Never the Twain Shall Meet
We may not know when we’ve crossed the 98th meridian, or even care, but it’s a pretty reliable borderline dividing Texas between east and west.
I know I’ve crossed over when I see DPS patrol cars every 20 miles. I can spend a week near Austin and never see someone pulled over for speeding, but somewhere west of Coleman we become like wildebeests in the old Wild Kingdom TV shows, running like hell and not looking back as our kinfolk are picked off one by one. Well, Daryl probably had it coming.
Once in the clear, I generally spend a little time (because Amarillo is still light years away and time is all I’ve got) pondering this question: I have left the East, does that mean I’m now in the West? How far west do I go before I’m in West Texas? Where is it, what is it? Will there be an Allsup’s soon?
West Texas is a murky concept, it seems. But there was a point in time when a group of civic leaders, oil and cattle barons and industry titans got together to form the biggest champion of West Texas there ever was—the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. For 70 years, the WTCC clearly articulated what West Texas is while promoting regional pride and cooperation in an effort to keep up with what was happening in the East.
I was somewhat familiar with this group, but it was a text from Renea Dauntes, an archivist at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum’s Research Center, that led me to look further. Renea is my connection to amazing old stuff—almost like a dealer for my habit. She was processing a box of documents related to one of West Texas A&M University’s founding faculty members, Wallace R. Clark, and kept seeing correspondence and paperwork related to the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. Colorful stamps affixed to two of the letters showed idyllic West Texas landscapes that are mini works of art. Clark, it turns out, was a director of the WTCC and was involved in the chamber’s work in the Panhandle.
When I went to see these documents in person, Warren Stricker, director of the museum’s Research Center, brought out a box of West Texas Today magazines put out by the WTCC from the 1920s through the 1950s. Beautiful illustrations and grandiloquent descriptions pushed the idea that West Texas is indeed the Best Texas. It is clear that the leaders of our regional cities were committed to working together and understood that cultivating a sense and appreciation of place was the foundation from which the future of this region could be built.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, the West Texas Chamber of Commerce was founded in Fort Worth in 1918 by representatives of 25 counties and four city chambers of commerce. Amarillo’s own C.T. Herring officiated as president at the first convention in Mineral Wells the following year.
The WTCC got right to work, rallying the troops to push for a West Texas location for what became Texas Tech University. The group touted the progress of industry and culture in a land that was clearly different from—but in no way inferior to—the greener, more populous areas of Texas. Its leaders pushed for access to water, more political representation and just about anything else that didn’t seem as important to the elites on the other side of the state.
The WTCC was also keen on countering eastern notions that everything out west was an inhospitable desert with no real value. One of the aforementioned stamps highlights the unique beauty of West Texas with the words “Ideal Climate” describing the scene. Other printed pieces feature the slogan “Raw Materials Capital of the World,” which isn’t really that far-fetched when you consider the impact Panhandle beef, South Plains cotton and Permian oil has had on global markets. And speaking of the Permian Basin, the WTCC decided in 1922 to include New Mexico counties that took in the northwestern section of the oilfield, along with other parts of our western neighbor that look a whole lot like Texas. We have a long tradition of acting on covetous thoughts about New Mexico, it seems.
But by 1988 this old-fashioned regional boosterism began to seem a little dated. Many West Texas cities had created economic development corporations, including Amarillo, and became laser-focused on growth only in their cities. Possibly out of declining interest and increased competition from the EDCs, the WTCC was folded into a statewide group called the Texas Chamber of Commerce in 1988, which later became the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce.
It’s hard to know how things would look today had the WTCC continued. Its regionalist spirit still moves us from time to time, but it’s obvious the western half of the state (however you define it) has not grown in proportion to the eastern half.
The West Texas Chamber of Commerce is gone, but that shouldn’t stop us from being audacious enough to look past haboobs and blistering droughts and tell the folks back east we have an ideal climate. There are plenty of folks on the other side of the 98th willing to tell us that one-hour commutes and stifling humidity is the good life. We still have a great story to tell and we can exaggerate with the best of them.