How The Lights Went Out In A West Texas Town
Reader R-P in Texas, commenting on the “Can A Place Cease To Exist?” thread, tells the story of how his hometown ceased to exist:
I am from one of those Texas panhandle towns. My family had lived there for over a century. When I tell people the story of what happened in those towns a couple of decades ago, they are incredulous. Surely, they say, I’m describing the Great Depression – not the 1980′s and 1990′s.
Most farmers there in the late 70′s were involved in government loan programs that went back to the New Deal. Those programs had saved many communities there. One town is even named New Deal in honor of them. A government department called the Farmer’s Home Administration would loan farmers operating capital against their crop each year. This was done to smooth out income. Any debt remaining from bad years was paid off in bumper crop years. This program supported many small farms well until 1981, when interest rates jumped to over 20%. The sudden jump in interest rates meant that farmers had huge debt overhang that they carried from year to year which compounded with the high rates. We also had several years of drought in the 1980′s which meant many crop failures and very high irrigation costs.
This lead to the “farm crisis” of the mid-1980′s. Once a farmers debt load reached a certain level, they were basically kicked out of the program. They got no new operating loans and had to default. Their equipment and land were seized and auctioned off. Anything still owed was written off and reported to the IRS as “income”, so many of these farmers lost everything and then were pursued by the IRS for years or decades. My dad was one of them. This happened in farm communities all across the Great Plains. One factor made the Texas Panhandle different though. Much of the West Texas economy was also based on oil. As the farm crisis was hitting its peak, oil prices collapsed. The entire West Texas economy went down with it.
It was a catastrophe. Thousands of middle class families were pushed into poverty, sometimes in a matter of weeks. They were often refused welfare and government assistance because they owed money to government programs. (One welfare administrator told me in a very matter-of-fact manner that our family would qualify if my mom would divorce my dad. She said she had been giving that advice to someone almost daily.) One program that did accept everyone gave away large boxes of food once a month. The line usually stretched for blocks every month. It was so bizarre seeing food lines in 1980′s rural America.
Businesses began cutting employees and boarding up. The little town couldn’t support three pharmacies anymore. Then it couldn’t support two. The last one changed hands frequently as it barely stayed afloat. The three grocery stores fell to one. The local burger joints where we all worked as teenagers became empty lots. We were told that many counties had 50% unemployment and nobody was surprised. My grandmother had lived through the depression and dust bowl. She said this was worse.
Many – maybe most – of us teenagers were trapped. We didn’t have the resources or backing to go to college which was at least 60-70 miles away. You couldn’t move to the city to get a job, because none of us had rent or food money to get started. So we took whatever seasonal work we could scrounge up, and sometimes got help from relatives who had government jobs or elderly ones who got Social Security. Of my group of friends, most ended up in the military. A couple ended up in jail. I spent six years scraping by until I was able to put together a couple of years of college, then got a job in Dallas with help from a relative. Eventually we were all gone, but it was a trickle over many years. It didn’t happen all at once.
My hometown, at least as it was for a century, has ceased to exist. The population has dropped by a third since I was in high school. It would have dropped more but there has been a lot of immigration from Mexico into the panhandle in the last 15 years. Between seasonal work and welfare even they can barely get by. The little conservative Protestant town that had been dry since Prohibition now has liquor stores on the main street through town. I have a friend who stayed behind – or more accurately got stuck. He says they voted in liquor sales because it meant a handful of jobs, and because booze gave people there at least something to feel better.
Most of the people I grew up with are now in Lubbock or Amarillo or Dallas. The few descendants of the frontier settlers that founded the town are elderly and dying off. I miss the hometown where I grew up. It doesn’t exist anymore.
(Photo above from the blogsite Texas Ghost Towns.)