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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

1907
A look at Texas during the last 'ought seven'

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Printed on crumbling acid-based pulp paper and water damaged from years of sitting in a cardboard box stored in a leaky barn, Volume V of "The New Practical Reference Library" was neither new nor practical.

First copyrighted in 1907, the slowly disintegrating reference book has no monetary value, but the not-quite-three-page entry it contained on Texas was worth reading - and keeping - because it shows what a difference a century can make.

The Lone Star State had long since been civilized by the time this multi-volume set became available, but as the calendar moved toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Texas was a much different place than it is today.

Primarily, it was a lot smaller. Not in size, of course, but in population. Fewer than four million people then called Texas home. Today, more than that number lives in the metropolitan areas of either Houston or Dallas areas.

For that matter, the whole nation had fewer people a hundred years ago. The United States in the early 1900s had only 50 cities with more than 100,000 residents - none of those cities in Texas. Of those half-a-hundred major cities, the lineup of the top 10 has changed considerably as well.

Back then, though New York reigned as the biggest American city, Chicago stood at second (today it's third, behind Los Angeles), Philadelphia came in third and St. Louis - the gateway to the west - claimed fourth place with 687,000 residents. The closest top-10 city to Texas was New Orleans, which then had 339,000 residents, more than it has today.

Today, three of the top ten cities are in Texas - Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. While all three of these cities amounted to important Texas urban areas a century ago, none of them had quite tipped the 100,000 mark. (San Antonio then enjoyed the status of being Texas' largest city.)

To put the difference 100 years can make in further perspective, Austin now has more residents than any but three American cities had in the 1910 census. Today, it is the nation's 16th-largest city. In the first decade of the previous century, it ranked only as one of 48 state capitals and home of the University of Texas and its 3,000 students.

A fold-out, color map of the U.S. does not even show Bryan-College Station, McAllen, Harlingen, Midland, Odessa, or Victoria. But it does include Sanderson, then an important division point on the Southern Pacific Railroad and these days virtually a ghost town.

What made Texas' economy percolate during the last "ought seven?" In a word, agriculture. Back then, Texans could pride themselves on being the nation's number one cotton producer. In fact, Texas farmers grew one-fifth of the whole world's supply. Not surprisingly, Texas also stood at No. 1 in cattle population and wool production.

Texas also ranked first in cotton seed cake and cotton seed oil production, though its petrochemical industry had barely begun. The old reference work devotes more words to describe Texas' coal mining industry than its oil resources, which netted only three sentences.

Oil play in early 20th century Texas was confined to Southeast Texas, with annual production running a mere 13 million barrels. "Natural gas is found in a number of regions," the article casually noted.

"Manufacturing in Texas is yet in its infancy," the reference book correctly predicted.

To export its mostly agricultural goods, Texas had more miles of railroad than any other state - 13,500 miles. But no paved highways linked its cities.

Finally, after boiling the state's colorful history down to two long paragraphs, the anonymous compiler of all these statistics concluded: "Since [Texas' readmission to the Union following the Civil War] the state has increased rapidly in population and wealth."

With a population of 28 million projected for Texas by 2015, it's hard to imagine what the next "ought seven" will be like.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
January 4, 2007 column


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