Okay, you’ll recall that right now I’m writing about our recent trip to the little city of Salado. And I’d just asked why the town exists at all.
I ought to explain that. You see, towns and communities ...as a rule...come into being and continue to exist (or don’t) because of economic reasons. They perform a function, in other words. They may be seated on or next to a natural resource, like a mine or an oil field. Or they may provide a link to the larger world and greater markets via their position on an important avenue of communication and transportation -- say, a river (New Orleans, St. Louis), or a road or network of roads (Samarkand, Damascus), or a whole ocean (i.e., port cities, like New York and Shanghai).
About the photo: As per norm, nothing to do with the story at hand. But this is a picture of Martha at the LBJ Library in Austin. I like it, not least because I think the sentiment reflects her own, cherished beliefs.
Or, they may be centers of trade and supply for a larger agricultural hinterland. For a lot of American towns, particularly in the mid-West and plains states, that’s been the case for the last 100 years or so. You have a lot of farms and ranches spread over a large area. And then, somewhere among them, you have a crossroads and a town. It is where the farmers and ranchers go to buy the their supplies and tractors, and where they may take their harvests for sale or processing--along roads which, in Texas at least, are officially designated as “farm to market roads.”
Ah, but there’s the rub. Those towns exist so long as the farmers and ranchers don’t find it easier to take their “farm to market” products to other markets, or to buy their tractors and so on in other places. Or, to put it another way, towns are at the mercy of transportation technology. If better roads, or a railroad, or better trucks with diesel engines, suddenly make it cheaper for Farmer Brown to take his wheat and his business elsewhere, Mayberry RFD is dead in the water.
And, btw, you can see this happening all over America right now. Someday, take a drive through rural USA, and note the dead and dying downtowns. Won’t be long before you lose count. There will just be too many of ‘em.
Now, given all of that, Salado should have died a long time ago. That’s because back in the nineteenth century, between roughly 1860 and 1880, the town had an economic purpose. It was on the Chisholm Trail and millions of heads of cattle were driven through the area on their way to Kansas, where they were put on rail cars and sent off to feed hungry New Yorkers and Bostonians. By like token, Salado was a stop for the stage coach lines. All this meant that the area was constantly awash with travelers who needed food and lodging.
But, then, in the 1870s, the railways moved into Texas itself -- but not into Salado. The rails went north (for example, to Waco) and south, to Austin. Salado was left out.
Next, in the twentieth century, there was a burst of road building. New roads, and far better roads began to stretch across America. Ford began the process by which almost everyone would be able to get access to a car, and newly developed heavy trucks could deliver goods and services nearly everywhere...
Except Salado. It got some good state and county roads, of course, but when the big boom in building interstate highways came along in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody seemed particularly interested in putting any of them anywhere near Salado. I’m told that when Texas finally got around to building Interstate 35, which is the state’s big north-south axis, there was talk of having the road bypass Salado entirely, or not having any exits leading to the town.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and today there are several exits off 35 to Salado, though (or so, again, I’m told) that took a bit of effort of the part of the Saladians to make happen.
But, anyway, without cattle drives and the stagecoach, Salado didn’t have much of a future. As I’ve already said, I think, by 1950 it had a population of only 200. From there, it should have entered the downward spiral that leads, eventually, to being an “Unincorporated Community,” with a population of two. Not counting dogs and feral cats.
Yet it didn’t. Today, it flourishes.
Why? I wondered.
And that’s when we entered the little museum at the Chamber of Commerce, and I got part of my answer.
Specifically, it had to do with a stagecoach inn that refused to die...and a woman who walked one runway as a glamorous fashion model...and flew from another as a WASP and a warrior.
More to come.
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