For 94 years, we’ve declared Fort Worth is “Where the West Begins.”
Exactly where is a matter of debate, although I’d argue for Throckmorton Street between the Star-Telegram and Barber’s Back Door Book Shop.
Now along comes the “Texas Standard,” an Austin-based public radio show, with a whole new argument that the West begins about 120 miles past Fort Worth.
Environmentally — if not mentally — the West begins where the terrain flattens and the hardwood oaks thin out between Eastland and Abilene, radio producer Michael Marks offered after talking with Texans, historians and the Texas A&M Forest Service.
If you’re looking for dust, lonely mesquite trees, rolling prairie — “all the things that make West Texas West Texas,” Marks said — that’s mostly Abilene and westward, anywhere the annual rainfall is about 25 inches or less.
Fort Worth historian Glen Sample Ely helped Marks settle on the treeline. Ely is the author of the 2011 book “Where the West Begins: Debating Texas Identity” (Texas Tech University Press).
Ely draws a distinction between the physical West Texas and the Western mentality of Fort Worth — some of it genuine from the days of cattle drives and the Stockyards, but some embellished in the 1920s and ’30s to distinguish Fort Worth from Dallas or the South.
“When you start seeing the trees play out, and when you start seeing irrigation pumps, that’s a pretty good indication they don’t have the rainfall to grow crops, that you’re in the West,” Ely said.
The region from Fort Worth to Abilene has both Southern and Western characteristics, he said.
The West is a marketing tool that seems to have worked.
Michael Marks, producer of the ‘Texas Standard’ public radio show
Before the Civil War, Tarrant County voted heavily for secession from the U.S. But Confederate defeat quickly gave way to the cowboy legacy of cattle drives to the Chisholm Trail, then cattle sales and meat packinghouses.
In 1911, a Denver newspaper writer’s poem “Out Where the West Begins” caught on, first in print, then as a song, movie and popular catchphrase.
In 1921, at a mayors’ banquet in Fort Worth, the mayor of tiny Munday, Joe Davis, drew loud applause when he said West Texans consider the city “where the West begins.” The slogan was added to the front page of founder Amon G. Carter’s Star-Telegram Aug. 15, 1923.
Austin College history professor Light Cummins has written in “Rebranding Texas” how 1930s state tourism officials intentionally promoted Western imagery and themes to be seen nationally as more “positive, progressive” than the South. By 1936, Fort Worth was home to the Frontier Centennial festival.
Marks, the Austin radio producer, said for Fort Worth, “the West is a marketing tool that seems to have worked.”
“Texas Standard” listeners from all over the state chopped away at his treeline research, he said: “People wrote saying ‘Fort Worth is where the West begins, that’s what everybody believes.’ ”
The West is about friendship, openness and a freer way of life. Not dust.
In 1921, Munday Mayor Joe Davis said West Texans consider Fort Worth “Where the West Begins.”