Saturday, April 11, 2009


Topo map showng Stoneburg, Texas
(1961 topographical map including Stoneburg, Montague County, Texas; click on image to enlarge. Key to annotations at end of post.)

Stoneburg, Texas is no more.

When I was 13, my family stopped over in Stoneburg to spend the school semester with my mother's adoptive mother, on our way from Brazil to Singapore for my father's work. My father went on to Singapore, but I fell in love with this tiny place, where four generations of my family had lived before me. In April (1969), I went to my mother and asked that she find a way for us to live here through my high school years, instead of us continuing to move around constantly. I wanted to graduate from the very same school where my mother had gone all 12 years, her mother before that, and her mother before that. Mama wanted to stay, too. But it would mean leaving my father.

We stayed, and my mother kept putting off telling my father why we weren't joining him. In fact, she never did tell him. Instead, right after the Moon Walk, she suffered a massive heart attack from the stress she was under. My father was called back from Singapore, bought a house trailer, and we stayed in Stoneburg until I went to college. I never told Daddy about Mama's intention, either.

But as of Thursday night, Stoneburg has been wiped from the map, burned to the ground during a hellstorm of fire sweeping across Texas and Oklahoma, fueled by winds but eventually creating its own wind, during this worst drought in recorded history.

Most of the current news reports are focusing on larger towns. The few accounts I've found call it a "hamlet of two dozen buildings", which is generous. The story goes on to say two dozen buildings burned, and that only one structure remained intact. I wonder which one it was. I may well know them all, despite having left 30 years ago. Tiny rural places like this don't change a great deal unless some commercial interest arrives to make use of their resources, and that is definitely not the case for Stoneburg.

When I was a teenager there, one day a few of us (ranging in age from me to some elders) were speculating about the actual population of town. I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and between us, we were able to list everybody in town by name. It didn't take long. We counted and came up with 86.

Mostly, the inhabitants were people who ranched a little, had oil leases, or had stayed after high school because their parents lived there and they didn't want to leave the old folks on their own. There were teachers, and one gas station which sold a few groceries. If you didn't ranch or teach, you probably worked elsewhere, in one of the "big towns" a 15 minute drive away, Bowie or Nocona (which might have a dazzling 2000 people). Some people did car repair or other home-based industry. Mostly, everybody was poor, but the class range was so limited, they/we didn't really feel poor.

Stoneburg was once much larger, a solid farming community whose population probably peaked around 1900-1910. Even by the time of my mother's childhood in the 1930s, in addition to the school there was a general store, a gas station/mechanic shop (run by my grandfather Bill Atkins), four churches, a train depot (run by my adoptive grandfather Auther Atkins), and assorted small industry. In 1900, it had even a small strip of downtown brick buildings, including the blacksmith shop of my great-grandfather Joseph Atkins. But after the war, people began moving away, as was the case in most farm communities in the U.S.

The first of my family to arrive there was David and Margaret Armstrong, my great-great-grandparents, with Margaret's parents Tommy and Johannah Ritchie and their family. They had traveled by wagon train from Ash Flat, Arkansas first to Tarrant County, Texas, settling on land outside the town of Grapevine. This was the famous blackland prairie, incredible farming territory, and we've never been able to find out why they sold out and migrated 70 miles north to Montague County, bordering Oklahoma. While Montague County is part of the Western Crosstimbers, it cotton-farming soil would not have been superior. The two families arrived around 1885, and immediately several related families also from Sharp County, Arkansas migrated to join them in and around Stoneburg. David Armstrong donated the land for Oak Hill Cemetery, where every generation of my family except my mother has been buried since -- and where I already have a plot waiting for me when I pass on.

Montague County has always been intensely rural. There were few adventurous (that's one word for it) white families who ventured there prior to 1870, but the area was regularly swept by Comanche and Kiowa raids. Nobody who wanted to live free of terror was going to migrate into that part of Texas until the U.S. Army and Texas Rangers after the Civil War began enforcing the racist vision of Manifest Destiny. Montague County got railroads, one cattle trail, and a few oil fields over the succeeding years, but nothing major, not enough to create or maintain population.

The only reason Stoneburg has managed to hold onto its local school is because there's enough revenue from oil fields under the town's land base (including the famous Hildreth field) to fund the school's fight against annexation by nearby towns. Even so, during the 1950s Stoneburg had to consolidate with nearby Ringgold, ten miles to the north. Grades 1-6 go to school in Ringgold, the junior and senior high kids go to Stoneburg, and the new district was named Gold-Burg -- a name which drove my cosmopolitan relatives in paroxysms of laughter, because this is utterly Baptist country with a wide anti-Semitic streak. But the people there are so removed from knowledge about the larger world, they had no idea "Gold-Burg" sounded Jewish.

It was also, until after I graduated from high school in 1973, part of a dry county (which meant you had to drive to Oklahoma or nearby Muenster in a neighboring county for alcohol, absolutely not a deterrent to drinking) and strongly adherent to a Sundown culture. No people of color could spent the night in Montague County. I understand the latter has changed now. I wonder what pioneering folks busted through that barrier.

Once, when I was living in California, I flew back to Texas on a genealogical research trip and drove to Montague County for the day, hunting abandoned cemeteries and trying to plat family land. In the mid afternoon, I realized I had not seen another living human being or automobile for several hours. It's that isolated. I got a little spooked. I topped a small hill and saw the falling-down Copeland place below me briefly flicker into new condition, with fresh whitewash. A woman was walking to the barn wearing a long full skirt, carrying an old-fashioned wooden bucket. She turned and looked at me, shading her eyes. The light around me was glinty, silverish.

I turned my car around, drove straight to the nearest two-lane blacktop, and headed for Bowie. About a mile outside of town, the funny light shifted, the normal afternoon sun returned, and I finally passed a pickup. I stopped at the first pay phone I found and called my little brother Bill, figuring he would make fun of me but wanting the reality of his rough humor. Instead, he said "They're trying to suck you back into the past, sis. Better come on home." I did. I still don't know if he was serious or just playing along with me.

When I was 13, I wanted to be sucked in to the past. I loved how connected to the land I felt there, how many of the kids in my school were distant cousins, how quiet it all was. I desperately needed that quiet and sense of continuity. While I was in high school, I came out to others as a lesbian and as a writer (although I'd admitted to myself both of these identities when I was nine). I became an anti-war activist and discovered feminism. Despite the fact that most teachers who come to that school are either on their first teaching job or unable to find work elsewhere, I had a couple of extraordinary teachers who gave me the education of my life. Class size averaged 5-8, so individual attention was readily available, and I thrived under it. In addition, my mother did not buy into the rural Texas working class value which says education corrupts the mind, so I stood out in that regard as well. When I was a sophomore, all four girls in the senior class and one of the two juniors (including an out lesbian) managed to get pregnant during the school year, a combination of ignorance, lack of social outlets, and drinking.

My senior year, I did persuade my high school history teacher to leave her husband for me and we began raising her two-year-old daughter together, but it was not the result of alcohol or ignorance. I knew exactly what I was doing.

I hear they still gossip about me there in Stoneburg. That's all right with me. I feel like my ancestors are thrilled with who I turned out to be, and that I'm living up the best of my heritage.

I can't imagine that most of the people who live there now have adequate home insurance, if they have any at all. One news account said they all survived because they contacted each other as the fire raced their way and got everybody out of harm's way. That sounds like the Stoneburg I knew. Still, they've lost the entire town, such as it was. I watched a tiny clip of coverage from a Wichita Falls station where a man named Layne Posey was interviewed, saying "Don't know what we'll do. Figure it out and rebuild, I guess." I used to babysit Layne Posey when he was seven and eight years old. Apparently he had some kind of junk car lot there which is now gutted. It's not much compared to mansions in Malibu that are swept into the ocean by mudslides every year, but I could see on his eerily familiar face the anomie, as we called it in sociology class: The altered reality which, for the time being, has no recognizable rules or conventions.

We'll see if Stoneburg rises from the ashes. If not, the headstones of my ancestors are still there, and maybe that woman on what was once the Copeland place is still heading out to the barn to do milking. Stoneburg helped make me who I am, and I'm grateful for it.

(Key to map above: This map shows the Stoneburg where I lived as a teenager. I could name the inhabitants of every house on it. Here's a few details:
(1) An abandoned chicken ranch where I used to walk when I was at my wit's end. I'd go to a concrete-lined room in the middle where there were stacks of emptied brown glass jugs. I'd hurl bottles at the walls, shattering them and screaming, until I could think clearly again. During the 1980s, this ranch was renovated into a fundamentalist church enclave by a local family, and in 1983, this is where infamous serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was run to earth.
(2) Gold-Burg High School (four generations of my family went here.)
(3) The First Baptist Church, which only had services one Sunday a month from a visiting preacher.
(4) Home and farm of my adoptive grandmother Zura Atkins.
(5) The lot where my mother was born, where her mother died, and where we parked a trailer to live in during my high school years.
(6) The land where David and Margaret Armstrong farmed cotton, in a sod house, later a two-room dogrun.
(7) The gas station/grocery which was the only commercial entity in town when we lived there.
(8) The rock-walled gas station once run by my grandfather Bill Atkins.
(9) Where my great-grandfather Joseph Atkins had his blacksmith shop, next to what was Smith's Store during my mother's high school years.

[Cross-posted at Group News Blog.]


little gator said...

They may have exaggerated. This links shows a big tan nuilding appartenlty untouched, and a white church with scaffolding in front and a small shed nearly.

little gator said...

Article below mentions Fred Blackwell who had a 1920's brick home.

little gator said...

I just searched Google News for "Stoneburg" and foudn 89 articles. BY the time I was done it has jumped to nearly 2000.

Here's what I foudn:

3 known deaths:
an unknown woman and former TV reporter Matt Quinn amd his wife Cathy. Their son Chris is in fair condition with burns. Apparently the unknown woman and the Quinns were trying to save their pets.

Some buildings survived, including the school, the Baptist church/community center, and a few homes.

Former high school teacher Carl Bullinger and his wife Anna lost their store but still have their home.

Laura Reno and her father lost their feed store.

Rick Tapley's house survived.

Other known survivors: Shirley and Wayne Porter, Jack Beasley.

little gator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
little gator said...

One last comment: even enlarged, I couldn't read your map well enough to find the places you named.

Maggie Jochild said...

Wow, little gator, your research was extremely helpful. In particular, the photo slide show from KDFA-TV was revelatory (and yeah, it sounds like they exaggerated a little, though the loss there is still enormous). In that slideshow, photo # 1 shows the Baptist Church still standing (with scaffold in front) and behind it, to the right, is the intact high school and gymnasium -- the same school four generations of women in my family attended (though it looked very different back then, it's been bricked over). Photo #2 shows the sign as you come into town from the south. The crossroads visible ahead leads R to the school and church, L to the corner where we lived. At that insertion of the two-lane and dirt road, on the left, was the gas station/grocery, which is later identified in these photos as a 'general store'. A better shot of the gym is seen in photo #11. In photo #24 is the gym and to its right the original high school, now in red brick. Photos #29, 27, 23, and 21 show the remains of the gas station/grocery, which is now apparently owned by someone other than who had when we were there. When big city cousins came to visit and asked what we did for fun, I used to joke "Let's walk down to the gas station, maybe somebody needs a tire changed!" with excitement in my voice. Used to crack my mother up. I actually did hang out there a lot, sitting on top of an chest-style Coke machine (where you slide the bottles along a metal rack, suspended by their necks, to the end of the row which is released by a coin drop). I'd listen to the stories the gassy old men told over and over.

One day I was there, with my friend Dale (whose mother Margie had been my Mama's best friend her entire life, and whose grandfather Tobe had been my grandfather Bill's best friend his entire life), when an elderly couple from out of state drove up, looking for help locating a cemetery where the woman's ancestors were buried. Interestingly, I was the only one in the place who knew exactly where the cemetery was, because of my incessant hiking around on private property -- it was not accessible by road at that point. Known as the Adora Cemetery, it was at the hub of a community that was eventually destroyed by Comanche raids, but it holds the gravestone of Stoneburg's founder, Col. I.M. Stone. Dale and I got in their fancy car with this couple, directed them through bobwire gates and across pastures to as close as we could get, and helped more or less carry the old lady to the cemetery, which was enormously overgrown and snaky. Still, we managed to find the graves shew as looking for. She broke down and wept. The old man told us she had terminal cancer, only a few months to live, and we'd given her closure. He took our photo and later mailed it to me; I still have it somewhere.

Not far, if you travel by foot, from that location is a cattle tank which is fed by a natural spring, icy cold and delicious. I was always trying to get my friends out on the land, because I was in love with it, the scrubby woods, the cottonmouthy-creeks, the rolling hills. One summer day I persuaded four girls to hike out across ranchland with me, slipping through fences and avoiding belligerent cows, until they were bitterly complaining of the heat. We stumbled across this spring, and drank gratefully. We sat in the shade a while, trying to get up enough nerve to brave taking a dip in the cattle tank (water moccasins in there or not, that was the question), when a girl at the edge yelled "Hey, there's something down in here!" We all began backing away, but she plunged her arm in and came out with an old bottle full of Coke, the small size that were common when I was little. The lid was a little rusty but it was otherwise intact. She kept diving and came up with four more. I remember it raising the hair on the back of my neck, this miraculous appearance of Co-Cola in the middle of nowhere. One of us had a pocketknife and we got the lids off, and it was like nectar, sweet and frigid. We told the story around, and eventually found out that the father of a friend of mine who was frequently in trouble with the law had hid out by that tank one spring for a few weeks, avoiding arrest. We theorized he'd put the sodas into the tank to cool off and either forgot about them or got nabbed before he could drink them.

I'm sorry about the map issue. My version of the JPEG is quite large, but it doesn't blow up as much when I click on it from the website. You can try dumping it into Paintbrush or any other graphics file and zooming in on it that way.

I recognized Fred Blackwell's house. It belonged to someone else when I lived there, who is now long dead, I'm sure. I know that family history well, and Blackwell is not one of their names, although he could have married in. Some of the other names are familiar, but they are newer folks. I actually use the old family names from this region quite a bit in my novel for surnames, they have such a lovely sound to me.

little gator said...

pS; Rick Tarpley, not Tapley.

Maggie Jochild said...

Yeah, I figured it was Tarpley. Although I did not know it when I lived there, Tarpleys and Camps in the vicinity are/were likely cousins of mine (via the Atkins connection) with a common ancestor back somewhere around the time of the American Revolution. Here's the scoop:

One Thomas Camp, b. 1716 in Virginia, married twice and had a total of 26 known children. With his first wife, Winifred Starling, he had 14 children, including my __ grandfather, Benjamin Camp. He married again when he was around 45 to a young Irish immigrant, Margaret Carney, and had a dozen more children. Of the 26 Camps he fathered, almost all of whome survived to adulthood, and only 5 were girls. He was also an active Patriot of the Revolution, with his house burned by the Tories and five of his sons (including my ancestor) fighting at the Battle of King's Mountain (which may well be the battle that won the American Revolution). Because of his history and the kajillion Camp ancstors, this line is extremely well-researched and there's an annual Camp ancestors reunion, newsletter, etc.

Thomas Camp's great-aunt Mary Camp married James Tarpley. Their Tarpley children, cousins to Thomas's offspring, married at least four of Thomas's children, collapsing the lineage several times. (Low population, small county in Virginia, plus who knows what else going on.) The Camps and Tarpleys often appear in the same vicinity ever since.

Winifred Starling's maiden name, often corrupted to Sterling, is also handed down through the Camp ancestry as a first name. This is where it gets really interesting to me: One of the distant descendants, Sterling Van Buren Camp, lived near Stoneburg at the same time as my Atkins grandparents and great-grandparents, but apparently did not know they were cousins from way back when. Sterling used he middle initial V. and told everyone it "didn't stand for anything" which was a fairly common practice; I guess he didn't like the President he was named for. Anyhow, my great-grandmother Sarah Lee Armstrong married Samuel Mordecai Turner, and the young couple were close friends to Sterling V. Camp. They had three children before dying young. Their oldest, Hettie, married Bill Atkins and had my mother. But their second child was a boy, and in honor of their friend they named him Roy V. (initial only) Turner. He died as a child from TB. Their youngest child, Effie, is the only one who lived into old age, and when I told her about the kinship between the various lines, she was astonished and thrilled.

This kind of "finding your kin" thing happens very often when you study genealogy. I think family culture makes you predisposed to like certain folks, who "feel like home", and of course the math of descendancy also plays a role -- we are ALL much more closely related than we realize.

Still, it was an enormous shock to me when, years after I'd broken up with the high school history teacher I co-mothered a daughter with, a Yankee from Illinois, I discovered she and I were 11th cousins, having a common ancestor in the late 1790's. And her line had also been in Montague County at one point, unknown to her. Passing strange.

little gator said...

Dinah-this is Lydia.

The human looked at a map and says there's a Yowell Rd near Stoneburg. It must've been named by a cat.

I yowell when I want foods.

Anonymous said...

yowell rd named after the yowell family,, lots of survivors including monte yowell of bowie texas and john yowell of hollis, ok. good people