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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Amarillo and Strong West Winds

I’m curator of art and western heritage at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum at West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas.  I’ve been asked to comment on this month’s High Plains Public Radio’s Radio Reader A Strong West Wind by Gayle Caldwell.  I’ve lived out here for going on 29 years.   I grew up in Kansas and the title appealed to me initially because of the reference to wind.  I’m out west of Canyon, a little bit north and west of Canyon.  Canyon sits about 18 miles south of Amarillo.

The wind in the title that is suggested here reminded me of when I first moved to the region.  I wrote to my grandparents up in Marysville, Kansas, and told them that the prevailing winds here were southwest and that all the trees pointed north or northeast.    The wind is something that always played a factor in life ways play themselves out and so I think it is important that we recognize that chunk of the title is southwest here.
I’m sitting in an automobile, but you can hear the wind going through the grass.  I’m sitting between two prairies on a caliche road and there are no plowed fields in sight.  If I squint my eyes a little bit, I can see Amarillo from where I sit.  Out here and across most of the southern plains and the great plains proper we’re dotted by grain elevators and of course they are all set strategically every seven or eight miles according to the railroad. 
But I thought it was also important to talk about the history of Amarillo for those readers who  may or may not know Amarillo other than that great George Straight song Amarillo by Morning. I know readers throughout this spring season have talked about the Comancheria and the Illano Estacado.   There are three main towns that were founded after the Red River War – Clarendon in the southeast part of the Texas Panhandle, Mobiti which served Fort Elliot founded in 1875 by the U.S. Army as a post to keep Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Apaches and others on the reservations in western Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.  The third was a cattle town named Tascosa which is northwest of Amarillo proper about 40 miles. Amarillo doesn’t come into being until about 1887 when the Forth Worth and Denver City Railroad comes out of Forth Worth and meets at this place near a natural lake called Wildhorse Lake. 
Eventually about a year later, a branch of the Santa Fe Railway called the Southern Kansas of Texas makes its way down to the site of Amarillo today.  By 1888 Amarillo was a growing concern and by 1900  by shipping cattle to Kansas City on the Santa Fe primarily, Amarillo becomes one of the largest cattle shipping points in the world.
On the heels of this cattle shipping explosion comes farmers like the Volga Germans that settled Umbarger and Nazareth to the south and west of Canyon.  The discovery of oil up near Borger in the mid 1920s changes everything as well.  So, the primary commodities are cattle, wheat and other grains, and oil  -- oil and gas.   And that sets the stage Ms. Caldwell’s memoir A Strong West Wind for what Amarillo was like post World War II.  The Army Airfield there set things up for the second World War and of course her father served in the U.S. Army during that conflict.  That’s pretty much what Amarillo’s landscape looked like when she begins her story in the early 1950s.