Rural Depopulation

The People's ChoiceOne of the themes from Joe Bageant’s memoirs, Rainbow Pie, that struck me as fascinating, was his description of rural folks leaving the country and moving in to medium and large sized towns. This is largely what happened to my father’s side of the family, as they left the Hill Country after WWII, but to this day I still have a very strong emotional attachment to the land and people there.

The standard narrative is that this was the triumph of industrial capitalism moving small farmers off the land into real, prosperous jobs. Ask Susan Broussard and her husband what they think of that narrative and you’ll get a rich snort of derision.

I’ve been crossing Texas for a week. I began in Laredo Sunday and what I’ve seen is nothing less than the wholesale devastation of our small towns. We laud small town values as a matter of public religion, but don’t value small towns at all. Wal-Mart is only the latest assault on small town America. After seeing what I’ve seen the last few days I can really understand why people in “flyover” country hate the government. It does nothing for them, except push them further away from the land, after, of course, it has nickled and dimed them to death with lots of small fees and surcharges and surly bureaucrats. Not to mention agricultural regulations that defy common sense, prop up mega-industrial scale agriculture and destroy small farms. (I’ll post at some point my conversations with Don Henry Ford, Jr. about this and much more.)

Moreover I have been dutifully searching for any small, homestead farmers in rural areas. They don’t exist, outside of one African-American farmer I stopped to talk to outside of Crockett. (He was uncomfortable with photos for good reason. This area of Texas ain’t terribly enlightened.) Today as I pass through more of rural Texas I will endeavor to find and talk to more small farmers.

But back to Joe Bageant. If you look at this photo and read the sign you’ll note something very fascinating. In 1916 taxpayers banded together to build a rural school. That’s rather anodyne, but what isn’t is the year the school closed: 1949. That’s pretty close to the era when Joe Bageant’s family left their small farmstead in rural Virgina for “a better life and work” in the city. It was, as Joe so eloquently wrote, neither better nor much work.

In many rural places the only thing propping up the local economy are chicken farms (note the mobile homes for migrant labor), oil and gas fracking, which only benefits out of town roughnecks and landowners, prisons and old folks homes. We dump our old people in rural communities now because of perverse medicaid incentives.

Not only did this happen in places like Virginia, but also in Texas, ad most certainly in your state.

The first is to halt the decline of rural America. Until then we can’t really talk about restoring it. Are there any solutions?

First, we need better land use policies by large cities, create more urban living, instead of sub and ex-urban incentives. Land use policies also help with watersheds, flooding and even global climate change. The amount of good, fecund agricultural land that has been destroyed by ex-urbanization is criminal and I fear something that has the potential to haunt a globally hotter climate.

We need to change, on a state and federal level, agricultural policy to better benefit smaller farmers and loosen regulations that discourage real farmer’s markets.

The estate tax doesn’t really apply to small farmers, but we can tinker around the edges to make mid-sized farms become more profitable as well, and better able to be bequeathed. I don’t even know where to begin on subsidies. They seem geared towards supporting mega-farmers, anyhow.

A change of rural property taxes based on the agricultural value of land, not based on wealthy suburbanites coming into the country for a tax-write off for exotic game ranches and weekend country homes. The value of the rural land has been inflated out of all proportion to its productive value. And this practice of plopping a dozen cattle on land owned by rich individuals and claimed as agricultural land as a tax write off needs to stop.

So why do rural Americans continue to vote against their own economic interests? I would have to say the most important answer to that question is clearly attachment to a community, no matter how much pressure it is under. Prisons and “retirement centers,” among other inducements, creates a nexus of perverse rural incentives.

Of course, as the above photo of the school shows clearly: education matters too.

From The Arms Of God To The Trinity River: Texas’ Ancient Interfluvial Hell

Turkey VultureI was in a terrible mood when I woke up, but I plowed on. I overnighted in an interstate hotel, one of those terrible specimens of an automobile based society: tidy, but dirty, water too soft to wash the soap off and a strange lingering smell between week old beer and stale cigars. I had to backtrack from Brookshire to San Felipe on IH-10. This, aside from a stretch on IH-35 from Cotulla to Laredo would be the only time I spent on the interstate. Sanchez had some interesting comments about San Felipe:

“The village . . . Consists, at present, of forty or fifty wooden houses on the western bank of the large river known as Rio de los Brazos de Dios, but the houses are not arranged systematically so as to form streets; but on the contrary, lie in an irregular and desultory manner.”

This remains true. While DeWitt’s town, Gonzales, thrived, San Felipe hasn’t changed in 170 years. The general store looks like it was closed thirty years ago. There are no regular patterns to the streets. The town doesn’t have, nor does it ever looked as if it had, a town center, or square. It’s looks more like urban sprawl than anything else. Stephen F. Austin was many things, but a city planner he was not.

Sanchez was stuck here for several days, due to “several parts of the wagons” that needed repairing, but what really caught my eye from Sanchez’ diary was this passage:

“It was with much regret we noticed the river begin to rise as is customary this time of the year. The water rose considerably next day, and the stream began to bring down enormous tree trunks, pulled down from its wood covered banks.”

Berlandier, the French naturalist attached to the Border Commission was even more explicit, watching the river rise more than ten feet in an hour. Texas is noted for its flash floods, but this is impressive, ripping trunks right off the bank? When you consider what the Brazos looks like today, in light of our falling water table and drought, seeing what Berlandier and Sanchez did had to be impressive. So impressive, it kept them from crossing the Brazos for several days and then only with much difficulty, but no loss of life.

They crossed the Brazos on May 11, 1828. They didn’t reach the Trinity River until May 25. By comparison they left Laredo on February 20 and reached San Antonio 9 days later on March 1. (1828 was a leap year.) The distance from Laredo to San Antonio is three times the distance from San Felipe to the Trinity River crossing of  Paso Tomas, now known as Robbins Ford, where Highway 21 crosses the river just north of Midway, Texas.

The hell Sanchez and his men endured on this march is hard to fathom today. What was once a writhing, hostile mass of undrained swampland is now rolling prairies, cleared for ranching and farming. The creeks, due to the drought, are low too. Daily tribulations marching through fetid snake infested swamps with poison ivy everywhere taxes my imaginative powers. Some days they only marched a league or two. In old Spanish a league is the amount an unencumbered man can march in one hour, usually about 2.3 imperial miles. But it wasn’t only men who suffered, the pack animals did as well. Sanchez writes:

“Our beasts of burden not being used to this climate suffered a great deal because of bad forage. . . The ground was so full of water, and there were so many mud holes, that is was necessary for the soldiers to pull out the carriages and the horses by hand almost at every step because they both sank so deep in the mud.”

Lack of fodder was not the only silent enemy they encountered. As Sanchez wrote on May 17:

“In the morning Mr. Berlandier and John, the cook, were sick with fever.”

It might be hard to image this area of Texas was once a giant wetland, a swamp of malaria-bearing mosquitos from San Felipe to Nacogdoches. When they reached the Trinity so many men were febrile that General Teran ordered all but 10 members of the Border Commission to return to San Antonio. Sanchez, General Teran and eight soldiers would continue alone. With this decision any mapping of the border between the United States and Mexico was doomed.

Although the Border Commission was ultimately a failure, my attempts to walk in Sanchez’ footsteps would prove successful. After crossing at Tomas’ Ford on the Trinity traces of Sanchez began appearing everywhere. I knew it was only a matter a time until I literally walked in his footsteps and saw what he saw.

I sped down Highway 21 smiling, the sour mood of the morning evaporating in the piney woods of East Texas. Serendipity was just around the corner.

Compare and Contrast

This is where Lt. Sanchez began in February of 1828. And this is where his journey ended. Quite the contrast between the South Texas Brush Country and the Piney woods of East Texas.

Original Camino Real

Shadowing Sanchez

Sunset, Ford RanchThe early morning air was already hot as I pulled out of Don Henry Ford’s ranch. Late evening clouds from the night before teased rain, but it was bone dry that morning, a thick coating of Guadalupe River floodplain soil on my windshield. The fields and pastures adjacent FM 466 on the way to Gonzales, even this close to the river, were parched and grazed to the quick by hungry cattle. I stopped and looked at a field next to the Guadalupe River where the Texas War for Independence began. The land in the last 175 years has been drastically altered, cleared for farming and cattle and hardly resembles the primeval Texas Sanchez walked across and which he waxed poetic about:

When one sees the herds of deer fleeing, inhales the perfume of numerous flowers, and listens to the singing of the birds, the soul seems to revel in an unknown joy; and those who have a romantic heart seem to be transported to an enchanted country, or to be living in the illusory Arcadia.

I’ve seen a fair portion of the planet and I have to agree and not just because it is home. The land here is some of the finest in all of Texas and has the potential to grow just about anything. The soil is that rich, fed as it is by the finest alluvium the Texas Hill Country has to give up, year after year, flood after flood.

I turned up Highway 97 and sped towards Gonzales, stopping at the old ferry spot on the river, where Sanchez crossed in 1828. Very little remains of the Gonzales of 1828. I inquired at the Gonzales Museum about an early map of the town. Oliver M. Davis, a retired banker and now curator of the museum said, “I have just what you are looking for!” He dug through a pile of papers, whipped one out and photocopied it, all in between introducing the museum to the tourists visiting. I thanked him and headed out of the museum towards downtown. As I had suspected the original homes, including that of Green DeWitt, the empresario of the grant were nearest the river, where it makes a slight bend, but well above the floodplain. Sanchez writes:

On the eastern bank of this river (Guadalupe) are built six wooden cabins inhabited by three North American men, two women and two girls of the same nationality, and a Mexican, all who form the village of Gonzales.

There are no traces of the DeWitt homestead any longer. It’s now a feedlot and a city park. I did manage to see the DeWitt family plot in the Masonic Cemetery in town. Green DeWitt, the founder of the colony isn’t buried there (he died in Mexico of cholera). But one of his daughter’s is. After visiting the site of old Gonzales I trundled into town and took a few obligatory photos, downtown and the courthouse but like almost all rural Texas towns it’s lost a great portion of its charm to Wal-Mart and the other mega-chains out on the highways. More is the pity, some of the old homes in town are stunning. Our farm lands continue to depopulate and the small, homestead farmer in Texas is now a thing of the past.

My next task was to locate Tejocotes Creek and a string of low-rise hills grandiosely called Loma Grande. After much research I concluded that Tejocotes Creek had been renamed Peach Creek. I find this name annoying. First, peaches are not native to Texas and could only have been brought in much later. Second, I love old toponyms, how they morph and change over the years but retain a hint of the original. One thinks of Alexander The Great’s Maracanda, now Samarkand, and so many others.

I sped down FM 532 for a few miles and then crossed a creek. I stopped the car and walked around. The creek, a perennial creek in Sanchez’ time, had a trickle, which surprised me considering the drought Texas is enduring. The woods were thick, luxuriant and humid. A woodpecker hammered a tree in the distance and Mockingbirds mocked. About 15 miles past the creek my car pushed up a hill and I spied and outcrop of old stones. The topographic maps I studied confirmed these were the only hills within a day’s march from Peach Creek. This had to be where he camped, as Sanchez wrote:

We halted at a place which, because it had no name, the general called Loma Grande, and we did not continue further for fear of crossing a creek that was rather deep, and because it was two o’clock in the afternoon already.

The key here is the subsequent creek, which does lie over the hills and although currently dry was exceptionally deep. Sanchez writes that he marveled at the soldiers fortitude and hard work, because every time they crossed a creek they had to cut timber down and build makeshift bridges for the carriages. After crossing at least two dozen creeks since leaving Laredo several days ago I concur with Sanchez: his soldiers were indeed hard-working.

From this last stop on to San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos it’s difficult to track each of Sanchez’s stops. The land is rolling prairies or flat, featureless plains. The only two stops of note are the Colorado River Crossing, which I was unable to find and the San Bernard River, a sandy, wide stream cutting through the coastal prairie. The San Bernard is odd precisely because of the heavy, coarse sand filling its banks.It’s clearly sand from far, far above the coastal plain, drainage from an altogether different ecological niche of this huge state. The river banks, to this day, are mined for conglomerate, used in road building and other industrial age pursuits.

I stopped shadowing Sanchez about three in the afternoon and detoured to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. One wonders if Sanchez saw the Attwater Prairie Chicken on his journey. Berlandier, the French naturalist attached to the Border Commission makes no mention of them in his journal.

Sadly, the birds don’t seem to have a chance. There are only 210 remaining in the world. Houston’s creeping ex-urbanization is pushing more and more people out to this area. Eagle Lake grows as a winter hunting destination and the oil and gas industry are what they are. It is a pity, beyond measure, that possibly in my lifetime the bright orange boom of the Attwater won’t grace these fascinating prairies. The Great Blue Herons and Crested Caracara’s here will be all the lonelier for it.

I crossed the Brazos just as the sun set, an orgy of crimson settling on the sandy red banks of this powerful and temperamental river. Stephen F. Austin State Park was closed. I would visit in the morning. The next day would see me in the great inter-fluvial swamps between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, the  portion of the journey that taxed Sanchez the most.

Ranchers and Prairie Chickens

I’m headed out to Don Henry Ford’s ranch today outside of Gonzales. Anything y’all want me to ask him while I am there? I’ll be taking an obscene amount of photos so rest assured that will be covered. I’m excited. It’s been a little over a year and a half since I last saw Don and Leah. And this will be the first time I’ve been to the ranch.

After meeting with Don and staying at his ranch for a night I’ll make my way up to San Felipe, the homestead of Stephen F. Austin. In the area is the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where I hope to snap some shots of a the bird itself. I’ll be dilly-dallying around the area for a day or so, checking out old grave sites and trying to fix the location of where Sanchez crossed Tejocote Creek, which is now called Peach Creek. I will endeavor to locate more of the Daughters of the American Revolution granite markers on the old King’s Highway. (I’ve already documented two.) And also try to locate some more of his infamous “hills.” I’m about to go all Inigo Montoya on him, because he keeps using that word and I don’t think he knows what it means. I had a damnable and impossible time find a hill with iron deposits in it south of San Antonio, as I recounted yesterday.

After that I will head up to Nacogdoches, making a stop in Alto, Texas’ most recent libertarian paradise. More soon.

Creeks, Sands, Rivers and Missions

Mission San Jose

Cañada Verde, February 24 1828: The ground continues to be covered with vegetation which seems to increase as one approaches the interior of Texas. Herds of deer and wild cattle were encountered all along the march, which ended at a beautiful watering place formed by a ravine among the hills where good permanent water is found. The place is known as Cañada Verde. ~from the diary of Jose Maria Sanchez

Yesterday I traveled from Laredo up to the San Antonio Missions. I tracked the Mier y Teran Border Commission’s progress pretty well, but was unable to locate Cañada Verde. It’s there, I’m sure, but more than likely on private property. After this they stopped on the Frio River and then went on to San Miguel Creek for another night. Both the Frio and San Miguel were permanent waterways in 1828 and both are bone dry now, a combination of drought and the depleting our or aquifers.

Except for one stretch along Interstate 35 from Laredo up to Dilley, I took all local roads. Along the way I found two Old King’s Highway markers placed there in 1918 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. One was in La Salle county near Fowlerton and the other was in Bexar County near the Medina River. These old granite markers are fascinating. They certainly came from a quarry like this in the Hill Country near Lake Buchanan.

(The full photo set can be found here.)

I’m trying to stay off the big highways. One thing that struck me as very obvious is that the Brush Country was not always like it is now. Climate change may be altering Texas now, as heretofore perennial creeks like San Miguel are bone dry, but before climate change came man with his suite of animals that altered the landscape. Charles Mann writes about this at length in 1491–that often landscapes which look wild and untouched, have been altered by humans in many ways.

The Brush Country is a perfect example. Spanish explorers speak of prairies filled with luscious grass between the Rio Grande and Nueces. It was “an open country, with plains and a few dense woods.” One thing they don’t write of is large prickly pear prairies. In some areas Sanchez and Berlandier mention small stands of nopales–the Spanish word for cactus opuntia, but only in passing. One might think an impenetrable swath of cactus would raise the ire of early explorers. The assumption of most scholars is that they were not there then. These cactus are not immune to the cold, either, as a great cactus die off occurred in South Texas in the 1890s. Hundreds of miles died in a great, hard freeze one year. The cactus prairies we see now are no doubt the result of the cattle ranching.

Many scholars believe this area was the birthplace of the American cattle industry as well. But it was the introduction of Spanish cattle in 1690 by Alonso de Leon that altered what was once excellent cattle country into what it is now: a seemingly inhospitable landscape of cactus, wajia brush and mesquite trees. Cattle move seeds around. Brambles attache to their legs, carrying the grasses and stickle-burs far afield. By 1828 when Jose Maria Sanchez came through he was writing of a place that was undergoing many alterations. He saw wild cattle–the Spanish ranchers just let their cattle run wild, often not even branding them. By the time of the industrial revolution 75 years later the Brush Country had become mostly what it now is.

Crossing the Nueces River is to cross one of those invisible but all to real isohyetal lines. The Live Oak prairies began where before their was only mesquite. Agriculture increases, although it’s irrigated agriculture, not dry farming. Cattle ranching is still very real, it is Texas after all, but it too declines in the wake of cleared, plowed and sowed fields.

After the Frio River is an area of sandy soil, near present-day Poteet. They grow strawberries in the area and melons and have a strawberry festival every year I attended several times as a kid. Sanchez complained bitterly of the sand: “The ground over which we had to travel the following day is almost all loose sand for seven or eight leagues. It is tiresome and hinders rapid travel.”

Later in the day I ambled across an old cemetery where a couple of hundred rebellious subject of the Spanish Empire are buried. They fought nearby at the Battle Of Medina on August 18, 1813: the bloodiest battle in Texas history. As context, Napoleon was fighting in Europe and the United States was fighting England in the War of 1812.

One place that has flummoxed me to no end is a hill in this area called San Cristobal. Sanchez and Berlandier (the French naturalist accompanying the Border Commission) both write that it was large and contained iron ore. There simply are no hills worthy of note in this area. It is flat, sandy soil with lots of rivulets, gullies and the like, but no hills. This is very, very strange. Why? Because I know this area very well. I spent a large part of my youth fishing in the Medina and San Antonio Rivers and Salado Creek and Cibilo Creek. I asked several locals about it, not one of them knew what I was talking about. I then wondered if it had been mined, or somehow worn down by man, but one would think there would be notices of it in San Antonio’s well documented history. Oh well.

I then rolled into San Antonio proper and visited the four main missions in town: Espada, San Juan, San Jose and Concepcion. There is one other mission in San Antonio I didn’t visit, the Alamo, as I have been there many, many times before. But these four and the old aqueduct that is still in use, I had never visited. I spent my whole life in San Antonio and had only seen Espada once before.

Espada, by the way, was the first mission Jose Maria Sanchez saw after a week’s journey through South Texas. It must have been wonderful seeing civilization after a week worrying about Indians. He was very emotional when he first spotted it. And I will leave you with his words:

“We crossed the Cibolo, a small creek, and at a short distance saw the Mission of La Espada. The view of this temple and the few small houses that surround it made an impression upon me that I cannot express. The sight of these dwellings brought forcefully to my mind the fact that I was still living among my fellowmen.”

The Mustang Desert

Great RoadrunnerWhen Spanish explorers traveled through the region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in the 17th and 18th centuries the area had already filled up with wild horses. The modern horse, equus caballus, is not native to the North American continent and was brought by the Spaniards and other Europeans. (Side note: the Nueces River used to mark the boundary between Texas and Mexico, until the US-Mexico War settled the border question.)

Some travelers recount thousands and thousands of them in one herd. Recent textual and scientific studies say this is wildly inflated, but it makes sense to call it the Mustang Desert. What it must have been like? Hearing the bullfrogs at night, seeing pronghorn antelope everywhere. Coyotes! Foxes! And wild horses! The antelope are all gone now, except for in Trans-Pecos Texas–where I have seen them, and a small herd that lingers in the far southwestern corner of the Hill Country.

It’s greener than I imagined it would be, apparently some brief rain wetted the area two days before. But there is little grass and lots of prickly pear cacti and no trees, unless you consider the mesquite tree a real tree. Nothing but a glorified bush if you ask me.

Outside of Fowlerton, a dilapidated hamlet deep in the Brush Country I saw an old 1918 granite road marker denoting the route of the Old Spanish King’s Highway. I’m on the right track!

The Nueces was mostly dry, except for a few green, stagnant ponds. It’s not flowing at all, most of the waters used for farming in the Uvalde area. The Frio was a bone dry ravine, no different from the hundreds of dry creek runnels littering the landscape. I spent my formative years down here. I know this land: I have eyes for it–learning to hunt down here for White-tailed deer, rabbits, dove and Scaled Quail.

Maybe later today I’ll recount the great rattlesnake episode, as I almost lost a leg to six of the biggest, nastiest rattlingest snakes that ever got blasted away by a 20 gauge shotgun. Well, actually, I’ll tell the story now. It was quail season and I believe I was 12 years old, maybe 13. I’d shot a quail and he landed out in the prickly pear flats, much like this. The only difference was I was surrounded by prickly pears, dense and thick. I was not wearing snake-proof leggings, either.

I went to reach for him–he was still fluttering in the brush and as I reached down I heard the unmistakable rattle. I yelled at my Dad, “Dad, there’s a rattlesnake here.”

“Shoot it,” he said.

I shot it.

And then five more rattles went off. Hell, I thought it was cool! So I blasted away with my shotgun for all of three minutes, pulling more shells from out of my bandolier. All told, we pulled six very large snakes from that prickly pear bush. All more than 4 feet long. (I don’t think I could kill an animal anymore, as I prefer to take photos of them now. But when you’re young you just don’t know.)

I never, ever went hunting again without wearing leggings. Quite lucky was I that day 28 years ago in the Brush Country of South Texas.

Regardless, what it must have look like before the aquifers had been drained and natural springs were to be found in almost every county of the region? I searched yesterday for the remnants of one spring Sanchez stopped at in 1828 called “El Pato” (the duck) and think I may have found it. It’s called duck springs now.

And while I don’t believe the stock tank the old farmer called duck springs is anything more than a stock tank, he mentioned his family had been on the farm for 120 years and the area around it had always been called duck springs.

It’s about two days walking distance from Laredo, on a north-northeast route, that fits perfectly with what Sanchez and the French naturalist traveling with the commission writes.

So today I am heading into the Brush Country. Will have more photos and a blog entry later today. The full Texas in 1828 photo set can be found here.

Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia

If all goes as planned tomorrow morning I will leave for the border paradise of Laredo. After Laredo I will make several stops along the old Camino Real, or King’s Highway, including Pearsall, San Antonio, Gonzales, San Felipe and Nacogdoches. The purpose is to re-create and walk in the footsteps of an early 19th century Mexican officer, draftsman and illustrator named Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia.

You’re probably wondering who the hell Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia is? Sanchez was attached to the Meir y Teran Border Commission, which ventured from Mexico City to Nacogdoches and then on to swampy river bottoms of East Texas to map out the border between Mexico and the United States. He wrote a very interesting account of his journey, which I learned of and first read about two years ago. I recently acquired Teran’s diary of the journey as well. I’m also picking up Berlandier’s account of the journey from the library this afternoon. I had hoped to make the entire Mexico City to Nacogdoches journey, but with the Mexican border states as chaotic as they are now is not the time.

Sanchez is one of those rare characters who kept a dairy of his journey that was not only political, geographical and biological observations. He also adds some curious and often times wonderful personal notes. Not sure what I will find along the way but I’m fairly confident there is a story in this, somewhere. I’ll be blogging the journey here. Each entry will contain a snippet from Sanchez’s diary and then my thoughts on what I’ve seen from hopefully the exact vantage points he saw in 1828.

Also, there will be lots of photos. Hopefully some good wildlife. The Brush Country of South Texas may look daunting and arid, but it is one of the most fecund places I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really a shame the white man killed off all the buffaloes, pronghorn antelope, white tailed deer and so much more.