This collections contains the photography, writing and research of Diane Williams. Counties included as part of the Blackland Prairie are the Bell, Ellis, Milam, Navarro, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson areas. Williams documented these places through her photography and research as a historian. The photographs and writing reveal stories of counties, people, and the uses of buildings at a time when agriculture, as well as a different way of life, was more prominent in these areas. The soil in the Blackland Prairie was and continues to be rich for farming, particularly from cotton crops, but as more jobs became available in the twentieth century, people from the areas moved further into the cities, abandoning this lifestyle.
The gelatin silver prints contained within this collection were exhibited at UNT on the Square from June 16th-July 19th, 2014 in Denton, Texas for the Blackland Prairie Project. The images were shown alongside the works of Ray Bankston and Don Shugart in the Horse Country Photography Exhibit. UNT on the Square is a gallery affiliated with the University of North Texas. Photographs of fifteen buildings of historical significance to the project are included along with two landscape images.
An essay with text along with text from the exhibit is included as part of the papers in this collection. A bibliography complete with a list of references is also included.
Excerpt from text by Diane Williams which accompanies these materials:
THE BLACKLAND PRAIRIE OF TEXAS
In western civilization, maps embody a sense of time and place and delineate the political demarcations that define our sense of geography. But geography defies political boundaries, as illustrated by migrations, settlement patterns, cultural heritage, armed conflicts, soil composition and climate. On the map of the United States, Texas occupies a south central position and covers a large area of land and water totaling 268,581 square miles. This land mass encompasses 254 counties and a diverse geography that includes densely vegetated woodlands, low-elevation prairies, high plains, rugged mountains, limestone outcrops, the famous Edwards Plateau, river valleys, semi-tropical areas and Chihuahuan desert. Hollywood films promote a largely one-note view of the Texas and its landscape by focusing on stereotypical, dry-land western settings, even when filming non-western stories. Many Texas writers present regional tales, recalling life ways of the eastern piney woods, the western high plains and the gulf coast regions. The Alamo often occupies center stage in historical discussions and, along with oil and cattle ranching, is one of the most identifiable aspects of Texas history. But there is a more diverse and layered history created by people from many cultures, a history not of nearly instant, momentous change created by events such as the Alamo or the discovery of oil, but of communities built over time by steady labor as illustrated by those of the Texas Blackland Prairie.
From the time of settlement by people of European ancestry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and until the mid-twentieth century, agriculture was the mainstay of the Texas economy. In some areas of the state, agriculture took the form of ranching, in other areas, farming, and in some regions, landowners combined the two. By the late nineteenth century, cattle, cotton, corn, and feed grains were the most important agricultural products. But as the state industrialized following the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century, and as the impacts of the Great Depression, soil depletion and insect infestation made themselves felt, many families and individuals left rural lands for more predicable—and often higher paying—work in cities and in the oil fields. However, farming and ranching remain important components of the Texas economy, and cotton, a star performer throughout much of the state—and especially in the Blackland Prairie—continues to be widely grown.
The Blackland Prairie is one of the richest agricultural regions in Texas, and its soils and climate support cotton, corn, milo maize, hay, truck crops and livestock, and an energetic mix of people from diverse backgrounds. But this area is not documented in any cohesive way, despite its rich cultural and agricultural history. The Blackland occupies three relatively narrow bands in the east central portion of the state that continue north into Oklahoma. Prior to cultivation and livestock grazing, the Blackland was a tall grass prairie where the western-most portions of the dense forests of the southeastern United States finally end. In the Blackland, trees are not the dominant landscape element. Instead, they are scattered about the prairie, prominent along rivers and creeks, and found around farmsteads, where they were planted as wind breaks and to provide shade.
The rich soils and relatively moderate climate of the Blackland attracted a diverse group of agriculturally oriented immigrants. Sparsely populated until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the region experienced a settlement boom when statehood fostered better protection and road systems, and railroads brought thousands of new residents and provided fast, reliable transportation to market centers for crops, livestock and related products. Settlers of German, Czech, Moravian, Russian and Swedish ancestry, among others, joined Anglo-Celtic Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans on the Blackland. All sought new opportunity in the region’s rich, black clay.
Some immigrants settled in or near established towns. Others formed new communities on the prairie. In some cases, new towns reflected the heritage of the founding population in names such as New Sweden and Westphalia. In other places, newly arrived European settlers drew on their traditions to form social institutions. Congregations often named their churches in keeping with their heritage, included cultural iconography in building details, and offered services in their native languages. Ethnic-specific social and religious organizations offered support and recreational opportunities for immigrants, and those established by settlers from Bohemia and Moravia are especially prominent. Community halls were built in towns and on major roads convenient to the many scattered farm families. By the end of the nineteenth century, the influx of new settlers made Texas culturally rich and ethnically mixed, with English, Spanish, German, and Czech-Moravian the most widely spoken languages. The Blackland’s growing cultural diversity was reflected in the homes, business buildings, schools, churches and cemeteries, fraternal and social centers and in the farmsteads built by the region’s population. Many examples remain to enrich the landscape, providing a window into the life, values, traditions and experience of these communities and their residents. Other examples have fallen into disuse as the region has depopulated or, in some cases, experienced new growth.
During the 1920s, oil expanded the region’s economy and except for a dip during the Great Depression, the towns, communities and farms of the Blackland prospered from the early 1870s until the 1960s. After 1960, state-wide economic changes and full mechanization of farming in Texas accelerated migration to cities. For those who remain in the region, ranching is an important component of the Blackland economy, but cotton, milo maize and hay continue to be grown in quantity. Cotton keeps several Blackland gins busy at harvest time, and when the rains are favorable, the russet-gold seed heads of mature milo maize contrast dramatically with the black soil, tree-lined creeks and wide, blue skies.
Within the Blackland region a network of federal, state and county roads connect towns, communities and rural areas; rail lines provide freight and passenger service. Buildings and landscapes that interpret a bit of the Blackland’s history are found in county seats, smaller towns and communities, as well as along the region’s rural roads. The Blackland includes all or portions of more than forty Texas counties, but buildings included in this project are located in just seven—Bell, Ellis, Milam, Navarro, Tarrant, Travis and Williamson—areas relatively close to the major cities of Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth. Nearly all the buildings and landscapes included in this body of work are east of Interstate 35 and west of Interstate 45. These two highways are located at natural boundaries between bio-regions west and east of the Blackland. Interstate 35 follows a rough boundary through Central Texas between the rich Blackland Prairie and the drier, rocky Hill Country to the west, while Interstate 45 slices through the western portion of the Post-Oak Prairie and Piney Woods regions of wetter East Texas, connecting Houston and Dallas. Blackland towns and communities represented in this project are Bartlett, Cameron, Holland, Mansfield, Maypearl, New Sweden, Rice, Taylor and Thorndale. Although many important buildings exist throughout the area, documentation was restricted by funding, time and access.
During the past twenty years, economic and population growth in Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin pushed city boundaries into rural areas of the Blackland prairie. This trend continues, and new housing, highways, highway-oriented businesses, and large, modern schools impose on traditional small town life and the visual experience of the prairie. Many important features of traditional nineteenth- and early-twentieth century rural life in the Blackland—farmhouses, barns, cotton gins, churches, stores, banks and schools—sit empty, and more than a few will disappear in the coming decades.
The survival of communities and their buildings is largely driven by social, cultural and economic conditions and as these evolve, some buildings become economically or socially obsolete. However, diminished need does not lessen cultural value. Although not all of the buildings documented in this project will survive another fifty to 100 years or more, this project records their existence and tells something of their birth and of the life of the people who used them. While three project buildings have been lost since beginning the project, two buildings achieved landmark status. It is my hope that this project will inspire communities and individuals to expand historical research and preservation efforts for the conservation of their historic legacy.
METHODS AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This project grew from my interest in the communities and farmsteads of the Blackland Prairie of Texas and from the understanding that many historic buildings in the region will disappear within the next twenty to thirty years due to deterioration or development pressure. Photography and historical research combine to create portraits of individual places that were, or remain, important within their communities. Many trips into the Blackland identified farmsteads, properties and landscapes of interest. Documented buildings were selected based on a high level of integrity of exterior design and materials, their ability to represent aspects of the primary life ways and economy of the region in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and the absence, at the time of recording, of a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL) designation or an individual listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The project is not comprehensive, as funding and time were limited, but rather provides a sampling of the region’s history told through a variety of surviving buildings. Although the setting around some has changed, their historic appearance remains largely intact and those who lived, worked, or worshiped within would recognize them today. These buildings tell us something of the life and values of their users, and of the broader social culture of time and place. They are a venerable, and vulnerable, legacy.
Most of the photography occurred between 2000 and 2006; some buildings were recorded in different seasons. Landscape views also were made. Archival research with land records, census materials, county and community histories, newspapers, informal conversations, cemetery records and family histories provided background for the images. Simultaneously with writing and image printing were on-going photographic documentation and archival research. Each aspect of the project was rewarding, but most satisfying was bringing the pieces together to tell a small part of the important Blackland story.
I received financial support from the Texas State Historical Association, which honored the project with a grant in 2002 under the Cecilia Steinfeldt Fellowship for Research in the Arts and Material Culture. The project also benefitted from the thoughtful input of colleagues and friends. Heartfelt thanks to the Texas State Historical Association, and to Claire Maxwell, Billie Wied, Joy Graham, Mark and Cindy Sweet, Jerry and Denise Herring, and Giles Summerlin. For their encouragement, appreciation to Bruce Jensen and Anthony Maddaloni. Thanks to David Johndrow and Gabe Holton for printing some of the images, and to Karen Ellis and Betty Thompson at the Taylor Public Library, Theresa Stockton at the Tienart Public Library in Bartlett, Michelle Mears, former librarian at the Texas Historical Commission, and Bob Brinkman, Coordinator, Historical Markers Program at the Texas Historical Commission, among many others. Gratitude to the University of North Texas for sponsoring an exhibition of the images in 2014 at UNT on the Square and for accepting the photographs, negatives and text as a donation to the UNT Libraries research collections.
© 2013 Diane Elizabeth Williams; all rights reserved.