As the sweltering Texas Panhandle summer of 1887 began its gentle turn toward fall, just 135 years past, Potter County and Amarillo sprang to life as a greening pasture making up for lost time.
It wasn’t much to look at in the beginning, but in the wild imaginations of those about to cash in on the boom, the clumps of frontier settlement clinging to the seared-over crust represented the nexus of human—and bovine—endeavor.
After an electorate composed mostly of LX and Frying Pan Ranch cowboys voted to organize Potter County on Aug. 30, 1887, newly anointed county commissioners got to work furnishing the new Eden with the comforts of bureaucracy and taxes. And they had a newly hatched capital city from which to exercise their authority.
Historian and author Della Tyler Key, in her 1961 book In the Cattle Country—History of Potter County, recounts that a bawdy railroad construction camp called Ragtown in what is now the Cliffside area was the first settlement that might pass for a town in Potter County, but it was a townsite called Oneida about three miles to the southeast that was chosen for the county seat. Oneida was just barely in Potter County, but it had a ready supply of water in the form of Wild Horse Lake and was in the crosshairs of the new Fort Worth and Denver Railway building up from Washburn, making it a prime location for shipping cattle to market.
Folks up in Tascosa, the aging queen city of the Panhandle, had already been calling this southern section of Potter County the “Amarillo country” because it lay between the headwaters of West and East Amarillo creeks. Once chosen as the seat of government, Oneida was renamed Amarillo, the Spanish word for yellow (which apparently is what brown looks like when the sun hits just right).
When commissioners sat down for their first meetings in September, they speedily appropriated money for a temporary jail. Then they turned to the matter of taxes to pay for this and other necessities, making sure to include occupation taxes for some of the less reputable trades that were likely plied back in Ragtown. An entire paragraph in those early meeting minutes is devoted to bowling alleys and pool halls, which, based on the amount of taxes levied, commissioners apparently hoped to price out of the market:
“For every nine or ten-pin alley or any other alley used for profit by wherever and called, constructed or operated upon the principal of a bowling alley, and upon which balls are rolled without regard to the number of pins used or whether pins are used or not, whether the balls are rolled by hand or with a cue—$500.”
Commissioners also put the squeeze on tricksters, slapping a $5 tax on “every sleight of hand performance exhibition of leger-demain.” That’s fancy talk for shell-game operators. And if you weren’t getting skinned in that fashion, you could easily blow your paycheck on a “clairvoyantor mesmerist” or a “daguerreian,” so the palm readers and photographers got taxed, too.
These taxes may have cleansed the county of idle pursuits, but the town ended up anything but tidy. When it rained hard, the original town section of Amarillo was prone to flooding, seeing as how a large part of it was a playa lake (not that this should ever stop development in Amarillo). Mix a prodigious amount of manure into the muck and Amarillo was probably pretty stinky, as well.
Henry Sanborn, Joseph Glidden’s partner in the barbed wire business and co-owner of the Frying Pan Ranch, took care of that problem by luring Amarilloans to his salubrious Glidden and Sanborn Addition on higher ground, one mile east. Around his luxurious Amarillo Hotel at Third and Polk, the new Amarillo began to prosper, and by 1910 it had brick-paved streets, a street railway system and almost 10,000 residents. Less than a decade later, a trove of fossil fuel reserves were discovered in these parts and Potter County. Its seat of government, as they say, started cooking with gas.
So it was geography, geology, good timing and some lucky breaks that gave Potter County and Amarillo the advantage as area towns sought top-dog status in the Panhandle, a fait accompli that C.F. Rudolph, editor of the Tascosa Pioneer, saw coming as far back as 1890 when Tascosa began its inexorable decline:
“Truly this is a world which has no regard for the established order of things but knocks them sky west and crooked, and lo, the upstart hath the land and its fatness.”