This last Saturday was the second day of Christmas on the Square in Goliad, Texas. I had a table there, as a local author, but the cold was so pronounced that the whole event was rather a bust … but it did mean that folding up and coming home early allowed some time for taking pictures on the way back. This is a part of Texas which overlies the Eagle Ford Shale formation, and over the last five years I have noted a good many changes along the route, and in the small towns that we pass through on a semi-regular basis.
This is ranch country; beautifully green when it rains, threaded by shallow rivers, small creeks and sometimes just seasonal waterways. It’s flat in the estimation of people accustomed to mountains, and gently hilly in the eyes of those from the flat-as-a-pancake central plains. It is mainly grassland with a random scatter of oak trees, or thickets of cedar scrub. Cattle are everywhere, in pastures alongside the roads. Now and again there is a gateway to a ranch property; the most prosperous adorned with a cut-metal silhouette of western motifs, but the ranch houses dotted alongside the roads are usually modest places; mid-century bungalows or even just double-wide trailers.
The working places usually are the center of a constellation of metal sheds, pole barns – and tractors and other agricultural implements, usually in a slightly rusty condition.
There is only one classically spare-no-expense grand Texas mansion in this part of the country; a lavish pile with ground to roof-edge columns all the way around. It was built by a restaurant magnate in Karnes City some years ago, but only lived in for a few years. It’s been empty and on the market ever since. Frankly, this is single or double-wide trailer country. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The most prosperous businesses in these little towns often appear to be the gas station mini-marts on the outskirts, if it isn’t the feed store. Any restaurant in a town is most likely to be a BBQ place … or a bar, sometimes in one and the same premises. Residents in little towns like Falls City think the world of their high school football team … and in many cases, don’t even bother locking their house doors.
Contra a good few decades of disparaging portrayals in movies and television, they are nice people; friendly and outgoing, helpful to strangers, too. One spring when we headed out to Goliad for an event, Blondie’s Montero broke the belt that worked the air conditioner. We popped up the hood in the local supermarket parking lot to investigate matters, and within five minutes, a nice lady appeared and offered to take me to the only auto supply store in town which had replacement belts – and by the time we returned, one of the nice lady’s acquaintances appeared and offered to install it for us. (Nice lady was Hispanic; the acquaintance – whom she vouched for — was Anglo; this is one of those places where race relations are everything that we once fondly hoped they would be. Turned out that acquaintance was a military veteran, so were some of his friends who turned up while he was wrestling with the belt system. We wound up regaling each other with tales of service. The way to the heart of small-town Texans is to be a military veteran.)
Four or five years ago, many of the little towns along Route 181, through Poth and Karnes City and Kenedy, or by other routes through Smiley or Stockdale and Nixon looked if they were dying on the vine. There were so many crumbling storefronts – and the ones open for some kind of business presented a more forlorn aspect than the ones which had given up the ghost and boarded up entirely. Weekday or weekend – these towns were deserted by mid-afternoon. Even the parking lot of the Walmart in Kenedy was all but deserted the first couple of times we drove past.
Over the following years, the aspect along the roads to Goliad, or to Beeville, or Port Lavaca changed; not suddenly or with any catastrophic effect – just gradually. Among the cattle, the oak trees and the small hiccups of towns were now rocking-horse pumpjacks, nodding busily away. There were oilfield developments, truck parks and wells, dotted here and there among the pastures and brushlands; newly paved and graveled, lit up boldly at night. Now and again at a distance there was a tall tower with a little red-gold flag of fire burning at the top.
There was a little more traffic on the roads – especially of tanker trucks – and the small towns didn’t look so forlorn; the crumbling motel was suddenly rehabbed, and a number of new cabin-style units added to the row of existing roomettes. There were lights in the café, new vehicles parked out front, and several new RV parks on the outside of town – which, since there were no golf-courses, lakes or riverfront attractions – were obviously intended for workers and not vacationers.
New housing developments had been established outside of Karnes City and Poth – and the Walmart parking lot was full. We remarked on this to some old friends in Goliad – long-time residents, who confirmed our observations. They told us of neighbors and residents who had owned country acreage and been scraping by on a shoestring for decades. Now they had regular and generous checks from leasing their land for shale oil development. On the whole, I think this is a darned good thing; this new oil boom has bought some prosperity to places that hadn’t seen much of it lately, without doing much damage that I can see from the roadside.