Texas History: Stories flow from the ‘Giant Side of Texas’
And lo, before there was the “Think, Texas” digital newsletter, there was “Caprock Chronicles.”
And the series about West Texas history, published regularly in several of our sibling Gannett newspapers, is still going strong.
In fact, I link to selections from “Caprock Chronicles” almost every week in the “Hometown History” section of our free weekly digital newsletter about Texas history that has attracted a statewide readership.
For instance, Issue No. 35 of “Think, Texas,” of which this column is part, includes responses and stories from 18 counties, ranging from El Paso in the far west to Live Oak in the far south and Grayson in the north central region.
Let’s get this tidbit out of the way for those readers not familiar with West Texas geography: The title of “Caprock Chronicles” comes from the “cap,” or hard geological formation that underlies the high plains of the Llano Estacado.
Texans, however, often use the term “Caprock” to refer to the whole northwest Texas region.
You can see the actual layers of rock at dramatic cuts, such as Palo Duro Canyon, along an escarpment on the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado. Although they drain larger watersheds, several major Texas rivers — including the Colorado, Brazos and Red rivers — get their wet starts in springs along that escarpment.
Son of Kentucky
Jack Becker, a librarian at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, edits “Caprock Chronicles.” He took over the job as well as a stable of history writers from Paul Carlson, his mentor and good friend.
“First off, I’ll admit I am not a native Texan,” Becker says. “I came to Texas in 1989. I had heard of the Alamo, Davy Crockett and cattle drives — as far as Texas history was concerned — and that was about it.”
Becker was surprised, for instance, to discover the German American impact on the state, which he stumbled across researching the Rafter-3 Ranch in Coleman County.
“I was born and raised in Kentucky and lived in Louisville as a boy, later moving to Hart County to become a farmer,” Becker says. “My interest in history started at an early age. I come from a family of readers and books were always around the house. A Christmas didn’t go by that we did not get at least one book. Reading history always kept my interest even as an overly active boy. Even today, I prefer reading history to mysteries and most bestsellers.”
The Civil War loomed large over his childhood in Kentucky, a border slave state that did not join the Confederacy.
“I remember visiting battlefields with my family or with the Boy Scouts," he says. “It made a real impression on me to stand on the battlefields where 100 years previously — sometimes to the day — history-making events took place. Of course, like many Kentuckians, I had ancestors who fought on both sides.”
Becker graduated with a degree in history from Kentucky Wesleyan College, then earned his master’s degree from Texas Tech.
“In the back of my mind, I had wanted to write a book, since I read so many,” he says. “I thought it was time to give something back. I knew I had something to say, that is, a story to tell.”
Since his training at the LSU Library School, Becker has worked at the Texas Tech library for 30 years.
“From my first visit on campus and to the library, I knew that this was the place I wanted to be, despite being over 1,000 miles from what I then considered home,” he says. “Because I had once been a farmer, I was hired as the library liaison to the College of Agriculture, as it was known then. It was a great job, working with people who grew up on farms and ranches who appreciated what you could do for them. And it was regular hours and no heavy lifting.”
Becker now serves as library liaison with the history, philosophy and museum science and heritage management departments.
A series evolves
“Caprock Chronicles” started as a weekly column almost 4½ years ago. Edition No. 230 came out in May.
“I am lucky to write the column four times a year, fewer than 10% of the columns,” Becker says. “There is a local lawyer, Chuck Lanehart, who writes about half of the articles. It goes without saying he is very prolific, chooses interesting topics, writes well, and above all, includes two to three pictures with each article. Finding pictures to accompany the articles is by far my biggest headache.”
When Becker’s predecessor, Carlson, edited “Caprock Chronicles,” the series was bounded by history made directly on the Caprock, basically the area on the Llano Estacado south of Amarillo, north of Midland, Odessa and Abilene, east of the Texas-New Mexico line and west of the 101st west meridian.
“Paul also used the unwritten rule that subjects of the articles had to be dead and that the articles had to be on a topic you could not already find in ‘The Handbook of Texas’ (the authoritative encyclopedia of Texas history, put out by the Texas State Historical Association),” Becker says. “When I took over as editor in September 2018, I found I could not uphold those same restrictions and ‘Caprock Chronicles’ has drifted somewhat.”
Just as with “Think, Texas,” readers pepper the editor of “Caprock Chronicles” with questions, tips and other responses.
“Our readers by far like ‘the cowboy and Indian’ stuff,” Becker says, “or a subject that has personal meaning for them, like a person they knew, the place they grew up or visited one time. The only negative email I got chastised me for not mentioning the fact Roy Rogers had a radio show in Amarillo as well as Lubbock.”
Oh yes, that Amarillo-Lubbock rivalry still flares.
As almost all historians of Texas acknowledge, 19th century topics are more popular with readers than the prehistory and ancient history that came before the 1800s, as well as the modern stories than came after.
“It seems more heroic,” he says. “In West Texas, it’s Quanah Parker, the Comanche Indians and cattle ranching. People in this area do not realize what a diverse and interesting area of the world they live in. This past May, ‘Caprock Chronicles,’ ran a three-part series on the Mennonite peoples who immigrated to this area in the 1970s. In a way they are pioneers too. The Mennonites are just part of the ongoing story of people migrating to this area for religious, economic and political freedom.”
An article Becker wrote on the history of the Downtown Bible Class in Lubbock by far generated the most positive feedback of any article since he took over the helm.
“One email thanked me for the article and said I had a great gift for writing,” Becker says. “I am sure the writer is a member of the Downtown Bible Class and he or she chose to remain anonymous. No matter, I really liked hearing that.”
Not unlike the rest of Texas, Caprock residents enjoy reading about their region and its identities.
“People in West Texas are a proud and positive people and most are hard-working and happy they live where they do, “Becker says. “They like reading about their area of the world. I think a lot of readers do not realize Caprock has so much interesting history. … It is easy to feel isolated and marginalized out here in the ‘Giant Side of Texas,’ so in a small way ‘Caprock Chronicles’ makes people feel good about their region and heritage.”
These days, Becker reaches out to contributing writers all over Texas and New Mexico to keep the stories fresh and diverse. He admits, however, that although Hispanics migrated from New Mexico to this region long before Anglo-American settlement, Becker has not had much luck recruiting writers from that community.
“For more than 200 years of its history, the Caprock faced west,” he says. “All its trade and people traveled between northern New Mexico and the Caprock. Culturally and politically, all of West Texas was more closely aligned with New Mexico. The fall of the Comanche people following the Red River War changed all that. Soon afterward the area slowly filled up with Euro-Americans, mostly from East Texas, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
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