Garden City (“What a misnomer!” said cousin Betty, who’d been there) is the seat of Glasscock County, a rectangular piece of flat, dry West Texas with a population density of two per square mile. The population of the “city” fell as low as 100 early in the last century, but the 2010 census put it at an all-time high of 334.
I assume that growth reflects the oil boom. On the March afternoon when my husband and I visited, the crossroads at the center of town was, if not exactly busy, not deserted. We got a friendly reception at the courthouse, where we stopped for directions to the cemetery, half a mile out on the plain. Driving there, we saw oil wells working and a new well being drilled just beyond the graveyard.
We made Garden City a stop on our trip across Texas because my grandmother grew up there, and her parents and grandparents are buried there. I especially wanted to see the haunts and resting place of my great-great-grandmother, Malissa Everett (1840-1933), who in her eighties wrote a memoir of moving from Tishomingo County, Mississippi, to Texas in a wagon in 1851 and making a life on the frontier. She grieved her lack of education, yet she was a vital person. Betty, the family historian, says Malissa made over 100 quilts to raise money for her church. Here’s how she ended her story:
I have always loved the west & am not sorry of my choice alltho I have been deprived of lots of enjoyments that other people have had & went through with many hardships that others didn’t’ have to go through with, I feel like it was the Lords will that I should & if I have been any help towards civilizing the country and making it a fit country for others to live in, give God the glory.
Malissa’s granddaughter Carmen was 17 when she married her teacher, L. E. Crutcher, Betty’s and my grandfather. They left Garden City for Big Spring, where they briefly ran a boardinghouse by the railroad track, before moving on and eventually settling in Loraine, the next stop on our tour. Grandpa taught there and became superintendent of schools.
Even though it’s just off the interstate, Loraine is dwindling. The population is down to 602, and the roads are turning back to dirt. The wooden house where my father grew up, on a small farm on the edge of town, is derelict, surrounded by prickly-pear cactus and mesquite. Yet the place no longer feels like the ends of the earth, as it did to me when we visited in my childhood. That’s partly because of the gleaming big rigs rushing by on the interstate, and partly because of the newcomers: On the horizon, eerie ranks of huge white windmills are encroaching. After Loraine, we drove across adjacent Nolan County, through what are said to be the largest wind farms in the world.
In ensuing weeks, home from West Texas, the images lingered, and summoned others from the past. I remembered the thrill and fear I felt as a sandstorm blasted the Loraine house in about 1955 when I was 7. I fished out old pictures of my sisters and me playing dress-up with our grandmother’s hats and bags, and saw that all three of us were holding our hats against the wind.
I’m told there’s a view in certain quarters that those inhospitable plains should never have been settled as they were; that they aren’t ecologically suited to an agrarian way of life. Maybe that’s right, in an abstract sense. But there was no one to steer the pioneers to anyplace more promising. And so they struggled and endured.
In the family records Betty has assembled, there’s a poem about the plains. It’s by our grandfather’s sister Zenobia, who divorced her first husband, a letter carrier from Fort Worth, and moved to Dallas and married a Jew. Her poem expresses trust in the Providence that made her a daughter of this land and exults in the resilience that comes from embracing and meeting the challenges of one’s circumstances. It was published in her collection Voices in the Valley. Here it is, a handsome legacy—“Buffalo Grass,” by Zenobia Crutcher Feineman:
A Master Mind saw fit to place me here
On arid prairie land—
Where blazing sun and dry hot winds may sear
And hide my face in sand.
My roots shall burrow deep in this my soil
And find the strength to clasp
And hold and cherish it against the toil
Of wind’s rapacious grasp.
For this I know—in time a heaven-sent rain
Will cleanse and freshen me
And I shall lift strong-fibered hands again
And wave triumphantly.