Friday, April 10, 2009

Requiem For A Tiny Town

Topo map showng Stoneburg, Texas
(1961 topographical map including Stoneburg, Montague County, Texas; click on image to enlarge. Key to annotations at end of post.)

Requiem For A Tiny Town

Stoneburg, Texas is no more.

When I was 13, my family stopped over in Stoneburg to spend the school semester with my mother's adoptive mother, on our way from Brazil to Singapore for my father's work. My father went on to Singapore, but I fell in love with this tiny place, where four generations of my family had lived before me. In April (1969), I went to my mother and asked that she find a way for us to live here through my high school years, instead of us continuing to move around constantly. I wanted to graduate from the very same school where my mother had gone all 12 years, her mother before that, and her mother before that. Mama wanted to stay, too. But it would mean leaving my father.

We stayed, and my mother kept putting off telling my father why we weren't joining him. In fact, she never did tell him. Instead, right after the Moon Walk, she suffered a massive heart attack from the stress she was under. My father was called back from Singapore, bought a house trailer, and we stayed in Stoneburg until I went to college. I never told Daddy about Mama's intention, either.

But as of Thursday night, Stoneburg has been wiped from the map, burned to the ground during a hellstorm of fire sweeping across Texas and Oklahoma, fueled by winds but eventually creating its own wind, during this worst drought in recorded history.

Most of the current news reports are focusing on larger towns. The few accounts I've found call it a "hamlet of two dozen buildings", which is generous. The story goes on to say two dozen buildings burned, and that only one structure remained intact. I wonder which one it was. I may well know them all, despite having left 30 years ago. Tiny rural places like this don't change a great deal unless some commercial interest arrives to make use of their resources, and that is definitely not the case for Stoneburg.

When I was a teenager there, one day a few of us (ranging in age from me to some elders) were speculating about the actual population of town. I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and between us, we were able to list everybody in town by name. It didn't take long. We counted and came up with 86.

Mostly, the inhabitants were people who ranched a little, had oil leases, or had stayed after high school because their parents lived there and they didn't want to leave the old folks on their own. There were teachers, and one gas station which sold a few groceries. If you didn't ranch or teach, you probably worked elsewhere, in one of the "big towns" a 15 minute drive away, Bowie or Nocona (which might have a dazzling 2000 people). Some people did car repair or other home-based industry. Mostly, everybody was poor, but the class range was so limited, they/we didn't really feel poor.

Stoneburg was once much larger, a solid farming community whose population probably peaked around 1900-1910. Even by the time of my mother's childhood in the 1930s, in addition to the school there was a general store, a gas station/mechanic shop (run by my grandfather Bill Atkins), four churches, a train depot (run by my adoptive grandfather Auther Atkins), and assorted small industry. In 1900, it had even a small strip of downtown brick buildings, including the blacksmith shop of my great-grandfather Joseph Atkins. But after the war, people began moving away, as was the case in most farm communities in the U.S.

The first of my family to arrive there was David and Margaret Armstrong, my great-great-grandparents, with Margaret's parents Tommy and Johannah Ritchie and their family. They had traveled by wagon train from Ash Flat, Arkansas first to Tarrant County, Texas, settling on land outside the town of Grapevine. This was the famous blackland prairie, incredible farming territory, and we've never been able to find out why they sold out and migrated 70 miles north to Montague County, bordering Oklahoma. While Montague County is part of the Western Crosstimbers, it cotton-farming soil would not have been superior. The two families arrived around 1885, and immediately several related families also from Sharp County, Arkansas migrated to join them in and around Stoneburg. David Armstrong donated the land for Oak Hill Cemetery, where every generation of my family except my mother has been buried since -- and where I already have a plot waiting for me when I pass on.

Montague County has always been intensely rural. There were few adventurous (that's one word for it) white families who ventured there prior to 1870, but the area was regularly swept by Comanche and Kiowa raids. Nobody who wanted to live free of terror was going to migrate into that part of Texas until the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers after the Civil War began enforcing the racist vision of Manifest Destiny. Montague County got railroads, one cattle trail, and a few oil fields over the succeeding years, but nothing major, not enough to create or maintain population.

The only reason Stoneburg has managed to hold onto its local school is because there's enough revenue from oil fields under the town's land base (including the famous Hildreth field) to fund the school's fight against annexation by nearby towns. Even so, during the 1950s Stoneburg had to consolidate with nearby Ringgold, ten miles to the north. Grades 1-6 go to school in Ringgold, the junior and senior high kids go to Stoneburg, and the new district was named Gold-Burg -- a name which drove my cosmopolitan relatives in paroxysms of laughter, because this is utterly Baptist country with a wide anti-Semitic streak. But the people there are so removed from knowledge about the larger world, they had no idea "Gold-Burg" sounded Jewish.

It was also, until after I graduated from high school in 1973, part of a dry county (which meant you had to drive to Oklahoma or nearby Muenster in a neighboring county for alcohol, absolutely not a deterrent to drinking) and strongly adherent to a Sundown culture. No people of color could spent the night in Montague County. I understand the latter has changed now. I wonder what pioneering folks busted through that barrier.

Once, when I was living in California, I flew back to Texas on a genealogical research trip and drove to Montague County for the day, hunting abandoned cemeteries and trying to plat family land. In the mid afternoon, I realized I had not seen another living human being or automobile for several hours. It's that isolated. I got a little spooked. I topped a small hill and saw the falling-down Copeland place below me briefly flicker into new condition, with fresh whitewash. A woman was walking to the barn wearing a long full skirt, carrying an old-fashioned wooden bucket. She turned and looked at me, shading her eyes. The light around me was glinty, silverish.

I turned my car around, drove straight to the nearest two-lane blacktop, and headed for Bowie. About a mile outside of town, the funny light shifted, the normal afternoon sun returned, and I finally passed a pickup. I stopped at the first pay phone I found and called my little brother Bill, figuring he would make fun of me but wanting the reality of his rough humor. Instead, he said "They're trying to suck you back into the past, sis. Better come on home." I did. I still don't know if he was serious or just playing along with me.

When I was 13, I wanted to be sucked in to the past. I loved how connected to the land I felt there, how many of the kids in my school were distant cousins, how quiet it all was. I desperately needed that quiet and sense of continuity. While I was in high school, I came out to others as a lesbian and as a writer (although I'd admitted to myself both of these identities when I was nine). I became an anti-war activist and discovered feminism. Despite the fact that most teachers who come to that school are either on their first teaching job or unable to find work elsewhere, I had a couple of extraordinary teachers who gave me the education of my life. Class size averaged 5-8, so individual attention was readily available, and I thrived under it. In addition, my mother did not buy into the rural Texas working class value which says education corrupts the mind, so I stood out in that regard as well. When I was a sophomore, all four girls in the senior class and one of the two juniors (including an out lesbian) managed to get pregnant during the school year, a combination of ignorance, lack of social outlets, and drinking.

My senior year, I did persuade my high school history teacher to leave her husband for me and we began raising her two-year-old daughter together, but it was not the result of alcohol or ignorance. I knew exactly what I was doing.

I hear they still gossip about me there in Stoneburg. That's all right with me. I feel like my ancestors are thrilled with who I turned out to be, and that I'm living up the best of my heritage.

I can't imagine that most of the people who live there now have adequate home insurance, if they have any at all. One news account said they all survived because they contacted each other as the fire raced their way and got everybody out of harm's way. That sounds like the Stoneburg I knew. Still, they've lost the entire town, such as it was. I watched a tiny clip of coverage from a Wichita Falls station where a man named Layne Posey was interviewed, saying "Don't know what we'll do. Figure it out and rebuild, I guess." I used to babysit Layne Posey when he was seven and eight years old. Apparently he had some kind of junk car lot there which is now gutted. It's not much compared to mansions in Malibu that are swept into the ocean by mudslides every year, but I could see on his eerily familiar face the anomie, as we called it in sociology class: The altered reality which, for the time being, has no recognizable rules or conventions.

We'll see if Stoneburg rises from the ashes. If not, the headstones of my ancestors are still there, and maybe that woman on what was once the Copeland place is still heading out to the barn to do milking. Stoneburg helped make me who I am, and I'm grateful for it.

(Key to map above: This map shows the Stoneburg where I lived as a teenager. I could name the inhabitants of every house on it. Here's a few details:
(1) An abandoned chicken ranch where I used to walk when I was at my wit's end. I'd go to a concrete-lined room in the middle where there were stacks of emptied brown glass jugs. I'd hurl bottles at the walls, shattering them and screaming, until I could think clearly again. During the 1980s, this ranch was renovated into a fundamentalist church enclave by a local family, and in 1983, this is where infamous serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was run to earth.
(2) Gold-Burg High School (four generations of my family went here.)
(3) The First Baptist Church, which only had services one Sunday a month from a visiting preacher.
(4) Home and farm of my adoptive grandmother Zura Atkins.
(5) The lot where my mother was born, where her mother died, and where we parked a trailer to live in during my high school years.
(6) The land where David and Margaret Armstrong farmed cotton, in a sod house, later a two-room dogrun.
(7) The gas station/grocery which was the only commercial entity in town when we lived there.
(8) The rock-walled gas station once run by my grandfather Bill Atkins.
(9) Where my great-grandfather Joseph Atkins had his blacksmith shop, next to what was Smith's Store during my mother's high school years.