. In 1906 Lee Hamlin had a big steam-powered farm tractor with which he broke pastureland to farmland in that 10 mile by 10 mile region. Talk about high-tech "fancy doings!" When he first started work he often had an audience. The "modern age" had come to west Texas! The big steam tractor broke down too often, so it had never become a common farm tool. But by the mid-1930's smaller gasoline tractors began replacing mule and horse drawn farm equipment. With the smaller gas tractors a farmer could farm a thousand acres or more -- while a man with a mule team was lucky to farm more than 40 acres.
Bisco had 300 people in 1891, including farmers scattered about several square miles of land. It got a post office in 1891. In the late 1890s a drought set in, sending farming families back to wetter parts of Texas, and local ranchers laid off ranch hands, so the post office closed in 1900. The Bisco School, however, continued operation until the 1930's. Luther had a post office from 1909 until 1972, which remained open past its scheduled closure for four years because the postmistress wanted to work until her 70th birthday. Morris had a post office from 1892 until 1918, when an extended blizzard froze cattle to death standing up and caused local ranchers to go out of business. Post offices were governmental recognition of a sense of community that was important for early settlers. Schools and churches also signified the establishment of that same important psychological awareness -- "We are a community, working together, developing the future for our children."
The area I was exploring received electricity in 1939 and 1940. Women did much of the organizational work to create the cooperatives that brought in rural electification. They would walk the dusty roads, signing up neighbors. Fairview and Moore, a few miles north of Big Spring were the first communities to receive the electricity. Citizens of Knott, another 9 miles northwest, were convinced that the electricity would not be strong enough to be of any benefit to them, so they resisted signing on to the cooperative.
To have electricity was exciting. People waited in their houses, continually flipping on the switches to see if it had come on, and when it did come on, the lights barely glowed at first. The houses were not wired for electricity, so at first the wires just ran along the walls and ceilings, and most people just had a dangling light bulb in the center of each room. Some thought they would have to hang onto the pull chain to keep the electricity on.
Finally I drifted south, to the intersection of SH 137 and SH158, south of Stanton. Just a few days before, I had received a letter from reader Glenn Brunson of Los Alamos, New Mexico. His family had ranched the land thereabouts back in the 1920s and 1930s, and in his letter had talked about the benefits of the advent of metal windmills and enclosed gearing. No longer did a rancher have to service mills frequently. During sandstorm season the old wooden mills with open gearing had to be greased after every "big blow." He also mentioned that during the winter of 1932 the sheriff of Glasscock County found a whiskey still in a camouflaged dugout on "36 Draw." "There was a waterhole, 200 yards long, that held water most of the time. It was surrounded by dense mesquite. The presence of the still was a complete surprise to us." I had remembered that nowadays that pasture hardly has a mesquite on it -- so I drove up both highways looking over to the draw, wondering when the mesquite had been cleared, and marveling at the lack of regrowth.
The only constant is change.