An address given by Paula Britt on August 6, 2005, to commemorate the City of Wheeler, Texas’ Centennial celebration.
I am so pleased to have been asked to speak on this special day in Wheeler’s history. I was puzzled as to why I was chosen until I realized I have been a first hand, on-sight observer for over three quarters of the past centennial period.
My grandparents came to Wheeler County in 1912. My grandmother rode on a passenger train, alone with three small children (one a babe in arms). Lacking adequate bathroom facilities, she held the baby’s wet diapers out the window so that they could dry and be used again. My grandfather rode on the same train in a box car with the household furnishings, stock, and farm equipment.
The S. P. Britt family came to Wheeler County in 1913. Mr. S. P. said the ungrazed meadow grass was stirrup high on a horse.
I mention their families because I have first hand knowledge of them. There were many other settlers much earlier than they and many, much later; however, all of them had a common vision, the vision of a home, a home wrested from this new land – a legacy for their families and the generations to follow. Along with this common vision, they shared the common traits of hard work, thriftiness, honesty, courage, and a raw-hide toughness. And they had to BE tough.
They built their “soddies”, their half dugouts, one roomed log cabins, and finally homes of milled lumber. They foraged the country for game for their tables, broke out virgin lands to plant, endured summer’s heat and drought, winter’s blizzards, and sickness; but they endured and sank deep roots into this prairie soil.
The cost was sometimes high. Infants and young children fell prey to summer complaint, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, typhoid and the flu. There were no vaccines, no antibiotics, and precious few doctors. Young mothers often died from “childbed fever”. The old graves in Rock Cemetery tell this sad story over and over again.
Then came the depression of the twenties. It seemed almost overnight that banks closed, businesses failed, jobs were unavailable, and everyone was broke.
I remember those years well. We planted a gigantic garden in the field. We lived off the land. We raised large quantities of produce and canned it. All summer long we “put up” peas, corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, okra, pickles, peaches, etc. Anything that you could can in a Mason jar was put there, for what we produced in summer, we ate in winter. We had a cow, so we enjoyed milk, cream, butter, cottage cheese and a milk product called “clabber”. You have to be as old as I am to know what that was.
We raised pigs, cured our own pork, made our own sausage, and rendered our own lard. We raised chickens, so we had eggs and an occasional old rooster for the Sunday dinner pot.
My mom made lye soap from discarded fat and lye. She heated water in a huge black pot outside with a fire under it to wash our clothes on a rub board. And yes, I know what an “outhouse” is.
We and our neighbors worked six days a week, but on Saturday we quit early, cleaned up and went to town. We would park the car on Main Street and sit while friends and neighbors strolled by, stopping to visit, or we would get out, stop to visit others and go into stores that stayed open till midnight to buy what few things we could afford. We always got home in time to get up for church on Sunday morning.
On top of the depression, we had to endure ever worsening dust storms. Winds from Kansas and Oklahoma swept over the plains carrying stinging, cutting grains of sand and fine silt that abraded every surface they touched, choking plants and the people who had to breathe it. You could see these dust storms coming for miles and my father would make us go to the cellar until they passed. When we would come up out of the “dugout” we would be faced with a monochromatic world of brown, for fine brown silt had settled on every exposed surface, had permeated every tiny opening. It took days to get it all out of the house. These awful winds drove many homesteaders off the land that no longer could feed their families. Yet, some of us endured and stuck it out.
The government initiated W. P. A. or Works Project Administration and CCC camps which paid young men to leave home, live in camps, earn a small salary, and plant shelter belts to stop the sweep of the dust bowl winds. They also built public parks, restrooms, and picnic grounds. These government generated jobs strengthened our economy some, but it was only with the advent of Pearl Harbor that it was jump started.
I shall never forget that Sunday afternoon when we heard FDR announce over the radio that our country was at WAR and came to know what that three letter word meant as it applied to us, to our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and friends.
The nation mobilized, young men were drafted, trained, and went over seas to fight. Farm workers thronged to good paying jobs in factories which produced planes, ships, and tanks for our troops. War bond rallies were held across the nation. Victory gardens were cultivated. Sugar, tires, gasoline, shoes and cars were rationed and the agrarian society of the past gave way to mechanization. And so the world, almost as we know it today, evolved. We won the war, welcomed home our troops and settled down to a more peaceful existence until it too was disrupted by Korea, Viet Nam, and most recently 9-11 and Iraq.
I have seen my world change so drastically during the last two decades. With the advent to computer chips, telecommunications, entertainment, banking, and manufacturing and countless other things have changed; however, I am so grateful that much I love about this land has stayed constant.
We still have our delicate rosy dawns that reveal a rested world, crisp with dew or frost.
We still have our gorgeous sunsets with the western horizon blazing with shades of red, mauve, pink, purple and gold – a sight so filled with color that if an artist painted it, we would say it was overdone.
And I swear the stars are closer here. On a summer’s night in the country, away from city lights, you can almost reach up and pull one down and put it in your pocket.
We also have the most beautiful cumulous clouds here. On a summer’s afternoon they form, and build, and change into myriad cloudscapes that often join and strengthen into thunder storms that bring winds, rain, forked lightening, thunder and sometimes tornadoes and hail. When we have rain in the Panhandle, it is an event!
And I love having seasons. I don’t want to be warm all year long or cold either, for that matter. We can have horrific “blue northers” that sweep down in winter to almost freeze your feet off, but on the other hand, what is lovelier than rising on a winter’s morning to see pristine snow blanketing the world – turning all that was ugly into a thing of beauty? Every time I see this, I think of God’s grace blanketing our sins and transforming us.
You also have missed a lot if you haven’t seen bare branches of frost coated trees, barbed wire, and vegetation or caught the winter’s morning sun that glistens like some fairyland filled with Christmas lights.
Then comes spring with pastures emblazoned with wild flowers – white and yellow daisies, Indian blanket and primrose. T. M. Britt would call them weeds because they are growing where grass should be; however, you must admit they are lovely. Or have you seen late April’s winter wheat bend, rise, and fall away under spring winds to swirl into kaleidoscopic patterns of green? Or peach trees in full bloom seeming almost to sag under that blaze of pink
Then summer comes with its tall grasses, row crops and golden fields of wheat. Even when days are hottest, we have nights so cool you have to pull up the cover before morning.
Next comes fall with harvest, and golden cottonwoods. Scrub oak paints red and maroon on hillsides and a field of broom weed blooms with brilliant gold.
Yet for all this beauty, I still haven’t mentioned Wheeler’s greatest asset. It has nothing to do with cattle, corn, computer chips, or commerce. Her greatest asset is her people. It seems to me we have an unusually high percentage of citizens who obey the law, work for their living, pay their debts, nurture their children, love their country and worship their God. My heart overflows with pride and gratitude for you, my friends and neighbors for helping to make this little town what it is today – safe, decent, caring and progressive. Thank you all for that.
Added to that, we are a close knit community. We support our kids and our school. When our teams are in playoffs or facing strong opposition, it is often said, “Whoever leaves last, lock the door.” And it is true. The whole town empties.
When someone has an accident, a fire, a debilitating illness, there are neighbors there to plow a field, bring a meal, have a fundraiser, a raffle or an auction. Friends shower food and money on those in need. We are family. We care for each other. The hug, the friendly pat or handshake in the grocery store, on the street or at church means so much. The prayers, the cards and letters make a difference. I know. I’ve been there.
I am Wheeler County born and bred. There is no other place I’d rather live. I have traveled this world over, but the best part of every trip is when I top the second hill north of the nine mile station and see the panorama of Sweetwater Creek spread before me with the hills rising on each side. My heart rises up and I just want to say, “Dear God, you did such a good job!”
At that locale you can look as far left or right as possible and all you can see is the horizon’s circled rim with nothing to obstruct your view – no trees, no houses, nothing. Some might call it bleak, desolate, bare. I call it clean, serene and all together lovely. I call it HOME.
If you remember but on thing I say today, let be this. In fifty years or less, each one of you will be standing here as I am today and each of you will be considered to be a pioneer by those fifty years younger. Everyone with the passage of time will be considered a pioneer some day. Your frontiers may vary. Your challenges may be as yet unknown, but it will be YOU who guide the progress of this little town during the next hundred years. It will be good to emulate the grit, determination, and perseverance of yesterday’s pioneers, but it is in yourselves that you must find strength and resolve for tomorrow.
My prayer is that you will blaze a clear trail into the future for the generations to follow you – Oh how I wish I could be there to watch.
I wish you God’s speed and Bless you all, my dear neighbors and friends and . . .
Happy Birthday Wheeler!