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Barry Hankins

Lonesome Blues

The consolations of frontier religion

Leaving Fort Worth, Texas, heading west on Highway 287, drivers will see a sign that reads, "Amarillo 303." Where I grew up, in Michigan, there were no signs that read "303 miles" to anywhere. We could reach Kentucky to the South or Canada to the North in fewer miles. Like many Midwestern families, mine believed that a 100-mile drive into northern Michigan was far enough for a week-long vacation, maybe two weeks if General Motors had been generous that year. In Texas, however, everything is big, especially distance. All of New England can fit comfortably in the Texas panhandle—although no New Englander would actually feel comfortable there—and there is room enough for Pennsylvania in Central Texas, even if Philadelphians would struggle a bit with the accent.

Louis Fairchild wants us to think about how the distance and emptiness of west Texas roughly a century ago contributed to a deep sense of loneliness. In The Lonesome Plains: Death and Revival on an American Frontier, Fairchild argues that funerals and revival meetings were the two most important institutions for ameliorating the effects of the vast empty plains. His sources include frontier memoirs, many of them by women, and his own oral history interviews conducted in the mid-1980s. The result is a snapshot of what life was like on the Texas frontier during the period from about 1870 through the first decade of the 20th century. And if the west Texas frontier appears rather static in this account—there's no sense of significant change over that 40-year span—perhaps that's the way it was.

In memoir after memoir, as Fairchild shows, loneliness loomed large. Men and women recall going weeks and sometimes months without seeing anyone outside their own family, and no wonder. The first census of the Texas panhandle, in 1880, counted roughly 1600 residents scattered over 25,000 square miles, with six counties having no inhabitants at all. This amounts to a per-square-mile population density of .06. American historians ...

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